On a mythical, magical day, a Saturday, Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement for the Jews, I drove west to Chatsworth, across the Valley.
Dead ahead were the red and rocky Santa Susana Mountains. The temperature was probably about 106. The wind blew. The skies were clear. The air was sparkling. God was silent and beyond sight.
Crisp and fresh and hot were the walls along the new Busway, paralleling Owensmouth, a tidy industrial district north of Woodland Hills where tile shops and auto body stores are housed in flat, one-story windowless buildings. Lush plantings and solar lights line the deluxe bicycle path that is turning the wasteland of the West Valley into a denser, urban, bicycle and bus oriented urban green city.
This place once had two aspirations: asphalt and air conditioning. Pave over acres and erect an air-conditioned office, shopping mall and condo. This is all changing. The pedestrian now is protected, like an endangered species the government wants to propagate. If he is young, he will ride a bike and a bus. If he is old, he will live near shopping and walk to assisted living.
But I digress.
I was passing the future on my way to the past.
Destination was Valley Relics, 21630 Marilla St. Chatsworth CA 91311, begun and run by Tommy Gelinas, a tall, bald, large-footed native of this area who grew up here in the 1970s, and who still bears traces of the druggy, rocky, high and anti-intellectual time that gave birth to our current era. Inked on both arms, footed in Size 13 Nikes, he seems inoculated against age, forever young, curious and energetic.
Burned into him, like the daily sun of the Southland, is a passion for collecting all the signs, photos, yearbooks, cars, matchbooks, postcards and historical junk of the San Fernando Valley. His mission is to make something out of a place that some people think is nothing.
Outside there was a small sign, Valley Relics, and I drove past it, unaware, and had to turn around. I parked and walked up to the entrance. Waiting outside, was a table, and Shane, a tanned, well-built man signing guests into the facility.
Inside, I was hit by a burning blast of red and orange neon signs: gorgeous electrical advertising that once lit up the dark California nights of the San Fernando Valley: Mustang, The Tiffany, Palomino, Outrigger, Liquor. Names that conjured up mythologies and movies.
The Horseman and The Gambler.
The Surfer and The Drinker.
The San Fernando Valley when it was young and magical, fresh and enchanting.
And people back then acting out lives, buying for their imagined selves.
What exactly was the San Fernando Valley?
Looking around Valley Relics it was everything from Nudie’s Cadillac Eldorado Convertible decorated with handguns and thousands of silver coins, to an elaborately painted mural covering a VW Bug, KNAC “Pure Rock 105.5”, Dairy Queen and Bob’s Big Boy, Van Nuys Hardware Company, Alcoholics Anonymous; menus from Bailey’s Fresh Frozen Ice Cream, Smokey Joe’s, the Smoke House, Ho-Toy’s Restaurant; and Robert Fulton’s Junior High School Class of 1955.
60 years ago, hardly anyone in the SFV was a Chinese, a Cowboy or a Steamboat Captain, but we lived, ate and educated ourselves in those identities.
There were pictures and blueprints from developer Bob Symonds’ 1951 Valley Plaza and a bright yellow sign from Olsen’s Realty (“Hunting a Deal? Don’t Miss Us!”) at 10640 Sepulveda Blvd, Empire-1-8647.
And lit up again was the yellow, red and green sign from Henry’s Tacos, a beloved and cheap food mediocrity of Mexican beans and burritos which stood on the corner of Moorpark and Tujunga for over 50 years, and was replaced last year by something uglier and less loved.
In war and peace, the San Fernando Valley made money-making war machinery. Tommy spoke about Lockheed, the Burbank based colossus whose WWII weaponry helped defeat Hitler and “The Japs.”
“Lockheed ranked tenth among United States corporations in the value of wartime production contracts. All told, Lockheed and its subsidiary Vega produced 19,278 aircraft during World War II, representing six percent of war production, including 2,600 Venturas, 2,750 B-17 Flying Fortresses (built under license from Boeing), 2,900 Hudsons, and 9,000 Lightnings.”-Wikipedia
War, porn, TV shows, shopping centers, vast home construction on an industrial scale, the history of the San Fernando Valley in the last 70 years is stupendous and enormous.
In the glass cases of Valley Relics, yearbooks, black and white photos, color post cards, and feather-penned letters from Isaac Van Nuys hold ancient history and present it to modern eyes.
Dreamed up and watered by men who marshaled the water resources of California to irrigate this dry land, the San Fernando Valley wears a mask plastic, juvenile, frivolous and fun.
Valley Relics and Tommy Gelinas have lassoed and caught in their hands a crazy and conflicted and fascinating collection of fantastical memorabilia.
Like the universe, it is boundless and still growing, encompassing everything and anything that landed on the ground stretching from Burbank to West Hills, in the years covering the American Century.
It is worth a visit, to see what it was like, and to imagine what it might have been like to live here.