Monday, April 24, 2023

JoAn Burdick Gottlieb (1934-2023)

JoAn Burdick at the Calico Saloon, Knott's Berry Farm, June 1954

My introduction to JoAn Burdick Gottlieb was a single remarkable photograph. 

Soon after I was hired as the Assistant Archivist at the Orange County Archives, in 2003, we became the repository of Knott’s Berry Farm’s historical materials. In trying to identify, date and organize the thousands of photos we pulled from every nook and cranny of the Farm, I needed to identify the places, things, and especially the people depicted therein. 

Naturally, among the photos of Knott’s Ghost Town were countless images of grizzled prospectors, train robbers, square-jawed sheriffs, bartenders, and high-kicking can-can dancers. Almost all of these images made Ghost Town itself the focus of attention. All except for one 1954 photo of a tall beautiful can-can dancer standing atop the bar in the Calico Saloon. That dancer – wearing a snazzier costume than the ones Knott’s usually supplied – was clearly the sole focus of the photo and Ghost Town just happened to be the backdrop. The dancer’s name turned out to be JoAn Burdick. 

Most of the Ghost Town crew from that era were long gone by then, and I didn’t make an effort to track her down. Instead, she found me. 

(L to R) The author with JoAn and her dear friends Kathy and Bill Couture at the Orange County Historical Society, Feb. 7, 2019.
As a local historian who's always looking for contacts and clues, I've joined every Orange County history group I can find on Facebook. One day – several months after finding the can-can photo – I spotted a post from “JoAn Burdick Gottleib” in J’aime Rubio’s Anaheim History group. I can’t remember the subject of the post, but I recognized the name. I contacted JoAn and we talked about her years at Knott’s and many other stories about her life. I liked her immediately. 

If JoAn never told you about the high points of her life, many other tributes since her death have done fair job: Dancing, pageants, parades, Knott’s Berry Farm, Las Vegas, celebrities, her beloved Bernie, her dance and baton twirling school, motherhood, friends, and community volunteer work.  But with all due respect to her many accomplishments, they aren’t the reason her passing generates such an avalanche of fond tributes. 

Why then? 

Because JoAn enthusiastically brought love and a glowing positive attitude to any room she entered. Because she fully immersed herself in being an active part of the community. (Something that her wonderful friends Kathy and Bill Couture helped facilitate in her later years.) And because she was a cheerleader for so many of us – sincerely and effusively telling us we were doing a great job and gushing about our successes to anyone who would listen. And no, I'm not just talking about me. I Everyone needs a JoAn or two in their lives.

Halloween, 2021 at the Anaheim Public Library.

In the years after we met, JoAn and her friends became regulars at meetings of the Orange County Historical Society, where I serve as president and program chair. She was also a regular at the Anaheim Historical Society which had a lot of overlap with another of her favorite community organizations, the Anaheim Halloween Parade. (Causes that are close to my heart as well.) Having played a role in the parade during its halcyon years, in the 2010s she played an even more active role as the parade was revived from the brink of death and once again made a charming and vital part of the community.

JoAn’s passing drew immediate tributes from dozens of individuals on social media, from community organizations, and even the City of Anaheim itself. A memorial I attended turned out to be a semi-secret event because the organizers knew that a publicly-announced memorial would bring out half the city, overwhelm the Anaheim Ebell Clubhouse, and possibly draw unwanted attention from the Fire Marshall. As it was, there were still maybe 175 people there. After a short memorial program and lunch, JoAn’s friends and family – one at a time -- volunteered their memories of her. Altogether, it went on for three hours. It easily could have gone on longer, but I assume the Ebell ladies wanted their hall back eventually.  

I doubt I'll ever light up a room the way JoAn did. And I'll certainly never be able to twirl three batons at once while marching down Broadway. But I hope a little of what made JoAn special has rubbed off on everyone who knew her -- including me.

JoAn speaks at the Orange County Historical Society, 2019. (Photo by author)

Author's note: JoAn passed in January 2023, so this post arrives awfully late. It was written for inclusion in a booklet full of tributes to JoAn being assembled by a mutual friend. Ultimately, that project did not move forward, so -- considering what a fixture JoAn had become in the local history community in recent years -- I thought it appropriate to post it here instead. This little article is in no way intended to serve as a proper obituary, covering the breadth and depth of her life experiences. Rather, it's just a reflection of the JoAn that *I* knew. I will leave other stories to those who know those stories better.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

A Bit of Hawaii and Financial Skulduggery on Clay Ave.

I stumbled across this row of Hawaiian-themed apartment buildings last week while taking a walk north of Yorktown Ave. and west of Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach. Located at 704-732 Clay Ave between Beach and Florida St. (in Block A of Tract 837) the construction on the buildings was completed in 1965 -- around the peak of the Tiki or Polynesian Pop craze that swept America.

The standout features of these buildings are the multiple variations of the "Dickey Roof" design. This type of roof was introduced in 1926 by Hawaiian architect Charles W. Dickey and was based on the grass roof of King Kamehameha V's Waikiki beach house.

Another telltale sign of the buildings' island inspiration are the remnants of their original subtropical landscaping, including banana trees and bird of paradise plants. 

Developer Eagle Enterprises, Inc., based in Garden Grove, purchased the land from Edgar R. "Ned" Hill & Dora A. Hill of Newport Beach in October 1963. Dora was the first woman to serve as mayor of Newport Beach. Ned had been in the boat building business and was the founder and president of a local bank.

Ribbon cutting for another Eagle Enterprises project, Tustin Acres, April 9, 1964. L to R: Ward Wilsey; Norbert Moffatt, representing Lieut. Governor Glenn M. Anderson; Tustin mayor George Doney; Woodrow Wilsey; Tustin councilman Jerry Mack; Ernest Wilsey (Tustin News photo)

Eagle Enterprises was operated by three brothers: Ward Maurice Wilsey, vice president; P. I. Woodrow Wilsey, advisor; and Ernest Reginald Wilsey, Jr., president. It appears that each owned a 1/3 interest in the business.

Construction on the apartments got underway in 1964, but by June of that year both the Gene Robinson Building Co. and Cal-Western Cabinet Co. (a.k.a. Lawrence E. Green) took out mechanics' liens against Eagle. Then it went from bad to worse. Eagle defaulted on its loans and the property was foreclosed on by the Costa Mesa Savings & Loan Association. Eagle Enterprises went bankrupt in 1965. The Savings & Loan had the work on the buildings completed by contractor Charles R. Swenson, who finished on Aug. 9, 1965.

At the end of 1966 the Savings & Loan -- recently renamed Mariners Savings & Loan Association -- sold the row of Clay Ave. apartment buildings to Donald L. & Carolyn J. Arritt. In 1967, the Arritts in turn deeded half interest in the lots to Howard V. & Waneta M. Mathews. 

But the Wilsey brothers still weren't out of trouble. In 1970, a federal grand jury investigated the Wilseys and the defunct Eagle Enterprises and then idicted Ward and Woodrow for a number of crimes. The charges against Woodrow were more relatively minor (failure to file income taxes) and seem to have been dropped or dealt with through fines. 

However, in 1971 Ward Wilsey was convicted not only of failing to report about $56,000 in income tax, but also filing false statements with federal saving and loan associations during 1963, 1964 and 1965. He'd also diverted corporate funds into his own pockets, billed several federal savings and loans for consulting work he never actually performed, and hid records from IRS agents. "Most of the apartment developments begun by Wilsey were foreclosed by the savings and loan associations involved," recalled The Tustin News (3-18-1972) upon his conviction. He was sentenced to ten months in jail and a $4,000 fine. 

On July 10, 1975, the Arritt and Mathews families sold all the apartment buildings to George M. & Mary E. Heisick. It was the Heisicks, in 1976, who "broke up the set" and began to sell of the lots individually to a variety of new owners. From then on, each building would pass through a variety of different owners' hands, independent of the other buildings. 

Did this row of apartment buildings once have additional Polynesian decor and theming? Were there Tikis amidst the landscaping? Did the complex once have a name like "The Aloha Apartments" or "The Hana Kiki?" Did some of the rooves feature outrigger beams which have since been bobbed? Any of these would not be a surprise, but so far no additional information has come to light. If you know more about this intriguing row of buildings, let me know.