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Friday, July 31, 2020

Missing Out and Making Lists In the Time of Coronavirus (Steam Railfest Edition)

The pandemic has got me thinking about all the things I didn't get to do before they got shut down.

Of course, there will always be something I'll have missed out on—but it's particularly painful to actually have some time on my hands and not be able to spend it in the ways that I want to.

One of the events that's been on my mind lately is the Steam Railfest, hosted by The Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society at the heritage railway in Fillmore, CA known as the Fillmore and Western Railway Co.



Also known as the home of Hollywood's "Movie Trains," FWRY acquired much of its rolling stock fro movie studios like 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Paramount—and then turned around and started charging the film industry to shoot some of those very same trains, which it operates along Southern Pacific Railroad's Santa Paula Branch, which runs through the Santa Clara River Valley.



Back in 2018, I got to take a special ride on a vintage train pulled by Engine #14—a Baldwin 2-8-0 "Consolidation" type steam locomotive originally built in 1913 for the Duluth and Northeastern Railroad.



After FWRY acquired #14 from Dodge City RR in Dodge City, Kansas in 1999, its restoration involved a a fuel-oil conversion—that is, converting it from its original fuel source of burning coal to burning fuel oil, both of which can create steam to power the engine.



It once again ran under steam in 2010—for the first time in 50 years.



Of course, I'd ridden some of FWRY's trains before, but not all the way up in the front of an open-air passenger car...



...in the face of the steam and smoke that billowed in white and black against the blue sky.



On that spring Saturday two years ago, I'd double- or triple-booked myself, in typical fashion...



...so I couldn't enjoy everything that the Steam Railfest had to offer.



I didn't have time to take any of the caboose excursions.



And I also missed out on a tour of a historic roundhouse—something for which I planned to return the next day. But when that next day came, I was too tired to drive all the way back to Ventura County—and I told myself I'd just attend Steam Railfest 2019 to cross it off my list.



Well, wouldn't you know that Spring 2019 came and went without much thought about Steam Railfest. But this spring, when things started to shut down, I realized—Oh no, I'm probably going to have to wait until 2021 to complete my experience.

Consider it added to the growing list of "to-dos" for next year.

In the scheme of things, this is all inconsequential. I know that.

But I already lost so much time in my early years. It's kind of terrifying for me now, at this stage, with my life already half over, to have just gone off the map.

Even if my 2020 calendar had stayed filled, it would've felt like I was running out of time—that there would be no way I could possibly do all the things I wanted to do.

Now, I'm just grateful for any chance I get to do anything new or interesting.

And I'm kicking myself for those days and nights I took off because I was feeling burned out and exhausted.

Now I'm burned out and exhausted over doing nothing—or, at least not nearly enough.

Maybe now is the time I can start learning how to forgive myself.

And get some rest.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Fillmore to Santa Paula

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Photo Essay: Vineland, One of L.A. County's Last Two Year-Round Drive-In Theatres

No drive-in theaters currently remain in Orange County, Ventura County, and Imperial County—but there are still opportunities to experience the throwback of “ozoner” culture elsewhere at SoCal’s surviving "auto theaters."

Case in point: One of Los Angeles County's two year-round drive-ins, the Pacific Vineland in City of Industry.



Pacific Theatres was founded in 1946 by the Forman family, which still operates Pacific Drive-In Theatres (a.k.a. "World’s Finest Drive-In Theatres) through The Decurion Corporation, the same parent company as ArcLight Cinemas and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.



The Vineland Drive-In appears to be the lone survivor of Pacific's progressive shuttering of its drive-in movie theaters, which once included, among others, the Gilmore Drive-In at what's now Nordstrom at The Grove.



It's located on Vineland Avenue in the former Bassett Township (lost at auction by the Workman family and acquired by landowner O.T. Bassett)—sandwiched between the unincorporated communities of West Puente Valley and Avocado Heights in the San Gabriel Valley.



What was once Rancho La Puente is now all freeway interchanges, warehouses, and the trappings of suburbia just 18 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles. And what's more suburban than the drive-in?



The Vineland opened 1955 with the Disney-produced 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in CinemaScope, accompanied by a "Walt Disney Carnival." Advertisements subsequently beckoned audiences to "Come as you are in the family car."



The sound no longer comes through those metal "squawk boxes" that you used to hang on your car door (and accidentally drive off with, still attached)...



...but the stubs of the poles that once held them still remain embedded in the asphalt, amidst the clumps of grass and weeds that breach the paved ramps.

 
This drive-in may have switched to digital projection in 2013, but inside the snack bar...



...you can still see some of the old film reel-based equipment on display, like the Simplex '35, with Technalight high-resolution film presentation and Xenon bulbs.



There's also the Christie Autowind 3 film rewinder...
 

...alongside a couple of cast-off reels of an unidentified R-rated film.



Digital projection upgrades haven't just sharpened the picture—they've also allowed showtimes to start earlier than ever. During the drive-in heyday of the 1950s and early 1960s, the screen projection back then was so dim that movies could only start when it was really dark out.

And once the Uniform Time Act of 1966 nationalized Daylight Saving Time and “Spring Forward,” those showings got pushed too late for most families to stay out that long after the kids' bedtimes—especially for a double feature.

It's had its ups and downs for sure, but this slice of Americana thankfully hasn’t completely gone away—especially not now, when "walk-in" theaters aren’t an option for us just yet, while nearly all indoor activities have been restricted or altogether suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This was my third foray as an adult into "ozoner cinema"—now a misnomer, as you don't have to actually run your car to watch the movie or hear the sound through your FM radio.

There are two more historic drive-ins in Riverside County; one more in San Bernardino County; two more in San Diego County; two more in Santa Barbara County; and at least one in Kern County.

Depending on how long this pandemic lasts, I may be able to check them all off my list sooner than I ever expected.

Related Posts:
Pandemic Amusements: At the Drive-In, On a Former Cornfield

A Tropical Escape In a Time of Adversity: Mission Tiki Drive-In

Photo Essay: The High Desert's Crystal Cave (Updated for 2019)

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Pandemic Amusements: Through The Donut Hole

Adapted from my KCET.org article "Best Drive-Through Adventures in Modern-Day SoCal"

If there was ever any question before, it’s now been unequivocally confirmed by the coronavirus pandemic that donuts are essential.



And none of SoCal's donut shops are more thrilling than the one where you can drive through the hole of a larger-than-life donut!



The Donut Hole—now a living relic of a defunct donut chain—has been in continuous operation in La Puente, in the San Gabriel Valley, since 1968.



It's one of the few remaining examples of "programmatic" architecture—or a building shaped as the object it’s selling.



In this case, that means a donut.



The genius of The Donut Hole is that you don’t just drive through one giant fiberglass donut — but two, connected by a tunnel.



The design of this particular behemoth of baked goods has been credited to the architectural trio of John Tindall, Ed McCreany, and Jesse Hood.



While they designed a take-out window for easy walk-up access, alongside the exterior of that tunnel...



...the pedestrian experience can't compete with lining up in your car and waiting your turn to enter the hole.



Upon entry, you can already start to smell the raised dough and the glaze...



...and as you creep forward, you catch glimpses of what’s fresh...



...like maybe an apple fritter or a jelly, or one of the more modern additions to the menu, like one that’s topped with cereal...



...which means, of course, that it can be both breakfast and dessert.



I may be easily amused, a trait that's well-suited for surviving the pandemic—but I've always found The Donut Hole amusing, at least since I first drove through it in February 2013.



And now, I'm grateful for the opportunity to return (twice!) during the pandemic and take a closer look. I never seemed to have time before.

But now with lots more time on my hands, I'm trying to spend it in delicious frivolity—while I still can.

Related Posts:
Pandemic Amusements: At the Drive-In, On a Former Cornfield

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

West Hollywood Pool Is Now A Pit of Despair

West Hollywood Pool has been a huge part of my life since moving to California. And now, all that's left is a pit of despair.

Sure, they're planning on replacing it and building something new in its place—maybe even something "better" or "nicer" or "more modern." But I can't help but mourn its loss.

Looking back, it should've been clear that the demolition of the circa 1960 Edward Fickett-designed West Hollywood library in 2011 was a death knell for the adjacent pool and pool house.


July 21, 2020

The city tore the single-story library down without regard to residents and preservationists who fought to keep the "outdated" structure as an example of work by a significant architect. Not to mention that when it was built, it won several architectural awards.

To be honest, it was so small that you would think the City of West Hollywood could've worked around it with its West Hollywood Park master plan, which dates back to 2004.

But instead, the little guy was razed without warning behind the cloak of a demolition fence, not immediately noticed by passers-by—especially considering it happened sometime when San Vicente Boulevard was closed to traffic.


July 21, 2020

In retrospect, that seemed to be by design.

And now nearly 9 years later, I can't say when I really knew that the city also planned to replace the West Hollywood Pool—though I can't say I was surprised.

It's felt like West Hollywood Park has been under construction—or demolition—pretty much constantly since 2011, the year I started going there. They even built a stepped promenade with concrete benches and public art outside the West Hollywood Pool entrance facing San Vicente, only to tear it down again a few years later.


Pre-demolition photo: West Hollywood Pool Facebook page

Like the "old" library, the pool complex also dated back to the 1960s—and, considering it was built as a seasonal community pool, it had come to be considered "inadequate."

And it's true—it was a bit "bare bones." There was no roof in the changing rooms, just an overhead screen. When it rained, it rained inside.

There were no lockers; and swimmers always struggled with the jerry-rigged curtain setup at the shower stalls. No matter how those sheets of vinyl had been hung, they never seemed to provide any privacy. They were always blowing around, even when a gust of wind was nowhere to be found.

The only way you could get a decent stream of hot water was to first turn on the adjacent shower and then let it run with yours for a few minutes until it was no longer freezing cold.

I often thought that if I ever struck it rich, I'd pay to install a water extractor in the ladies' changing room, with an endowment to maintain it. I imagined putting a small, engraved plaque on it to credit myself for the donation.

It really never occurred to me that the pool would no longer be exactly what it had been for those formative first years, while I was living just a half-mile away.

The 25-yard-long pool itself was always packed—overtaxed between tiny tot swim lessons, socializing seniors in the "therapy slow" lane, and able-bodied athletes who always acted like they were training for the Olympics. I never fit in with any of them—and quite frankly I liked it better on rainy days when I could get a lane to myself—but I still loved swimming there.

I knew the WeHo pool had been closed with the COVID-19 shutdowns, but I wish I'd had a "last hurrah" there, maybe to take some pictures, maybe just to say goodbye.

It was quite a shock to look down from the "new" library entrance this week while picking up my book borrows and see nothing below but a giant, dirt pit (and the equipment that seemed to still be excavating it).

"Oh... God..." I said aloud, with no one nearby to hear me (except for maybe the big guy Himself).

Of course, I'm looking forward to trying out the new West Hollywood Aquatics Center—which will be outfitted with two outdoor rooftop pools, one for lap swim and the other for recreational/family swim. I hope it turns out fabulous.

It's slated to open September 2021.

But in the meantime, I need to take a moment to mourn the loss of what was—and whose removal the master plan so tactfully refers to as a "vacation."

Harumph.

For more circa 2011 photos of West Hollywood Park, visit this article on Patch.com

Related Posts:
Swimming in Circles Under a Wide Open Sky
Pandemic Amusements: In the Swimming Pool

Sunday, July 19, 2020

A Tiki-cation from the 'New Normal': Caliente Tropics Resort, Palm Springs

In April 2011, I weekended in the desert—taking a tour of Keys Ranch in Joshua Tree National Park, kayaking the Salton Sea, and spending two nights at the Caliente Tropics Resort.

I mean, when I first moved to LA, I took little road trips nearly every weekend—at least, while I still had a job.

My preferred place to stay in Palm Springs had been the Ace Hotel and Swim Club, but it quickly became too popular—and too pricey—for me to book another room there (ever again, in fact).

So I chose the next-best-thing, just a couple of doors down—Caliente Tropics.

And that turned out to be the better thing.

During my first stay there, I remember sitting by the pool and wondering why the adjacent restaurant space stood empty. Surely it was the perfect location for a tiki bar?

I didn't know then, but there had been an establishment there—with art by Bamboo Ben—open 2006-2008 called Hawaiian Bill's. Apparently its owner had stripped it of all its tropical decor in 2009.



That space was also the former location of the Congo Room's cocktail lounge, reportedly popular with the Rat Pack, when Caliente Tropics was known simply as the Tropics Hotel. Just one outpost of a mostly Southern California-based chain, it operated as a Best Western before becoming Caliente Tropics.



Built in 1964, the Ken Kimes-designed "motor hotel" celebrated its 55th anniversary last year. And considering that a tiki bar had opened in that old vacant space in 2017, it was time for me to return.



Even if I was in the middle of a pandemic.



I had to get away. I had to get away from myself—and what's considered "normal" now but is like some science fiction-based disaster movie with a slow build-up and too many sequels.



I called it my "tikication"...



...because unlike all my other trips to the desert, all I planned to do was sit by/in the pool, bake in the hot sun, and fill my belly with tropical delights.



After all, it's the biggest swimming pool you'll find at a Palm Springs hotel. With a 100,000-gallon capacity, there's plenty of room to keep some physical distance from others.



I actually didn't expect it to be very crowded, considering the above-100-degree temperatures in June and the health risks of traveling. I felt safe enough driving two hours in my car—and apparently others did, too, including families with small children.



I mean, I knew the risks—and I'd weighed my options. But I figured the scale tipped towards the mental and emotional benefits of one night away rather than the risk of exposure to the virus. If the UV rays and heat didn't kill the damn germs, hopefully the chlorine would.



And I had plenty to keep me there at the motel, fully engaged and entertained with my tropical surroundings. After all, while some of the signage is contemporary—contributed by tiki artist Bosko in recent years—many of the actual tikis are original to the opening of the motel.



Inspired by the islands of the South Pacific, artist Ed Crissman had been working out of a shop inside Oceanic Arts in Whittier, California—but came to Palm Springs to carve a total of 24 tikis out of palm trunks onsite at The Tropics.



Just 26 years old at the time, Crissman gave his tikis "root ball hairdos" (using an upside-down palm tree trunk, with root on top), which are unique to Southern California carvings...



...and not exactly authentic to Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, or Tonga.



Fast forward to the year 2001, Caliente Tropics was under threat of getting a tiki-ectomy—and in an effort to save it, a partnership of tikiphiles launched the enormously popular Tiki Oasis convention at the resort.



It ran there for five years before outgrowing the space and moving to San Diego—but the tiki crowd still flocks to Caliente Tropics for smaller-scale events (like during Modernism Week) and, in my case, for a little getaway.



Thank goodness the A-frame porte cochère remains...



...and the new operation of The Reef can manage to survive serving yummy food and libations poolside and on the patio, even with restrictions tightening back up (for now).

I did eventually get a bit nervous about those eight hours I'd spent in my room, breathing in recirculated, air-conditioned oxygen as I slept. And I'll admit that I spent the next 14 days keeping a watchful eye out for symptoms—which did nothing to keep the hypochondria that runs in my family at bay.

But nothing serious ever seemed to manifest—and for that I am grateful.

Does that mean my tikication was safe? Eh, it's hard to tell.

Was it a good idea?

I think so.

For fabulous vintage photos, visit Peter Moruzzi's Mid-Century by clicking here

Related Posts:
A Tropical Escape In a Time of Adversity: Mission Tiki Drive-In
Photo Essay: The Warehouse Restaurant, A Marina Eatery for 50 Years and Counting
Photo Essay: California's Last Location of Don the Beachcomber, On Perhaps Its Last Day (Updated)
Photo Essay: Riding a Ghost Train and Bunking Up In a Caboose (Or, This Is What A Traincation Is All About)