Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lecil Slaback (1912-2013)

Lecil Slaback (left) with fellow Historical Commissioners Alan Goddard, Cecil Rospaw & Don Dobmeier, 1976
Lecil Slaback, long a key figure in the preservation and sharing of Orange County's history, died this past weekend at the age of 100.

Born in late 1912 in Santa Ana, Lecil became a "regular" at what we now call the "Old Courthouse" around 1913. His father, Lester W. Slaback -- who served as Court Reporter from 1904 until 1957 -- started taking him along to his office, next to Courtroom 1. As he got a bit older, Lecil caused a ruckus more than once when he got the big legal bookcases revolving at high speed and then jumped on for a ride.

His earliest clear memory was being taken up to the (now missing) cupola atop the Courthouse in 1916 to see the flood waters surrounding the town of Santa Ana.

Lecil started his first paying job at the Old Courthouse in 1926, working in the County Library's office, doing odd jobs.

As a young man, he sometimes worked as a typist for the courts. In this capacity he worked on all three of the Old Courthouse's most famous and precedent-setting trials: The "Whipstock" oil drilling case (People v. Termo Corp.), The Irvine Co. v. California Employment Commission, and the nationally publicized Overell murder trial. In fact, having transcribed the initial statements after the arrests of the accused, Lecil was called as a witness in the Overell trial.

After graduating from Santa Ana College, he attended the Stenotype Institute of Los Angeles, practicing his stenotype skills on the Pacific Electric trolleys as he commuted between home and school. He soon joined his father in the profession of court reporting.

When the attack on Pearl Harbor made it clear that our shores were potentially in peril, Lecil enlisted in the Coast Guard. He served as a chief warrant officer and aide to Admiral W. F. Towle of the 11th Naval District.

After the war, he returned to his court reporting job, working for Judge Robert Gardner and Judge J. E. T. Rutter. A few of the most famous cases he reported include People v. Henry Ford McCracken (1952), Yorba v. Anaheim Union Water Co. (1953), and Kraemer v. Kraemer (1959) (a water rights case, not a divorce).

Over the years, Lecil also served in positions of responsibility on a wide variety of professional and community organizations, including the Certified Shorthand Reporters Board, the board of the Santa Ana Public Library, the Santa Ana Cultural Heritage Committee, and the 1976-1977 Orange County Grand Jury.

Upon his retirement, in 1973, the Board of Supervisors appointed him to the Orange County Historical Commission. He served on that body until 1994 and played a significant role in the preservation and restoration of the Old Courthouse, which at one point was under threat of becoming a parking lot.

Lecil and his wife Neva have lived at Walnut Manor in Anaheim for about the past 15 years.

I did not know Lecil Slaback personally, but I knew him through the stories our mutual friends told, through the sizable mark he left on the local historical community, and through a short memoir he contributed to the 2010 edition of the Orange County Historical Society’s Orange Countiana journal. He’s someone I’m sorry I never got to know.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Old Missions of Buena Park, Part IV

 "When it comes to local history, the last vote is never in. It is one of its chief charms and greatest challenges." - James D. Sleeper

Less than 24 hours after posting Part III, of this supposed three-part series, I received an email from Diane Mourgos, Director of the California Mission Museum in Sonoma. She wrote that her museum "houses models of all 21 missions, ...also built by Leon Bayard de Volo in the 1930s. I have heard mixed history about my set... The models I have on display were built for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) held at Treasure Island in San Francisco. There are 21 in total as well as a [wood and papier mâché] statue of Father Serra that were on display in the Mission Trails Building."

The museum opened in 2005 and also includes mission paintings by Robert Morris and Henry Nelson, period clothing replicas, Indian tools, and two large stained-glass panels that were at Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asís) prior to the 1906 earthquake. (See photo above.)
Mission San Rafael at the California Mission Museum features working interior lights.
The 1939 Expositon exhibit for which this set of models was created was sponsored by the California Mission Trails Association, and sounds like it was a real corker. According to a 1938 press release from the exposition commission, the project was directed by architects Harold A. Edmondson and Robert Stanton. Plans included a full-scale reproduction of the "secret garden" at Mission San Luis Rey, a recreated Spanish street as it appeared circa 1789, a replica of Mission Carmel's star window, sculptures by artist Jo Mora, photo displays, a reproduced cloister, and the hourly playing of a recording of Mission Santa Barbara's bells. Historical artifacts, from ox carts to altar cloths, would also be on display. And "special lighting effects -- employing modern motion picture studio technique -- on dancing fountains," would depict scenes of Old California, "with splash and play of constantly changing colors." 
Missions on display, either at the 1939 Exposition or during the 1940s.
Also planned for the display were models of seven missions: Santa Barbara, San Miguel, Ventura, San Fernando, San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, and San Gabriel. It seems that plan may have ultimately been expanded to include all 21 missions. The models ranged in size from about 59" x 38" to 36" x 28", and many were lit from within. The room housing the models had no windows, "in order that lighting may be under complete control, with sunrise, sunset, and cloud effects simulated with amazing fidelity."

After the fair, the missions were loaned to various Bay Area non-profit groups, schools, and other institutions, as a way to raise money. In August of 1946, they were on display for a week at O'Conner Moffatt & Co. Department Store, (now a Macy's), on Union Square in San Francisco. In May 1949, they were displayed at the Mission Dolores School Auditorium. They even wound up displayed in Sacramento for a time before being purchased by George K. Whitney, owner of the Cliff House and Sutro Baths, in 1956.
Missions on display in the Bay Area, likely in the 1940s.
"They were on display at the Cliff House from 1956-1971," writes Mourgos. "In 1971 they went into storage.  In 1987 [they were] sold to a private owner, and in 1998 came up for auction at the San Rafael Auction Gallery. They were to be sold off individually, but Nancy Cline purchased the lot of them. In 2005 the Cline family constructed the California Missions Museum located at their estate winery, Cline Cellars, in Sonoma. "
Fr. Serra and the Missions at the San Rafael Auction Gallery, March 1998
So, there is definitely a second set of California Mission models by Leon Bayard de Volo, and you can visit them at the California Mission Museum, 24737 Highway 121, Sonoma, California, or see them online at californiamissionsmuseum.com.

But there's at least one more potential twist in this story that remains to be unraveled. The March 1956 issue of The Knotty Post -- Knott's Berry Farm's employee magazine -- describes Bayard de Volo's earlier work on a set of 21 Missions models which toured the country and ended up on "permanent exhibit" at Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier. That doesn't sound like the 1939 set, nor could it be the Knott's set. Is it possible that Bayard de Volo created three or even more sets of Missions?

Leon Bayard de Volo with some of his Mission models, likely in the 1940s.
If I get a helpful email from someone in New Jersey tomorrow (or a year from now), I'll let you know.

(My thanks to Christopher Merritt, Dana Hundley, Ken Stack, and Diane Mourgos for their help with this serialized article.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Old Missions of Buena Park, Part III

A bit of adobe wall remains from Knott's El Camino Real.
(Continued from Part II...) Today, only an El Camino Real bell, a bit of adobe near the train depot, and the San Francisco Arches (wedged between a security fence and the Dragon Swing ride), remain to remind visitors of the miniature California Missions and "El Camino Real" that once graced Knott's Berry Farm. Almost all the big eucalyptus trees that lined the pathway have been removed, along with most of adjacent Reflection Lake.

When the Missions were taken off of display, they went into storage on the second floor of the Gold Trails Hotel in Knott's Ghost Town. There's a rumor that one of the Missions disappeared when an employee took it home for their child's California Mission school project (a long standing Fourth Grade requirement in our state,) and never returned it.
Historian Phil Brigandi inspects the Missions above the Gold Trails Hotel in 2009.
In 2009, while exploring the nooks and crannies of Knott’s on behalf of the Orange County Archives, I came across the Mission models in their hiding place. They were dirty and faded, but intact. I was thrilled to see them again and to know that they hadn’t ended up in a landfill! I was shocked at the size of the models. Some of them were enormous. I'd remembered them as maybe half to one third their actual size.

“There’s been some talk about putting them back on display,” a Knott’s staff member told me, “but I know it’d be expensive and time consuming to restore them.”
Mission models awaiting restoration. March 18, 2009.
“What if you had the work done someplace where the public could watch?,” I asked. “Then the restoration process itself would be an attraction, which might help justify the cost.”

I didn’t really get a reaction. Either this was something they’d already thought of, or they were mentally filing the idea away for future reference. I’d like to think I planted the idea, but who knows (or cares) at this point?
Bob Wier, working on the Mission Santa Ines model, June 2, 2013.
In early 2013, Knott’s announced that the Mission models would be restored. Almost immediately, Mission Santa Barbara appeared next to the old Livery Stable (now the Toy Barn) in a special area created for the restoration project. Longtime Knott’s woodworker Bob Wier was charged with restoring the 17 remaining missions, and creating the four other missions from scratch.

Wier used to teach wood shop and drafting at John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma, and has worked at Knott's for more than 20 years. I've admired his woodcarving talent for years now.
Mission Santa Ines (normally found in Solvang), with miniature scaffolding, May 30, 2013.
Next to Wier's work area is a booth that sells laser-cut wood model kits. He had them make him miniature scaffolding to put up around the in-progress Mission models whenever he's not working on them.

There's no set schedule for an official unveiling, and Knott's doesn't seem to have a specific plan yet for exactly how they'll be displayed, but the Missions are coming back, and hopefully the whole El Camino Real concept will be revived along with it. This seems like another in a series of smart moves by Knott's to highlight and enhance the attractions and traditions that make their theme park special.
Mission Santa Barbara, mostly complete.
In the coming months and years, it will be interesting to see what other features Knott's may spiff up, bring back, and share with a whole new generation. 

Continued in Part IV...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Old Missions of Buena Park, Part II

The San Francisco Arches, with the California Alligator Farm in the background, 1955.
(Continued from Part I...) While artist Leon Bayard de Volo built the miniature California Missions for Knott's Berry Farm, others were hard at work creating the El Camino Real walkway along which the Missions would be exhibited. The side of the path opposite the models was bordered by Reflection Lake and large eucalyptus trees already lined the way, making an attractive scene. On La Palma Ave., they built a full-size double-arch “ruin,” called the "San Francisco Arches.” They were the physical northern boundary of Knott’s El Camino Real, and symbolically represented the northern end of California’s actual mission trail. These first arches were completed in 1955.
The brand new San Diego Arches, near the depot, 1956.
A similar double arch was built as the southern terminus of the trail, near the railroad depot in Calico Square. These "San Diego Arches" were built in 1956. A sign was affixed to this set of arches, which read:
EL CAMINO REAL: As you pass thru these Arches, you are starting a journey along the EL CAMINO REAL, the “King’s Highway” and you will follow the footsteps of the Padres who built the California Missions. First is the Mission San Diego – (The first to be founded), and you will travel north until you reach the end of the Kings Highway beyond San Francisco at Sonoma. During the coming year, we shall establish along this route all of the 21 Missions. You will find them in their proper order, each a days march from the other, as the Franciscan Fathers planned. Watch as this project grows and share with us our satisfaction when it is finally completed.
El Camino Real was “open for business,” with the first seven Mission models on display, by July 1956. More and more missions were added as the months passed and work continued.
Rachel tells a story.
In Fall 1957, a “rustic framed box” was built near the southern end of El Camino Real. The box featured a photo of Rachel Cadwalader (the future Rachel Beeman) of the Wagonmasters singing group and a push-button. When the button was pressed, a tape recording of Cadwalader’s voice was heard, inviting guests to “relax a little and enjoy the nostalgia of the Missions.” The recording also said that visitors walking along Mission Row “can’t help but relive the days of the Dons” – ignoring the fact that the Rancho Era followed the Mission Era.
The Mission Trails Cantina in about 1958.
In 1958, concessions along the path were re-themed to match the Early California theme. The new Mission Trails Market (previously the Pet Shop) sold jam and tourist tchotchkes. The Mission Trails Cantina, serving beverages, chili, and barbeque sandwiches, opened in February 1958. In 1969, the compatibly-themed Fiesta Village section of Knott’s Berry Farm – a blend of Old Mexico and Early California – opened along the northern end of the trail.
Bayard de Volo with his model of Mission Santa Ines for Knott's.
Leon Bayard de Volo died in 1962. Walter Knott died in 1981. And  starting in the mid-to-late 1980s, the Missions slowly started disappearing along the El Camino Real.

By 1997, when Ohio’s Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. bought Knott’s Berry Farm from the Knott family, most of the Missions were already gone. In 1998, El Camino Real ceased to officially be an attraction at Knott's.  At least a Mission or two remained on display in the tunnel under the stage coach route -- but even those disappeared sometime around 2003.Where did they go, and would they ever be seen again?
Detail from a 1976 Knott's map depicts El Camino Real. (Click to enlarge.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Old Missions of Buena Park, Part I

Model of Mission San Juan Capistrano at Knott's Berry Farm, 1950s.
Remember the elaborate California Mission models on the outskirts of Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town? Ever wonder how they got there and where they went? Wouldn't it be great to have them back again? Read on...

Walter Knott approached difficulties creatively at his famous berry farm. Once, when faced with an ugly but unmovable irrigation standpipe near his wife’s expanding Chicken Dinner Restaurant, he solved the problem by building a “volcano” around the pipe and making it a tourist attraction. That kind of creative problem-solving led to much of what we now think of as “classic” Knott’s Berry Farm.
It was "fiesta time" at Mission San Luis Rey in this miniature scene.
In the 1950s, Knott was faced with the problem of visitors wandering into the path of the Butterfield Stagecoach as it traveled between his train depot and La Palma Ave. The obvious solution was to build a wall. A rustic, crumbling wall, in keeping with his Ghost Town theme, seemed in order. But it wasn’t very exciting. Walter Knott saw this potentially dull area as an empty canvas.

The man Knott hired to fill that canvas was artist Leon Bayard de Volo. The plan was for Bayard de Volo to construct models of all 21 of the California Missions, each to be placed behind windows in separate little display structures along the wall. A walkway, called El Camino Real, (named for the road that once took travelers from mission to mission,) would lead tourists from one model to another. A wall would have been enough to keep people out of the stagecoach’s path, but Knott’s El Camino Real would also be attractive and educational.
Leon Bayard de Volo with his model of Mission San Antonio de Padua, March 1956.
Leon Bayard de Volo was born in Rome in 1884 and studied art there before coming to the United States in 1907. He claimed to be a count, and a relative of the King of Italy. He became a scenery painter at the Venetian Theatre in New York before coming to California in 1918, where he went to work in the early film industry. After about nine years of creating scale models and artwork for Warner Brothers, he struck out on his own, launching Miniature Fabricators, Inc., which was based in Pasadena. He was hired to make models of buildings, towns and other sites. His model of Hollywood toured the whole country, then wound up in a Hollywood museum, and more recently showed up on eBay with an enormous price tag.
Actors Marge & Gower Champion with Bayard de Volo's Hollywood model at the 1951 L.A. Home Show.
In 1952 his 12-foot-square plaster model of the lunar crater Copernicus became a popular attraction on the roof of the Griffith Park Observatory. Bayard de Volo had built scale models of the California Missions before, including a set that traveled the country and was on long-term exhibit on Atlantic City’s “Million Dollar Pier.”

Walter Knott wanted a similar set of Mission models,– only larger. Even with his previous experience, Bayard de Volo’s new project required thousands of hours of research and construction. And, as each mission was completed, a background painting was also created for the display.
Small viewing structures housing Missions line Knott's El Camino Real, July 1964.
The same view, almost 50 years later -- sans Missions
While the artist worked, others developed the new El Camino Real itself into something more than just a walkway.

Continue on to Part II...

Monday, June 03, 2013

Richard Vining (1938-2013)

Richard Vining, a longtime advocate of Orange County history, passed away on March 18, 2013 at age 75. He served on the board of the Orange County Historical Society beginning in 1989, and served as president from 1993 through 1998. He immediately preceeded me as OCHS's vice president and program chair, and I learned a good deal about the job from him. Considering his demeanor during numerous turbulent board meetings, I can bear witness to his unusual patience and even temper.

Richard was born in Los Angeles on Dec 20, 1938, and grew up in Costa Mesa. He attended Newport Harbor High School and graduated from Orange Coast College. He served in the U.S. Army as an instructor at Redstone Missile Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. He was a licensed electrician and later taught in the apprenticeship program for the Electrical Unions at Santa Ana Valley High School. Richard and his wife Sally, who died in 2005, restored a beautiful 1912 Craftsman style home to its original grandeur on Main St. in Tustin.

Richard had a phenomenal memory for details and was always ready to share stories of growing up in Orange County, some of which he related in his president’s messages in the County Courier.

I also remember Richard as a regular at the big Vintage Postcard & Paper Fairs, held in Pasadena, Santa Ana, and later Glendale. He always had a purpose to his collecting, and he new how to find the "good stuff" amid a sea of "miscellaneous other." His postcards and his knowledge of local history both came in handy when OCHS put together a book for Arcadia Publishing. He often came to the County Archives to do research during that time, and I was impressed with his dogged determination to "get it right." 

Richard is survived by his son, Matt, daughter, Lisa, and their spouses and children. A graveside service was held at Olive Lawn Cemetery in La Mirada on April 13.  He is certainly missed.

My thanks to Betsy Vigus for writing most of the "background" portions of this article. I really should have posted this news a lot sooner, but honestly, I couldn't quite cope with yet another obit on my blog so soon. These past 12 months have been particularly bad for the local historical community.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Knott's Log Ride re-opens

On Thursday, I attended the Grand Re-Opening of the Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott's Berry Farm. The attraction was created and (for many years) operated by theme park industry legend Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut of Buena Park. The ride first opened in July 1969. Over 40 years later, it was still one of Knott's best attractions, but was getting a bit worn down at the corners. In recent months, the ride has undergone major refurbishment and rehab, and acquired new scenes with modern animatronics. With their elaborate re-opening event, Knott's gave more than just a nod to this important piece of theme park history.

The photo above shows (front row, left to right) John Waite, who worked for Hurlbut and opened the Log Ride with him in 1969; Ken Stack of Stack's Liberty Ranch; Lonnie Lloyd, formerly of the Hurlbut Amuseument Co.; (back row, left to right), Orange County historian Phil Brigandi; yours truly, and Knott's historian (and now employee/design guy) J. Eric Lynxwiler, who was wearing one of Bud's string ties and fez from a 1960s Knott's/Shriner event.  
Ethan Wayne admires a 1969 photo from the Orange County Archives, depicting him and his father on the Log Ride's opening day.
On opening day, in 1969, actor John Wayne and his son Ethan were the first to ride a log through the mountain. Ethan Wayne returned on Thursday with his young nephew, Duke, to rededicate the ride. Histo-tainment personality Charles Phoenix emceed the event, as he had the grand opening of new rides in the park's Boardwalk area, earlier that morning. Unfortunately, the Log Ride wasn't quite ready for guests when the ceremony was completed. In fact, it remained closed until the proper inspectors had signed off on everything, on Friday.

So we were all steered toward the historic Jeffries Barn (a.k.a. the Wilderness Dance Hall), where a wonderful but very temporary historical exhibit was available. There, we found an excellent little film about the ride, as well as the two original concept models (on loan from the Orange County Archives), a host of large historical photos (also from the Archives), original concept art (courtesy Lonnie Lloyd), and one of the original life-sized lumberjack figures from the attraction.
Lonnie speaks with Bill Butler of Garner Holt Productions, which created new figures and scenes for the ride.
Although we didn't get to see the interior of the ride, photos were distributed. It looks pretty impressive, and I'm looking forward to going back and seeing it all in person. It seems to be another piece of a larger effort to breathe new life into the parts of Knott's that make it special. Recently, they've brought back features that had disappeared from Ghost Town, begun restoring the old California Mission models, rebuilt exact replicas of buildings that were decayed beyond repair, done major overhauls on the Ghost Town & Calico Railroad, replaced the 1938 "Old Mill Stream" water wheel behind the Berry Market, removed unthemed details from themed areas of the park, improved their food, refurbished the Main Street "peek-ins," and more.
Part of a new scene: Hootenanny in the logging camp.
Thanks to the folks at Knott's for a great day and for being increasingly better stewards of their own heritage. Knott's is a lot more than just an amusement park: It's been a part of Southern Californian's lives for the better part of a century. Its long-standing focus on tradition, history and "fun for the whole family" , (not just a bunch of big steel rollercoasters), is what makes us all feel a little like it's "our" berry farm. We all want to be able to take our grandkids to meet "Sad Eye Joe" and have a sarsaparilla in the Calico Saloon someday. If the current trend of restoration continues, that may just be possible.
Another new scene: Animals take over the logging camp.