Los Angeles has long been considered a cradle of innovation. From the internet to fast food, gangster rap to Mickey Mouse, these are the origin stories behind 13 of our most significant cultural contributions. Edited by Chris Nichols and Marielle Wakim.
Never has a doll been so popular (or caused so much controversy), but before she could go from L.A. girl to American icon, she had to prove she was more than a plaything to a male-dominated toy industry.
Barbie’s had more than 150 careers in her lifetime—astronaut, aerobics instructor, CEO—and has run for president six times. To date, she’s starred in more than 30 movies. Her 1.9 million Instagram followers (@barbiestyle) can tag along on her adventures in L.A. and beyond. All in all, it’s a pretty decent résumé for a doll. L.A.-based entrepreneur and Mattel cofounder Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959, naming the toy after her daughter, Barbara. (Want to guess Ruth’s son’s name? That’s right: Ken.) Barbie’s cultural imprint is nearly unrivaled, and new variations are being released all the time—in 2015, she learned to chat using artificial intelligence; this year’s crop of Barbie “sheroes” includes dolls in Frida Kahlo’s and Ava DuVernay’s likenesses. We sat down with Barbara Handler to hear more about the doll’s long and fantastic life in plastic. > Linda Immediato
How did you inspire your mom to create Barbie?
“When I was 15 my family went to Switzerland, and I saw a Lilli Doll in a shop window. It was an adult doll, and each came in a different outfit—one had a bathing suit; one, a ski suit. Even though I was too old to play with dolls, I went crazy for them. This got my mother thinking: ‘If my daughter really likes these dolls, maybe other girls would, too.’ When we got home, I never saw my Lilli Dolls again. My mother dismantled them for research.”
What was your mom like?
“She was really smart, assertive, and got things done. When she took the first Barbie to the Toy Fair in 1959, even my father didn’t think it would sell. All the buyers were men in those days, and they couldn’t relate to it. But she sold a few, and it took off.”
How does Barbie reflect your mom’s legacy now?
“I’m proud of my mother. No one had created anything like it. People have blamed their problems on Barbie—for feeling worried about how much they weigh, that they don’t dress right. I can’t deal with that. Everyone can blame somebody or something for their problems. I mean, it’s just a doll.
The butcher, the baker, and the cheese maker weren’t always under one roof. Propelled by the idea of the ultimate one-stop shop, L.A.’s drive-in markets morphed into the modern grocery experience.
Let’s get one thing straight: The terms “grocery store” and “supermarket” are not interchangeable. So if you’re saying, “Wait, I thought a Piggly Wiggly in Memphis was the nation’s first supermarket,” we’d say, “No, that was a dry-goods-only grocery store.” The supermarket—well, that’s another story.
L.A. invented the supermarket and the supermarket invented L.A., or so said Vons founder Charles Von der Ahe. The mogul noted that as our linear city expanded, the first anchor in a neighborhood was always a sparkling new Vons or Ralphs, stores that forecast the endless expansion of our decentralized city. Just as the private automobile was coming into favor during the 1920s, Los Angeles responded with a completely different kind of building tailored to motorized transportation. Drive-in markets with multiple storefronts—bakeries, butcher shops, produce counters—were springing up all over town, each a sort of early version of the one-stop-shop mega-store. At the same time, electric refrigerators started replacing iceboxes, enabling Angelenos to stock up on a week’s worth of groceries in a single trip.
Ralphs is credited with bringing all of these amenities under one roof when it opened the world’s first modern supermarket at Wilshire and Hauser in 1928. That inaugural store, designed by the same architects who gave us the El Capitan Theatre, was a beacon for the burgeoning middle class, outfitted with the abundant parking, pleasant music, and innovative design that made well-appointed supermarkets a common luxury. > Chris Nichols
High-speed car chases are a citywide pastime—mostly because we made filming them possible. In 1958 the first “telecopter,” aka airborne news studio, was built in a North Hollywood backyard by enterprising KTLA engineer John D. Silva. Though its maiden voyage was a little bumpy (Silva had to climb onto the right skid at 1,500 feet to check on a malfunctioning transmitter), the chopper soon became the envy of news organizations nationwide for its ability to capture aerial shots of wildfires, parades, and, eventually, the pursuit of the century: O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed chase in that famed white Bronco. > Zoie Matthew
Key players in the West Coast hip-hop scene turned the subgenre into a national phenomenon.
Philadelphia’s Schoolly D was a crucial player in the birth of gangster rap, a transformative sub-genre that gave a voice to the voiceless and revealed the horrors unfolding daily in black urban America. But it was L.A. artists like Ice-T and N.W.A who fine-tuned it into a full-blown force. We’ve compiled a quick rundown of gangster rap’s heaviest West Coast hitters. > Soren Baker
Having come up in South-Central Los Angeles, Ice-T made his mark in the late ’80s by rapping about the life of a street-level, gang-affiliated criminal. The stellar songwriter’s landmark tracks “6 in the Mornin’” and “Colors” were the first to detail the X-rated exploits of L.A. thugs, the consequences of their actions, and how society was at least partly to blame for their lifestyle. On top of that, they were huge hits.
Around the same time, Compton’s EazyE, Ice Cube (above), Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella—you know them as N.W.A—popularized the rage-filled sound, confrontational lyric style, and menacing look synonymous with early gangster rap (a Jheri curl, black sunglasses known as locs, Los Angeles Raiders gear, gold rope chains, and black jeans). Darker, reality-based narratives highlighting police brutality and systemic racism suddenly replaced the characteristically lighthearted rap at the time.
The New Wave
L.A. rappers like Nipsey Hussle and Vince Staples are carrying the torch of their musical forebears, but they’re leaving their own marks by approaching the game entrepreneurially, too. Consider Hussle’s 2013 mixtape, Crenshaw: Despite being unsigned when it dropped, he sold 1,000 copies for $100 each as part of his Proud2Pay campaign, which incentivized mega-fans with concerts and signed photos. Gangster rap now stands as a premium blend of culture, commerce, and creativity.
Disney’s most magical mascot saved a movie studio from ruin, and then he went on to become the stuff of legend.
Mice typically aren’t talked about in hushed, reverential tones. But Mickey isn’t your typical mouse. Today we know him as the face of a brand with formidable global reach, but it took five years— and the near-collapse of the Disney brothers’ studio—before the world’s most recognizable rodent ever saw a sliver of the limelight.
When Walt Disney arrived in L.A. in 1923, he crashed at his uncle’s place in Los Feliz and made cartoons with his brother, Roy, in the garage. Their big break came with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the star of several shorts commissioned and produced by New York’s Charles Mintz. After Mintz poached the company’s animators and even the Oswald character, the studio was on the brink. But then Walt started to think. He thought about the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin, the cartoon art of Paul Terry, and the pet mouse he once kept at his desk. All of which led to one very important idea.
At Walt Disney Studios on Hyperion Avenue in Los Feliz, Walt, Roy, animator Ub Iwerks, and others fleshed out a character named Mickey Mouse, all of them working in secret to complete the silent film Plane Crazy and send it directly to the copyright office. Their third film, Steamboat Willie, preveiwed locally in May 1928; six months later, it premiered in New York (with Walt voicing the lead role). Thus the wonderful world of Mickey came to be—and, well, you know the rest. > C.N.
Custom car builders souped up rides with refurbished frames and candy-colored paints, giving the term “car culture” a whole new meaning.
Dissatisfied with Detroit’s domestic automobiles, Bill Niekamp, a middle-aged painter at the Plymouth factory in Commerce, decided the Model T was in desperate need of an upgrade. And so the first show rod—a hot rod built both for performance and display—was born. The Niekamp Roadster, which was cobbled together from more than a dozen cars and achieved a top speed of 142.4 mph, was crowned “America’s Most Beautiful Roadster” in 1950; Niekamp’s experimentation was a precursor to the custom and lowrider trends of the postwar era and spawned the craze for personalized rides. Check out two other cars that belong alongside Niekamp’s Frankensteined show rod in the Los Angeles custom car hall of fame. > Forest Casey
The Hirohata Merc 1951 Mercuty Coupe
Navy veteran Masato “Bob” Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury was barely a year old when he drove it to George and Sam Barris’s Lynwood shop for a radical customization. The coupe’s dualtone paint job (two shades of green, a total of 30 coats), sculpted sides, and lowered roofline created a wholly new kind of car. The style inspired generations to improve their rides, and George Barris’s reputation ballooned: He became the go-to builder for TV-ready cars like the 1966 Batmobile.
The Gypsy Rose 1964 Chevy Impala
In the 1970s Chicano artists, builders, and mechanics in East L.A. used full-sized domestic cars to make a countercultural statement. Jesse Valadez’s magnificent 1964 Impala was actually his third Gypsy Rose—the first proved insufficient, and the second was destroyed by rivals. The car is lowered on hydraulics, sealed with over 20 gallons of lacquer, and adorned with 115 flowers in shades of pink, yellow, blue, and purple (there’s even a cocktail bar in the back seat). Its influence is so profound that the Gypsy Rose was recently inducted into the Historic Vehicle Association’s national registry.
The Gay Rights Movement
New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots—a response to police raids of the Stonewall Inn— are often cited as the primary catalyst for the gay rights movement in America and beyond. But the nation’s first major gay rights rally took place two years before Stonewall, at Silver Lake’s Black Cat Tavern. Activists spent weeks secretly organizing a protest after plainclothes officers beat and arrested 16 people at the gay bar’s New Year’s Eve celebration, six of whom were charged with “lewd conduct” (kissing). On February 11, 1967, hundreds of protesters—some estimates suggest 600—gathered at the corner of Sunset and Hyperion with picket signs for what was, at the time, the biggest recorded demonstration for gay rights that had ever occurred in the U.S. Today a restaurant of the same name can be found where the bar once stood. > Z.M.
Before there was Google, Facebook, or any other website that’s embedded itself in our daily lives, there was ARPANET, a rudimentary network that laid the groundwork for a revolution in technology.
The world wide web wouldn’t be possible without ARPANET, a government-funded research effort launched at UCLA in 1969. Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at the university and one of the “fathers of the internet,” takes us back to 3420 Boelter Hall and the day interconnectivity changed forever. > Marielle Wakim
What exactly is ARPANET?
“Sputnik went up and caught the U.S. with its pants down. The government realized it needed a network that would allow computers to communicate and share resources. I had figured out the mathematical theory when I was a grad student at MIT. The theory was there, the need was there, now these two were going to come together. ARPANET was a series of high-speed lines connected to computer ‘nodes’ at various universities.”
UCLA was the first node, right?
“Yes. We got our first Interface Message Processor—you call those routers today— over Labor Day in ’69. A month later, an IMP was installed at Stanford Research Institute, and a high-speed line was strung between the two. We now had a two-node network, meaning someone could use my computer here to connect to SRI and use the resources on that computer.”
Once you were linked to SRI, what happened?
“I had one of my software developers with me, and we decided late one night to make the first connection. In order to log in to the remote computer at SRI, you had to type ‘LOGIN.’ The first message sent on the internet was ‘LO’—because the network crashed after the first two letters. Samuel Morse had a good message ready with the telegraph. Armstrong, too, up on the moon. Those guys were smart. We had nothing. There wasn’t a camera here. Not even a voice recorder. But we ended up with the most potent message possible. ‘LO,’ as in ‘lo and behold.’”
The Electric Guitar
The first guitars can be traced to Mesopotamia and Renaissance-era Europe, but the electric guitar is L.A. born and bred. In 1931 steel player George Beauchamp and engineer Adolph Rickenbacker founded Electro String Instrument Corporation, the birthplace of the “Frying Pan.” It’s no Telecaster, but it spawned some of today’s most eye-catching axes. > Sean Fitz-Gerald
The B.C. Rich Warlock
Long Beach’s Lita Ford, aka the Queen of Metal, is rarely seen without one of her B.C. Rich shred sticks. Among her most recognizable is the Warlock, which she nicknamed Maurice after Samantha’s warlock dad in Bewitched.
The Gibson ES-5
Not long after moving to L.A. in the ’30s, blues pioneer T-Bone Walker adopted a blond Gibson ES-5 archtop. He was one of the first big names to go electric, inspiring the likes of B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
The Jackson Concorde
Santa Monica-born guitarist Randy Rhoads helped luthier Grover Jackson design this V-shaped beauty (and future ’80s legend) by sketching it on a paper napkin.
The Ibanez Heart Triple Neck
Steve Vai wielded this love child of “why” and “why not” alongside David Lee Roth at the end of the ’80s. Find the eyeful turning heads in a glass case at Universal CityWalk’s Hard Rock Cafe.
The Monterey Stratocaster
In ’67 Jimi Hendrix lit one of these beauts on fire, smashed it, and sacrificed it to the guitar gods, all to one-up the Who’s wild Monterey Pop set.
Surfing may be the official sport of California, but at least skateboarding can brag about being invented in L.A. “Sidewalk surfing” emerged in the ’40s and ’50s as a hobby among wave riders (because good swells are elusive, but concrete is always available). Early skateboards were primitive—wood two-by-fours with roller-skate wheels fastened to their bottoms—until Bill Richards came along. The North Hollywood surf shop owner manufactured the first modern boards with clay wheels in 1958. More than a decade later, polyurethane wheels and curved boards were developed. The design tweaks allowed Venice skate crews, most famously the Z-Boys, to perfect the ollies and other aerial tricks that define skateboarding today. > Z.M.
The first fortune cookies Americans ever saw were, counterintuitively, Japanese: Sesame-and-miso-flavored treats with fortunes attached on the outside were unveiled at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. But you can thank Hong Kong Noodle Company for the cookies that are now tossed into Chinese takeout bags all over the country. The DTLA business adapted the Japanese recipe by swapping the miso and sesame for butter and vanilla (America!) and placing oblique proverbs inside. They may be nothing like their predecessors, but that’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles. > Richard Foss
It was Richard and Maurice McDonald—you know, the brothers behind McDonald’s—who developed the assembly-line preparation system seen in all your favorite quick-service chains.
White Castle, which started in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, is often credited as the first fast-food chain. But if we’re talking about the assembly-line production system ubiquitous in quick-service restaurants today—the very system that puts the “fast” in fast food—then the concept was invented in California by Richard and Maurice McDonald. The brothers opened a drive-in barbecue eatery in neighboring San Bernardino in 1940. Eight years later they retooled the whole operation into the marvel of efficiency it is now, rolling out burgers at speeds previously unknown to man. In 1953 they franchised a store in Downey (that one’s still going strong); as of this year, McDonald’s has more than 37,000 outposts and is the most valuable fast-food brand in the world (estimated to be worth upward of $126 billion). But we’re good for more than those golden arches—at least three other giants also got their starts right here. > C.N.
Harry and Esther Snyder settled in Baldwin Park just as the region was being turned into tract homes. Burgers at their tiny stand were pricier than those at McDonald’s, but the couple took pride in quality and their innovative drive-through speaker system.
Glen Bell was inspired to get into fast food in the parking lot of McDonald’s, where Richard and Maurice were all smiles and Cadillacs. So Bell quit his meter-reading job, simplified some Mexican recipes, and opened his first Taco Bell in Downey in 1962.
John Galardi—a janitor in Glen Bell’s Pasadena branch—opened his own restaurant in Wilmington with help from his boss. “What about hot dogs?” Bell suggested. “They’re cheap, easy to prepare, you don’t need cutlery, and they’re popular.” Simple as that.
When it comes to advancements in American space exploration, L.A.’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory played a pivotal part in getting us to the final frontier.
SPACEX’s Aurora Borealis-like launches have come to represent L.A.’s role in space travel, but our history with rocketry runs much deeper. In 1930s Pasadena a crew of amateur rocketeers founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teed up the United States’ space program (they built the first American satellite, Explorer I), paving the way for the Apollo missions and space exploration as we know it today. The CBS All Access series Strange Angel dramatizes the team’s tumultuous start; here, show creator Mark Heyman discusses those initial years. > Thomas Harlander
Who helmed the rocketry experiments that eventually led to JPL?
“Jack Parsons and his childhood friend Ed Forman were big into science fiction, though neither had any formal scientific training. They partnered with Frank Malina, a Caltech student, who gave them a foothold in the world of academia.”
Were their sights always set on space exploration?
“Yes, and the moon in particular. There was a Jules Verne book called From the Earth to the Moon that, for Jack and his friend, planted the idea.”
Was that considered a realistic option at the time?
“It was still pretty fringe—and certainly not a widely held goal within the world of academia. We always liken it to someone saying they’re working on time travel.”
It was JPL, though, that built Explorer I. Did the team see its work come to fruition?
“No, for a number of reasons. Frank Malina was forced out at the start of the Cold War because he had attended some Communist gatherings in the ’30s. Jack ended up getting sidelined completely. Spoiler alert: He died in a tragic home explosion.”
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