Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Photo Essay: The Inland Empire's Last 'Golden Age' Movie Palace, Saved from Demolition

In the entire Inland Empire of Southern California, the California Theatre is the only movie palace of its kind that remains. (Especially now that the Fox Riverside has been given a major makeover, though it was never as "palatial" as the California.)

circa 2009 (Photo: AmeriqueCC BY-SA 3.0)

Located basically a block away from where Route 66 runs through the city of San Bernardino's commercial core—and built as a vaudeville stage and movie palace in 1928, just two years after the "Mother Road" was first established—the California Theatre is perhaps best known for hosting the last performance of Will Rogers (a fundraiser for Salvation Army) before perishing in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935.

Back then, San Berdoo was just a "railroad town"—but the theater itself was grandiose enough to book not only Rogers, the "poet lariat" who performed roping tricks while he shared his musings on politics and modern society, but also early test showings of such major Hollywood productions as The Wizard of Oz.

Fortunately, MGM execs (including Louis B. Mayer) came out east to attend the test screening—and as a result, the song "Over the Rainbow" didn't end up on the cutting room floor.

That was 1939. Will Rogers had already been gone for four years by then, though his ghost might've never really left the theater—or San Bernardino. After all, he'd joked about being able to do a better job as the city's mayor by phoning it in from Los Angeles than most politicians who occupy their offices full-time.

Shortly after his death, people started referring to Route 66 as Will Rogers Highway—though it wasn't officially dedicated as such (at least between his home state of Oklahoma and the Los Angeles terminus at Santa Monica) until 1952.

Like its cousin in Riverside, the California Theatre was opened and operated by Fox West Coast Theatre Corporation...

...but this one was designed by Los Angles architect John Paxton Perrine in the Spanish Revival (or "Spanish Eclectic") style.

At the time, it was considered lavish and luxurious, with plush seats and air conditioning.

According to a plaque erected by Native Sons of the Golden West, its architectural style was meant to evoke fantasy...

...a "garden of dreams" that would liberate audience members from their "usual occupations" and "customary thoughts."

And that was before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression in 1929—although Prohibition was already in full swing, and adults certainly must've needed some way to escape the doldrums of a sober life.

Like most old movie palaces, the California Theatre has got its share of ghost stories...

...though during my visit, I saw no shadowy faces peering out of the arched, recessed windows above the backlit marquee.

I didn't feel a nudge from any of the dearly departed celebrities that once graced its stage...

...or get a chill from any former chorus girl or stagehand who might've had their hearts broken or fallen off the stage during their show's run.

There was no mist or smoke, no orbs dancing in my camera's flash.

And the California's renowned Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ—nicknamed "The Little TPO That Could"—did not play at the hands of an invisible organist.

Actually, I wish it had—because this Opus 1850 Style-216 model is so rare, it contributes to the theater's landmark status.

One of only a dozen or so of this type ever created, this one dates back to 1927—when it was built specifically for the California Theatre, which makes it the only such organ in Riverside and San Bernardino counties to still reside its original theater home.

After I felt like I'd fully canvassed the inside of the California, I swung around to the back and the sides of the theater to see what secrets I could uncover out there.

I just happened to look up—and see two huge murals of Will Rogers, painted by 1984 Olympic muralist Ken Twitchell in 1997-9, staring down at me from the exterior of the theater's flyspace.

It's good to see a performing arts center with such regional significance thriving in San Bernardino—a city that declared bankruptcy in 2012 (though it emerged from it five years later).

Now, the California Theatre has got a full schedule of legit theater productions as well as silent movie screenings—in addition to having hosted the San Bernardino Symphony since 1929.

But in the 1960s, such a fate wasn't certain—at least, until the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera Association stepped in. The organization's president at the time, Alexandra Grow Jenks, and its producer and GM, C. Dale Jenks, launched a campaign to save the theater from demolition.

The CLO bought the movie palace from the then-owner, exhibitor General Cinema, and changed its name to The California Theatre for the Performing Arts.

The blade sign out front that once spelled out "CALIFORNIA" has been removed, but it's still unmistakably the same old movie palace that's been dazzling local audiences for 90+ years.

Related Posts:
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Monday, February 24, 2020

Photo Essay: The Cloistered Nuns of Hollywood and Their Stately Home

LA is the City of Angels—a detail that can be easy to forget sometimes.

But there’s a halo hooked onto the devil horns of this flawed, misunderstood, and sometimes bacchanalian metropolis.

LA, in fact, can be downright angelic.

circa 2015

A little off the beaten path—in the angelic realm, anyway—are the cloistered Dominican Contemplative Nuns of The Monastery of the Angels.

As part of their monastic life, the nuns have withdrawn from the world to devote their lives to praying, studying, and performing daily morning mass.

circa 2015

In 1934, the nuns moved from Downtown Los Angeles to Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood...

circa 2015

...and in 1948, moved into a monastery building designed by famed architect Wallace Neff in the Spanish Mediterranean style.

circa 2015

The nearly 3.8-acre parcel was once part of the now-demolished mansion estate of copper magnate Joseph Giroux.

circa 2015

It's tucked away on a quiet street just north of Franklin Avenue, spared from the throngs of tourists looking for the Hollywood Sign.

In its heyday, it provided a chic getaway for god-fearing stars and starlets to retreat from the Babylonian evils of Tinseltown and into prayer—including actress Jane Wyman, who donated a sculpture of Mother Mary that still stands in the courtyard today.

Since the 1950s, the nuns have gotten to indulge in one hobby—making treats such as peanut brittle, hand-dipped chocolates, and, since 1965, pumpkin bread.

circa 2015

The sale of these confections—made by the nuns’ own heavenly hands—helps keep the lights on at the monastery, so it feels good to load up on their goods when you visit the sliver of the monastery's sprawling campus that's open to the public.

In addition to the gift shop, there's a chapel open for quiet contemplation...

...and even more statuary sprinkled throughout the courtyard (including a depiction of St. Martin de Porres, a 16th-century illegitimate child of Spanish nobility and a Panamanian freed slave who's widely revered by the Dominican order.

In the walled garden, the Stations of the Cross provide the opportunity to trace the final path of Jesus prior to his crucifixion...

...alongside beautiful relief sculptures mounted on the curved stone wall.

With Lent starting next week and Easter just about seven weeks away, it's the perfect time to visit the Monastery of the Angels...

...even just to check out a historic site in LA that not too many people know about...

...and even fewer visit any time of the year besides Christmas...

...which is the most popular season for their famed pumpkin bread.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Monastic Life at St. Andrew's Abbey
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Photo Essay: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Updated for 2018)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Photo Essay: A Miners' Backcountry Oasis Where the Mojave Meets the Colorado Desert

It's hard to imagine anyone accidentally stumbling on this palm oasis—a clear indication that there's water close to surface, though supplies may be limited.

Located 8 miles down the dirt Corn Springs Road, you'd have to know that Corn Spring is a waystation for desert wanderers and nomads on a mission.

Take the 10 Freeway past the Desert Cities of the Palm Springs area, past the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park and the ghost town of Desert Center, and you could keep going to hit Blythe, California or even Quartzsite, Arizona.

Or, you could take the Chuckwalla Valley Road exit and turn off to the right the first chance you get, with the Chuckwalla Mountains in the distance as the Mojave Desert transitions into the Colorado Desert.

BLM-operated since 1968, Corn Spring Campground now offers some dry hook-ups and national park-stye pit toilets. But long before that, Native Americans (probably the Chemehuevi Tribe) traveled through Corn Spring along a well-worn East-West footpath, still visible today as a light-colored streak atop a stretch of "desert pavement."

That could've been as early as 1100 A.D., maybe even earlier. No one really knows.

It wasn't until 19th-century prospectors started showing up and relying on the springs that word spread among white settlers. The Corn Springs Mining District was established in 1897, amidst the California fan palms, palo verde, mesquite, and ironwood trees, and desert mistletoe.

Some of those native plants fed the Native Americans who passed through the area—and who used the nearby granite rocks as their own desert kitchen, slowing hollowing out metates as they ground up the multicolored corn they'd planted into flour and other seeds into mush.

The namesake spring at the oasis was flowing during the heyday of the Pacific Mining District, helping gold and silver prospectors survive the rugged landscape.

One such prospector was Gus Lederer—the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Corn Spring" from 1915-1932. A graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, he gave up the gold rush and settled permanently in one of the miners' cabins

There, he grew vegetables, maintained the site as its unofficial steward, and helped out travelers in need.

He famously loved the burros left behind to fend for themselves by the miners who abandoned their claims. Legend has it he'd cook pancakes for them every morning.

Sometime in the 1920s, the spring stopped flowing so freely. It probably hadn't dried up per se, but likely seismic activity shifted things around so the waters weren't quite as accessible above ground as they were before.

That didn't deter Gus Lederer. In fact, he survived out there in the backcountry until 1932—when a black widow spider bit him on the back of the neck and he couldn't be transported to get help in time to save him.

Some of those old cabins are still out there, past the Corn Spring Campground—but because a class on rock art had brought me there, I didn't know to look for them (and wouldn't have had time).

I'll have to go back.

I'd also like to visit the mayor's gravesite at Aztec Wells, where he was buried alongside a couple of fellow miners (including "Little" Tommy Jones, d. 1923).

There are probably at least 10 total significant rock art (specifically, petroglyph) sites at Corn Spring, though I've now seen two of the biggest ones.

After decades of studying them, scholars still don't know much about what the symbols scratched into the desert varnish mean.

After all, most of the etchings are abstract and not figurative...

...though it's our inclination to see faces and identify stick men, animals, and even boats out of collections that might actually just be lines and circles.

Considering the frivolity of lots of contemporary vandalism and graffiti, there may not be as much significance to the Native American rock art as we might think.

But as more and more time passes, the fuzzier the line between modern-era doodles and historically significant carvings become.

Enjoy this very good video from The Desert Way (an essential resource for desert research) at Corn Spring Campground and Aztec Wells, above.

For historic photos, visit the article "Into the Chuckwallas: Rediscovered Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves" on

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Ancient Petroglyphs Secured Inside a Navy Weapons Testing Station