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L.A. Story

The history of Los Angeles magazine by cofounder Geoff Miller

We're 40 now, and you might know how that is. Some mornings we feel as sweet as a blooming jacaranda, others as feisty as a Santa Ana wind. No, we're not buying a Harley or shooting up Botox—yet. But midlife seems a good time for a little introspection on the city we've observed, and in the following article you'll find reflections on comfort and mayhem, innocence and reproach, threats and fetes. And that's just 1973.

It was the dawn of the 1960s—which happened to look far more like the '50s than anything we remotely associate now with "the '60s." It was still the era of three-martini lunches—and no cell phones. There was no Music Center, no County Museum of Art, no Santa Monica Freeway. There was no LAX, as we think of it today. There was a new Sports Arena, and the Democratic Party, familiarly enough, was about to stage its National Convention there. (There was, of course, no Convention Center yet and, to be sure, no Staples Center.)

Also, as it happened, there were no independently published "city magazines"—the term hadn't even been invented. New York magazine was still eight years away. There was no Chicago magazine, no Washingtonian, no Boston, no San Francisco. A Philadelphia did exist, and usually featured a middle-aged guy in a suit on the cover.

In other words, Los Angeles began with no instruction manual.

All kinds of people had made faltering attempts at launching a magazine for Los Angeles over the years, most of them slavishly mimicking The New Yorker—which was really a literary magazine. I'd been involved in formatting an urban arts magazine while taking a master's in journalism at UCLA when I happened upon an ad executive in his mid thirties named David Brown, who had a similar but much more ambitious scheme: Los Angeles was to be a magazine celebrating the unruly young city in all its contrary glory. It would accept the community on its own terms—as the collection of villages it truly was, still looking for an identity, if not a center. It was indeed a city of infinite possibilities, where one could reinvent oneself daily, if so desired. Our magazine would sort out the possibilities, help the reader deal with all that newfound freedom to redefine his or her own life.

On an absurdly paltry start-up stake, something like $50,000, we launched in the summer of 1960 with a staff of perhaps six to eight people, which soon dwindled, along with our finances. Ironically, our offices were on Rodeo Drive, which in a few years would turn into one of the most expensive streets in America.

Dave and I put together our 48 to 64 page issues by ourselves, cutting, pasting, and making up the pages by hand—and most would say the magazine looked it. We had no art or design director, and not just because we couldn't afford one. At that time, except for the large picture books like Life and Look, most magazines were still constructed to be read, not merely seen. Although television had been around for more than a decade, the magazine industry was still in denial about the importance of graphics. Dave himself had an almost pathological abhorrence of "designeritis"—that is, a magazine looking as if it were run by the art department. We were in no danger of that.

What pulled us through those first issues was the surprising quality and wit of the writing. We had cajoled a phenomenally talented group of freelancers, most of them moonlighting from the local Time-Life bureau, which was nearby. They included Jim Murray, Charles Champlin, and Art Seidenbaum; in addition, there were occasional contributions from brand names like Ray Bradbury, Joseph Wambaugh, Carolyn See, and Budd Schulberg. That they agreed to do some of their best work for almost no money could only be blamed on those three-martini lunches—a professional obligation at which Dave happened to excel.

There were times when our moonlighters were responsible, under various pseudonyms, for filling entire issues. Jim Murray was usually "James Hartford," Chuck Champlin was "Charles Davenport," and so on. Even today, I'm amused to stumble upon a passage in some learned tome about the city quoting the writings of "James Hartford" or "Charles Davenport."

Our first permanent film critic was Burt Prelutsky, who had gone to UCLA with me and who later became a highly successful writer for TV shows like M*A*S*H. Burt was fearless in his pronouncements, which made him stand out in a press town that still pandered to the major studios. Burt's scabrously funny assessments were unheard of—bordering on scandalous. Of one turkey of the period, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he wrote, "Starts off with a bang and ends up chitty." Reviewing Stanley Kramer's rigidly PC Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier as an impossibly virtuous doctor who becomes engaged, while in Haiti, to a white heiress from San Francisco, Burt noted: "The girl returns to San Francisco by plane. Sidney walks."

Then, as now, "the Industry" was humorless and thin-skinned about itself. It hated Prelutsky but read him as a kind of guilty pleasure.

At that time, the L.A. Times had no major music critic, no restaurant critic of any kind, and its film reviewers rarely met a movie they didn't like. One by one, Murray, Champlin, Seidenbaum, and Prelutsky were hired by the Times and ordered to cease freelancing for Los Angeles. (Murray, who went on to earn a richly deserved Pulitzer for his Times sportswriting, was the one exception, continuing to contribute the odd essay, now under his own name, for Los Angeles.) For good measure, the Times even hired our restaurant critic, Lois Dwan. Without ever acknowledging it, the paper had been handed all the evidence it needed of its own dullness.

BY EARLY 1961, OUR start-up funds had run out, and Dave Brown began to beat the bushes for new backing. I was still a poor but carefree postgraduate, but Dave had a large family to support. With remarkable courage, he managed to keep the magazine alive, even if it meant skipping an issue or two. He ultimately found his new angel in Harry Volk. Head of Union Bank, Harry was deeply involved in raising funds to build the new Music Center, among other worthy projects. He agreed to finance the magazine out of his own funds, which meant he advanced us just enough to keep Los Angeles afloat year to year.

Needless to say, this put great pressure on us simply to make the magazine work, a tall order in a market as mysteriously ill defined as Los Angeles. It forced us to think through what our particular target audience needed. Out of desperation, we ended up creating most of the annual features that would become standard fodder for all city magazines: the Restaurant Annual, the Best and Worst issues, the Real Estate Guide, the Best Schools, et cetera. Our May "52 Great Weekends" issue became so popular that I added, somewhat redundantly, a Winter Weekends Guide in November to join it. One of our early film critics, John Barbour, enjoyed telling people, "I write for a magazine called Los Angeles. All it does is tell you how to get out of town."

By the mid to late `60s, this format began to click. I was often asked how it felt to have helped to create a new publication genre. My answer was always, "If I knew we were creating a `genre,' I might have taken it more seriously." Mainly, we were trying to stay in business through some difficult times. 

IN 1973, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, FEELING ITS OATS under Clay Felker's brilliant editorship, announced its intention to acquire Los Angeles. The country was entering a prolonged recession, and Los Angeles, underfunded as always, was struggling. The national general-interest magazines—Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post—were going out of business. New York was one of the few new magazines garnering any national attention.

Few people knew, however, that New York, for all the excitement its editorial had generated, had yet to show a consistent profit. Undeterred, Felker and his staff descended on our offices and even consulted with us over proposed directions Los Angeles might take under their ownership. New York's investors, meanwhile, were getting restless and were less than enthusiastic about Felker's expansion plan. The deal to purchase Los Angeles collapsed. I can remember the last words uttered by the New Yorkers as they retreated: "Don't worry, we'll be back."

Barely days later, Los Angeles was sold to a small holding company headed by entrepreneur Seth Baker. After the negotiations with New York broke off, Baker slightly bettered the bargain price New York had offered—which was a tiny fraction of what Felker's group would later spend on an attempted reentry into the market.

Within a year, Dave Brown, recognizing that the magazine was at last afloat, stepped down, turning his publisher's duties over to an old friend, "Delle" Delle Monache. Delle was loyal to Dave's vision, but he was also an extremely effective executive, capable of keeping a sharp eye on editorial, circulation, and advertising. At the same time, I brought in an energetic, hard-driving managing editor, Lew Harris, freeing me up to concentrate on the magazine's overall direction. Years earlier, I had hired a versatile art director, Bill Delorme, who in turn lured a number of young, budding artists and photographers, including Herb Ritts, Matthew Rolston, and Greg Gorman. (An early photographer and cartoonist was a California beach boy turned hippie named Terry Gilliam, later to gain fame—much to our astonishment—as a member of Monty Python and then as a highly respected filmmaker.)

In the early `70s, under Seth Baker's urging, we pioneered the use of celebrity covers—for better or worse. No one else was doing them on any regular basis, except for fan magazines. (People and the revived Vanity Fair were yet to launch.) I initially opposed the idea, fearing it would make the magazine look too "Hollywood," but we found a technique to make it work by portraying the celebs humorously—and as fellow residents. Today, celebrities put an army of negotiators between themselves and the people trying to shoot them. In those days, we were able to deal directly with them and usually talk them into spoofing themselves. For one cover, we had shot a newly famous Farrah Fawcett in a variety of swimsuit poses, including one semi-salacious take of her down on all fours, looking provocatively at the viewer. With trepidation, I went over the shots with Farrah, sure that she would angrily veto that pose. To my amazement, she blurted out, "That's the shot!" We went with it, and to no one's surprise, it turned into a newsstand sensation. It was later made into Farrah's second-biggest-selling poster.

THREE YEARS AFTER ITS INITIAL BID for Los Angeles, Clay Felker's group made good on its promise and, in one of the most expansive promotion campaigns ever witnessed, launched New West magazine here in a format mirroring New York's. You could not turn on the radio or TV or look at a billboard without hearing about the fabulous new magazine that New Yorkers had graciously bestowed upon us. Naturally, all their promotion stressed that Los Angeles had never before had a real magazine, a patronizing distortion that was not lost on Los Angeles's rapidly building readership, at that time renewing its subscriptions at a rate of nearly 80 percent.

The extravagant New West launch did score particularly well with the media, however, including some of our own admittedly underpaid contributors. I couldn't blame most of those who defected, although I noted privately that New West seemed unable to get off the ground without poaching much of its talent from a competitor it refused to admit existed. It was the L.A. Times all over again.

One of the ironies of New West's overreaching promotion was that it had awakened national advertisers, mostly based in New York, to the importance of the Los Angeles market. Of course, they bought ad pages in New West, but for the first time, they also began buying into the magazine bearing the city's name. Los Angeles's national advertising exploded, adding to an already well-established base of local retail advertising, a category New West was never able to crack consistently.

Most of the media, enamored of Felker's well-deserved editorial reputation, failed at first to notice this disparity. Eventually, Joe Pilcher, a Los Angeles-based Time magazine correspondent, took note of the David-and-Goliath scenario that was developing. He wrote a major piece contrasting all of New West's start-up problems with the stealth upsurge of its less visible 17-year-old competitor. It was the beginning of the end for New West.

The favorable Time story also piqued the interest of various media concerns around the country, which were just beginning to recognize the viability of special-interest publications in general and regional magazines in particular. American Broadcasting Company, which had only recently become a huge TV power for the first time, was looking to diversify. In 1977, it added Los Angeles to its small stable of publications, at the same time hiring Seth Baker to head up the division.

Having always run our own shop, we were at first uneasy about taking orders from a media conglomerate 3,000 miles away. It soon became evident, however, that the terms of the ABC deal were quite simple: We send them the promised profits every month, they leave us alone. I can't recall one instance in which ABC, at the corporate level, ever tried to interfere with our editorial coverage, even when we were highly critical of its programming or personalities. Which is not to say we didn't make plenty of people at ABC angry over the years. One station manager threatened me with retaliation at a party. But the tone at the higher executive levels was always set by the company's legendary founder, Leonard Goldenson, one of the most supportive chief executives the media industry has ever known.

Under ABC, Los Angeles enjoyed its greatest period of growth, ballooning from 79,000 circulation to 172,000 in two years. Advertising also reached gargantuan proportions under Bert Pucci and his sales staff, peaking with issues of nearly 600 total pages, more than half of which were advertising. In 1978 and `79, Los Angeles carried more ad pages than any monthly of any kind in the country. The sheer blatancy of the magazine's success became something of a joke. At one gathering, I'd been talking to then D.A. Ira Reiner when I apologized that I had to leave early to watch a new TV series based in part on Los Angeles magazine. "Oh, really," said Reiner's wife, Judge Diane Wayne, who was standing nearby. "The show must be all commercials."

Lew Harris, Rodger Claire, and the rest of the editorial staff distinguished this period as well with feature pieces of significance, such as the Billionaire Boys Club exposé, which was later made into a celebrated TV movie. The magazine took controversial stands against Metrorail, predicting all the problems that have since dogged the system. Los Angeles was also the only publication to suggest that the McMartin Preschool trial would end in acquittals all around. We were nominated for a National Magazine Award in the General Excellence category—the periodical equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize. Watching the quality of the editorial content improve, our acerbic resident humorist, Rubin Carson, remarked that he was surprised to see us "stoop that high."

FOLLOWING THE TRIUMPH OF THE `84 Olympics, Los Angeles as a market began a slow, decade-long decline, marked by a severe recession from which it is only now fully recovering. It began with the radical downsizing of the defense industry, followed by the collapse of the real estate market, helpfully punctuated by riots, wildfires, and finally the massive earthquake of January 1994. I began to joke with our proprietors that they could expect to see the locusts cued any day now.

All of our competitors dropped by the wayside, but there was never any question of Los Angeles's survival. After all, we were foolish enough to have started with no money in the midst of a recession in 1960, and we'd seen many more recessions come and go. We knew how to pull in our horns and muddle through.

But one day I looked around and realized I'd been with the magazine nearly 35 years—more than that, really, considering I had worked on its prototype while still at UCLA. That was a longer run—and a more satisfying one—than any sane person deserves. Our durability over the years had of course attracted competitors: L.A. Style, Buzz, and scores of others few remember. Most were well designed, well written, and often greatly admired by the media and the advertising community. Other aspirants, no doubt, will eventually be heard from. I always took our competitors seriously and tried to learn from them. In analyzing why these publications all failed, as Los Angeles celebrates its 40th year, one or two thoughts strike me: Perhaps they were all too much of their own time. Perhaps the very thing that made them temporarily hot ultimately had a built-in sell-by date.

I'm drawn to a comparison with that other long distance champ, Sunset, now homing in on its 103rd year. I don't think I've ever encountered a media type (myself included) who didn't smirk a bit at the very mention of Sunset. Yet here it is, in the Internet age, still plugging along as powerfully as ever. Nobody loves it but its audience. As I watched Sunset over my shoulder through the years, I tried never to forget its lesson: Every magazine has a unique DNA—its connection with its chosen readership. You don't choose a magazine. A magazine chooses you.