Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Orange County Press Club writes again (and again)

Famed local cartoonist Virgil “VIP” Partch serenades Pam Bennett at an Orange County Press Club event, April 1962. Photo courtesy County of Orange.
There is undoubtedly an amazing history to be written of the Orange County Press Club. What follows ain't it. However, these colorful stories about the early incarnations of the Club (and its delightfully goofy mascot) might be considered a little step in the right direction.

Journalists from Orange and Santa Ana gathered on the evening of May 26, 1916, at the James Café in Downtown Santa Ana, to launch the Orange County Press Club. Representatives from newspapers in Anaheim and Fullerton sent letters of support, but were unable to attend the first meeting. Terry E. Stephenson of the Santa Ana Register (also a local historian) acted as temporary chairman and W.O. Hart of the Orange News acted as secretary. Hart pointed out that the organization, "even if formed for social purposes at the outset, eventually [will] result in much good to the newspapers of the county in a business way."

It was decided that not only news writing and editorial staff could join, but also front office staff. The drafting of a constitution and bylaws was left to a committee and were adopted at the Club’s first banquet, a few months later.
The Jewel City Café, Seal Beach, as it appeared in 1922. Photo courtesy
At that time, the Bayside Land Company still owned much of Seal Beach and was using every trick in the book to draw attention to its young community and to spur further real estate sales. Sensing a good PR opportunity, they graciously played host to that first O.C. Press Club banquet and threw quite a party. The event was held Oct. 7, at Millers Famous Sunset Dollar Dinners in the Jewel City Cafe building in the heart of Seal Beach’s brand new pier-side “Joy Zone.” After a short business meeting, there was dancing, aerial acrobatics by aviator Joe Boquel, and fireworks over the pier. Those arriving early were also welcomed to enjoy the Bayside Land Co. beach resort privileges at no cost, including swimsuits, bathhouse privileges, etc.

Despite the impressive kick-off, the Press Club immediately disappeared. Organizations as obscure as the Santa Ana Typographical Union’ Women’s Auxiliary and the Wrycende Maegdenu continued to run regular announcements of their activities in the local newspapers, but there was no further sign of the Orange County Press Club. It makes one wonder exactly what went on that night in Seal Beach! (Considering the reputations of both journalists and early Seal Beach, it’s hard to imagine.)
Almost exactly a decade later another attempt at starting an Orange County Press Club was made, this time with a bit more success.

At that time, the Orange County Harbor Chamber of Commerce was using every trick in the book to promote a positive outcome for an impending ballot initiative that would provide bond money for the development of Newport Bay into a harbor. Sensing a good PR opportunity, they graciously played host to Orange County’s newspaper publishers, and they threw quite a party. On May 11, 1926, the evening began with a cruise around the bay, followed by a deluxe steak dinner at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.
Pro-Harbor cartoon by Santa Ana Register cartoonist and local war hero Jack Fisher.
During the meeting, Horace Fine of the Register suggested that an Orange County Press Club be formed. Some of the same personalities that had been part of the original group in 1916 were in attendance and may or may not have spoken out about “history repeating itself.” Just like a decade before, a committee was created to draft a constitution and bylaws and a temporary board was set up to instigate the Club's formation. This time, the group in attendance included reps from newspapers in every corner of the county. Newport News publisher (and local historian) S.A. Meyer was made temporary chairman, and A.V. Douglass of the La Habra Star was elected secretary.

Of the bay tour, the Register reported the newsmen being “deeply impressed with the expanse of water and the possibility of developing, at the bay, a first class pleasure and commercial harbor."
After dinner, in the Yacht Club’s smoke-filled drawing room, it was decided to hold another meeting in early June, and plans were discussed for a county-wide advertising campaign to promote the harbor bonds. Later, the Press Club would issue a resolution supporting the bonds, which were "in every way advantageous to the county." This may not be as bad as it sounds, considering the harbor project already had broad support among the county’s movers and shakers. But the optics were certainly bad.

The second meeting of the 1926 incarnation of the Orange County Press Club was held on the evening of June 8, at the Southern Seas Club in Balboa, at the invitation of Newport Beach mayor Conrad Richter.
Concept art for the Southern Seas Club by architects Allison and Allison.
At that time, the Southern Seas Club was in the middle of a major marketing blitz, trying to sell $600 life memberships to support their plans for an elaborate 10-story beach resort on the Balboa Peninsula. They were using every trick in the book to promote sales. Sensing a good PR opportunity, they graciously played host to the O.C. Press Club’s second meeting on June 8th. Newport Beach mayor Conrad Richter coordinated the event.

During this meeting, they decided that the Press Club would be primarily a social group. In keeping with that, their next meeting was a picnic dinner (again with steak!) at Hewes Park on July 21. From there on, it seems they met every two to four months for evening events at various locations throughout the county.
H.S. Webster, president of the California Publishers Assoc. (L) and D. Eyman Huff (R) at an O.C. Press Club event at Hewes Park, welcoming Senator J.F. Burke (center) as the new publisher of the Register.
Although it lasted longer than the 1916 version of the Club, the 1926 version seems to have eventually evaporated also. The last scant references to it in the local papers appear around 1937. In March 1941, a group of high school newspaper staffers started their own organization, which they also called the Orange County Press Club. Apparently nobody from the former group of professionals bothered to ask that they add the word “Student” to their moniker.
Circa 1940s matchbook cover art for the “Press Club of the Pacific Coast,” (no relation) which was actually a seedy bar on a  seedy part of the State Highway (now the I-5 Freeway).
The Great Depression, World War II, and the beginnings of Orange County’s explosive post-war growth were already history by the time anyone tried forming an Orange County Press Club again. The first meeting of the current incarnation of the club was held in 1953 at the behest of Register city editor Harry Harvey, who hosted the event not in the lap of some eager PR-seeker, but in his own living room.

In a 1986-87 issue of the Club’s Add One newsletter, Tom McCann wrote, “Those in attendance included Gale Ellis of the Garden Grove News, Bob Gettemy of the Los Angeles Times, Phyllis Jackson of the Newport Harbor News-Press, Dale Kroesen of the Cypress-Los Alamitos Enterprise, Beth Kroesen the Buena Park News, and Carmela Clark (Martin) and Carrie Lou Sutherland of the Anaheim Bulletin.

“A second meeting was held April 29, 1954 at Santiago Park in Santa Ana with eight additional journalists attending, including Sky and Velma Dunlap of the Times, and Fred Allen of the Newport Harbor News Press. They drew up a nine-point outline of what the club would be and how it would operate. Finally, on May 27, 1955, the Orange County Press Club held its first official meeting at the seedy Savoy bar (now gone) on Fourth St. in Santa Ana. Bob Gettemy was elected the first president, Fred Allen vice president, and Carmela Martin secretary-treasurer.

“The ‘speaker’ that evening was famed cartoonist Virgil ‘VIP’ Partch, who according to a 1980 retrospective article by Vi Smith, ‘alternately drank and drew original cartoons for those present.’
“Smith also recalled that many publishers were nervous about the new club, fearing the journalists might ‘get together and compare salaries or form a union,… They needn’t have worried. Most of the members were too embarrassed to let anyone know how little they received.”

At that time, Disneyland was just months away from opening, and the success of the theme park was still very much in doubt. Walt Disney, in debt up to his eyeballs, was using every trick in the book to draw attention to his wonderland. Sensing a good PR opportunity, Disney graciously sponsored some of the first O.C. Press Club events at the nearby Disneyland Hotel. Disney Studios also provided the club with its logo/mascot.
The author (left) with Orcop (right) at the Los Angeles Archives Bazaar.
“As the club began to dole out annual press club awards, Disney offered to provide the award plaques,” wrote McCann. “But the plaques seemed sort of naked without some sort of Press Club logo. So the Disney artists created “Orcop” – the cliché-riddled mascot of the group. Initially, the character was nameless. Superior Court Judge Franklin G. West collected name nominations for a couple months, but none were worth putting to a vote. Finally, one submission seemed passable. Since then, both the character and the annual journalism awards have been called Orcop. Orcop first appeared in three-dimensional form as a gold broach with blue sapphire eyes, presented to outgoing president Vi Smith.”

In the decades since, the Orange County Press Club has retained its social aspects, but has seemingly become more professional. Smokers and “Miss Orcop” beauty contests have given way to more opportunities to recognize quality journalism.
Tustin’s Gigi Dahl, named Miss Orcop 1965 by the O.C. Press Club. She appears here with her parents and the Orcop trophies.
The club also expanded to include PR and PIO professionals. This was a bit controversial, but it’s true that many good writers find themselves hopping back and forth between public relations and journalism. (It would be odd kick people out and then reinvite them as they switched back and forth between jobs.) Moreover, with the dwindling number of local news outlets and the current generation’s lack of interest in community organizations, it was probably necessary to admit PR folks just to keep the Club stocked with members.

According to their website, “The Orange County Press Club exists to support, promote, and defend quality journalism in Southern California. We seek to encourage journalists by providing networking opportunities and by hosting regular events with topics of interest to a broad spectrum of journalists.

“Our members include Orange County based publishers, editors, journalists, reporters, broadcasters, public information officers, public relations professionals and journalism students.

“The primary mission of the club is to provide a networking opportunity for those employed by news organizations, magazines and new media in Orange County. The club's goal is to foster relationships among the members of the OC Press, to support those interested in entering the profession, and to recognize excellence in writing and reporting in Orange County.”
2014 Orange County Press Club Awards Banquet. Photo courtesy O.C. Register.
The way the business model for journalism is eroding in this country, one hopes there’s someone left to keep some version of the Press Club afloat in another hundred years.

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