Saturday, April 20, 2024

O.C. Q&A: South County Edition

Crime scene: Monarch Bay Plaza (shown in 1966). Note United California Bank on the right.

Q:   What was Orange County’s biggest bank heist?

A:  It was a doozy! Here’s the story as told by local historian and former Dana Point mayor Carlos Olvera: President Richard Nixon once talked labor leader Jimmy Hoffa into paying $3 million for a pardon to get out of prison. Once freed, Hoffa wanted his money back. And he knew Nixon had it in safe deposit boxes at United California Bank at Monarch Bay Plaza – now part of Dana Point. A group of thieves from Ohio was enlisted to rob the bank, get Hoffa’s money back, and help themselves to any other loot. 

The crooks cut through the bank’s roof and vault ceiling on Friday night, March 24, 1972 and spent three nights busting into about 500 safety deposit boxes. They took an estimated $30 million.  Accounting for inflation, it was the largest bank heist in U.S. history.

The burglars were later caught and served time. But Hoffa reportedly got about a third of his money back.

Q:  What's the story on the iconic Taj Majal Building in Laguna Hills?

A:  It began as the headquarters of the Rossmoor Corp. -- developers of the Leisure World communities -- which architects Burke, Kober & Nicholais also designed. When the four-story neoclassical contemporary structure at 23521 Paseo De Valencia was built in 1964, it stood out like a sore thumb amid grassy plains and understated tile roofs. The locals soon dubbed it "the Taj Mahal," and the name stuck.  In 1968, investment broker Joseph Dulaney bought the building, but lost it when his business unraveled. The FBI determined Dulaney was a con man who'd duped nuns and scores of Leisure World residents. Dulaney disappeared, hopscotching around the globe. He was captured in Curacao, but the case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The building's current owners have officially renamed it the Taj Mahal Medical Center.

Q:  Grandma’s sure white swallows perched on her head at Mission San Juan Capistrano. White swallows!?!

A:  Capistrano’s famed cliff swallows are usually AWOL, so visitors often misidentify any small birds as the expected swallows. The real cliff swallows have iridescent blue backs and crowns, buff colored bodies, red chins, brown wings, and brown tails that are not forked. Local marketing materials create confusion by often depicting fork-tailed barn swallows – a different species altogether. But for decades the Mission really created bird-related confusion by providing guests with bird feed for flocks of white doves (i.e. glorified pigeons). Countless thousands of tourists took proto-selfies with the doves and later marked their snapshots, “Swallows at Capistrano.” Before the Mission stopped selling bird feed, seagulls also horned in on the action. But even the tourists didn’t mistake the squawking, web-footed gulls for swallows.

Q:  How did the city of Rancho Santa Margarita get such a long name?

A:  It wasn't their first choice. It was dubbed "Santa Margarita" during its development in the 1980s, in honor of the old Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. But the existing town of Santa Margarita (founded 1889) near Atascadero defended their unique identity. The battle ended amicably. "We have every right to use the name Santa Margarita," wrote Orange County developer Tony Moiso to a San Luis Obispo County Supervisor, "However, we do recognize the worry you have voiced on behalf of [your local] residents. I have modified our postal application to request a Rancho Santa Margarita mailing address." Today, Santa Margarita's population is 1,259 and Rancho Santa Margarita's is 47,853.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

A brief history of citrus in Orange County, California

Citrus shipping crates featured colorful brand labels, each represented specific packers, fruit sizes, and levels of quality.

There was no citrus industry here when the name “Orange County” was first suggested, but we eventually more than lived up to our name. Orange County’s Valencia oranges reached a peak of 77,000 acres in production in 1948. We also grew lemons, grapefruit and other citrus here. But for much of our history, the sunny orange defined us, promoted us, and drove our economy. 

The gardens at Mission San Juan Capistrano were probably home to Orange County’s first orange tree, beginning in the late 1700s. But oranges didn’t make an impact here until 1870, when Anaheim Justice of the Peace William Hardin planted the seeds from two barrels of rotten Tahitian oranges and began to sell the resulting trees.

Charles C. Chapman: Father of the Valencia.

Our first Australian navel orange trees were imported and planted near Orange by Patterson Bowers in 1873. But it was the arrival of the Valencia orange – a native of the Azores – that proved the most important for Orange County’s future. 

The first Valencia grove in Orange County was planted in 1875 by Richard H. Gilman on the site of today’s California State University Fullerton. Soon, Sheldon Littlefield – who later served as one of our first County Supervisors – planted another grove east of Fullerton. In 1895, Littlefield’s grove was purchased by Charles C. Chapman, whose marketing and agricultural acumen, along with the natural sweetness and juiciness of the fruit, brought the Valencia to prominence.

The arrival of the railroads was critical to the growth of the citrus industry.

Various influences bolstered the growth of our citrus industry. For instance, wine grape growers, whose vines had been devastated by Pierce’s Disease, were looking for a new crop to grow just as oranges were coming to the fore. And the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s created a national market for locally grown fruit.

Citrus packing houses began to open across Orange County, often tied to cooperative associations of growers like the Anaheim Orange & Lemon Association or the Yorba Linda Citrus Association. Each local association was an important institution, providing not just agricultural infrastructure, marketing, political clout, and a bit of financial stability for growers, but also a sense of community.

An orange packing house in Fullerton, early 1900s.

The most important of these organizations was the regional Southern California Fruit Exchange – eventually known as Sunkist. They provided their members with scientific advice, astonishingly effective national advertising, and modern packing plants. They persuaded Americans that Valencias were the best type of oranges, and that oranges were healthy and good for everyday eating – not just an exotic oddity. Beginning with a 1916 ad in the Saturday Evening Post, Sunkist also convinced Americans that the previously overlooked juice of oranges was the perfect drink to accompany breakfast.

Idealized scenes of a sunny, happy, prosperous, healthy Southern California accompanied Sunkist’s vast marketing campaigns, and contributed greatly to migration from other parts of the country. California promoted the orange while the orange promoted California.

Chinese orange pickers, Santa Ana, circa 1895.

For more than half a century, citrus provided a good life for many, and provided a living – directly or indirectly – to most Orange Countians. Locals either worked with citrus or did business with those who did. The industry, and particularly the Valencia orange, transformed and defined much of the landscape and permeated many aspects of daily life. When the trees bloomed, their sweet fresh scent hung over the county. And when frost threatened the trees, orchard heaters or “smudge pots” darkened the skies and left a layer of black soot on everything.

Changes in the citrus market were always front-page news, and the annual Orange County Valencia Orange Show in Anaheim (1920-1931) was one of the biggest events on the calendar. Healthy citrus sales even helped buffer us from the effects of the Great Depression. On the other hand, a well-timed labor action, like the 1936 citrus strike, could cause serious community-wide panic.

Packing house crew, Santa Ana-Tustin Mutual Citrus Assoc., circa 1940.

In the early years, Japanese and Chinese laborers did much of the local citrus work. But from the mid-1910s on, most of the laborers were from Mexico or of Mexican descent. Many Hispanic neighborhoods, camps and colonias sprang up near packing houses and among the groves, bringing with them cultural traditions that were new to many Orange Countians. 

The years following WWII saw Orange County’s landscape and economy shift rapidly from agriculture to suburbia. The population expanded at a shocking rate, from only 175,000 in 1946, to 703,925 in 1960, to 1,420,386 by 1970.  Accordingly, demand skyrocketed for more housing developments, roads, schools, shopping centers, etc. Orange trees gave way to concrete and stucco. But new development was only one of several reasons for the long slow death or Orange County’s citrus industry. 

The annual California Valencia Orange Show (1921-1931) was a huge regional event. This postcard depicts the show's grounds in Anaheim in 1926.

By that time, the tristeza virus or “quick decline” was already attacking Valencia trees throughout Southern California. Spread by aphids, the disease killed as many as 243,920 of Orange County’s trees in a single year. A new grafting combination was discovered that was immune to the disease, but it required the expensive tearing-out of the old groves, replanting, grafting, and patiently waiting for new trees to reach maturity. For five to eight years there would be no crop to harvest.

Adding insult to injury, local land began to be taxed on its “highest and best use.” In other words, farmland was suddenly taxed as though it were residential or commercial property. After paying their taxes, the already besieged citrus growers made almost no profit, making buy-out offers from developers tempting or even necessary.

Standpipe, smudge pot and sickly trees make way for housing, 1967.

Today, only a few small, (often sickly) specimen orange groves remain, as reminders of our past. The last of Orange County’s 45 packing houses, the Villa Park Orchards Association, moved to Ventura County in 2006. In places, one can still see the old lines of eucalyptus – which once provided citrus groves with shelter from the wind – now standing along the edges of roads or housing tracts. 

But the orange left its mark on Orange County. The industry gave us the framework on which many of our still-vibrant communities were built. Some of our streets bear the names of growers, fruit varieties and packing houses. And the long-term investment and attention groves require gave us a tendency toward cautiousness, patience and thrift, and an aversion to fixing things that aren’t broken. 

Mature orange groves, Placentia area, June1961.

But perhaps most of all, citrus gave Orange County its image and identity as a healthy, happy, sunny spot where success grew on trees.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Newport Nautical Edition

The historic Balboa Island Ferry, Newport Harbor, 2012. (Photo by author)

Q:  What was the first boat built in Newport Beach?

A:  Ill-starred entrepreneur Edward J. Abbott built a small steamboat, The Last Chance, for sightseeing excursions in 1892. But strangely, its longest journey would be over land.

The Last Chance was declared unseaworthy, but Abbott used it to haul tourists around Newport Bay for a couple years before it was grounded. In 1894, he hauled the boat inland, over unpaved roads, using a team of eight horses. The boat came right up Santa Ana’s Main Street and was then loaded on a train car. From there, it traveled through Santa Ana Canyon and then circuitously through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties before being offloaded at Elsinore Junction and dragged (probably by mules) to Lake Elsinore. Historian Jim Sleeper speculated that Abbott, who died shortly thereafter, may have succumbed to injuries incurred during the move. The rickety boat survived a bit longer than Abbott, ferrying tourists around the lake.

Q:  What’s the origin of the Balboa Island Ferry?

A:  The ferry service is older than you think. In the early 1900s, real estate developers underwrote temporary ferry services from Balboa (the end of the Pacific Electric trolley line from Los Angeles), to the latest subdivisions around Newport Bay. Only the Balboa Island Ferry proved useful enough to survive. 

Attempts at ferry service to Balboa Island had been made since 1906, but the first supposedly regular service – a rowboat with a single-cylinder engine and dedicated landings – came in 1909. In 1919, island lots began selling better and Joseph A. Beek took over and improved ferry operations. 

Beek’s first little boats were for people, not vehicles. But they could push an automobile-laden barge. It wasn’t until 1922 that cars could be driven directly onto a larger ferry. Today, the ferry – still run by the Beek family – transports about 1.5 million passengers annually. 

Although a busy Saturday night might include a lot of passengers who are just on their way for a Balboa Bar or frozen banana, the ferry is also important. In fact, during times like the recent closure of the Balboa Island Bridge, the ferry becomes the only way for the 6,000 people who live on the island to reach their homes or for customers to reach the many businesses there. It also serves as a faster way for many residents of the Balboa Peninsula to reach the mainland.

The Beeks make little to no money operating the ferry and are happy to break even. They provide it as a service to their community. 

Q:  How long have gondolas plied the waters of Newport Harbor?

A:  Around 1905, real estate promoter Abbott Kinney brought gondolier Giovanna “John” Scarpa from Venice, Italy to traverse the canals of newly developed Venice, California. A couple years later, John moved to Newport Beach, where couples happily paid him for romantic rides through the bay while he sang Italian love songs. 

Remembering the water carnivals of his homeland, in 1908 Scarpa enlisted eight rowboats and canoes to join him for a nighttime, lantern-lit boat parade. It marked the birth of the traditions later known as the Tournament of Lights and the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. The boat parade is still held annually, and you can still hire a gondola any time for a romantic evening with your sweetie.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

O.C. Q&A: University of California Irvine Edition

Knights demonstrate battle technique at Wayzgoose, 1986.
Q:  Didn't UCI once hold Medieval fairs?

A:  The Wayzgoose Medieval Faire, a school spirit event held every spring since 1970, was UCI's oldest tradition. Its name came from an annual celebration held for printers' apprentices in medieval England. Entertainment included magicians, jugglers, game and craft booths, music, puppeteers, Shakesperean plays and demonstrations of jousting and dueling. Everyone was encouraged to wear period costumes, and at least one Wayzgoose ended with a torch-lit banquet featuring court jesters and strolling minstrels.

The theme, however, began to slowly erode in the 1990s. In 2012, Wayzgoose was officially un-medieval-ifed and given a new eco-friendly theme: "Zero Waste."  One assumes such exciting themes as "Oral Hygiene" and "Paint Drying" were already snapped up by other festivals.

By 2017, even this neutered version of Wayzgoose was dropped from the "Celebrate UCI" open house event of which it had once been a part.

Q:  Other than the library, where can I get my Lord of the Rings fix in O.C.?

A:  Want to visit Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, and their friends? Just take Ring Road to Middle Earth,… in Irvine! 

In 1974, UCI’s students voted to name the new dorms "Middle Earth.” Each building is named for a character from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings trilogy -- which had gained greater followings in the 1970s -- and the halls are mostly named for places mentioned in the books, like Mirkwood or Rohan. Middle Earth has grown to twenty-four residence halls, two dining facilities called Brandywine and Pippin Commons, the Bucklebury Library, the Helms Deep Fitness Center, and more. (Back in the 1990s, even UCI’s email servers had Tolkien-related names.) 

Sadly, there’s no actual Middle Earth theming to be found on campus aside from the names. UCI should hire Disney’s Imagineers to make it look less like Irvine and more like the Shire (or Mordor, depending on how you see Irvine).

Q:  Why does UCI have an anteater as their mascot?

A:  In 1965, students were thumbing their noses at convention and authority. Marches were held, draft cards were burned, and UC Santa Cruz's sports teams started playing as the Banana Slugs. 

When students at the new UC Irvine voted to select a mascot, student leaders eschewed fiercer options and lobbied hard (and campaigned at polling places) for the anteater. 

This strange looking critter was on the ballot thanks to two UCI water polo players, Pat Glasgow and Bob Ernst, who'd been inspired by an anteater in the comic strip “B.C.” The cartoon anteater made a “ZOT!” noise when snarfing up ants with its long tongue – a noise which remains UCI’s unlikely battle cry to this day (along with “Give ‘em tongue!”). Administrators wrongly assumed the mascot, chosen in a rigged election, would fade away. 

One thing’s sure: Today’s Irvine of beige stucco and HOAs would never do something this silly and fun again.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Movie Edition

John Wayne and his son, Ethan, join Walter Knott at the opening of the Log Ride at Knott's Berry Farm, 1969

Q:  How far back does John Wayne’s connection to Orange County go?

A:  Orange County screwed him up so bad, he had to become an actor. In November 1926, USC football player Marion “Duke” Morrison seriously injured his shoulder while bodysurfing -- showing off for sorority girls -- at Balboa. (Sounds more like the Wedge than Balboa proper, but the media reported it as Balboa.) He had to give up football and his money was running thin, so he dropped out of school for a year to work behind the scenes at a movie studio. He was, of course “discovered,” became “John Wayne,” and never went back to football. He did, however come back to Newport Beach and lived there from 1965 until his death in 1979.

Q:  Okay, but why is our airport named for John Wayne?

A:  Friendship and politics. Supervisor Thomas Riley was a friend, fellow Newport Beach resident, and Republican political ally of actor John Wayne. Riley talked to Wayne about renaming the Orange County Airport for him in the late 1970s, and the actor – who kept a plane there – liked the idea. 

In June 1979, shortly after Wayne’s death, Riley wrote a resolution to implement the change. The resolution called Wayne "a true American patriot" and the embodiment of "traditional American values." Despite some protests, Riley slipped it into the Board of Supervisors’ “consent” agenda, and it was passed 4 to 0, with no public comment.

Ironically, only thirteen years earlier, both Riley (who now has a terminal named for him at the airport) and Wayne signed petitions against the airport expanding or allowing jet service. As Newporters, neither wanted noisy planes going over their homes all day.

Q:  What’s Dana Point’s connection to the Hollywood sign?

A:  In 1923, developer Sidney Woodruff constructed an enormous hillside sign in L.A., advertising a planned community: HOLLYWOODLAND. Later, the letters LAND were lost, and a star was born. 

In 1927, Woodruff led a syndicate to reboot the failed Dana Point subdivision. In buying the land, he acquired some preexisting infrastructure, including a bluff-top gazebo and streets named for the colored ship lanterns which lighted them. A resort-like community with Mediterranean architecture and a marina were planned and marketed with hype worthy of Hollywood. 

Houses, businesses, a pier, and the beginnings of a hotel were built. Woodruff expanded the colored lantern motif and planted flowering plants to match the lantern color of each street. But thanks to the Great Depression, the town’s growth came to a screeching halt until after World War II. 

Q:  Other than Disneyland, does Orange County have any Star Wars connections?

A:  The signature scar on smuggler Han Solo’s chin came from Laguna Beach. 

In 1964, actor Harrison Ford had an apartment in the hills above Laguna Canyon and a job as an assistant art buyer for Bullock’s department store at Fashion Square (now MainPlace) in Santa Ana. Driving to work on Laguna Canyon Road one morning, he fumbled with the seatbelt in his Volvo and accidentally ran over a curb and into a telephone pole. He busted his chin open on the steering wheel. 

Luckily, the resulting scar didn’t keep Ford from getting a coveted roll in John Brown's Body at the Laguna Beach Playhouse the following year, where his acclaimed performance led to his discovery by Hollywood. The scar only helped in portraying adventurers, rogues and intergalactic smugglers.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Street History Edition, Part II

Fred Culver's impressive home at "Culver's Corner," in Irvine.
Q:  Who was Irvine’s Culver Road named for?

A:  Hunchbacked lima bean farmer Fred M. “Humpy” Culver is immortalized on the map of Irvine. His lease on the Irvine Ranch was located on the State Highway (now the I-5 Freeway) where it intersected Trabuco Road and today’s Culver Road. “Culver’s Corner” – marked by Humpy’s home and windmill – also marked the spot where the arrow-straight highway finally made a bend, infamously sending many early automobile drivers into the ditch or worse. The name Culver’s Corner remained long after Fred’s death, at the age of 31, in 1918. Many other members of the Culver family also worked on the Ranch, including Fred’s brother, blacksmith Willard “Gimpy” Culver. Gimpy earned his nickname when he was shot in the leg serving in the posse who fought the Tomato Springs Bandit in 1912. His blacksmith shop is now Knowlwood’s restaurant on Sand Canyon Ave.

Q:  Why do many of Orange County's major North/South streets have a little wiggle at Garden Grove Blvd?

A:  Overlaying a flat grid (USGS township, range, sections, etc.) on a spherical surface (Earth) results in numerous places where the grid doesn't match up well. Every so often, the grid -- along which many major roads are aligned -- gets out of kilter. And that's PART of the issue here. 

The larger issue though, is that each town used to be distinct, with miles of open land between each community. The roads were never intended to connect, so no thought was given to how they might connect someday. Only as the towns/cities grew to meet each other (with boundaries becoming identifiable only if there's a sign posted), did such things matter. Gradually, many of the larger streets were connected and in the 1960s there was a major effort to unify the names of these newly-joined streets. For instance, what was once Harbor Blvd., Palm Dr., Fullerton Rd, and Spadra Rd. are now all Harbor Blvd. What's now Beach Blvd is another good example of a street that once had many more names.

Garden Grove Blvd isn't the only spot with "wiggles" created by joining different streets together, but it's probably the most obvious example when looking at a map of Orange County

Q:  Why is downtown Anaheim cockeyed on the map?

A:  In 1859, prior to the arrival of the first colonists from Los Angeles Vinyard Society to Anaheim, the Society's surveyor, George Hansen, began preparing the land for them. After obtaining rights to an easement across Bernardo Yorba’s adjacent ranch, Hansen built an irrigation ditch which brought water down from the Santa Ana River, and then laid out the colony of Anaheim on the same angle as the ditch. To this day, the heart of Anaheim still has this cockeyed orientation. Hansen divided the land into town lots and vineyard lots – all within the boundaries of North, South, East and West streets. He also oversaw the planting of 400,000 vines, as well as some fruit trees.


[Thanks to Nick Popadiuk, Jerry Howard and Mike Martin for their questions.]

Saturday, March 09, 2024

A glimpse of Ruby’s beginnings

The first Ruby's Diner, Balboa Pier, Newport Beach. (Photo by author)

All Southern Californians know Ruby’s Diner and many have happy memories of time spent there with family or friends. Based in Irvine, the casual dining chain has deep Orange County roots. I just stumbled across an interesting article from the Ruby’s early days (see below) and thought I’d share it here. But first, a bit of background…

The first Ruby’s Diner opened on the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on Pearl Harbor Day, 1982 – just days after a massive storm pounded the end of the pier and threatened to demolish the place. The little building that rode out that storm was an award-winning design by Thirtieth Street Architects of Newport Beach, built specifically for Rubys on the bones of the pier’s old bait shop. The two founders of Ruby’s, Douglas Cavanaugh, Jr. and Ralph Kosmides, were Tustin residents and pals from their days at Foothill High School. They just thought the diner would be a fun hobby. The two worked both the kitchen and the register on opening day. They ran out of ground beef and made $63 before the doors closed that evening.

Ruby's Diner, Balboa Pier, 1980s.

Less than five months after Ruby’s opening, the May 20, 1983 edition of the Daily Pilot featured an article about the diner by Jolyn Wayne, entitled, “The End of the Pier: Ruby’s is a return to ‘good ol’ days.’” Extensive excerpts follow:

Ruby’s is a modern version of a 1940s diner. Its galvanized metal exterior glistens in the sunlight. At night, a bold red neon sign, bearing the restaurant’s name, glows from above. …The décor inside consists of shiny chrome tables and ruby red upholstered booths. Original Coca Cola signs adorn the walls. Memorabilia, such as an old-fashioned cash register and gum ball machine, rest on the counters and are operable. The music of Glenn Miller and other big bands plays in the background. An outdoor, upper deck, called “Ruby’s Flying Bridge,” provides a spectacular view as well as space for some jitterbugging to the sounds of the big bands.

Cavanaugh (L) and Kosmides (R) at Ruby's, Balboa Pier, May 1983. (Photo by Lee Payne)

The owners and creators of Ruby’s are native Californians, Doug Cavanaugh and Ralph Kosmides. According to 27-year-old Cavanaugh, it was the Rendezvous Ballroom that inspired him to create Ruby’s. Before it burned down, the Rendezvous was one of the last bastions of the swing era in the Newport-Balboa area. “I wanted Ruby’s to be an extension of that past era for all of the community to enjoy,” says Cavanaugh. 

[Blogger’s note: The Rendezvous opened in 1928, burned in 1935, was rebuilt, and ended with another fire in 1966. Along the way, this popular venue served as an incubator not just for big band music (and a dance called the Balboa), but later for the genre of music known as surf rock.]

Rendezvous Ballroom, near the foot of the Balboa Pier, circa 1940s.

A former builder and contractor, Cavanaugh recounts how he and his family all pitch in to help with the construction of Ruby’s: “everything from the framing to the plumbing.”

His parents encouraged him greatly. As a tribute to his mother, Ruby, the restaurant bears her name…

Ruby's, Balboa Pier, May 1983. (Photo by Lee Payne)
“It is very touching for me to remember how my father was able to witness the completion of the restaurant shortly before he died,” Cavanaugh said. 

The construction was no easy task. It started from a shell of a building where the old bait and tackle shop once stood…

The specialties at Ruby’s include “The Bleus Burger,” a burger topped with bleu cheese, “The Wedge Burger” and “The Pier Burger.” Among some of the other favorites are clam chowder, chili and hot dogs. Cavanaugh boasts that no artificial ingredients are ever used in the food. Hours are from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays except Mondays, and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 
Ruby's, Balboa Pier, May 1983. Cavanaugh and Kosmides on left. (Photo by Lee Payne)
What are some of the owners’ future plans for Ruby’s? They hope to offer jazz concerts every weekend on the pier. With the city’s permission, they plan a gala event in July with Les Brown and his Band of Renown entertaining on the upper deck….
The article draws a great picture of a soon-to-blossom business in its earliest stages.

Over the next several decades, Ruby’s Diner grew into a successful chain of at least 42 restaurants, mostly located in Southern California, but also in the first stages of a planned nation-wide expansion. They already a handful of restaurants in states as far away as New Jersey. Ruby’s was known for consistently high-quality food, clean and cheerful restaurants, good service, and classic American fare without the downsides of greasy-spoon diners. According to other interviews with Cavanaugh, his childhood experiences at Disneyland inspired Ruby’s “cleanliness, orderliness, service.” It was hard not to like Ruby’s, and their restaurants always seemed busy. It appeared they’d cracked the code and couldn’t fail.
Ruby's Diner in Tustin, 2009. (Photo by author)
But trouble began as early as 2012, when Ruby's Diner, Inc. borrowed money to buy out some of its partners in a long-running dispute. A variety of other financial hits followed. By 2018, the company owed over $14 million to its creditors and declared bankruptcy. 

Then, in 2021, the trustee for their Chapter 7 bankruptcy filed a $35 million lawsuit against Cavanaugh and Kosmides for using Ruby's reputation, expertise, funds and personnel to obtain a lucrative contract for two (non-Ruby's) restaurants at Crystal Cove State Park: The Beachcomber and The Shake Shack. 
The Shake Shack in 2010. Slapping a Ruby's logo on it didn't solve their problems.
Once the Crystal Cove contract had been awarded to them, they made the two restaurants part of other businesses they personally owned, depriving Ruby's of the assets and helping push Ruby's over the edge into bankruptcy. They also gave themselves loans of over $1.5 million from Ruby's funds and later called the loans "distributions" in an attempt to avoid repaying them. 

Successful Ruby's franchisee Steven L. Craig provided a cash infusion to save the chain. In return he took the title of chairman, along with 60% ownership of Ruby's Diner, Inc. Cavanaugh and Kosmides initially retained the remaining shares, but soon sold their stake to pay for the expensive battle over the Crystal Cove situation.
Ruby's is the perfect tenant for Anaheim's restored historic Five Points building.
By 2023 – after years of financial woes and waning quality – the chain was down to only 14 restaurants (including the original on the Balboa Pier). By early 2024, it seemed an effort was being made to bring the quality of the food back up to par, although those familiar with the chain’s older (and much lengthier) menus could clearly see major changes. Still, even with a different menu, different ownership, and fewer restaurants, perhaps Ruby’s can make a comeback and eventually return to its glory days. They filled an important niche in Southern California’s restaurant landscape, and they could again.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

O.C. Q&A: San Juan Capistrano Edition

Santa Fe Railroad Depot, San Juan Capistrano, circa 1890s.

Q:  I hear Abe Lincoln gave Mission San Juan Capistrano back to the Church. Did he visit Orange County?

A:  Definitely not. The Mexican government ended the Mission system in the 1830s and put the land in private hands. But soon after California became a state, petitions were made to the government to return the Missions to the Catholic Church. In 1863, while embroiled in a few other historic events you may have heard about, Lincoln signed documents (in Washington D.C.) returning California’s missions to the Church. 

The way some folks around here carry on, you'd swear Abe had stopped for a beer at the Swallows Inn on his way down to ring the bells. There are stories that Lincoln planned to finally visit California after leaving office. Sadly, he never had the opportunity.

Q:  Is there a connection between Zorro and San Juan Capistrano?

A:  San Juan Capistrano was where this masked hero first swashed and buckled. New York pulp writer Johnston McCulley set the first Zorro story there: The Curse of Capistrano (1919). Unfortunately, McCulley seems to have gained all his knowledge of Spanish-Era California from encyclopedias, and his descriptions of Capistrano are decidedly vague. 

When that same story was turned into the first Zorro movie – Douglas Fairbank’s “The Mark of Zorro” (1920) – portions of it were shot in San Juan Capistrano. The town also appeared in many of Zorro’s later on-screen adventures, including Disney’s popular 1950s TV version. 

Zorro doesn’t return to Capistrano quite as often as the swallows, but it’s still worth watching for the mark of the Z.

Q:  How did Capistrano end up with a huge Swallows Day festival but no swallows?

A:  In the 1920s, the Mission's Fr. St. John O'Sullivan helped spin the story of the cliff swallows' 6,000-mile, clockwork-like annual migration into a romantic legend. In 1930, O'Sullivan's version of the tale was published in the book, Capistrano Nights, becoming a P.R. juggernaut. In the book, he credited his dear friend (and the last full-blooded Juaneño/Acjachemen) José de Gracia Cruz -- better known as Acú -- as the source of the story. 

The swallows' habit of returning around March 19th each year was readily apparent to all. But Acú shared a local folktale about it with O'Sullivan: The swallows supposedly wintered in Jerusalem each winter, carrying twigs as flotation devices on which they occasionally rested during their long flight across the Atlantic. They returned each year, timing their arrival to St. Joseph's Day. 

(We now know that the Swallows migrate to and from Argentina, not Jerusalem. And even at the time it was doubtful whether birds were interested in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. But their migration is remarkable nonetheless.)

After the publication of Capistrano Nights, media coverage of the swallows' return brought increasing crowds to town each March 19th. The hit song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," further fed the flames.  

In 1937, Capistrano High School principal Paul Richards launched what's now Fiesta de las Golondrinas to entertain the visitors. Originally featuring contests, games, and dancing, the event grew to include a trail ride and, beginning in the late 1950s, the equestrian Swallows Day Parade. 

The swallows themselves still migrate but they skedaddled to the suburbs when downtown congestion and development drove them out. 

Q:  What’s special about San Juan Capistrano’s Hidden House Coffee building?

A:  The spare, single-wall construction of the Olivares House, at 31791 Los Rios Street, reflects the scarcity of lumber before the railroad arrived in 1888. The cottage’s past ownership included San Juan pioneer names such as Forster, Rios, and Yorba. But Delfina Manriquez de Olivares (1896-1976) was its best-remembered owner. 

Known for her hospitality, Olivares’ home was a neighborhood gathering place. She didn’t buy the house until 1947, but her local roots ran deep: She was a descendant of mason Isidro Aguilar, who’d overseen the construction of the Mission’s stone church in 1797. In 1970, the city’s historical society dubbed her the town Matriarch—a title she held until her death. 

Thanks to legendary historical preservationist Ilse Byrnes, the Olivares House, along with the rest of California’s oldest neighborhood—the Los Rios District—is now on the National Register of Historic Places.