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Paul V. Coates -- Confidential File, July 23, 1959

July 23, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Confidential File

All About Dedicated Citizen Sam

Paul CoatesOn the final day of May, 1954, I had an appointment to meet a wiry little Italian immigrant by the name of Simon Rodia.

Rodia, then 76 years old, was to appear on my television program, to explain why he had devoted 33 years of his life to the construction of some fantastic towers on a small piece of property he owned in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

The reason he gave, on the rare occasions when he chose to speak, was:

"All my life, I had in my mind to do something big. That's why I did it."

He never, to my knowledge, elaborated very much on that statement. And I guess that -- except to a nosy reporter or a probing psychiatrist -- it was an adequate answer.

For a few days preceding my scheduled KTTV interview with Rodia, camera crews from the studio went down to the old man's towers, at 1765 E 107th St.

They shot pictures of the retired stone mason at work on his monument. They filmed him as he walked along a railroad track collecting bits of trash -- broken bottles, a chunk of tile, discarded wire and pieces of pipe.

Rodia didn't particularly welcome the intrusion. Nor did he necessarily resent it. He just accepted it.

When a cameraman asked him to climb his towers, the 76-year-old man complied, both willingly and agilely.

Gradually, we -- the intruders -- seemed to win his confidence.

He began talking about his project with a little more freedom.

At one point he said his handwork -- the towers that stretched 100 feet into the sky, the arbors and fountains and bird baths -- were his tribute to the United States of America, his adopted home.

He described the forepart of his bizarre compound as "Marco Polo's ship."

He complained, without bitterness, that the city's Health Department had made him take the water out of the bird baths.

And he bragged, with genuine pride, that every turret, every dome, every broken Seven-Up bottle and doll's arm, was cemented into place by him alone.

Nobody helped Simon. Or Sam, as we called him then.

"I wouldn't know how to tell them to help me," he would say. "What to tell them to do.

"Sometimes," he would admit with a sigh, "I don't know what to do myself."

On the night of the telecast, my assistant drove down to Rodia's towers to pick him up and bring him to the studio.

Sam was ready, right on time.

I met the pair at the studio gate. It was 10, maybe 15 minutes before air-time.

I told Sam that the questions would be simple for him, that appearing on television was a lot easier work than climbing 100 feet into the air, balancing wet cement and pieces of tile.

He seemed satisfied. Then, as we started into the studio, he fell a few paces behind.

The next thing I knew, he was half a block away, running like a high school sprinter.

We took off in pursuit, down Sunset Blvd.

But Sam was too fast. We never found out why he ran. Or the complete story behind his inspiration to erect a fantasyland in his front yard.

It was some time later that I tried to contact Sam again.

Through a neighbor of his, I learned that he had given away his property -- his towers. He had "disowned" them -- refused even to talk about them.

"Where is he now?" I asked.

Sam, We Salute You

"I guess he's dead," said the neighbor. "That's what he said he was going to do -- go off and die."

That was the last I heard of him until this month, when the furor over whether Sam's towers were art, over whether they should be destroyed, began raging in City Hall.

Sam's still alive. He's living in Martinez, Cal. But the strange little old man won't take any part in the controversy his art has caused. He doesn't care what they do with his life's work.

Apparently, the only thing important to Sam Rodia is that he set out to build a bizarre shrine. And he did.