Second Glances: Eyewitness Accounts of Significant Moments in L.A.’s Collective History

From a teenager who found himself in the Ambassador kitchen with RFK to the dancer who choreographed opening-day festivities at Disneyland
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smogPEAK SMOG
Actor Ed Begley Jr. on growing up in 1950s L.A., when the air was as dirty as Beijing’s is today

It looked like you were in some sort of weird noir movie. We lived near the center of the Valley, near Sherman Way on Sepulveda. Friends would come from out of town and say, “Why do they call it a ‘valley,’ dude?” “Well, because of the mountains.” “The what?” You couldn’t see them on those really smoggy days. At least half a year you couldn’t even see the mountains. Anywhere! In any direction. You couldn’t run the way you wanted to because you could only get a half or quarter of a breath. There were too many pollutants in the air. It hurt like hell to breathe, and there was nothing you could do. I endured two decades of horrible smog in the ’50s and ’60s, so by the time 1970 came along and people started talking about cleaning up the earth and Earth Day, I went, “Sign me up.” —As told to Ben Sanders


RFK

ROBERT KENNEDY’S ASSASSINATION
Architect Michael Lehrer was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was fatally shot

The year was 1968, and I was 14 years old. In March my friend Isaiah Roter and I had gone to the Greek Theatre for Bobby Kennedy’s coming-out. Shortly thereafter we went to Kennedy headquarters and ended up handling two precincts. By election day in June, I had seen Bobby four times; his presence was extraordinary. For his speech at the Ambassador, Isaiah and I stood on the podium as part of a human chain. I was four or five feet behind Bobby, and when he finished, he went through the curtain to the anteroom to the kitchen. I followed right behind him, but then everybody started pouring in. I was in the kitchen doorway when I heard five shots. Someone asked us to help keep the press out, so Isaiah and I blocked the doors. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s campaign manager, asked us what had happened. The Graduate had come out the year before. There’s the scene when Dustin Hoffman knocks his head against the wall, and I remember knocking my head against the wall, thinking, “My God, I’m a witness to history.” —As told to Matthew Segal


BUNKER HILL BEFORE THE FALL
Gordon Pattison grew up there when homes, not towers, covered the downtown neighborhood

They subdivided Bunker Hill in the 1880s and built Victorian homes. But the middle-class people moved off at about the turn of the 20th century, and the buildings were converted into rooming houses. My family lived at 310 Bunker Hill Avenue, between 3rd and 4th, in an old Victorian. We owned several and managed several more. Probably nine or 10,000 thousand people lived on the hill. It was a place where people with lower incomes lived. It had the reputation of being crime-ridden with slum houses, but I don’t remember it that way at all. I think of it as a tranquil oasis above a busy city. After World War II, the Community Redevelopment Agency, which was charged with redeveloping Bunker Hill, gave notice that they were going to tear everything down. In the 1950s, they tore down the portion where the Music Center, the court buildings, and the water and power building are. The area where we had lived stayed more or less intact into the early ’60s. Now there’s nothing of the original Bunker Hill that’s left, except Angels Flight and a retaining wall on the corner of 4th and Olive. It’s sad. Los Angeles would be a very different place if they hadn’t just torn everything down and flattened the hill to build all these high-rises. —As told to Ben Sanders


RedCar

THE LAST RED CAR
Train enthusiast Ralph Cantos on taking the final run of the rail network that died with the birth of the freeways

The Pacific Electric line was 59 years old when it was abandoned on April 9, 1961. It was running 50-year-old equipment, but despite the cars being in such poor condition, people loved them. They were 72 feet long, seated 80 passengers, and had huge mohair-covered armchairs. I was 18 years old. A lot of rail fans and transit enthusiasts came to make that last run because this was a historic event. We made a few round-trips and then waited until the last official train left downtown, at 6th and Main, at about two-thirty in the morning. As we came into Long Beach, down Long Beach Boulevard, we rolled slowly, and the mood in the train got really somber. I actually broke into tears—crying like a baby over a damn streetcar! —As told to Ben Sanders


Quake

THE NORTHRIDGE QUAKE
In the Heart of the Sea director Ron Howard rode out the temblor in what could have been a towering inferno

I grew up in L.A., but when the Northridge earthquake hit, I’d been living on the East Coast for nine years. Of course I was in town when it happened. The big fires, the Rodney King verdict—I seem to be around for all the dramas this city has faced. I was staying on the top floor of a Century City hotel. There’s a rumble, and the building starts to sway to the point where I almost pop out of bed. I feel like I’m on top of a flagpole. I curled in the fetal position and began to imagine what would happen if the building went over. Sirens were going off everywhere. I didn’t know if the building had caught fire, so I called Brian Grazer. He was living in Pacific Palisades, and I knew he had a view of Century City. I said, “I’m up here. I’m scared. I don’t know whether I should walk down or go up to the roof.” Brian looked through his telescope and said, “Your building’s not on fire.” I stuffed everything from the fruit basket into the pockets of my windbreaker and got out of the building. It was early morning, so there was mist, and flashing lights and a couple of cars that had crashed into each other and an ambulance moving by slowly. I called my dad’s house in Toluca Lake. Everyone was OK, but I drove there anyway. The roads were more or less passable, and by then I knew we weren’t in Mad Max territory. —As told to Ed Leibowitz


ZOOT SUIT RIOTS
Eight-nine today, Rudy Estrada recalls being amid the series of racist attacks in 1943 in which whites servicemen targeted young Latinos

Chicanos didn’t invent the zoot suit style; it was the Filipinos. Ducktail hairdos—Filipinos started that, too. My pants were what you call semi-drape; they weren’t exaggerated. I wore them every day to school and when I out on Saturdays and Sundays. I didn’t wear a hat or a tie—just the pants and a nice silk shirt. I was about 16 or 17, and I loved them. But these guys in the Navy, they’d get a knife or scissors, start at the bottom, and cut them up. Just to be mean. They used the excuse that Chicanos at the beach raped a white girl, but that was horseshit. The country was at war and they had to let off some steam, so they picked Chicanos. During this time, my compadre and I went down to the see a show at 7th and Broadway. We crossed the street, and three sailors came after us. We ran until we realized there were only three of them. The first guy was way ahead of the rest. We did a number on him; the second one, also. The third one got scared and left. But he came back with eight or ten sailors. They chased us, and we ran right in front of a police station. There was policemen outside, kind of giggling, waiting to see if the sailors’d catch us. We would have really been in trouble, but a friend who used to work with me was passing by, so we got in his car and left. In some cases over there in East L.A., the sailors would go inside the house and drag the guys out. One night there was cars from every gang you can think of on Brooklyn Avenue all the way from Record Avenue to Eastern. There was at least a hundred of them. The sailors came by in trucks and started to get out. They didn’t realize that the parked cars were full of guys, and boy, did we do a number on them. We chased them up to Whittier and caught them. They found out they can’t win them all. It was like getting even. —As told to Chris Nichols


 

 

DisneylandDISNEYLAND’S OPENING DAY
Miriam Nelson choreographed the big show when the theme park debuted on July 17, 1955

Disneyland wanted to put on a show for its opening day. I choreographed all the numbers—an hour show on live television, and you just ran from one land to another. There was still construction going on during rehearsals. We’d see Walt Disney walk by. It was hot, and my girls had on little brief tops. I got a letter from Mr. Disney asking me to have them cover up more because “my workmen were all stopping to watch the dancers,” he said. “We’ll never get this park open.” At the start of the show the white knight and the black knight reared back on their horses and said, “Open the drawbridge!” When the characters came out and beckoned the children to follow, there were hundreds running into the castle. It was just the opening of a park; nobody knew how big it was going to be. —As told to Chris Nichols


Flood

THE FLOOD OF 1938
Ernest Marquez on the deluge that killed 144 people and fueled the push to line the L.A. River with concrete

I was 13 and living in Santa Monica Canyon. We used to play in the creek there, catching frogs and sliding down drainpipes. Then the rain started, and it fell for weeks. We were restricted to our houses because the streets were full of water. The water came in the front door and went out the back, so we moved to my grandmother’s house on 11th Street. It was exciting and frightening to see what you grew up with disappear down the creek. Throughout Los Angeles County everybody suffered the effects of the flood. Some houses broke apart and floated away. Once the rain stopped, the mud was at least seven feet high on the buildings that were still standing. There were cars stuck in the trees. Then they put these 16-foot-deep cement-lined channels in Santa Monica Canyon. It was no longer a creek; it was a cement ditch. —As told to Chris Nichols


THE WATTS RIOTS
Musician Booker T. Jones was in a Hollywood recording session with singer Bobby Darin when violence broke out on August 11, 1965

I was a young kid from Memphis, visiting my sister in the Crenshaw district, when Nesuhi Ertegun—the president of Atlantic Records—called from New York. He was putting together a band for Bobby Darin. He had Hal Blaine on drums, the Blossoms doing background vocals, and wanted me play keyboards. I borrowed my sister’s 1954 Buick and drove up Arlington to Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood. I walked in and Gene Page, the composer, was on a big podium with a conducting stick. There’s Bobby Darin, the Blossoms, some horns, an additional piano player—the music was all set up. It wasn’t like how we did it in Memphis at all. The recording session went by like a flash. We were sequestered for three hours and didn’t know anything had happened until we walked out and saw trucks on the street. While we were recording, the riots had started. The National Guard had been called. I tried to get back to my sister’s house but they had blocked off the streets at La Brea. She lived a few blocks away from the action, but it was close enough to the quarantined area that I ended up stuck in Hollywood and stayed with one of the members of the Blossoms. It was two or three days before I could go back and see what had happened. —As told to Nancy Miller


BlackDahlia

THE BLACK DAHLIA
Eileen Sever was an 11-year-old on her way to school when she passed the crime scene in 1947

I wasn’t exactly an eyewitness; I was an eyewitness to the aftermath. The land along Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets was empty lots. I was on my way to junior high, and I got off the bus at Crenshaw. When I got to 39th and Norton, where Elizabeth Short’s body was found, it was crawling with police. Nobody would talk to you, and nobody at home wanted to discuss it. The consensus among other kids was that Elizabeth Short had been a very bad girl who had gotten herself in a lot of trouble and that as long as we were good, nothing like this would happen to us. I remember saying that while visiting my friend, and her mother said, “She was 21 years old, Eileen. When you’re 21, you’ll see how bad you can be, and it won’t be very bad.” —As told to Chris Nichols


 

InternmentTHE INTERNMENT OF JAPANESE AMERICANS
Chikaye Sande Hashimoto on being forced from her Little Tokyo home to a relocation camp in the Sierra Nevada during World War II

I was born on 11th Street near the Los Angeles Convention Center. I was probably five—the youngest of four children—when my parents moved to Little Tokyo and opened a dry cleaner on San Pedro near Jackson Street. We lived in the back of our business. When the war broke out, I remember seeing City Hall and the whole city dark for the first time during an air raid drill. Then my parents got a notice, and they said we had to sell whatever we could. I didn’t ask why. We sold our dishes and pots and pans in front of a church next door. Then we had to leave, carrying whatever we could. We went on a train before a bus took us to Manzanar. I remember soldiers with guns directing where we should go. It was dusty and windy. Our barracks had four families in it, with a wall in between each one. I would go to school, but I played most of the time. We were there four years. I didn’t know why, but my family never talked about it or anything about the war. To me it was something that we just didn’t discuss. —As told to Matthew Segal

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