Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
Ritchie Valens' Roots
Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1987
WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- "I still remember the first time we heard Ritchie sing on the radio," the mother of the late Latino rock 'n' roller Ritchie Valens recalled about that distant day, almost 30 years ago.
"I told his brother Bob, come on, let's go to Saugus. I had some business there. I had a 1950 Olds then. The body wasn't too good, but I paid $50 for each tire and I bought five. I pulled over to the side of the road when 'Come On, Let's Go' came on the radio. We just sat there looking at each other amazed."
In those days, before son Ritchie became a star, the family lived in the San Fernando Valley. Mrs. Consuelo (Connie) Valenzuela would often take her kids to the Spanish-language movies, especially to the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles where they would see master comic Cantinflas and Mexican charro/singer Tito Guizar. "I always thought you had really arrived when a film made it to that theater," she remembered.
Connie Valenzuela said she plans to return soon to the Million Dollar Theater with her now grown daughters. But this time they'll be seeing the Spanish-language version of "La Bamba," the new movie about her son's all-too-brief singing career and her family.
Buddy Holly, left, Jerry Lee Lewis and Joe Mauldin in 1958
The Valens family now lives in the Central California farming community of Watsonville (south of San Jose). Over the July 4 weekend, "La Bamba" had a "hometown" preview for Valens' family and neighbors at the Fox Theater here, a typical Art Deco-styled movie house from the '30s that usually plays Spanish-language films today. The preview was given by Columbia Pictures to herald the nationwide opening of the film in English and Spanish this week.
The Valens family's on-screen counterparts were also at the screening: Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Ritchie; Rosana De Soto, who is seen as Connie Valenzuela, and Esai Morales, who portrays the jealous half-brother, Bob Morales--the role that is pivotal in the film. But away from the excitement of the screening, Connie Valenzuela, 72, sat in one of her daughters' homes, surrounded by her several children and grandchildren. The two-story tract home has a wall devoted to photographs of Ritchie. One hand-tinted studio portrait shows a grinning teen-age Valens in a sport coat and bow tie, another of him standing next to a black-and-chromed '57 Thunderbird.
She was reflective, if a little dim, about memories of her son, who died Feb. 3, 1959 in a plane crash during a snowstorm in Iowa. That crash also killed two Texas rockers, Buddy Holly and J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson.
Connie Valenzuela said many of Ritchie's early songs came from things around his barrio when the family lived in the San Fernando Valley community of Pacoima. " 'That's My Little Suzie' was about a crippled neighbor girl. 'She rocks to the left, and rocks to the right' described her." Another, "Hurry Up," came from an expression that Valenzuela said she used to get her kids to do chores. (Her memory falters here, since the song wasn't actually written by Valens but appeared on his first album.) However, "Come On, Let's Go" did indeed come from an expression used by both Ritchie and his mom whenever they went somewhere.
Valens with Bob Keane. Notice Valens' Gibson f-hole guitar.
"Later, when he started going out to play at different places, I would worry. After all, this 16-year-old kid was often out until midnight. So I'd call up one of the deejays, because at that time they would sponsor dances. Once, I called Art Laboe and told him it was time to get the guys home. Laboe never listened to me. But whenever I'd call up and ask to speak to Jerry Wallace (of "Primrose Lane" fame), he'd see that Ritchie would be back before I knew it." As she remembered, Connie Valenzuela, seated by the kitchen table, smiled.
Her children listened to her recollections, some for the first time. One of Valens' favorite songs, Mrs. Valenzuela said, was a child's lullaby he called "The Paddi Wack Song," which he sang accompanied by his guitar to his young sisters in the family's backyard.
In the summer of 1986, New Visions (Taylor Hackford's film production company) began filming the story of Ritchie's life, as written by Luis Valdez. Ritchie's grown up and married sisters Connie Jr. and Irma had small parts as farm workers in the opening sequence. Their own daughters, Gloria and Kristin, played their mothers (Ritchie's sisters) as young girls. (Mrs. Valenzuela and Ritchie's brother Bob also have small roles in the film.) Having seen the film several times now, both sisters have mixed emotions about the movie.
"I was too young to really know my brother," Connie Jr., 36, admitted. "He died when I was barely 7. I never knew all the problems poor Bob went through or all my mother had to put up with him at the time. After the film was over I just wanted to hold on to both of them. It's brought us all so much closer."
Irma, 35, nodded in approval of her sister's evaluation. "I wanted to see more about my brother Ritchie's career. I guess we didn't realize that it was going to be about both Bob and Ritchie. I remember calling New Visions one day and asking if the film was still about Ritchie. And they said, 'Well, more or less, but it's a story about two brothers now.'
The graves of Concepcion and Richard "Ritchie Valens" Valenzuela, San Fernando Mission, 1992.
"I guess I was disappointed in some ways by that focus, but if it brings my brother's music to the world, then I'm for it." Irma pointed to her young son Eddie, whose light skin and hazel eyes reflect what his uncle Ritchie must have looked like at 12. "He's my own little Ritchie," Connie Jr., his aunt chortled, as she hugged the embarrassed youngster.
Morales, 50, who has lived in Watsonville since the early '70s, once wanted to be a fireman and, later on, an illustrator. He saved many animated gels from Walt Disney's Buena Vista's studios when he worked briefly as a garbage collector, he said. (The film, however, shows him finding Woody Woodpecker and Buzz Buzzard gels at Columbia Pictures--"La Bamba's" distributor.)
After many family difficulties and some trouble with the law, he finally matured and settled down. He worked as a counselor in a drug/alcohol abuse program in the '70s and today is married with eight children and is self-employed as an upholsterer-mechanic.
"I rejoined the family in 1952 because Ritchie was real upset over my (step) Dad's death." It was Bob's turn to recall his half-brother's memory. Dressed in black leather pants with a colorful jacket and Indian jewelry, he was undeniably an older version of the rebel and womanizer portrayed in the film.
Morales reluctantly admitted, as his younger sisters teased him, that his mom beat him up one night when he arrived home in a drunken state. However, in the film this incident is colored by Valdez who allows Morales to escape his mother's wrath with his machismo intact.
Another real-life incident handled differently in the film is when Morales takes Valens to a Tijuana brothel where Ritchie pays little attention to the ladies, but is fascinated by the musicians performing the traditional Mexican folk song, "La Bamba." Valens was later to electrify and immortalize "La Bamba" in 1959 as the first Spanish-language song to make it onto the top 10 pop charts. The song peaked on the charts a few weeks after his death.
"I never took Ritchie to that brothel. We had gone to Tijuana several times on a family trip with all the kids. We still have pictures in an album of the kids posed with a typical donkey. I, of course, was the one that had wound up in the red-light district on several occasions," he smiled mischievously.
(Actually, Valens' inspiration for the creation of "La Bamba" as a Latin rock song took place during his childhood when he would listen to it at family gatherings where Mexican music was played, according to his sister Connie. She said his mentor and "uncle" Dickie Cota taught the boy how to strum a guitar and how to sing it in Spanish. Connie Valenzuela said: "Ritchie never spoke in Spanish because his dad never did. I of course still speak it, but when I was around his father I never would.")
Ritchie Valens' mother shook her head. The conversation seemed to have put her in a jovial mood.
Asked why her personalized license plates on her late model Cadillac bear the words "Hi-Tone," Mrs. Valenzuela confessed it came from one of Ritchie's songs by the same name. "You know in the movie, some of the kids call him 'Hi Tone,' but that wasn't actually his nickname. It was sort of a slang expression for something or someone that was fancy or stuck-up. Latin people would say, ' Eso es hi-tone' (that's real fancy). And since Ritchie would dress up real sharp, they'd refer to him as 'hi tone' when he did."
Not all of the Valenzuela family's memories are quite as pleasant. One incident involved the house that Ritchie bought his mother months before his death. The house was heavily damaged by fire in 1967 and Ritchie's gold record for "Donna" and one of his guitars were destroyed, along with other mementos.
Dealing with Ritchie's former manager and promoter Bob Keane (who spelled his last name "Keene" until 1970) hasn't been so simpatico, either.
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, is hosting 50 Winters Later, a tribute concert Feb. 2, 2009. The concert is sold out. However there is a guest book with readers' comments. There is also a video.
"You know Bob Keane has controlled Ritchie's music for all these years. Oh, I get a bit of money now and then. BMI sends me a statement. But do you know that Keane presented me with a bill of $4,000 for Ritchie's funeral? And that '57 black and silver-chromed Thunderbird (it's blue in the movie) that Keane gave Ritchie? Well, he kept it in his garage after I lost Ritchie. We went over to his house one day to get it away from him"--Connie Valenzuela's voice was stern as she continued--"but he kept insisting it was his."
Keane, an L.A. big band leader and record producer, has just released a 12-inch Latin dance cut--"La Bamba '87"--using an alternate take of Valens' vocal track recorded during the original 1958 session). He said Valenzuela's charges are "ridiculous."
"She was in worse financial condition than I was," he said in a Sunset Boulevard Mexican food eatery. "I put up over $7,000 so they'd ship the kid's body back and put him in a decent coffin. I still have the check somewhere."
As far as the Thunderbird, Keane said: "I may have told Ritchie at one time that if he kept doing as well as he was, I might get him a car. But I never really promised him one."
Unprepared for the sudden fame that Ritchie's music generated, Connie Valenzuela was also completely unaware of the world of contracts and music rights. When Keane's partner, the late Herb Montie, contacted her about a managing contract for her son, Ritchie was already playing clubs and being recorded by Keane. "One day Herb called me and said to sign a contract just in case anything might happen to Ritchie; otherwise, I wouldn't get anything. So I did. I got an insurance policy on his life." (Later, she collected double indemnity on that policy.)
When Valens died, his first album hadn't even been released yet (though the film shows Keane giving them out at record hops). "It took them eight days to send Ritchie's body back from Iowa. They didn't send him to me by plane. Instead, they sent him on a train to San Fernando. When they (Keane and associates) came in to the mortuary, they brought copies of the album. It had been released in those eight days since his death. I originally wasn't going to play the album because it was too painful. But I finally put on a brave front and said to myself, 'I'm going to play them before I bury him,' and I did."
The years after Valens' death were lean ones. "We didn't want the memories brought back. Everyone wanted a contract for Ritchie's music. 'Mrs. Valenzuela, would you sign this contract on your living room table and send it back to us.' That's what one promoter wrote me."
She then tried to manage an Asian-Mexican singer, Chan Romera, who gained some regional recognition in California with his version of "Hippy Hippy Shake." After attending a Ritchie Valens memorial dance here, she decided to move from Pacoima, which harbored many unhappy memories.
In the '70s, the Valenzuela families were approached by Walter Ulloa, who was preparing a screenplay of Ritchie's life. The family gave him two years to come up with something. "He never was able to sell it. In fact, when Donna Ludwig (Ritchie's teen-age girlfriend whom he immortalized in the song "Donna") read the script, Ulloa had to change it because he had portrayed Donna's parents as bigots." Actually, Connie Valenzuela explained, Donna's mom liked Ritchie, it was her father who didn't. "I ultimately told him to forget about it," she said.
When Danny Valdez (Luis' brother and associate producer of the film "La Bamba") finally connected with the Valenzuelas, they weren't interested in another film project. Valdez lives 15 miles away in San Juan Bautista (home for El Teatro Campesino, of which he and Luis are founding members). Ultimately, the Valenzuelas gave him five years to get the project together. It was completed two years ahead of the deadline.
"He (Danny) plays my brother in the film," says Mrs. Valenzuela. "But they got it wrong. My brother was blond. Danny is dark. Oh well, that's Hollywood, I guess," she added, shifting her attention from the film "Jaws," which her grandchildren were watching in the living room. "I was a little nervous the first time I saw the film. I've gotten used to it now. I tire easily from a recent operation I had. But everything seems to be coming up real nice now."
Connie Jr., a customer service rep for a local insurance company and the mother of two, summed up how she will always remember her brother Ritchie. "He was never too busy for us. Bob was out there with women and booze; Mom worked a lot, and my dad had left us. But we had Ritchie. He was like my mom, dad or best friend. He was always there for Irma and I. That's all we had. It was him."
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Photograph by Ken Dare / Los Angeles Times
Ida Mayer Cummings, Dec. 15, 1957.
|Alicia Mayer Beverley writes from Australia:
I ran across your blog entry on the 1957 Women of the Year. My great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings is one of them (she's to the left of the "Women of the Year" banner). While I'm sure you won't be heading into this territory again, I thought I might clarify her background as she was in no way obscure.
Ida Mayer Cummings was the older sister and closest confidante of her brother Louis B Mayer. She was also the mother of famed producer Jack Cummings who produced many MGM favorites, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and most of the Elvis films. Both of her sons-in-laws were also very active producers.
From left, Ida Mayer Cummings, Mrs. Adolph Weinberg, George Murphy, Adolph Weinberg and Louis B. Mayer with a portrait of Ida Mayer Cummings presented to the Jewish Home for the Aged, Feb. 19, 1951.
But on her own account, she was one of the best known philanthropists of her time and was known by famous actors and Hollywood types as well as politicians and even world leaders through her fundraising activity. She wrote hundreds of letters to some of the world's most powerful people, encouraging them to give generously to the Jewish Home for the Aged, and in fact, they all seemed to write in return as I have seen folders and folders of letters to and fro. Today, her legacy carries on through the same organization which was renamed some years ago to Associates IMC (Ida Mayer Cummings). They still hold several annual events (a ball and a luncheon), all of which span back 80 years or more to when she started them.
Bob Hope once said of Ida that she was "the only woman I know who can reach through the telephone and grab a man by the lapels!" While her generation has mainly all gone, there are still a handful of very old women who tell you that "everbody knew Ida". She evidently was the female, philanthropic version of her little brother Louis B Mayer, and in fact, they are interred together, along with their brothers Gerald and Ruben Mayer.
So there's a little bit more insight into a woman I am very proud of. In fact, exactly 50 years after she was named a 1957 Woman of the Year, I was given the International Women's Day Most Inspiring Leader award here in Australia where I have lived for 20 years.
Thank you for your time Larry and thank you so much for covering that piece. It brought tears to my eyes.
Alicia Mayer Beverley
Hey, look! It's the 7-Eleven from "The Jetsons!" Actually, it's not. Instead,
The Times published an artist's concept of grocery shopping in the years ahead. The "futurism" of the past always fascinates me. Notice that cars will still have tail fins.
Stan Laurel and wife No. 4 Illiana (or, according to a revised count, wife No. 3)
They drank, they fought and they got arrested. Such was the whirlwind
year of marriage for Stan Laurel and Tovera Ivanova Shuvalova, a
Russian singer who performed under the stage name Illiana (or sometimes Illeana).
When they met, Illiana, born Sept. 24, 1912, was 25 and the film comedian was 43 and freshly divorced. In fact, he was so recently divorced from Virginia Ruth Laurel (wife No. 2) that on Jan. 1, 1938, she stopped by the hotel where the newlyweds were staying to "consult with her ex-husband," according to The Times. Understand that this wasn't in Los Angeles but at the Del Ming Hotel in Yuma, Ariz.
Judging by news accounts, it wasn't a friendly call: "While others may have viewed the situation with a smile, says Laurel, it did not seem funny to him when Mrs. Laurel disturbed his honeymoon at Yuma, Ariz., with his recent bride ... with loud knocks at his hotel door and threats to have him arrested as a bigamist."
Everything was untangled, the divorce was upheld and in February, just to make sure, Stan and Illiana returned to Yuma to be married a second time.
What followed was about a month of bliss, then in April there was a lawsuit by Lois N. Laurel (wife No. 1, 1926-1933). [Note that Lois is sometimes listed as wife No. 2, but in 1937, Mae Laurel, Stan's longtime vaudeville partner, entered into an agreement in which she promised to drop all contentions that they had a common law marriage from 1919 to 1925].
Lois wanted $1,355 ($19,751.14 USD 2007) a month support for their 10-year-old daughter, including $100 a month each for a chauffeur, governess and cook, $35 a month to entertain friends and $10 a month to visit beauty shops.
Despite two ceremonies, Illiana wanted a traditional wedding, so in April 1938, the Laurels took out a marriage license and got married again in a Russian Orthodox ceremony.
And then the storybook marriage became more of a Grimm's fairy tale.
lliana was sentenced to jail for hitting two parked cars in Beverly Hills while she was driving without a license.
Then it was Stan's turn in court for a drunk driving charge, which he blamed on being upset over Illiana rather than being intoxicated.
Before he was arrested, Stan said, he and Illiana had a fight in which she tried to hit him with the handset of a telephone, threatened him with a skillet full of potatoes and threw sand in his eyes. In the struggle, he put his arm through a window, Stan said.
"She has a terrific temper," he told the court.
By the end of 1938, Illiana sued for divorce, saying that Stan drank too much, "repulsed her efforts to show him affection, behaved rudely toward their friends and on several occasions remained away from home for several days at a time without explanation," The Times said.
The couple reconciled and Illiana began 1939 with a day in jail for the reckless driving charge, soon followed by an arrest for being drunk and disorderly in a nightclub "while loudly discussing the Russian situation with herself."
By March 1939, Illiana renewed her divorce case. She charged that Stan's account of their fighting was invented to avoid a drunk driving conviction that would cost him his movie contract. In fact, she said, on the night in question he planned to bury her alive in the backyard of their San Fernando Valley home. She said she was rescued by friends and that Stan was coming after her when he was arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road.
Their divorce was granted in May 1939 and they finalized an agreement in 1940 in which Illiana agreed to never publish anything about their relationship and that he had sole rights to dramatize "their stormy married life," The Times said.
Postscript: In 1942, Illiana was rescued after a fire broke out at the Radio Center Hotel in New York's Times Square. She had fled to the roof and was about to jump when firefighters saved her, The Times said. No further trace can be found of her.
In 1941, Stan remarried wife No. 2, Virginia Ruth, who filed for divorce in January 1946. On May 6, 1946, he married Ida Ketiva (Kitaeva) Raphael, widow of an internationally known concertina virtuoso named "Raphael Raphael Raphael."
"Venta will return and be resurrected."
American history presented as a lavish pageant, the only film directed by Anthony Quinn, who took over from the ailing Cecil B. DeMille. With a great score by Elmer Bernstein.
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The Rams were supposed to beat the Chicago Bears and then face the Baltimore Colts to determine the division championship. But a series of mistakes -- and the Bears -- got in the way as the Rams lost, 17-16.
The most controversial error was made by the officials, who lost a down when the Rams were trying to drive for a winning field goal with less than a minute to play.
The Rams were called for holding on a first-down pass play that fell incomplete. The Times' Mal Florence picks up the action: "Seemingly the Rams had a first down on their own 47, but the yard marker unaccountably read second down. You don't lose a down on such an infraction after the defense accepts the penalty."
But the Rams did.
"We have no excuses, no alibis," Coach George Allen said. According to Florence's story, Allen wasn't aware at the time that the Rams had lost a down.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended the officials, taking them out of contention for post-season games. Made sense, since the loss did the same thing to the Rams.
-- Keith Thursby
"As you went in the front door, what was the first thing that attracted your attention?"
"Mrs. Graham was striking Mrs. Monahan in the face with a gun. She was standing up and Mrs. Graham had her by the shoulder or hair with her left hand and was striking her with the gun in her right hand."
"Was she bleeding?"
"Yes, her face and head."
"How many times did you see her strike Mrs. Monahan?"
"Two or three times."
"What did you do?"
"I told Mrs. Graham not to hit her any more. I put my hand between the gun and Mrs. Monahan's face. She fainted or collapsed. I had her head in my lap and went down with her. Mrs. Graham pulled a pillowcase over her head."
Above: Barbara Graham, one of four women to be executed in California, along with Juanita "the Duchess" Spinelli, Louise Peete and Elizabeth Duncan.
|Clifford Rue was a man who was ahead of his time and behind on the payments to his bookie.
A former Marine who changed his name from Rubenstein for business purposes, Rue had been working at his father's liquor store when he persuaded some friends to join him in an unusual venture.
Rue was one of those men who couldn't get enough sports statistics. If he were alive today, he would probably be in a dozen fantasy leagues and spend all his time on a computer.
But in the 1950s, access to sports information was far more restricted. Rue badgered sportswriters and newspaper editors for updates until he wore out their patience. So in 1955 he persuaded some friends to come up with enough money to begin a free sports information service.
According to Time magazine, Rue's Sports Information Results hired 17 researchers to answer 18,000 sports questions a day. Queries included "What's the largest football score ever run up?" or "What is the maximum speed of a duck?" To make a profit, the service sold ads that were played over the phone before callers got their answers.
After an initial success, the venture apparently went under. Rue began working at the Seville, a nightclub at 7969 Santa Monica Blvd., and operated a credit business called Trans-National Budget Plan. He and his wife were also doing some remodeling at a dress shop she planned to open at 12236 Ventura Blvd.
Along the way, Rue ran up gambling debts until he owed $4,200 ($29,803.65 USD 2007) to Morris "Goldie" Goldsworth, a bookie who split his time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But while he was losing money to Goldsworth, he had also won $700 from a wholesale jeweler named David Solomon.
On the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1958, Solomon visited Rue, who was at work doing some remodling at his wife's dress shop, and paid $200 on his debts.
Later that day, Goldsworth arrived at the Ventura Boulevard dress shop in what The Times described as a hardtopped convertible.
Police found his car four days later parked at 3809 Rhodes Ave. A neighbor complained that the convertible had been left in front of his house and in answering the call, Officer E.C. Hayes noticed that blood had dripped from the trunk onto the back bumper. While he was waiting for detectives to respond, Hayes removed the backseat and saw a body.
Morris Goldsworth, 52, had been shot and beaten in the head. His pockets were turned inside-out. All that police found on him were a white handkerchief and half a pack of cigarettes. Further investigation revealed dried flecks of paint on the body. Police Chief William H. Parker immediately announced that Goldsworth's death was a mob killing and turned the investigation over to Chief of Detectives Thad Brown.
In tracing Goldsworth's last movements, detectives interviewed Rue, 34, who told them that the bookie left the shop after being paid the $4,200 gambling debt.
Under further questioning, Rue admitted killing Goldsworth. He said he offered the bookie $200, but that Goldsworth had drawn a gun and demanded the entire amount. Rue grabbed a hammer and hit Goldsworth, then took the bookie's gun and shot him with it. For good measure, Rue hit him with the hammer again.
Rue said he wrapped the body with dropcloths that some painters had left in the back of the dress shop and hauled it out to the car. He planned to dump the body in the desert but got lost on Rhodes, which is a dead-end street, and abandoned the car four blocks from the shop. He walked back to the shop, burned the dropcloths, and painted the floor red when he couldn't clean Goldsworth's blood off the concrete.
While he was being questioned, Rue pried a piece of metal molding from a desk and later that day he tried to kill himself by slashing his neck with it.
The next day, police took him back to the dress shop and filmed him as he reenacted the killing. Investigators searched the route from the dress shop to where the car was parked, but never found the gun.
According to grand jury testimony, the bullets recovered from Goldsworth's body had no "land and groove" markings. LAPD ballistics expert Sgt. William Lee said the bullets must have been too small for the gun and were therefore fired "with insufficient force." Coroner's investigator Dr. Frederick Newbarr said Goldsworth died from the hammer blows and that the gunshot wounds were only superficial.
Rue was convicted of second-degree murder on Feb. 27, 1959. Although The Times didn't report the sentencing, he may have been released from prison. A 1972 Times story refers to a company called Credit Security Insurance, which was reorganized after the death of its former president, Clifford Rue. California death records say a man named Clifford Rue died July 24, 1972, at the age of 48.
Despite Rue's confession, Police Chief Parker continued to see the Mafia's influence in Goldsworth's death and some websites include it in a list of mob killings.
Footnote: As of 1955, the biggest football score was 222-0 (Georgia Tech over Cumberland University, 1916). The maximum speed of a duck? It depends on the wind.