Robert Luthardt’s Lost Skid Row, 1967

As we dug into our back pages to revive an early Esotouric sightseeing tour, John Fante’s Dreams from Bunker Hill (returning to the streets on Saturday, April 27), we got a hot tip about a new-to-us archive of Downtown streetscape photographs held at UCLA Special Collections, and booked a rare trip to the west side to have a look.

The writer John Fante, Colorado born, arrived in Los Angeles at the perfect time to forge his talents in the fires of economic uncertainty, boom town eccentricity, earthquake, redevelopment and the Hollywood hustle. Although he would find success and a happy home on the edge of Point Dume, Malibu, it was the crummy, crumbly, honest streets of his youth on Bunker Hill and Skid Row that resonated in his head. At the end of his life, blind and bedridden from the effects of diabetes, he surprised his wife Joyce by dictating a last novel, which was a return to the lost Bunker Hill he had loved.

Bunker Hill was redeveloped out of existence in America’s largest eminent domain land seizure, with 9000 people displaced and a charming neighborhood demolished. But there are yet some Downtown time capsules that still vibrate with the energies that fed Fante. We’ll visit them, including the incredible ruined speakeasy beneath the King Edward Hotel which features in his best-known novel Ask The Dust, on Saturday’s tour.

While Bunker Hill’s ill-favored redevelopment plan is widely known, Skid Row’s retail and cultural life was also erased in the name of blight eradication. Bunker Hill’s Victorians live on in popular memory, because artists and filmmakers rushed to capture views of the charismatic neighborhood ahead of the bulldozers. Nobody rushed to document Skid Row’s tattoo parlors, diners, XXX book stores, taxi dance halls, flop houses, rescue missions, pawn shops, laundries and slave markets (halls where skilled workers could snag a gig when they were on the wagon).

Well, not quite nobody. Art director Robert Luthardt (1917-77) came down to Main Street around 1967. He was ostensibly capturing settings that could be suitable for location filmingand he found the King Edward Hotel, which would be home to ABC television’s Beretta but it’s obvious from what he shot that Luthardt was captivated by the street life, the faces, the signage, the layers of the old stone and marble Los Angeles underneath the neon and plastic new.

Today, urban historians study the failures of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Plan, and laugh bitterly at developers’ attempts to reinvent the thriving Victorian coral reef that was an organic mixed-use, mixed-income, multi-generational community. But let’s spare a moment to lament the lost world of Skid Row Main Street, where generations of anonymous people found companionship, amusement, work, cheap goods, a haircut, trouble, something to eat.

In the 1980s, whole blocks of historic storefronts were demolished for parking lots, glorious neon signs tossed in dumpsters and aging shopkeepers closed their doors for good. Although public policy shaped these changes, there was no single incident like the removal of Angels Flight Railway or the demolition of the Melrose Hotel to galvanize public sentiment towards preservation. Unlandmarked, unpopular, under populated, disenfranchised, old Main Street simply melted away, like a sleazy sand castle.

Thanks to Robert Luthardt, we can visit this incredible lost part of Los Angeles. In these photographs, all taken near the iconic intersection of Fifth and Main Streets (“The Nickel”), you’ll find tattoo artist Captain Jim surrounded by his flash designs, the impressive monster mask selection at the adult novelties shop, and glimpses of a beguiling character we’ve nicknamed Knee Socks, the Soul of Main Street. Wouldn’t you love to hear his story?

If you dig these views and yearn to know more about old Skid Row, we’ll be going there Saturday on the John Fante tour, and in weeks to come on our Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits tours. And from now on, we’ll be walking in Robert Luthardt’s footprints, too.

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On The Road with William and Grace McCarthy

Over on the California State Archives website there’s a terrific new collection of amateur travel photography by William and Grace McCarthy, San Franciscans who traveled widely, camera at the ready, between 1905 and 1938.

We’re still digging through their photo albums, but in the Los Angeles section gems are thick on the ground. It’s the most fun we’ve had gawking since Anton Wagner’s photos went online.

What will you find there? How about a rare 1916 view of D.W. Griffith’s Gates of Babylon set from Intolerance, with electric poles and small bungalows reminding us that the film was shot in the middle of Los Feliz, about where the Vista Theater stands today.

Note the smoke stains at the center of the flat at left, suggesting that the flames coming out of Griffith’s rolling siege towers, seen in the screen grab below, were real. It’s a wonder the cast of thousands survived.

Hollywood’s stately Cheateau-esque Rollin B. Lane residence appears comical with the Bernheimer Brothers’ Japanese pavilion looming above, a Disneyfied juxtaposition decades before Walt staked his claim on California fantasy architecture. The Lane mansion, much expanded, entered from the side and always by automobile, is the famed Magic Castle Club today, and the Bernheimer is Yamashiro Restaurant.

The intent with this shot was to capture the statue of Senator Stephen M. White, but we’ve never seen a better image of the filigree details at the entrance of the great Red Sandstone Courthouse (1891, demolished 1936), our favorite lost Downtown landmark. Much of that stone survives in City Terrace Park.

Thanks to Mike McPhate’s California Sun newsletter for the tip about the newly digitized collection, and to Audrey Fullerton-Samora, William and Grace McCarthy’s great niece, for her generous donation. Too often these kinds of archives are broken up for resale, their context lost.

William and Grace seem like fun people, and we’re awfully glad for the chance to see the world through their eyes. Cuddle up!

Bullwinkle J. Moose lets it all hang out on the Sunset Strip

Once upon a time, in a sillier city, Jay Ward thought it would be fun to open a store at 8200 Sunset Boulevard, next to his animation studio at the eastern terminus of the Sunset Strip.

From 1972 through 2004, Dudley Do-Right’s Emporium was the place the find oddball items in the likeness of such timeless cartoon characters as Superchicken, Boris and Natasha, Snidely, Nell, George of the Jungle, Shep, Ape and Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Was it really a retail shop, or an elaborate, conceptual advertisement for Jay Ward’s animation services? When I lived half a block down on Havenhurst in the early 1990s, it was exceedingly rare to see an “open” sign in the window. And even in 1972, Jay Ward’s son Ron admitted to the L.A. Times that “we all like to take off early sometimes and go to the racetrack.”

Even before opening the store, Ward took advantage of his studio’s prime location along one of the world’s great advertising boulevards. The wonderful, and only recently removed, 14’ statue of Bullwinkle and Rocky parodied a long-forgotten Sahara Casino Hotel showgirl sign.

And then there was Jay Ward’s own low-rise billboard.

At first, Ward used the sign to poke fun at a competitor: a familiar, if moose-horned, rodent with the text “Mickey Mouse Wears A Bullwinkle Wristwatch.”

Tired of litigation threats, in summer 1972 the billboard was changed to parody Burt Reynolds’ April Cosmopolitan centerfold, a taboo busting, and career making, image that presaged a whole genre of exhibitionist celebrity nudeniks.

And now, in its only internet appearance, you can see this rare, delightful and rarely photographed artifact of Sunset Strip advertising culture. Just like Burt, but twice as hairy, Bullwinkle J. Moose is confidently sprawled across a bearskin rug with a chunky glass ashtray conveniently close, should anyone require a post-coital puff. “Eat Your Heart Out Burt Reynolds!” says the moose. If he ever saw this amazing thing, I bet he did.

Now here comes the mystery: this photograph was discovered loose in a largely uncatalogued collection of Los Angeles-related images at UCLA Special Collections. A handwritten, penciled notation on back identifies the location (legible), date of 11/72 (legible) and the photographer (not legible).

Is it Eudra Bohew? Eadie Bohein? There is a pair of tickets on the regularly scheduled Esotouric bus adventure of your choice for the first person who correctly identifies the artist. Update July 27: reader Lisa Lazoff has deciphered the name on the back of the photo as that of screenwriter-producer Endre Bohem. Congrats, Lisa, and see you on the bus!

Secrets of Los Angeles, 1932-33: The Anton Wagner files

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When lost Los Angeles is your beat, as it is ours, you’re dependent on the stray relics that survive in photographic archives, books and on film.

The buildings and vistas that obsess us were captured at precise moments and specific angles, and while we’re grateful for every scrap of documentation that survives, we also can’t count the times we’ve shaken our fists at the sky and exclaimed, “Damn it, if you had only stood ten feet to the left when you framed that shot!”

For nuts like us, there’s nothing more exciting than news of a new and previously unknown photographic archive, like George Mann’s color views of Bunker Hill or Herman J. Schultheis’ eclectic collection held by LAPL. We raise a virtual glass of frosty Eastside Old Tap Lager to these artists’ holy memories.

Today we add another camera-toting friend to that storied list, the creator of a body of work that we’re just getting to know. Anton Wagner came to Los Angeles in 1932 as a doctoral candidate at the ancient University of Kiel in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. To illustrate his thesis on the influence of the landscape on the life of the young metropolis, he took hundreds of photographs, all recently scanned by the California Historical Society.

As a stranger from the old world with a scientific interest in the place, his neutral eye settled on atypical scenes that no other photographer bothered to capture. And in these beautiful, high-resolution scans, we find a version of depression-era Los Angeles that is fresh and unfamiliar, filling in gaps we didn’t know were there.

We encourage you to explore the Anton Wagner collection and find your own treasures—and to post them in the commentsbut here are a few scenes that we found particularly thrilling.

• An unusual side view of the landmark Doria Apartments in the Pico-Union district, whose rooftop sign we were privileged to save from illegal alterations when we spotted the work while giving a true crime bus tour in 20111.

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Angels Flight Railway at her original site beside the Third Street Tunnel, with the funicular partly obscured by a Pacific Electric car and busy work crew. Photographers typically framed the railway in a romantic postcard manner, without obstruction. It’s fascinating to see it as part of the chaotic daily cityscape.

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• The storied Art Deco haberdasher Alexander & Oviatt caught at the moment of the liquidation sale which James Oviatt managed to put behind him through some masterful hustles at the bank down the block. His only-in-LA story was featured at our LAVA Sunday Salon with Marc Chevalier. (That odd-looking sidewalk? The black and white rubber blocks whose removal features in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake!)

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• A magnificently funky suite of Main Street storefronts on the site of today’s most unfunky police headquarters, among them a carnival sideshow-style reptile display promising a Mongoose vs. Cobra show that could only have been taxidermy.

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• A rare view of the short-lived Clifton’s Cafeteria on Hollywood Boulevard (center right).

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• There are shockingly empty undeveloped landscapes, like the hills of Silver Lake…

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• and Westwood’s Fox Theater looming like a California Mission on the naked plains…

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• and the wilds of the unchannelized Arroyo Seco winding through the wee township of Hermon…

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• and the Olympic Auditorium flanked by billboards and acres of dirt.

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• There’s the gateway to the lost Long Beach amusement village called The Pike, a year-round carnival sideshow whose wholesale destruction is one of the great cultural crimes of California’s redevelopment agencies. We’ll visit this exact site on Richard’s 2016 birthday bus adventure.

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• A stunning aerial view of the Garden of Allah hotel and bungalows, the center of snarky literary culture in the backwater of Hollywood.

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• Hungry? Here’s a palatial roadside sandwich joint at Wilshire and Le Doux.

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• And a generically named French Dipped Sandwich Shop on Grand Avenue that suggests the local favorite cut a wider swath that just from Philipe’s to Cole’s.

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• The undeveloped forest of Olive Hill (now Barnsdall Park), with Aline Barnsdall’s notorious left wing billboards promoting Louis Adamic’s just published Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America

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…while at far left, we catch a rare view of the swine-shaped sign for Kirby’s Pig Stand, a Texas BBQ chain that claims, along with California’s A & W Root Beer, to be America’s first drive-in restaurant.

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And all this is just scraping the surface of the gems to be found in the Anton Wagner collection, which we encourage you to explore at your leisure.

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We’ll close with a figure found exiting the Pike amusement zone, a handsome little old fellow who seems about to walk up to Wagner and inquire as to his work.

Perhaps the two of them will find that they are countrymen, and retire to a nearby tavern for beer and conversation.

We’ll leave these two to their further adventures in the magnificent young city that was Los Angeles. We can’t go with them, except in our dreams. And so to bed!