Perfect for a hot summer day . . . a little vintage neon, 30’s style (guessing from the Streamline Moderne lines of the motel itself) with promises of island paradise! (Eagle Rock, 1460 Colorado Boulevard)
As the years passed and we became older, we were no longer attracted to the joys of Lancaster Lake for the same reasons we were when we were younger. Such things as bailing out the rental boats for a free boat ride just didn’t cut it any more. Unfortunately though, some of the things that DID attract us were of the kind that frequently get teenagers into trouble. One of these was using the lake as a base camp to sneak next door into Kennedy’s Sunland Swim Park and help ourselves to leftover beer.
In the evening, after closing to the general public, the swim park was sometimes used for company picnics or other outdoor private parties. These events frequently featured keg beer and, after a party was over, there was usually some left over in the bottom of the kegs. It seemed a shame, to me and my gang of friends, to allow all this beer to go to waste.
The fact that it was just left sitting there, outside and unguarded, all night long when the parties were over, was too much of a temptation to resist. In my mind’s eye, I can still see us slipping into the swim park from the Lancaster Lake side, filling our empty pitchers and mason jars from the kegs, and then sneaking back to drink the beer at our secret hiding place on the shore of the lake.
I don’t remember now if there was definitely a connection between all this beer and the time we shot one of the guns in Grandpa Lancaster’s museum collection across the lake, but it seems rather likely there was. More of a cannon than a rifle, the old gun was big enough to bring down an elephant, or perhaps even a woolly mammoth –– if they were still around. We often wondered if the old gun could actually be fired and were determined to find out.
It was late when one night when we finally got up enough nerve to take the gun down to the shore of Lancaster Lake and load it with some ammo. Out of fear that the gun might blow up, most of us were afraid to be the one to actually hold the gun and fire it. Eventually though, the bravest of our lot picked it up and pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t blow up in his hands, but the recoil knocked him over backwards. (One of our group later swore the bullet was big enough for him to see it crossing the lake, even in the dark.)
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The explosion was so loud it sent a shock wave all over the Sunland-Tujunga Valley, and it wasn’t long afterward before we started hearing sirens. From the way they were wailing away, we knew police cars and fire trucks were headed in our direction. We retreated to our lakeside hiding place.
But an unexpected thing happened. The fire engines and police cars drove right past the Lancaster Lake’s entrance and into the trailer park next door. Soon we heard loud shouting coming over the fence, and from what we could hear it was obvious someone in the trailer park had called the fire department because they thought a butane tank in one of the trailers had blown up. I mean, the explosion was that loud. Policemen, firemen and everyone else in the place were trying to find the gutted remains of someone’s hapless trailer. And, of course, they never did.
In fact, the true source of the “explosion” never was discovered at the time . . . and it is only now, after the passage of nearly 70 years, that it’s being publicly revealed for the first time. As for the names of those involved, they will forever remain a secret. Our gang made a pledge of secrecy to never tell each other’s names, and I still feel honor bound to comply, even after the passage of so many years, and even if the fellow miscreant who actually pulled the trigger is now pushing up daisies.
In any event, it wasn’t long afterward that Lancaster Lake was filled in and the possibility of making new memories of this kind were buried forever, right along with everything else.
Some readers may think that’s a very good thing, but regardless, it is with the telling of this final, rather inglorious experience, that my memories of good ole Lancaster Lake have come to an end.
As I mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of the Lancaster Lake story, much of the economic viability of this carved-out-of-the-soil recreational lake depended on attracting the general public to rent boats or pay to go fishing. Another income source was the occasional use of Lancaster as a sort of backlot for Hollywood filmmaking. Paradoxically, this kind of use meant closing the lake to the same general public other efforts were working so hard to attract. However, renting the lake for movie shoots was more profitable than its other uses, and so from time to time, Lancaster Lake was off-limits to the public while filmmaking was in progress.
Most of the filming at Lancaster Lake was done during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Many popular movies had scenes filmed there, including the old Tarzan series starring the famous Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller. Because of my childhood interest in Tarzan and my friendship with the Lancaster family, once in a while they would allow me in to watch. (A more accurate way of putting it probably is that they would sometimes tolerate my presence when I snuck in over the back fence.)
On one such occasion I almost wished they hadn’t allowed me to stay. What I saw caused me to lose all respect and admiration for Tarzan . . . or at least Tarzan, as played by Weissmuller. The scene involved Tarzan wrestling with a crocodile, but the problem was that the crocodile was already deader than a doornail and all the splashing and flopping back and forth was being caused by Weissmuller himself as he whipped the dead croc around. That was bad enough, but the real coup de grâce came when Grandpa Lancaster’s grandson, my pal Marshall Murray, told me that he spotted a wardrobe man rushing over and putting a white bathrobe over the damp Weissmuller’s shoulders as he got out of the lake. What a sissy! That did it for me.
Big-time movie stars Kathryn Hepburn and Joan Bennett came out to Lancaster Lake in 1933 to film many of the exteriors for Little Women. It was one of at least two movies with scenes shot at the lake that went on to receive Best Picture Academy Award nominations. The other was 1944’s Mildred Pierce. While it was being made, some other kids and I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Ann Blyth. I remember thinking how friendly she was when she made it a point to come over to tell us what a nice little town we lived in and how great it must be for kids to grow up in Sunland.
For those who don’t remember Ann Blyth, she was a pretty movie star and musical comedy actress most active during the 1940’s and 50’s. Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Academy Award for Mildred Pierce . . . and Ms. Blyth (who was “cast against type” for the role of Veda, Pierce’s spoiled and scheming daughter) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. In reality, taking the time to say “hello” to scruffy, barefoot, local kids was perfectly consistent with Ms. Blythe’s wholesome and friendly reputation.
Soon after Little Women was made in 1933, some of the well-known Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) comedy series began filming at Lancaster Lake. These popular so-called movie “shorts” were often shown in theaters as a sort of bonus to go along with the two feature films on the bill. One of the more popular Our Gang shorts was “Little Sinner.” Its plot line was built around the character Spanky, who was ditching Sunday school so he could go fishing. It’s a wonder Grandpa Lancaster allowed his precious lake to be used for such a dastardly plot when, as we have seen in prior articles, he frequently used it to recruit kids to actually go to Sunday school. The last thing he would have done was make it available as a refuge for a kid ditching Sunday school! I write this only half kidding, as Grandpa could be very serious about this kind of thing. Perhaps he gave the green light to production once he knew the plot had Spanky getting himself into big trouble for ditching. Incidentally, this 1935 film provides an opportunity to see what Lancaster Lake looked like during these years. Among other things, the iconic bridge across a narrow part of the lake is prominently displayed in one of the longer scenes. For anyone interested, the picture may be seen on YouTube (lake appears at min 5.48 if you just want to skip ahead): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F05SDpqJBNc.
Even famous comedic actor Buster Keaton found himself acting at the lake on at least one occasion. He was there in 1940 playing one of the Li’l Abner comic book characters in the first of several movies bearing the name Li’l Abner. This is another old movie that can be viewed on YouTube . . . but frankly, it’s hardly worth wading through this rather trite and corny movie to catch a few glimpses of the lake and bridge near the end. An interesting piece of irrelevant trivia is that comedian Milton Berle, of all people, is credited with writing the theme song for the movie.
Cowboy and well-known action hero Jack Holt was at Lancaster Lake in 1935 to make some scenes for The Awakening of Jim Burke, and a couple of years later so was one of Hollywood’s most active directors, Charles Lamont. He was there in 1937 to direct Wallaby Jim of the Islands. Although probably best known as the director of many of the Abbott and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle series of movies, as well as for being the discoverer of child actress, Shirley Temple, Mr. Lamont also directed many very low-budget “B movies,” among which Wallaby certainly qualifies for inclusion. Grandpa Lancaster’s daughter, Marie Murray, and grandson Marshall, managed to have their picture taken on the set for this movie.
When I encountered the name Charles Lamont in my research for this post, it brought back childhood memories of a nearby neighbor with the same last name when, before moving to the Sunland, our family lived in La Canada. This Mr. Lamont, who had become a friend of my mother and father, lived with the family of the well-known movie actor, Victor McLaglen. In mulling over the memory, I couldn’t help but think that maybe he was Lamont, the famous director, or at the very least, perhaps related to him in some way. After all, the last names were the same, and I had a faint recollection from hearing my parents speak of him in later years, that their friend’s first name was also “Charles.” Finally, it certainly didn’t diminish possibilities for him to have lived with Victor McLaglen, one of the biggest names in motion pictures at the time.
My thinking was that if I could verify that our family friend was the famous director or related to him, it would be a wonderful “small world” story with which to end this story. Unfortunately, further investigation produced the opposite result. I was eventually able to discuss the question with McLaglen’s granddaughter, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, today a successful TV director in her own right. After first checking with her uncle (Victor’s son), Andrew McLaglen, now 93 and who himself has had a very successful directing career, Horder-Payton advised that the two men were NOT the same, and indeed, were not even relatives.
She explained that her grandmother’s maiden name was Lamont, and that the man living with the family back in the 1930’s was her grandmother’s father, Albert Charles (“Ace”) Lamont who, following a career as a concert pianist in England, came over to live with the family in La Canada. C’est la vie. It just seemed like a heck of a note to finish on . . . true facts sure can ruin a good ending to the story.
So lots of Valley folk have seen this old neon sign blazing away in the night . . . this grinning clown is the stuff of dreams or nightmares . . . you decide! Anyway, the Circus Liquor clown, located at 5600 Vineland in North Hollywood is def a local neon classic.
Bonus, couldn’t resist including this shot of a giant flea posing for his DeMille shot a little further down the street. It’s a circus out there, indeed.