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The Ranch At Pooh Corner

Kenny Loggins & Jim Messina made several classic recordings at the Mother Lode Ranch.

By Mark Lewis

Back in the 1970s, the popular rock duo Loggins & Messina found a rural refuge on an Ojai ranch. Then the ranch was bought by a relative of Christopher Robin Milne, whose childhood friendship with his stuffed teddy bear inspired one of the duo’s most beloved songs.

In the spring of 1966, Kenny Loggins was a senior at San Gabriel Mission High School, and an aspiring songwriter. As the end of his high-school career approached, he was moved to write a song inspired by the first book he had ever read as a child.

“I wrote it during finals,” he says, in an interview published on his website. “We were coming on graduation, and it reminded me of the last chapter of the book ‘The House At Pooh Corner,’ where Christopher Robin is about to head out and leave Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood behind.”

The book’s author was an Englishman, A.A. Milne, who was inspired to write it after moving his family from London to a house at the edge of idyllic Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Here, he took his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, on walks in the forest, and wrote books inspired by the boy’s collection of stuffed animals, which included a teddy bear and a sad-looking donkey. These Winnie-the-Pooh books became enormously popular with children, which eventually prompted Walt Disney to acquire the rights to turn Pooh and his friends into animated cartoon characters. But it was Milne’s book, not Disney’s film, which inspired Loggins to write his song. This is how it begins:

Christopher Robin and I walked along

under branches lit up by the moon.

Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore

as our days disappeared all too soon.

In the book, Christopher Robin goes away to school, leaving Pooh behind. In real life, Loggins went off to Pasadena City College, but he took his “Pooh Corner” song with him. He already knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was that he already had written the song that would launch his career.

Three years later, he was hanging around the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, hustling his songs to whoever would listen. He struck pay dirt with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which was looking for material for their next album. In an interview with The Ojai Quarterly, the NGDB’s John McEuen recalls his initial impression of Loggins:  “An exuberant young songwriter was hanging around our dressing room and kept saying ‘Hey! I got some songs! You wanna record some of my songs! Can I play some for you? They’re really good! I think you’ll like them!’ ”

“House At Pooh Corner,” in particular, impressed the band — especially drummer Jimmy Ibbotson, who had loved the Milne books as a child. As for McEuen, he had not been particularly fond of the Pooh books, but he liked the song’s melody and its chord changes — and the story it tells about a person longing to return to a more innocent time in his life:

I’ve wandered much further today than I should

And I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood

So help me if you can, I’ve got to get

back to the house at Pooh Corner by 1 …

The Vietnam War was raging; there were protests and riots and killings. “Pooh Corner” allowed listeners to escape from all the angst, if only for three minutes. 

“It’s a good vacation song for the mind,” McEuen says. “Even if you weren’t a Winnie the Pooh fan, the song takes you away.”

McEuen took Loggins away to the living room of his Laurel Canyon home, where they recorded a seven-song demo on McEuen’s reel-to-reel. “Pooh Corner” was the first one they laid down, and it was one of four Loggins-penned songs that ended up on the NGDB’s 1970 breakthrough album “Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy.” “Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker, was the album’s big hit, but Loggins’ “Pooh Corner,” with Ibbotson singing lead, was the follow-up single.

It almost wasn’t released. The Walt Disney Company heard about it and dispatched lawyers to assert the company’s exclusive rights to the Pooh stories. McEuen gave Loggins the bad news, and Loggins shared his disappointment with his girlfriend at the time.

“Disney lawyers?” she asked. “Let me talk to Daddy about that.”

It somehow had escaped Loggins’ notice that his girlfriend’s father was president of the Walt Disney Company. She arranged a meeting at which Loggins played him the song.

“And the next day it was OK,” McEuen says. 

MESSINA SITS IN

As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version of “Pooh Corner” began climbing the singles charts in April 1971, Loggins already was recording his own version for his own album. The song had helped him land a recording contract with Columbia Records, which had paired him with a high-powered producer: Jim Messina.

Messina already had produced (and played with) Buffalo Springfield, and had co-founded Poco, which was pioneering a new genre; country rock. But Messina had recently quit Poco because he wanted to stop touring and be a full-time producer.

“It ended up that the first artist he wanted to produce was Kenny,” says Jenny Sullivan, the actress and theater director, who was married to Messina at the time.

Unlike Loggins, Messina had not read the Milne books. His childhood tastes ran more to TV westerns.

“I must admit that at the same age that Kenny was into Winnie the Pooh, I was into Hopalong Cassidy,” he says. “Hence my subsequent interest in country-rock music.”

Loggins’ Pooh song fell more into the folk-rock category. But it was too good not to use, especially after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had made it a hit. 

Messina’s contributions to the album went well beyond producing, to the point that he and Loggins decided to release it under both their names, as a duo: “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” Three years and three hit albums later, Loggins & Messina was an established success. But Jim Messina had had enough of life in L.A. He wanted to live closer to nature.

“My father-in-law, Barry Sullivan, suggested we take a look at Ojai,” Messina says.

Barry Sullivan was a well-known movie actor and a golf enthusiast who had long enjoyed staying at the Ojai Valley Inn. His daughter Jenny remembered spending family holidays at the Inn when she was young, and later returning to Ojai as a high-school tennis player to compete in The Ojai annual tournament. Now, early in 1974, she found herself returning as a resident.

She and Messina found the perfect spot — the Cim-Bam Ranch, a former Arabian horse farm that sprawled across 20 acres in the hills high above Creek Road, just south of the village. They plunked down $200,000 in cash for it, and renamed it the Mother Lode Ranch.

“That was exactly what we were looking for,” Sullivan says.

Messina agreed, especially when he saw the stables, which could be converted into a bunkhouse for visiting musicians. Part of Ojai’s appeal for Messina was that he could corral Loggins and their backing band on this isolated ranch and focus on making albums without all the distractions of big-city living.

“We turned all the stalls and stables into little guest rooms,” he says. “We turned the main house into a recording facility.”

The band made three albums there from 1974 to 1976: “Mother Lode,” “So Fine” and “Native Sons.” These three years constitute a legendary era among many Ojai musicians who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, who suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with honest-to-God rock stars in their midst. (Loggins lived in Santa Barbara but spent much time in Ojai, where he rented a cottage in what is now the Troy Lodge Cottages (on Mallory Way). Loggins & Messina were riding high on the national charts — Their live album “On Stage” rose to No. 5 in 1974, with “Pooh Corner” as the lead-off track. Yet they happily socialized — and made music — with local musicians such as Alan Thornhill, forging connections that endure to this day.

“They were very accessible,” Thornhill says. “It was a very cool scene.”

They were regulars at the Ranch House restaurant, at the Matilija and Wheeler Hot Springs resorts, and in such places as the Solar Winds health-food store. Loggins would jump on stage at the Sand Dollar (now the Asian Fusion Garden) to jam with the Country Z Men, a local band whose lineup included Thornhill and Martin Young — and bass player George Hawkins, who later toured with Loggins & Messina as part of their backing band.

Sullivan and Messina also took an interest in the Art Center, where Sullivan tried her hand at directing plays, including a Christmas show featuring her father and a staging of  “The Gin Game” featuring her mother, Marie Sullivan. “And I found that I really liked it,” she says. This was the start of Sullivan’s distinguished career as a theater director. (She directed last year’s well-received Rubicon Theatre production of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

“Jimmy and Jenny were top-of-the-line folks,” says Scott Eckersley, who did a lot of work for the Messinas on their ranch. He installed a hot tub, helped to build a barn, and carved a bunch of wooden signs, most prominently the“Mother Lode Ranch” sign that hung over the entrance to the driveway. He also socialized there with the Messinas and their guests.

“I was there a lot,” he says. “I smoked a joint on the porch one time with Graham Nash.”

Another time, Eckersley and his wife were hosting Loggins for dinner at their home when the singer’s muse suddenly kicked in.

“He jumped up from the dinner table and started writing a song,” Eckersley recalls. The song — “Brighter Days” — ended up on the “Mother Lode” album.

Messina, meanwhile, had written “Be Free” for “Mother Lode,” which he describes as “the soundtrack” of his time in Ojai. The song is about a man stuck in the city who yearns to escape to the country:

I want to get away and live  my life

in the rivers and trees.

I want to spend the days making rhyme

and be free.

Ojai was Messina’s refuge from L.A., but at the same time, his and Jenny’s presence here brought a touch of L.A. rock ‘n’ roll glamour to Ojai — especially on July 14, 1974, when the couple hosted the wedding of Jenny’s sister Patsy Sullivan to the songwriter Jimmy Webb, composer of “MacArthur Park” and other classic hits. Several rock stars were among the reported 400 guests at the ranch that day, including Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson and Johnny Rivers. The bride arrived in the vintage Rolls Royce that James Dean had used in the movie “Giant,” and there was also a tethered hot-air balloon on hand (because Webb had written the Fifth Dimension hit “Up, Up and Away”).

“It was quite the splashy event,” Sullivan recalls.

It was big news in Ojai, for sure. People tried to crash the party as though it were Woodstock.

“We had guards everywhere,” Eckersley says.

The Loggins & Messina era in Ojai eventually came to an end due to two mostly amicable divorces: that of Loggins and Messina, who went their separate professional ways in 1976, and that of Messina and Sullivan, who split up a couple of years later. Whoever bought the ranch from them in 1978 did not keep it long, because a year later it was sold again — to a buyer named Milne.

THE TWENTY-

ACRE WOOD

Mimi Milne did not read the Pooh books as a child, but she knew she had some sort of connection with them because of something that happened when she was 9 or 10 and visiting her paternal grandfather.

“He pulled out a book with ‘A.A. Milne’ on the front of it and he said, ‘This is my uncle.’ ”

Or perhaps he said “cousin.” Anyway he asserted the family connection, which Mimi in later years enjoyed sharing with people who were intrigued by her last name.

“People would say to me, ‘Oh, are you related to A.A. Milne?’ And I’d say, ‘As a matter of fact I am!’”

Mimi’s father, Frank Milne, never talked about the Winnie the Pooh connection. He was more interested in telling stories about his own very interesting life.

Frank Stanley Milne was born in 1910 on Blue Bell Hill in Kent in England, not far from Ashdown Forest. But there is no evidence that Frank ever met his cousin A.A. Milne, and he definitely never met A.A.’s son Christopher Robin, who was born in 1920. By that point, Frank’s father already had packed up his family and emigrated from England, eventually settling in Portland, Ore.

Frank’s colorful career included a stint as a bootlegger during Prohibition. Later, he served with the Army in Europe during World War II. After the war he hired on with Harry Mann Chevrolet in Los Angeles, where he worked his way up to general manager and eventually bought the dealership.

When Chevrolet introduced its Corvette sports car in 1953, Frank Milne was quick to spot its potential. Under his leadership, Harry Mann became reportedly the largest Corvette dealer in America.

“He was Mr. Corvette,” Mimi says of her father. “When the Corvette came out, he just zeroed in on it. He said, ‘This is going to be the future of Chevrolet.’ ”

In 1979, Frank was pushing 70 and still going strong at the dealership, but he was receptive when his wife, Eva, told him she wanted to buy a ranch in Ojai. According to Mimi, Eva arrived at this decision while she was staying at the Oaks at Ojai spa. She went for a walk along Creek Road and had an epiphany near the driveway of her future home.

  “She said ‘Yes, a place like this.’ She got back to the spa and she called David Mason,” Mimi recalls. “He says, ‘Oh, I have a perfect place for you.’ They drove up tdriveway and she said, ‘This is it.’ “

Mason recalls it a little differently.

“I sold it to them because of a silver teapot,” he says.

The teapot was an item for sale in his Village Florist shop in the Arcade. (Mason also sold real estate on the side.) Eva came into the shop one day and admired the teapot, and they struck up a friendship.

“She’s probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” he says.

When she told him she wanted to buy a ranch in Ojai, he showed her two places she liked: The property on Creek Road and another on Carne Road in the East End. Eva then had Mason show both places to her husband, and Frank voted for the erstwhile Mother Lode Ranch. He cashed in his collection of gold Krugerrands and bought it.

“He just fell in love with it,” Mason says. “When Frank and Eva bought it, I wrapped up that silver teapot and gave it to them as a housewarming gift.”

Mimi soon followed her parents to Ojai, establishing her Bird in Paradise clothing store on East Matilija Street in the space now occupied by the Porch Gallery. (Mimi’s current business is Ojai Chocolat.) She didn’t live on her parents’ Creek Road property, which they called Oak Tree Ranch, but she spent a lot of time there.

“We used to have great parties up there,” she says.

Eva, an organic gardener, gave lessons on how to compost. Frank was notable in Ojai for his collection of sports cars — not just Corvettes but a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, most of them painted a vivid red. His brother Doug Milne moved in and spent years working on a biography of Howard Hughes, which he never published.

The Milnes became aware of the Loggins & Messina connection to the ranch when a nostalgic Jim Messina dropped by one day to have a look around.

“Years ago, he came up and talked to my Mom and Dad,” Mimi says.

None of them noticed the coincidence that linked the Milne name to the beloved Loggins & Messina song “House At Pooh Corner.” Mimi was not present for this conversation, but if she had been, she probably wouldn’t have made the connection either. She was familiar with Loggins & Messina, but had not noticed that one of their songs was inspired by the work of her father’s famous relative.

“I knew their music because it was of the time,” she says. “But I never really paid that much attention to the song.”

RETURN TO POOH CORNER

“I put in this fence.”

Scott Eckersley indicates his handiwork — the picket fence, the barn, the hot tub hut. It is May 2017, and he has not set foot on the former Mother Lode Ranch in almost 40 years. On a table near the swimming pool sits a photo album, opened to reveal a glossy of Jimmy Webb and Patsy Sullivan exchanging their vows there back in 1974, with two long-haired blondes in the background: Joni Mitchell to the left, Ojai’s own Martin Young to the right.

“That’s Martin,” Eckersley says, smiling. 

Frank Milne died in 2008, at 98. Eva still lives on the ranch. There have been many changes over the years, but the same buildings are still there, and the pool, and the magnificent view.     

Jim Messina weighs in via phone and email from his Santa Ynez ranch: “Please extend my love to the people of the Ojai Valley for making my life and Jenny’s a whole lot better because of their community, friendship and support.”

Messina is not just being polite. He still has all those wooden signs Eckersley carved for him, which now adorn his barn in Santa Ynez. He looks back fondly on his Mother Lode Ranch period, when Ojai played the role of the Hundred Acre Wood, providing an idyllic refuge for him and Jenny and their friends, until — like Christopher Robin — they had to move on.

“It was a really creative spot,” he says.

Messina and his second wife have put their Santa Ynez place up for sale and are preparing to move to a ranch in Montana. But he’ll take at least one Ojai souvenir with him: Eckersley’s “Mother Lode Ranch” sign.

“We’ve got to do that,” he says. “We’ll put it up on the barn someplace.”

Loggins could not be reached for an interview, but he regularly drives to Ojai from his home near Santa Barbara to make albums at Brotheryn Studios on Bryant Street.

“He still comes here constantly,” says his producer, Brotheryn’s Jesse Siebenberg (who as a musician has toured separately with Loggins, Messina and John McEuen).

Loggins also frequently revisits his song “House At Pooh Corner.” After he became a father, he wrote a new verse and re-recorded it as “Return To Pooh Corner,” the title song on his 1994 album aimed at children. Six years later he released a similar album,More Songs From Pooh Corner.” He sang the song during his reunion tours with Messina in 2005 and 2009, and it remains a staple of his live shows.

The same is true of John McEuen, who still performs the song with his sons Jonathan and Nathan, both of who are longtime veterans of the Ventura County music scene. (Jonathan’s upcoming album currently is being mixed in Ojai.)

Jonathan McEuen says he learned the “House On Pooh Corner” song by listening to the original reel-to-reel demo Loggins recorded in John McEuen’s living room all those years ago. John, Jonathan and Nathan performed it live in Ojai last September at the Topa Mountain Winery, where they introduced the song to a new generation of Winnie the Pooh fans.

“There were a lot of kids there,” Jonathan says. “They loved it!”

The McCuens at Topa Mountain Winery.

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Selling Shangri-LA

View from Dennison Grade. Photo by Tim Hauf

View from Dennison Grade. Photo by Tim Hauf

How Ojai used the power of myth — and marketing — to leverage Charles Nordhoff’s book and Frank Capra’s film into an enduring claim to fame. 

“Nestled in a valley at the foot of the Topatopa mountains, some 80 miles north of Los Angeles, the sleepy town of Ojai has a well-deserved reputation as California’s very own Shangri-La: It provided the backdrop for Frank Capra’s 1937 movie “Lost Horizon.” Since then, with its fabled electromagnetic forces, hidden hot springs, and jaw-dropping sunsets (known locally as “pink moments”), it has become the under-the-radar getaway of choice for L.A.’s Hollywood A-listers like Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway.”

Vogue, October 19, 2015

By Mark Lewis

Ojai is no longer under the radar, thanks to a recent spate of articles like this one, in Vogue and other national publications. Many valley residents, especially those not of the New Age or neo-hippie persuasion, fail to recognize their community in these articles, which tend to assume the existence of spiritual vortexes, and to view Ojai as a weekend playground for Hollywood hipsters. But everyone who lives here gets the Shangri-La reference: Ojai as a hidden valley paradise, a peaceful refuge from a strife-torn world.

This is true even of people who have not seen Frank Capra’s famous film, or read the 1933 James Hilton novel on which it was based. Everyone knows that Ojai was Hollywood’s idea of what Shangri-La looked like, long before Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway found their way here.

But was it really? The Ojai Quarterly searched the Los Angeles Times online database for the earliest reference to Ojai as Shangri-La. We found it in a Lee Shippey column from May 1941, in which Shippey explained Ojai’s origins:

“There were only a few families in this valley when Charles Nordhoff came here … in about 1870, and Nordhoff wrote ‘California for Health,’ a book which possibly did more to interest the rest of America in California than anything had done since the gold rush.”

In gratitude, the new town named itself Nordhoff, Shippey wrote. But during World War I, that name was deemed “too Germanic,” he continued. “So the name was change to Ojai … and the spirit of the Theosophist center and Krishnamurti’s community has so permeated the whole valley that it has become a sort of Shangri-La.”

Here, in a nutshell, is Ojai’s origin myth. But what’s the real story? Was Ojai in fact an undiscovered backwoods Shangri-La until Charles Nordhoff stumbled upon it circa 1870, and then (like Ronald Colman in the Capra film) made his way back to civilization to tell the world about its hidden, healing wonders?

A few facts can be ascertained. Unsurprisingly, many of them have to do with publicity and advertising and real-estate promotion. Now, we at the OQ do not object to such things. Not at all. (You will find this issue flush with real estate ads, and we would gladly print more.) But when it comes to Ojai’s origins, a duty to history impels us to gently peel back the layers of hype to try to determine where reality ends and the myth-making begins.

 

SPA TOWN

Our story begins in 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed. To help boost traffic on the new line, the Central Pacific Railroad decided to generate some publicity by subsidizing a junket to California by the well-known Eastern journalist Charles Nordhoff. The results were nothing short of spectacular.

Southern California was sparsely populated at the time, and the Ojai Valley was barely populated at all. The Chumash villages that once dotted the valley were long gone, and most of the land belonged to an Eastern railroad tycoon who had hoped to find oil here. When that didn’t work out, his agent began to subdivide the acreage and offer it for sale to farmers and ranchers. He found few takers – until Nordhoff published his book “California For Health, Pleasure and Residence,” which came out in June 1872 and sparked an epic stampede toward the new Promised Land.

Nordhoff had not visited the Ojai Valley or mentioned it in his book. But he praised Santa Barbara as a natural sanitarium for people suffering from respiratory illnesses. Nordhoff’s book “caused a stream of one-lunged pilgrims to flow into that Mecca,” recalled John Montgomery, who moved to Santa Barbara from Mexico, seeking a healthier climate for his asthmatic wife.

Despite Nordhoff’s endorsement, some invalids found Santa Barbara too foggy to suit them. They heard about an alternative health resort some 30 miles to the east, higher and drier than Santa Barbara, and more reasonably priced. John Montgomery was among the curious who ventured inland to check it out.

This was the Ojai, where a man named Wilcox recently had discovered a hot spring in Matilija Canyon. An enterprising Ventura businessman named R.M. Brown decided to transform the canyon into the Saratoga Springs of California. He bought Wilcox’s property, built a road to the canyon, put up a resort hotel, and placed newspaper ads announcing to the world in September 1873 that San Buenaventura Hot Springs was open for business.

A farmer named W.S. McKee jumped on the bandwagon by building a rustic sanitarium in the middle of the Ojai Valley, at what is now the northeast corner of Ojai Avenue and Gridley Road. Ojai now had the makings of a spa town. All that was missing was the town.

Enter Royce G. Surdam, yet another enterprising Ventura businessman. In the fall of 1873 he began promoting a new town site, about a half-mile west of McKee’s sanitarium. Surdam’s idea was to jump on the Nordhoff-inspired health-boom bandwagon by marketing his proposed town as sort of a municipal sanitarium, where the dry air would cure just about whatever ailed you. But first, to get the ball rolling, he needed a hotel.

“Mr. R.G. Surdam, a gentleman who owns a large tract in the White Oak Flat on the Ojai, will give to any party who will agree to build a good hotel on the ground, twenty acres of very desirable land,” ran a notice Surdam placed in the Los Angeles Daily Herald on December 31, 1873.

The ad caught the eye of Abram Blumberg, a lawyer who — inspired by Nordhoff’s writings — recently had moved his family from Illinois to Los Angeles in a bid to improve his wife’s health. Catherine Blumberg was doing no better in L.A., so the family decided to try their luck in the Ojai. Abram took Surdam up on his offer and started building a hotel near the current site of the Libbey Park fountain.

As this hotel was nearing completion, Catherine suggested that the new town be named Nordhoff, to honor the man whose writings had brought them there. Surdam embraced the idea, perhaps less to honor Nordhoff than to imply that the new town bore the famous writer’s imprimatur. So the hotel was dubbed the Nordhoff House, and Nordhoff was the name conveyed to Washington, D.C., as the proposed site of a new post office. The postal authorities in due course approved the suggestion, and officially placed Nordhoff, California on the map.

The choice of name was a publicity stunt, and it worked. The new resort prospered. More hot springs hotels opened in the Matilija Canyon area, and more well-to-do invalids chose to winter in the Nordhoff House (soon renamed the Ojai Valley House) or in McKee’s sanitarium (renamed the Oak Glen Cottages).  Over time, the resort grew into an actual town, as visitors built homes and became year-round residents. (Among them was John Montgomery, whose original home still stands on East Matilija Street. It now houses the Porch Gallery.)

Charles Nordhoff returned to Santa Barbara in October 1881 while researching a second edition of his book, and one day he ventured over the Casitas Pass to pass a weekend in his namesake town. Evidently he liked what he saw; or perhaps he was merely susceptible to flattery. In any case, when the updated edition of “California for Health, Pleasure and Residence” came out in 1882, it identified the Ojai Valley House as “the best winter resort in Southern California.”

The publicity stunt had come full circle, as Nordhoff rewrote his book to read like one of Surdam’s ads: “The advantages of a climate beneficial for invalids, especially those suffering with pulmonary and asthmatic complaints, are probably more thoroughly combined in the Ojai than anywhere else.”

Over the years, the precise details of how Nordhoff got its name would gradually fade from memory, and travel writers who visited the town would come away with the impression that it had been named for the famous author in gratitude for what he wrote about it in his hugely influential book.  This version of the story was printed in the Los Angeles Times as early as 1891, and later was enshrined in Walter Bristol’s 1946 book “The Story of the Ojai Valley” – and it endures in some quarters to this day, despite having been debunked by local historians.

Thus the myth was born that Charles Nordhoff put this town on the map. In truth, it was the town that put the author on the map, by giving his name to its post office. But only for 43 years.

 

RAMONA VS. THE HUNS

By 1916, the town’s original name had outlived its usefulness. Charles Nordhoff was dead, and his books now languished unread.

The town of Nordhoff remained a tourist destination, and among its regular visitors was Edward Libbey, a glass magnate from Toledo, Ohio, who in 1916 was giving the downtown  district an ambitious Mission Revival makeover. That fall, as Libbey’s minions constructed the Arcade, the Pergola and the Post Office Tower, his allies launched a campaign to change the town’s name to Ojai.

Local historians have long asserted that the primary motivation for the change was the anti-German hysteria that swept America during the First World War. But the impetus to change the name came several months before America entered the war. “Ojai is all right,” noted the local newspaper in January 1917, “and as an advertising asset is more valuable than ‘Nordhoff.’ ”

Nordhoff was a grossly inappropriate name for a town that was going through a great deal of trouble to rebrand itself as a romantic-looking relic of the Mission era. Fortuitously, as construction on Libbey’s project began in earnest in August 1916, the new Hollywood epic “Ramona” was booked into the Isis, Nordhoff’s new Mission Revival-style movie theater. “Ramona,” directed by Donald Crisp, was based on the massively popular novel of the same name by Helen Hunt Jackson, which had touched off the Mission Revival craze that was transforming the look of Southern California. The newspaper noted with pride that part of the movie had been filmed right here in town. If Hollywood considered the valley an appropriate setting for “Ramona,” the local cognoscenti were happy to agree. They went all in for the Mission makeover, and that meant changing the town’s name as well.

(The school district apparently did not agree; the public high school is still called “Nordhoff” to this day.)

“Ojai” is derived from a Chumash word, and it sounds vaguely Spanish, so it suited the town’s new image. But the name could not be changed overnight. Nordhoff was not yet an incorporated city; it still owed its place on the map to its post office, so changing the name was a federal matter. In early January, the town’s leaders sent a name-change petition to the county commissioners, who endorsed it and forwarded it to Washington, where postal authorities deliberated upon the matter for several months. Meanwhile, February brought the shocking news that Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and was secretly trying to sign up Mexico as a potential ally in a war with America. Now, indeed, anti-German fever began to sweep the land. But Nordhoff’s decision to change its name to Ojai already had been made.

The town celebrated its new name and new look with a massive party on April 7, the first Ojai Day — which, coincidentally, fell the day after Congress declared war on Germany. Inevitably, these simultaneous events became linked in people’s minds, and soon in the pages of the local newspaper. Thus (in this writer’s opinion) the legend was born that Ojai had jettisoned “Nordhoff” due to anti-Hun hysteria. Whereas in fact the residents already had switched to Ojai for the same reason they had adopted Nordhoff in the first place – as a shrewd marketing move, calculated to draw more visitors to a town that still earned the better part of its living from tourism.

 

ENTER KRISHNAMURTI

The new name was carved in stone – legally speaking – on Aug. 5, 1921, the day Ojai incorporated as a city. By this point, Ojai’s self-marketing efforts leaned heavily to tinted color postcards featuring flowers and orange groves. (Many of these will be featured in “Wish You Were Here,” an Ojai Valley Museum exhibit that will open on Jan. 16 and run through March 27.) But the valley remained a noted destination for visitors with respiratory illnesses – such as Jiddu Nityananda, a young man from India who arrived here in the summer of 1922 with his brother, Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Nityananda, alas, found no cure in Ojai; he was dead of tuberculosis within three years. But his brother would live here on and off for the rest of his very long life, and in the process, would have a profound effect on how the world viewed Ojai.

Krishnamurti was the anointed messiah of the Theosophical Society, led by the Englishwoman Annie Besant. After he settled in Ojai, other Theosophists followed – including Besant herself, who arrived for an extended visit in 1926.

“I find that your valley has an atmosphere of peace, tranquility and spirituality that is most reminiscent of India in these respects than any other part of the globe that I have visited,” she announced.

This is where Ojai acquired its “spiritual” label. Besant bought up large chunks of the valley to serve as a haven for the more highly evolved race of people that she expected to arise in California, with Ojai as their mecca and Krishnamurti as their World Teacher.

Now it was the Theosophists’ turn to market the valley to the outside world. Their magazines regularly featured articles such as “Ojai: A Cradle of the Future” by George S. Arundale, “Shining Ones (Ojai)” by John Burton, and “Ojai and Ommen” by future valley resident Beatrice Wood. Even after Krishnamurti renounced the World Teacher role in 1929, Theosophists and like-minded New Age pilgrims still flocked to Ojai to bask in its alleged spiritual vortex – and they continue to do so to this day.

 

So where does Shangri-La come in? The fictional Tibetan valley was a brainchild of the British novelist James Hilton, a non-Theosophist whose book “Lost Horizon” was a 1933 bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Its hero is a British diplomat named Robert Conway, who crash-lands in the Himalayas and finds refuge in a lamasery tucked away in a hidden valley paradise of unsurpassed loveliness, where people live long, happy lives under the guidance of a mysterious High Lama.

Capra filmed his version of the book in 1936, starring Ronald Colman as Conway. Most of the film was shot in a Columbia Pictures soundstage in Burbank, and elsewhere in L.A. Some exterior scenes were filmed further afield, in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs and at an outdoor movie set called Sherwood Forest, near what is now Westlake Village.

Capra shot more than a million feet of film, yet amid all that footage there was no view of Shangri-La that seemed right to James Hilton. The novelist had moved to Hollywood to write films, and while he did not write the script for “Lost Horizon,” he apparently was shown an early cut of the film. He shared his misgivings with his friend Connie Wash, a socialite who resided in the valley’s East End.

“I told him, ‘I have it on toast, darling,’ Wash said years later, in an interview with Brenda Loree, a former Ojai Valley News writer who now lives in Ventura.

“And she took him up to Dennison Grade,” Loree told the OQ. “And he said, ‘This is it.’ ”

Per Wash’s version of events, Hilton recommended the Dennison Grade vista to Capra, and the rest is history. But, as OQ arts columnist Anca Colbert pointed out in our Fall 2014 issue, no trace of any shot taken from atop the grade can be found in the film – not even in the reconstructed version, meticulously restored to its original, 132-minute length.

According to film historians, Ojai is represented in “Lost Horizon” only by a brief aerial shot looking down on what appears to be the Ventura River near Meiners Oaks. This, in the film, is what Robert Conway sees when he gazes down from the lamasery into the Valley of the Blue Moon. The shot lasts three seconds at most, and it’s nothing like the iconic “Shangri-La” view from the top of Dennison Grade, which looks out over a lovely panorama of East End orchards sheltering under the mountainous Nordhoff Ridge. Instantly recognizable as Ojai, the Dennison Grade view has been linked to Capra’s “Lost Horizon” by thousands of travel writers over the years. But it’s not in the film.

There is a theory that a Grade shot, augmented by special effects, was used in the three-hour-plus version of the film that Capra previewed in Santa Barbara in November 1936. That preview was a disaster, prompting Columbia to cut the film down to 132 minutes before its March 1937 opening. In the process, the Dennison Grade shot presumably ended up on the cutting room floor. Be that as it may, that three-second shot of the river is all of the Ojai Valley that can be seen in the film, and no one would recognize it as Ojai. Yet from that tiny seed a mighty legend eventually grew.

As noted above, the first published reference we could find in the Times to Ojai as Shangri-La was in that Lee Shippey column from May 1941. But Shippey made no reference to Capra’s film. He based his observation on Ojai’s reputation as a Theosophist haven. After all, Theosophy’s nineteenth-century founder, Helena Blavatsky, claimed that she learned its tenets from masters she encountered in the mountains of Tibet. And now her spiritual descendants had found their way to the Ojai, a beautiful, isolated valley surrounded by mountains. Shippey did not have to invoke Hollywood’s blessing to conclude that here was a real-life Shangri-La.

Nevertheless, it may have been a Hollywood version of “Lost Horizon” that finally cemented Ojai’s reputation as the original setting for Shangri-La. Not Capra’s 1937 film, but producer Ross Hunter’s disastrous 1973 remake, a musical version starring Peter Finch as Conway. Hunter’s film opened on March 14, 1973, amid enormous publicity. The reviews were terrible and the film quickly sank into oblivion – but not before it inspired one anonymous travel writer to identify Ojai as the original Shangri-La.

None of the remake was shot in Ojai, but all the attendant publicity apparently prompted someone — Connie Wash? The Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce? — to pitch a Times travel story identifying Ojai as the original Shangri-La. And so, on March 11, 1973, for the first time ever, the Times explicitly linked the Ojai Valley to Capra’s film: “When you pause at the lookout on the Dennison Grade enjoying the beautiful panorama of the Ojai Valley, you’re seeing what on the screen was actor Ronald Colman’s view of mythical Shangri-La in the motion picture ‘Lost Horizon.’ “

The piece, headlined “Shangri-La Alias Ojai Valley,” carried no byline, so we don’t know whom to thank for it. But this story, by this unknown scribe, may be the ur-text for Ojai’s spurious but highly profitable reputation as Hollywood’s Shangri-La.

Later, in the ‘80s, when Times columnist Jack Smith dared to identify some other valley as Shangri-La, Brenda Loree wrote in to set him straight. Loree herself had never seen Capra’s film, but she retailed Wash’s story and Smith bought it. From then on, he referred to Ojai as the real-life setting for Capra’s Shangri-La.

“That’s how the myth continues,” Loree told the OQ.

Why is it that Vogue (to cite only the most recent example) identifies Ojai as Capra’s Shangri-La, and not, say, Burbank? Because Ojai looks like we imagine Shangri-La would look, if it existed. This is the power of myth: to give us something we want to believe in, and make it seem plausible.

Remember the last lines of Capra’s film, delivered by Conway’s colleague Lord Gainesford in a London club. Gainesford has just explained to some fellow clubmen that Conway is back in Tibet, desperately trying to find his way back to that hidden valley in the Himalayas. The clubmen assume that no such valley exists, and that Conway simply has gone mad. But Gainesford raises a glass to wish him luck:

“Yes, I believe it,” Gainesford says. “I believe it because I want to believe it. Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Here’s my hope that Robert Conway will find his Shangri-La. Here’s my hope that we all find our Shangri-La.”

 

PRINT THE LEGEND

Amiable cynics that we are here at the OQ, we have plumbed the depths of the Times database (along with other sources) and verified that Ojai originally was conceived by frontier hucksters as a long-shot real-estate venture, and sustained over the years by a series of publicity stunts and marketing strategies that tied the valley first to Charles Nordhoff, then to “Ramona,” and finally to “Lost Horizon,” all as part of a ceaseless campaign to keep the tourists coming.

Do we therefore scoff at those credulous souls who embrace the more ennobling Shangri-La myth? Not on your life.

That old Timesman Lee Shippey knew what he was about when he connected the real-life Charles Nordhoff with the fictional Robert Conway — two intrepid heroes who allegedly stumbled across a magical valley and made it famous. Did it really happen that way? No. But this is how memory works: Not by preserving an accurate account of the past, but by creating a useful account of the past. This is how narratives emerge spontaneously from the brains of writers as they peck away at their keyboards, struggling to get at a truth that is bigger than the facts.

Consider the material at Shippey’s disposal as he sat down to write that column. Beautiful, hidden valley, surrounded by mountains? Check. Reputation as a health resort, with the power to prolong lives? Check. Presence of a mysterious High Lama figure, said to be a source of great wisdom? Check.  As we say in the business, the story wrote itself.

Historians must struggle against this tendency, and strive for accuracy. But history serves one purpose and myth another. Few of us want to live without any illusions. And all of us who have been fortunate enough to find our way to this beautiful valley can stand atop Dennison Grade and say, with James Hilton, “This is it.”

So we at the OQ won’t be contacting the editors of Vogue to demand a correction regarding Ojai and Capra and “Lost Horizon.”

In fact, forget everything you just read. We take our stand with the reporter in another classic film, John Ford’s Western “The Man The Who Shot Liberty Valance,” who learns the less-than-flattering truth about the hero’s origin story, but declines to print it:

“This is the West, sir,” he says, as the film ends. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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The Century of Cinema

OJAI’S LASTING PICTURE SHOW

By Mark Lewis

In the spring of 1914, America’s love affair with the movies was entering an exciting new phase. All across the nation, tiny storefront nickelodeons playing one- and two-reelers were giving way to exotic-looking movie theaters with much bigger screens, the better to showcase the new feature-length films. In New York, the first full-fledged movie palace, the Mark Strand, opened in Times Square on April 11. In Hollywood, D.W. Griffith was gearing up to film “The Birth of a Nation.” And people everywhere were addicted to “The Perils of Pauline,” a thrilling new cliffhanger serial starring Pearl White. The dastardly villain had left her tied up on the railroad tracks, with a train fast approaching. However would she escape? Ojai Valley residents would have to travel to Ventura to find out, for there was no movie theater in the valley.

Getting to Ventura was quite a chore that spring. In late January, the great flood of 1914 had torn up the railroad tracks, wiped out the highway and knocked down the telegraph and telephone poles, cutting the valley off from the outside world. Much of the damage had been repaired by April 17, when the valley’s leading citizens gathered at Edward Libbey’s Ojai Inn for a banquet and a strategy session. Their top priority was to persuade the county to build a new, higher-and-dryer highway that would not be washed away by the next flood. They were thinking about their own perils, not those of Pauline.

But one man present at that banquet was more attuned to the goings on in Hollywood. J. J. Burke knew little or nothing about the picture business, but he knew quite a lot about the real estate business, and he smelled opportunity. The point of the banquet was to shape the valley’s future, and Burke already had taken steps to assure that that future would include a movie theater.

 

THE BIRTH OF A NOTION

Edward Drummond Libbey was not one of the banquet’s scheduled speakers. But when toastmaster Sherman D. Thacher invited him to say a few words, Libbey rose to his feet.

“As a pleasant surprise to many, E.D. Libbey responded to a request from the toastmaster and gave a witty and entertaining talk, relative to his new interests in this place,” the town newspaper later reported. “He spoke of our great possibilities and of the future of the valley if we organized ourselves into a body for the advancement of the interests and the enterprises of the community.”

Libbey wanted to transform the town’s ramshackle business district into an architectural gem. He had just bought the blacksmith shop at the southeast corner of Signal Street and Ojai Avenue, where one day his Post Office Tower would rise. But to fully realize his vision, Libbey would have to persuade the town’s business owners to buy into his concept. He needed the support of one man in particular: J. J. Burke, whose real estate office sat directly across Ojai Avenue from the Ojai Inn. (Burke’s old office is still there, in the Arcade; nowadays it houses the Love Heals jewelry store.)

Burke was the town’s main mover and shaker, the man primarily responsible for bringing in the railroad, for building the Foothills Hotel, for founding the Ojai State Bank, and for wiring the valley for electricity. Burke was a practical-minded, bottom-line guy; if he supported Libbey, the other businessmen would fall in line. So Libbey must have been pleased when Burke rose to endorse a civic-minded agenda.

“In this beautiful, quiet spot, we have a tendency to withdraw deeper into our human shells, and only gatherings of this kind can foster a spirit of public interest and good brotherly feeling that will rebound to the benefit of both community and individual,” Burke said. “A good many years ago, I resolved to be a booster and an optimist. Today I am both, and I hope the future will see me in the same old bandwagon.”

Burke in fact had already put his money where his mouth was. Earlier that very day he had bought the building on the southwest corner of Signal and Ojai Avenue, right across the street from Libbey’s newly acquired blacksmith shop. This unassuming wood-frame structure housed the newspaper office and printing shop, a butcher shop and an ice plant. Burke’s plan was to remodel it into something much more impressive-looking.

The building “will be practically new and will be enlarged,” the newspaper reported on May 1. “An up-to-date and artistic front will adorn the place, but just what style of architecture will be used has not yet been fully decided on.”

Burke’s bank building, a block to the east, was an impressive-looking neoclassical edifice made of brick. But for his new building at Signal Street, Burke ended up choosing the Mission Revival style. Thus did downtown Ojai acquire its first Mission-style building, fully two years before Libbey’s work crews began to erect the Post Office Tower, the Pergola and the Arcade. Burke in effect had laid the cornerstone for Libbey’s dream. But Burke added a twist of his own. He evicted the newspaper from his newly expanded building to make room for a new kind of medium: the moving picture show.

 

THE ISIS UNVEILED

Burke leased his new venue to Delacey Clark, who already operated the Isis Theater in Ventura. Clark gave the same name to his new Ojai Valley theater. Isis was the Egyptian goddess whose name also figured in the title of Helena Blavatsky’s book “Isis Unveiled,” a founding document of Theosophy. In 1914 the Theosophists had not yet discovered Ojai, so presumably the choice of name was a coincidence.

Clark booked his films from a brand-new studio called Paramount, which made a specialty of adapting Jack London novels for the silver screen. On Aug. 19, 1914, excited Ojai Valley filmgoers crowded into the new Isis Theater for the first local showing of a feature film, based on London’s latest book. Its title could hardly have been more appropriate: “Valley of the Moon.”

Clark soon gave way as theater manager to E.A. Runkle, whose wife, Ethel, provided piano accompaniment for the silent films. Comedies featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd were especially popular. On Saturday nights, after the film ended, the Runkles removed the chairs and brought in an orchestra for dancing.

In 1926, J.J. Burke sold the building to Fred and Lidie Hart, who changed the venue’s name to the Ojai Theater. The talkies arrived in 1930, when the Harts wired the theater for sound. But the Great Depression also arrived in 1930, prompting a pertinent question: Would people in desperate economic straits still be willing to pay for movie tickets? The Harts did not stick around long enough to find out; they put the building up for sale and decamped for Los Angeles. Times being hard, there were no buyers for the property, so the Harts leased the theater to other operators. In 1933, they found a tenant who really knew how to fill the seats: William D. Swanson, Ojai’s own P.T. Barnum.

 

THE IMPRESARIO

Billy Swanson was a natural-born showman who staged attention-grabbing promotions to lure people into his theater. Rose Chavez Boggs vividly recalls the time he buried himself in the ground on the Signal Street side of the building.

“There was a glass cover so you could see him, and also a stovepipe so that he could breathe, and you could actually talk to him,” Boggs says. “He said it was very hot being in the earth. I think he stayed there one or two nights.”

Swanson had a huckster’s natural contempt for the rubes who fell for his stunts and filled his seats. “He called them all suckers,” Boggs says.

But he did give them their money’s worth. After buying the building from the Harts in 1935, he modernized the theater by tearing out the floor and putting in a new one that sloped downward toward the stage, to give patrons a better view of the screen. Then he brought in a theater architect to dress up the building’s exterior. Thanks to Libbey, the Ojai Theater was now surrounded by beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival buildings. The theater’s modest-looking Mission façade was overdue for an upgrade.

“Theater Will Have Swanky Spanish Front,” the newspaper noted. “The effect is to be Spanish in the modern manner and Mr. Swanson expects to have a very beautiful building when the work is completed.”

As a young girl, Rose Boggs loved watching Shirley Temple movies at The Ojai, where her brother Dan worked as the projectionist and her father served as the janitor. Musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were another favorite. Times were hard but theater tickets were cheap, and these movies transported the audience to a better place.

“During the Depression, it was really important,” Boggs says. “We could live in a dream world for a couple of hours.”

Years later she learned from her brother that not all the films Swanson screened were as wholesome as a Shirley Temple film. The theater owner also screened pornographic movies on the sly for men with more prurient tastes. “He had private showings for them,” Boggs says.

Swanson was less discreet in some of his other ventures. In 1939 he staged a steamy production of the play “White Cargo” at the Beaux Arts Theater in Los Angeles. The plot featured a scantily clad African siren named Tondelayo, who writhed suggestively  – or so claimed the police, who raided the theater and arrested Swanson and his actors. After a five-day trial that was front-page news in L.A., the producer was convicted “of presenting an indecent show.”

All this free publicity apparently inspired MGM to turn “White Cargo” into a 1942 movie starring screen goddess Hedy Lamarr as Tondelayo. History does not record whether Billy Swanson ever screened this film at his Ojai Theater. In any case, he soon sold the building and moved on to Malibu, where he reinvented himself as a real-estate developer in Paradise Cove. Ojai would never see his like again – at least not until Wayne Glasgow came to town. But that’s getting a little ahead of our story.

 

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH

When the dust settled, the Ojai Theater ended up in the hands of H.H. Flesher and his family – wife Florence, son Ted, daughter Kathleen, son-in-law Barney Lawrence. Flo sold the tickets from a little booth in the front; H.H. took the tickets at the door. The Depression had ended, the war was over and the baby boom had kicked into high gear, as was obvious to anyone who ventured downtown on a Saturday afternoon and saw all the children queuing up for the matinee at The Ojai.

“Us little kids would line up all the way to the library,” recalls David Mason.

The main matinee attraction generally was a cowboy film starring Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry – or Mason’s favorite, Roy Rogers. It seemed like every kid in town was there.

“The Saturday afternoon matinees were a big deal,” recalls Rose Boggs’s sister Helen Chavez Peterson, who worked for the Fleshers as an usher and a cashier.

For adults, MGM musicals remained popular, as did films featuring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Parents with babies and toddlers were diverted to the Crying Room, which was walled off with plexiglass to muffle the sound.

Nationwide, as the 1950s wore on, theater owners began to suffer from a new form of competition – television. But isolated Ojai had terrible TV reception, so for many years its movie theater was pretty much the only game in town.

“Movies was the big entertainment at that time,” says Mike Lawrence, a Flesher grandson. “On the weekend when I would go it would be jam-packed. Even during the week there was a lot of business.”

“When I was a kid there were three movie changes each week,” recalls Susana Arce. “It cost 20 cents to get in. The only problem was that the movies were never  new, but we were happy to have a theater, and I often went three times a week.”

At some point in the mid ‘50s, the Fleshers sold the theater business to Fred Bower, while retaining ownership of the building. Bower’s daughter Jane Kelley, now of Santa Barbara, recalls that she and her brother would climb up into the projection room above the foyer and watch Gus the projectionist grapple with the big reels – one with cartoons, the other with the feature film.

“While the movies were playing, we would watch through the little windows,” she says. “Swirls of smoke came up through the projected lights and a gray haze filled the theater with cigarette smoke.”

Between showings, she and her brother were put to work scraping chewing gum off the armrests, the seat bottoms and the floor.

“One day some crazy driver drove right through the side of the building, crashing through the brick wall and into the seats in the theater,” she says. “Nobody got hurt, but the theater got evacuated and it took some time before it was up and running again.”

Fred Bower got out of the business in the late 1950s, but the theater continued with new operators. Then around 1962 or ‘63 it acquired a serious competitor when the Los Robles Theater opened near the Y on Maricopa Highway, in the space now occupied by Rabobank. The Los Robles apparently lured customers away from the downtown theater by running newer movies. Sometime in the early spring of 1964, the 50-year-old Ojai Theater closed its doors and faded to black.

The last film it advertised in the newspaper was “Spartacus,” which had been a huge hit in 1960 but was now four years old. Meanwhile, the Los Robles was showing a more recent picture, “Walt Disney’s Son of Flubber” starring Fred MacMurray. And there the story might have ended, with “Flubber” triumphant, and the old theater building eventually converted to some other kind of business. Instead, an unlikely white knight came to the rescue.

 

THE SCOTTISH PLAYHOUSE

So many stories are told about the late Wayne Glasgow that it is difficult to separate the man from the myth. A few facts: He was born in Alaska in 1930, grew up in Hawaii, served in the Army during the Korean War, and eventually established himself in San Francisco as the proprietor of the Third Street Peerless Girlesque Theater, which specialized in nudie films.

Those soft-core exploitation flicks seem tame today, but they were considered hot stuff back in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the Third Street Peerless apparently was very profitable – so much so that, according to Glasgow, the mob decided to muscle in on his business. When he resisted, the gangsters “put out a contract on him,” says his friend and former employee John Gottesman, relating the story as he heard it from Glasgow.

To preserve his health, Glasgow urgently needed a change of scene. His wife was originally from Ojai, so they moved here. But for a man who supposedly was hiding out from the mob, Glasgow had a funny way of keeping a low profile. Taking over the defunct Ojai Theater in April 1966, he announced plans to remake it into the Glasgow Playhouse, “California’s Plush New Art Film Showcase.”

He needed a business permit from the City Council, which had its doubts about what Glasgow might consider an art film, so it asked Police Chief Jim Alcorn to investigate. Alcorn reported that Glasgow had a lengthy rap sheet, with many arrests “and no convictions,” recalls Jack Fay, who was the city attorney at the time. Nevertheless the council gave Glasgow a temporary permit, and he proved true to his word. The dowdy old theater was renovated into a miniature movie palace, complete with an opulent, Scottish-theme interior that clashed violently with the building’s Mission Revival exterior. It reopened that June with the West Coast premiere of “Shakespeare Wallah,” an early Merchant-Ivory production.

Glasgow followed up with a steady stream of foreign-language films directed by Fellini, Godard, Resnais and other cutting-edge European auteurs. If this strikes you as a quixotic business plan for a little theater way out in the boondocks, you will not be surprised to learn that the Glasgow Playhouse closed its doors in June 1967, just a year after it opened. (Glasgow blamed the shutdown on a falling out with his distributor, which cut off his access to first-class foreign films.)

The theater apparently remained dark until 1970, when it reopened under the management of Ted Morris, who already owned the Los Robles Theater. Morris slotted critically acclaimed films to the downtown Playhouse while relegating mass-audience fare to the Los Robles.  (One of the films he showed at the Playhouse during this period was “If,” which marked the big-screen debut of future Ojai resident Malcolm McDowell.) But by the mid 1970s, Morris had moved on, the Los Robles was gone, and Wayne Glasgow was back in possession of the Glasgow Playhouse, which was once again the only movie theater in town.

Now the Glasgow era truly begins. Most of the stories told about him date from the ‘70s, when he cut a wide, alcohol-fueled swath through the valley. Unlike Billy Swanson, he never made the front page of the L.A. Times, but he made plenty of news in Ojai. Four decades later, the mere mention of his name still elicits strong opinions.

“He was a real pig,” says Mike Lawrence. “He was a drunk.”

“He was extremely eccentric, but when you really got to know him, he had a heart of gold,” says John Gottesman.

“He was interesting. Let’s put it that way,” says Jack Fay.

Glasgow made a point of being flamboyant. He drove the only Citroen in the valley, and also tooled around in a Rolls Royce he had bought from the actor Robert Brown. He once led a goat into a local bank and offered it as collateral for a loan.

At the theater, when working as his own projectionist, he would start the film and then repair to the nearest bar. “He had the patrons trained to go across the street to tell him” if the projector broke down, Gottesman says.

Gottesman, who worked for Glasgow on and off for about eight years, says many of the stories told about him are exaggerated or entirely fictional. For example, there was the time in 1978 when Glasgow ran for City Council and finished last, with only 55 votes. Legend has it that he stopped the film that night, walked onstage and thanked Ojai for its support, then turned around and dropped his pants.

“No, he never did that,” Gottesman says. “He didn’t moon the audience.”

Another time, Glasgow ran a “coming attractions” trailer for the porn epic  “Deep Throat,” shocking many people in the audience. Legend has it that this incident occurred before the showing of a Disney film, when the audience consisted mostly of children. Gottesman says no; it was not a Disney movie, and most of the people there were grown-ups.

“It may have been ‘Cabaret,’ ” he says. “Most everyone ran out of the theater to the lobby in shock where he corralled them and offered their money back if anyone was offended. Not everyone asked for their money back.”

At one point, Glasgow lived at the Valley Outpost Lodge (now known as the Mallory Way Cottages). Josh Kaplan, whose parents owned the lodge, has vivid memories of Glasgow’s stay there, but declines to provide the gory details.

“Suffice to say he was a colorful, sometimes difficult character who should have known better than to spend a lot of time in the sauna drunk,” Kaplan says.

Glasgow also had a ranch on Ojai Avenue in the East End. “Wayne had a little hippie commune out there for awhile,” Gottesman says. “He was arrested for growing pot there.”

Jack Fay recalls that Glasgow tried to deflect the blame to his neighbors, the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, who run the St. Joseph’s retirement home: “He said, ‘No, I didn’t grow that marijuana, the brothers did!”

One legend about Glasgow that seems indisputable is that he was a notorious lecher, especially when under the influence of alcohol, which was very often the case. Suza Francina is one of many women in Ojai today who remembers being propositioned or leered at by the theater owner. Francina, like Kaplan, declines to provide the gory details.

“I don’t know if what Wayne Glasgow proposed to me when I was 16 years old is fit to print,” she says.

“When he got drunk he was lewd to women,” Gottesman concedes. “He was horrible.”

On the plus side, Glasgow kept the theater going, and kept it relevant to life in Ojai. No longer did he impose a steady diet of European art films on local filmgoers. Instead, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s he ran a lot of films like “Smokey and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds, which included a scene filmed in Ojai. “We sold out all two weeks for that movie,” Gottesman says.

Glasgow also gets credit for establishing a restaurant in the building’s west wing. Originally built to house an ice plant, this wing had been used as office space for many decades. Glasgow converted it into the Bistro, using lumber and other items scavenged from the recently demolished Foothills Hotel building. It’s been a restaurant of one sort or another ever since. (Currently it’s the Village Jester.)

In 1982, the roof finally fell in on Glasgow – literally. Khaled Al-Awar was visiting Ojai at the time, looking for a business to buy, and he remembers ducking into the Playhouse one rainy evening to see a movie.

“There was a little bit of a drizzle, and it was raining into the theater,” he says.

That evening’s film would turn out to be the last picture show for Wayne Glasgow. The city forced him to close the Playhouse until the roof was fixed, and he was unable (or unwilling) to pay the man he hired to do the job. With a long line of creditors now trying to push him into foreclosure, Glasgow needed a white knight of his own, and it turned out to be Al-Awar.

Actually, the business Al-Awar really wanted to buy was the Solar Winds restaurant and health-food store. But when that deal fell through at the last moment, his realtor suggested that he buy the theater building instead.

So he approached Glasgow, who dragged out the negotiations for many months while he fended off his creditors.

“There were 33 liens on the building,” Al-Awar says.

Finally, in May 1983, the papers were signed and the Glasgow era came to an end. But not without one final flourish. The third “Star Wars” movie, “Return of the Jedi,” was due to open nationwide that month, and meanwhile the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti was returning to Ojai for his annual series of talks in the Oak Grove. Glasgow couldn’t book the film into his defunct theater, but he could still have a little fun with his customers. “Return of the Jiddu,” the Glasgow Playhouse marquee mischievously proclaimed.

That was Glasgow’s last hurrah, at least in Ojai. He eventually retired to Hawaii, where he died in 2005 at the age of 75 and was buried in a veterans’ cemetery near Hilo on the Big Island. His name no longer adorns his old movie theater, but his legend lives on.

John Gottesman now operates an Ojai tile business, but he looks back fondly on his movie-theater days, working for the colorful and mercurial Wayne Glasgow:

“He always said, ‘Well, we don’t make a lot of money here, but we sure have a lot of fun.’ ”

 

THE EXORCIST

Khaled Al-Awar and his wife, Sheryl, moved their family from Chicago to Ojai (via Santa Barbara) because they had fallen in love with this artsy little town in the Ventura County backcountry. Little did they know what they had signed up for when they bought the movie theater. It turned out to involve much more that just putting a new roof on an old theater.

“It took me like four or five months to remodel it and bring it back to life,” Al-Awar says.

That’s when the black-and-white portraits of vintage movie idols like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif went up on the theater walls. (Three decades later, they’re still there.) The community welcomed Al-Awar with open arms. Ceramicist Beatrice Wood attended a show one night in one of her trademark saris, and wrote a letter to the newspaper urging that Al-Awar be supported.

When something went wrong, filmgoers tended to blame Glasgow rather than Al-Awar for the problem, as though the former owner were an evil spirit who still haunted the theater like the Phantom of the Opera. One night, as Al-Awar was apologizing to the audience for some technical malfunction, the Ranch House restaurant founder Alan Hooker called out a suggestion: “Get an exorcist!”

“He said, ‘You need to exorcize the spirit of Glasgow from this place,’ ” Al-Awar recalls.

Hooker was joking, but he also had a point. Al-Awar had renamed his theater the Ojai Playhouse, but distributors still thought of it as Glasgow’s theater, and Glasgow had very rarely paid them. As a result, Al-Awar had trouble booking first-run films – until the fall of 1985, when a relatively new Ojai resident, the actress Mary Steenburgen, asked him whether he was planning to show her upcoming Disney release, “One Magic Christmas.” Al-Awar had to admit that Disney might not give him the film. Steenburgen made a call, and the film was booked into Ojai.

“That’s when the transformation started to happen,” Al-Awar says.

A couple of years later, the process repeated itself when another Ojai resident, the actor and screenwriter Harold Ramis, helped Al-Awar to book Ramis’s upcoming comedy “Ghostbusters II.” Another Al-Awar benefactor was the Oscar-nominated MGM sound engineer Michael Kohut, who lived in Rancho Matilija. Kohut donated a demo sound system to the theater. As a result, “We were one of the very first theaters to have digital sound,” Al-Awar says.

Meanwhile, Al-Awar had branched out into the visual arts by founding the Primavera Gallery in the front of the theater building’s west wing. Later he moved the gallery to its current location in the Arcade, on the site formerly occupied by the Elbow Room – a favorite watering hole of Wayne Glasgow’s, as it happens. (Perhaps another exorcism was indicated?)

Wayne Glasgow must have been pleased when the theater gave birth to the Ojai Film Society in 1988. On Sunday afternoons, the Film Society takes over the Playhouse to present “quality independent, classic and foreign films” – much like those that Glasgow himself presented in the same theater back in 1966-67. In 2000, the Film Society in turn gave birth to the annual Ojai Film Festival, now an entirely separate organization.

“The Film Society and the Film Festival have helped keep the theater viable in this little town,” says Elise DePuydt, the Film Society’s office manager. (DePuydt is researching the building’s history for an upcoming exhibit at the Ojai Valley Museum, “The Ojai Theater: 100 Years of Movies, 1914 – 2014,” which will open on Oct. 4.)

The summer of 2007 was a time of transition for the Ojai Playhouse. In July, the theater’s colorful longtime projectionist, Glenn Emmanuel, died of cancer. In August, Al-Awar struck a deal to sell the theater to Kathy and Mark Hartley, who own Ojai’s Lavender Inn and also the Watermark on Main restaurant in Ventura. The Hartleys specialize in renovating and repurposing old buildings, and they envisioned the theater as a concert venue as well as a cinema. So they plunged in, and found that the building needed a lot more work than they had expected.

“We had to make the whole building handicap-accessible,” Kathy Hartley says. “When we pulled up the floor, we found that there was no foundation. It was two-by-fours stuck in the dirt!”

They put a lot of money and effort into fixing up the building, but their concert venue idea “didn’t pan out,” Hartley says. And restrictions imposed by distributors prevented them from showing children’s films on Saturday afternoons, as they had hoped.

“It was a tougher business than we thought,” Hartley says. In 2010, she and her husband decided not to exercise their option to finalize the purchase, and the building reverted to Al-Awar. He and his family continue to run the theater with a focus on first-run films, and on the Film Society’s art-house offerings.

“We hope to God that we will continue to serve the community for many, many years to come,” he says.

 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Film and media studies professor Ross Melnick of UC Santa Barbara is an expert on movie theater history and a fan of the Ojai Playhouse.

“It’s a classic small-town movie theater,” he says.

Once, every town had at least one. Now they are rare. Most single-screen theaters were wiped out by competition from multiplex theaters, or by the advent of cable TV and video-rental stores, or more recently by the potentially ruinous cost of switching to a digital projection system. But the Ojai Playhouse has survived, and in 2012 (with help from the Film Society) it made the expensive but necessary transition from film to digital. Thus equipped, it’s ready to begin its second century.

“I think it’s remarkable that over all of these years the various owners of the theater have continually chosen to maintain the building as a movie house – to love it, to make improvements, to keep up with new technology and to be excited about film,” DePuydt says.

Melnick says that the theater’s future looks bright. A small-town theater owner like Al-Awar is in a position to know his audience very well, so he can give them the films they really want to see. And the venerable Playhouse has another built-in advantage. The fact that it dates all the way back to 1914, and is so prominently woven into Ojai’s cherished architectural fabric, adds to the pleasure of seeing a film there. Any theater can show films that tell compelling stories; Ojai’s theater is itself a compelling story, 100 years in the telling.

“What it has is legacy and history,” Melnick says. “It has community appeal.”

Still, the question remains: With the advent of video-on-demand and mobile media, will the next generation of film fans be willing to switch off their big-screen TVs and their smart phones, climb into their cars and drive downtown to sit in a dark theater among a roomful of strangers?

“It’s nice to get out of the house and go out and be entertained as part of a large audience,” Al-Awar says. “There is nothing, hopefully, that will ever replace the theater experience.”

Porch Gallery is currently hosting for its its latest exhibit of the work of artist Judy Ragagli. The show is on until March 25.

Ragagli has taken on the task of painting portraits of that American icon to beauty, the Barbie doll. But not just any Barbie, no smiling Malibu Barbie here.  Her collection features classic Barbie from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

To be clear, these are realistic Barbie portraits – now, there’s an oxymoron.  But these oil paintings are amazingly life-like in that you first think that they are photographs.  According to her bio, Ragagli employs a process of mixing only 7 original color tubes of oil to accurately achieve the tonal properties of Barbie’s plastic flesh.

A friend and I stopped by the gallery earlier in the afternoon and I thought I was beholding images from the LACMA exhibit on Barbie, that was part of Pacific Standard Time a couple of years ago.  After we left my friend asked, “Are those photographs?”  I suddenly realized that I wasn’t sure and made a point to return and find out.

At the Porch Gallery reception on Feb. 15, Ragagli and I sat at the baby grand and discussed her work.

DC:  Let’s start with the one piece I find especially intriguing, “Debutante Ball.” Can you tell me about how you came to painting that piece?

JR:  That is the platinum swirl they made in 1962.  The reason I wanted to do that one is because of the hair, the swirl.  They made four different ones that year, the white, titian and brunette, but the platinum swirl was always my favorite.  It’s the simplicity of it that I like so much.  That year they started putting on eyeliner and the pink lips.  It’s one of my favorites.

DC:  When did you make her?

JR:  That one was done in 2007.

DC:  And when did you start painting?

JR:  I started around 1996 or so.  I started with just one Barbie.  I began taking painting classes.  My art teacher said, ‘What do you want to paint?”  And I said, “I don’t know.”  This was my first real art teacher …”

DC:  Paul Bedard.

JR:  Yes, Paul Bedard.  He said, “Paint something you like.”  So, I wandered around for awhile and one day it came to me, “I wanna paint a Barbie, realistically on canvas.”  Simple, elegant, you know, just her.  Like the Mona Lisa.  Simply there, just her.  I started painting her.  I had to learn how to mix certain colors, it was so friggin’ hard!  Paul taught me how to mix and apply – I always made mistakes.  It took years and years to perfect that type of painting.

DC:  Where are you from?

JR:  We’re originally from Chicago, and when I was young my family moved to Orange County.  I went to Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and majored in sociology.  I started painting in 1995, 96.  Now I live in West LA.

DC:  Tell me, which of the paintings was the most challenging for you?

Suddenly a tinge of regret came over her face.

JR:  She isn’t here.  She’s at home.  She took me 6 months to render.  It’s a portrait of a 6’ Barbie in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater; Barbie in Hollywood.  She’s too big, so she’s at home.  I rarely take her out.   It took a long time, I had to put layer upon layer of paint to get it just right.  Even though she’s a pop icon and the piece is so powerful, it’s the simplicity that I was going for.  Just who she was and who she can imply.

DC:  One last question:  What do you think of Ojai?

JR:  Oh, it’s so nice.  People here are so friendly.  You really feel a sense of peace.

At that point gallery owner Valda Lake entered the room.

VL:  What are you guys talking about?

JR:  Oh, we’re just talking about Barbie.

The exhibit features 5 amazing original oils and limited edition giclees.

Barbie: An American Icon is a collaboration between Porch Gallery Ojai and WallspaceLA and is on display through March 25.

Porch Gallery is located at 310 East Matilija St.  For more information visit porchgalleryojai.com.

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Porch Gallery & The Ojai Art Festival

The Porch GalleryAn interview with Heather Stobo and Lisa Casoni

By Demitri Corbin

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Part I

It’s 5 p.m. Saturday evening and I’ve slipped out of an Ojai Film Festival screening at the Playhouse to meet with Heather Stobo and Lisa Casoni, the proprietors of Porch Gallery at 310 E. Matilija Street.

I arrive to find a frenzy of activity!  Lisa is darting between the gallery and the makeshift auditorium outside the Modern Folk Living shop where a distinguished panel of critics, curators and artists are in discussion before a large crowd.  In the gallery I find Heather Stobo and, after determining that Lisa will not be available anytime soon, we decide to begin our interview without her, as Heather is not one of the organizers of the OAF, we can discuss the Porch Gallery.

We find our way to the back office and the piano bench of a baby grand.  Lisa and Heather are newlyweds, having married just a few weeks before this opening.

DC:  First, congratulations and congratulations.

HS:  Thank you.

DC:  Now, let’s start with the gallery.  I’ve been out of touch, so give me the gist – is this the opening?  Is this the official opening?

HS:  The official launch was a month and a half ago with MB Boissonnault, an L.A. artists, who’s landscapes are beautiful, haunting, and emotionally charged.   It was a partnership with Wallspace L.A., Valda Lake’s gallery in Los Angeles.  We wanted to start with something that was comfortable, yet different.  We’ll have rotating shows approximately every six weeks.

DC:  What’s next?

HS:  Well, we’ve been overwhelmed with putting on the festival and getting married, so right now December is up in the air.  But the first week in January we’ll have the work of Alexandra Cantle.  She does text pieces about dyslexia.  It’s very conceptual.  We want present contemporary art about serious matters.  We want to present something conceptual and thought provoking, not just pretty pictures.

DC:  This show and what you’re saying brings to mind the Nathan Larramendy Gallery that really made an impression on the community.

HS:  Yes, Nathan has been brought up to us before.  He was before our time, before Lisa and I had moved here.  We have gallery partners in L.A.  But we’re not trying to be an L.A. gallery.  We’d like to do events…pop-ups, musical events.

There’s something that’s nice about this place.  There’s something peaceful about the place – that’s warm and cozy and comfortable – not a sterile art gallery.  It’s a house.  We have a fireplace to hang art over.  You can see what it’s going to look like in your house.

As she says this a string of guests come walking through asking where the restroom is.

HS:  (pointing) Right through there.

DC:  And you get to tell everyone where the restrooms are.

HS:  I do want to say that we couldn’t have done any of this without Carl Thelander.  He’s the owner of the building and a true arts patron.  He’s been so supportive of the whole thing and all he asks is to be invited to the parties!

DC:  I do want to ask you about the other galleries that are opening up – which I love –

HS:  Yes, I do, too!  I figure the more the better.  There are different tastes out there, so the more, the better.  Better for Ojai.

DC:  Wonderful!  I think that’s good – look, just in time.

We rise to see that the gallery is now completely full and Heather dives into hosting mode.  I make my way through the crowd and down the street to Phillip and Gary’s weenie roast (don’t laugh), resolved to return later for my interview with Lisa.

Part II

It’s now close to 9 p.m. and the Porch reception is still going strong.   The baby grand now sits in a darkened room but the gallery, front lawn and porch are still teaming with guests who travel back and forth to the wine bar and the Jolly Oyster food truck parked in the driveway between the gallery and OYES.   I flag down Lisa amongst the crowd and we make our way to the piano bench and begin our conversation.  Lisa is exuberant from the success of the evening.

DC:  How did the Ojai Art Festival come to be?

LC:  I’m the marketing director of 49pm with Chris Ritke.  We partnered with his wife Uta Ritke to create the Ojai Art Festival.

DC:  Are they from Ojai?

LC:  Yes, it’s an Ojai-based company.   We were challenged by our business advisor to do something B-HAG – a big, hairy, audacious goal.  So we thought how do we put on something in a community that is already arts-centric.   We went around to all the organizations that are already putting on festivals and I approached Jamie Fleming and we talked about how to uplift the arts conversation, and we decided to do the festival as part of the Ojai Film Festival.  It worked out and we were fortunate to put on the Ojai Art festival with the OFF. Through our company, 49pm, we provide software tools to artists  and arts organizations called Entrythingy, and artists around the country used our software to enter their artwork into our show.

DC:  Tell me more about Chris and Uta.

LC:  Chris is the creator of 49pm and Uta is a graphic designer.  I do sales and marketing.  Uta has done the branding for the festival, she created the logo that you see all around town.   We worked 100s of hours to get stores, shops, and local businesses involved.  We have wonderful artists showing.  In addition, we included five featured installations that are all around downtown Ojai including a garbage tower at The MOB Shop built by Greg Prinz, one of the owners, a piece made entirely out of cardboard by Josh Short that’s in front of Modern Folk Living, a sculptural piece made entirely out of pieces collected out of trash containers from dumpsters all around Ojai by Joseph Umali Fernandez, an installation called Neighborhood Infusions where mulberries gathered in Ojai have been made into an infusion drink called Ojai Mullberry Rye and presented as a public participatory live installation by Fallen Fruit of Los Angeles, and a curated photographic installation by local Ojai photographer Enrico Natali.

At this point Heather enters the room, drink in hand.

HS:  Demitri, if you want to know what is Lisa’s complete inspiration – it’s me!!

We all laugh.

DC:  Let’s end it on that note!  Thank you!

We leave the darkened room and return to the festivities.

The Ojai  Art Festival is holding an international juried show of art from trash, discarded objects and materials. DISCARTED asked artists to work with trash, discarded objects and materials to raise questions and ideas, aesthetic and moral, about the life of the planet our wasteful society threatens.

The art will be shown in 50 shops, restaurants and galleries in Ojai from November 7 thru November 24, 2013. For more information visit porchgalleryojai.com or ojaiartfestival.com

In 1961, the country star built his dream house in Casitas Springs. Then he spiraled out of control.
 By MARK LEWIS

Johnny Cash used to sweep into Casitas Springs like he owned the place. But those days were over. On the morning of Jan. 10, 1968, Cash passed  quietly through town while en route to LAX from  his parents’ home in Oak View. He no longer owned the big house on the hill above Nye Road in Casitas; it had gone to Vivian Cash in the divorce, which had become final a week earlier. Vivian was in Las Vegas that day, getting ready to marry Dick Distin on Jan. 11.

And Johnny? He was on his way to prison.

From Los Angeles, he would fly to  Sacramento to begin rehearsals for his Jan. 13 concert in Folsom State Prison. The concert would be recorded for a live album, “Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison,” which would become an enormous hit, transforming Cash from a fading country music star into a crossover pop-culture phenomenon. He would even end up with his own network television show. But he could not foresee this looming transformation as he drove south through Casitas Springs that day. What he knew was that it was the end of an era: his troubled sojourn in Southern California, which he mostly had passed in the Ojai Valley.

These had been the worst years of his life. He had fallen into an amphetamine addiction that damaged his career, ruined his marriage and damn near killed him. After leaving Vivian and moving to Nashville, he eventually had fought his way clear from the pills, with help from June Carter and her family. But as he passed through Casitas that day, he must have at least glanced up at the house he had built for Vivian almost seven years earlier, and perhaps shaken his head at the attendant ironies.

This was his dream house. He had supervised the design himself, obsessing over every detail. Eventually the house had become like a prison to him, and now he was free. Yet here he was, on his way to Folsom to sing his old hit “Folsom Prison Blues” – a song inspired in part by his desperate desire to marry Vivian and live with her forever.

 

FOR Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, it was pretty much a case of love at first sight. They met at a roller-skating rink in San Antonio in the summer of 1951. Johnny was 21, a sharecropper’s son from Arkansas who recently had joined the Air Force and was undergoing radio-intercept training at Brooks Air Force Base. Vivian, 17, was a Catholic schoolgirl heading into her senior year. Something sparked between them that would endure throughout the three years of Johnny’s overseas service, during which he deluged her with love letters urging her to marry him.

One day, while stationed at Landsberg Air Force Base near Munich, Cash viewed a Hollywood melodrama called “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” The film inspired him to write a song about a Folsom inmate who had “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” The inmate is tormented by the sound of a passing train, which he imagines is carrying passengers to faraway places. “I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,” he laments, “where time keeps draggin’ on. And that train keeps rolling, on down to San Antone.”

That train was following a peculiar route, since Folsom is in California while San Antonio is in Texas. But read between the lines: Cash was stuck in Germany, while his commanding officer regularly boarded a flight back home to San Antonio to consult with his superiors at Brooks Air Force Base. “I want to stow away on his plane, but I couldn’t manage it,” Cash wrote to Vivian. “Maybe I can get promoted to colonel pretty soon, and I can go to San Antone every month like he does.” In the song, the plane becomes a train, but the destination remains the same:

San Antonio, where Vivian was waiting to marry him. That was what freedom meant to Johnny Cash in 1953.

He finally made it back to San Antonio when his hitch was up. He married Vivian in 1954 and they settled in Memphis, where Johnny worked as a door-to-door appliance salesman. Then, in  1955, he and his band walked into the Sun Records studio to audition for Sam Phillips, the man who had discovered Elvis Presley. By July of that year, Johnny’s first single, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” was climbing the country charts. On July 30 he returned to the Sun studio to cut a follow-up single: “Folsom Prison Blues,” which hit the Top 10. Cash was just getting started. His next release, “I Walk the Line,” rose to No. 1 and crossed over to the pop charts. Johnny Cash was now a big star, and — like Elvis before him — he had outgrown Sun Records. In 1958 he signed with a major label, Columbia Records, and moved his growing family to Los Angeles.

 

“BY the time we left Memphis for California … we had three daughters and a marriage in bad trouble,” Cash wrote in his 2003 autobiography. He was becoming addicted to pep pills, and to the excitement of life on the road. Vivian was home taking care of 3-year-old Rosanne, 2-year-old Kathy and baby Cindy; she could not join Johnny on the road, nor did she care to. She wanted him to come home to her, like a normal husband.

To house his family in comfort, Cash bought Johnny Carson’s old house on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino. Cash hoped to lure his parents west too, but Ray and Carrie Cash were not city folk, nor even suburban folk; they would not cotton to life in the San Fernando Valley. Then one day, while Johnny was out for a drive with his manager, he stumbled across the Ojai Valley. Here, he thought, was the perfect spot for his parents: an isolated, semi-rural paradise that still lay within easy driving distance of L.A. He bought a trailer park north of Oak View, renamed it the Johnny Cash Trailer Rancho, and asked Ray and Carrie to come out and run it for him. They agreed.

The trailer park was located on the west side of Ventura Avenue, just north of what is now Willey Street. (It’s still there; nowadays it’s called the Country Village Mobile Home Park.) Ray and Carrie lived there in a comfortable wood-frame house, where they frequently played host to Johnny and Vivian and the girls, visiting from Encino. Before long, Johnny had decided to move his own family to the Ojai Valley, too.

Part of Ojai’s appeal was its pristine air quality compared to L.A. “Rosanne was allergic to the smog, coming home from school every day with tears running off her chin,” Johnny wrote. But clean air was not his only motivation. Cash was a country boy at heart; when not on the road with his band, he preferred to live where he could hunt and fish. The Ojai Valley was his kind of place — especially the west side communities that were home to so many former Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma and Texas. These folks worked in the oilfields, and on Saturday nights they crowded into Okie’s lounge in Foster Park to listen to country music and raise a little hell. (Cash had played this lively venue himself at least once, back in 1956 when it was still known as Moose Hall.)

Johnny also had friends in the area, like the “Rawhide” actor Sheb Wooley. There were also Cash’s Columbia Records label mates Johnny and Jonie Mosby, “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music,” who lived in Ventura and owned the popular Ban-Dar club on East Main Street.

“We did tour with him a lot,” Jonie told the Ojai Quarterly. (These days she is known as Jonie Mitchell, and lives in Santa Paula.)

Cash decided to move his business office to Ventura and build his dream house in the nearby mountains. Somehow he ended up on a hill in Casitas Springs. Not everyone thought this was a good idea.

“I remember when Cash had his house built on the side of a mountain in Casitas Springs,” the country singer David Frizzell told the OQ. “My cousins lived at the foot of Johnny’s mountain in a trailer park, and I’d look up to Johnny’s place every time we’d go to visit.”

Frizzell, a former Ojai resident, said he used to wonder why Cash choose to live in Casitas Springs instead of Ojai. “I never asked him why, although I did wonder why, because Casitas Springs was not the nicest place to live.”

Perhaps that was exactly what attracted Cash to the place: It was an unpretentious little town of modest homes and working-class people. His kind of people.

“I think it reminded him of home, of Arkansas when he was grown up,” his daughter Kathy Cash told the OQ.

Be that as it may, Cash did not want to live in Casitas Springs, he wanted to live high above it. He bought himself 12 acres on that hill and built a steep, winding driveway up to the building site.

“I remember Dad taking us there after the road had been cut,” Kathy said. “And we’re on top of this hill going, ‘What? Why?’ I mean, there was nothing there.”

Johnny’s friend Walter “Curly” Lewis, a local contractor, filled in the blanks. Lewis built  a five-bedroom house to Cash’s exacting specifications.

“At the building site, he lay down in the dirt and told Curly, ‘I want the master bathtub this big, and right here,’ ” Vivian wrote in her memoir, “I Walked the Line.”

“The house in Casitas was fabulous when it was finished,” she added. “It was a sprawling, 5,000-square-foot, ranch-style home with maid’s quarters and a huge, 15-by 30-foot kitchen that I loved.”

The house also featured an enormous built-in aquarium filled with exotic-looking fish. And the master bedroom featured a white carpet and a black ceiling, with silver flecks glittering here and there in the firmament.

“Dad wanted it to look like they were lying out under the stars at night,” Kathy said.

From her new living room window, Vivian gazed down upon her neighbors. The town’s population in 1961 was about 300. Before the Cashes moved in, its main claim to fame was that it was home of Howard Lee of Lee’s Frog Hatchery, which Life Magazine had once described as “one of the biggest bullfrog farms in the world.” Now Johnny Cash would be the biggest frog in this very small pond.

“I’m sure some people wondered why in the world we wanted to move from our comfortable neighborhood on Hayvenhurst to no-man’s-land,” Vivian wrote in her memoir. “But that’s what Johnny wanted, and Johnny always got whatever Johnny wanted. Besides, I was hopeful that getting him away from the city and into the country would settle him down. No more late-night partying. No more drinking. No more pills. No more whispered rumors of other women. I thought the change would do us good. I was more than ready for my little slice of heaven at the end of Tobacco Road.”

The Cashes moved in in the fall of 1961, shortly after the birth of their fourth daughter, Tara. Actually, it was Vivian and the girls who moved in; Johnny was on the road as usual. At a show in Dallas that December, he welcomed a new member to the cast of his touring “Johnny Cash Show.” This was June Carter, of the famous Carter Family. June was country-music royalty, born and bred, and — unlike Vivian — she was fully committed to the life of a touring performer.

“It wasn’t long after we moved that everything, I mean everything, started to fall apart,” Vivian wrote. “There were a lot of happy times before Casitas, but after the move the happy times came fewer and farther between. Johnny was on the road 250 days of the year now, with June Carter and her family in tow. His use of pills continued to worsen. And I was alone with four small children in a new house in the middle of nowhere.”

Johnny, in his autobiography, recalled the Ojai Valley very fondly, but conceded that his life there did not work out as he had hoped.

“I loved it there,” he wrote. “It was beautiful land. ‘Ojai’ means ‘to nest.’ Nesting wasn’t what I did, though.”

 

IN those days the Southern Pacific Railroad still ran orange trains from Ventura to the packinghouse on Bryant Street in Ojai. (The sight of that train passing through Casitas may have inspired Cash to cover the classic tune “Orange Blossom Special,” a Top 10 hit for him in 1965.) Lake Casitas was brand-new when the Cashes moved into the neighborhood – the dam had been completed in 1959, but the reservoir took years to fill up. Nevertheless, the lake had been stocked with largemouth bass and rainbow trout, and Johnny passed many pleasant hours there. In fact, he may have written his biggest hit there. “Ring of Fire” is credited to June Carter and Merle Kilgore — but Vivian Cash and Curly Lewis later claimed that Cash co-wrote it himself with Kilgore while floating on a boat in Lake Casitas, and gave his songwriter credit to June. His 1963 recording of the song spent seven weeks at No. 1, and crossed over to the pop charts too.

Johnny often took his daughters to the lake, or to Foster Park for picnics, or to Oak View to visit their grandparents. Vivian often drove them up to Ojai to go shopping in the Arcade. But the Cashes didn’t mix much in Casitas Springs.

“Some would say that it was the Royal Family living up on the hill,” said Doug Brown, who grew up in the town. “You could see the girls out playing in the yard.”

At Christmastime, Johnny would reach out to his neighbors by setting off fireworks, an old family tradition. He also used floodlights to illuminate a big aluminum cross he put up on the hill above his house, and he set up loudspeakers to blare Christmas carols that the whole town could hear. He was stunned one year when some people complained about the noise. “I didn’t think there was a Scrooge left,” he grumbled as he pulled the plug in the middle of “Joy to the World.”

On weekday mornings, Vivian would dress the girls in their school uniforms and drive them down the hill in her Cadillac to catch their bus to the Academy of St. Catherine in Ventura. The girls had few friends in Casitas Springs, but they did not lack for playmates. Johnny’s sister Reba and Vivian’s sister Sylvia had moved to the valley with their respective families, and they would bring their children over to visit.

“We had a lot of people visiting all the time,” Kathy said. “We had a great time living there. I loved it!”

Her sister Rosanne has a darker view. “It was horrible,” she told Cash biographer Steve Turner. “I don’t know what they were thinking. Dad was on the road all the time and they moved us up to the top of this mountain in this really poor township. We had the most money and the biggest house in the whole area, and we were perched up there all alone, and it was strange.”

Kathy fondly recalls the family’s menagerie of pets, which included dogs, ponies and a talkative parrot named Jethro. Rosanne, in her 2011 memoir “Composed,” focused on the scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes that infested the yard. Kathy likes to talk about her father’s famous friends, such as Patsy Cline, who often gathered at the house for parties. Rosanne focuses on the drunken strangers who would periodically knock on the door late at night, hoping to meet their hero: “ ‘He’s not here,’ my mother would shout, slamming the door on them.”

Sometimes the drunken stranger at the door would be Johnny Cash himself.  When strung out on amphetamines and tanked up on booze, he often seemed like a different, and less pleasant, person. His increasingly erratic behavior often brought him to the attention of local peace officers, like the ones who tried to pull Johnny’s Cadillac over late one night on the Ojai Freeway. He led them on a six-mile chase at speeds up to 90 mph before they finally caught him in Casitas, near his driveway. He had no driver’s license to show them, but he did have an explanation: “I just wanted to find out if I could still outrun a police car.”

Even when sober, Cash was often impetuous. One time he was out with some friends in the mountains near his home, taking target practice with his hunting rifles, when he scoped a deer on a faraway ridge. Deer were not in season and there were a couple of game wardens nearby, ready to confiscate his guns if he broke the rules. Cash was undeterred. He asked the wardens what the fine would be if he shot the deer.

“They kind of guessed and said, ‘Well, with what your guns are worth and the fines, no license, out of season and all, it would be about $3,000, probably,’ ” recalled W.S. “Fluke” Holland, who played drums in Cash’s band. (Holland tells this story in the book “I Still Miss Someone: Friends and Family Remember Johnny Cash.”)

Holland told Cash that he might as well go ahead and take the shot, because the deer was so far away that nobody could hit it anyway.

“Without saying a word, he stretched out on his stomach on the ground and propped up on his elbow and pulled the trigger,” Holland wrote. And Cash knocked down the deer. He and his friends surrendered the guns to the wardens, scrambled up the mountain to retrieve the deer, and took it down to Johnny’s parents’ place in Oak View. They dressed it, cooked it, started to eat it, and discovered that Cash had paid $3,000 for inedible venison.

“A damn alligator couldn’t have eaten it, that meat was so tough,” Holland recalled. “See, Johnny wanted to shoot that deer. He didn’t care what it cost, so he did. That was vintage Johnny Cash.”

Caroline Damas, who often babysat the Cash girls in those days, recalls Johnny as a very nice, down-to-earth man who was good to his children and good to his wife too – as far as Damas could tell. “Of course, people have problems, and you don’t always see them,” she added.

Cash, in his autobiography, makes those problems plain:

“It was a sad situation between Vivian and me, and it didn’t get better. I wasn’t going to give up the life that went with my music, and Vivian wasn’t going to accept that. So there we were, very unhappy. There was always a battle at home.”

Usually he would respond to a fight by walking out. He would grab a bunch of pills, jump in his camper, drive it deep into the backcountry, “and stay out there, high, for as long as I could. Sometimes it was days.”

One of these trips made headlines in June 1965, when sparks from the camper’s faulty exhaust pipe ignited a fire near Sespe Creek, deep in the Los Padres National Forest. Firefighters called in air tanker drops to extinguish the blaze, which raged for the better part of a week, scorched some 500 acres, and put at least 40 condors to rout from their sanctuary. When government lawyers later questioned him about the incident, Cash was once again high on pep pills, which fueled his arrogant answers:

“Did you start this fire?”

“No, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.”

“Do you feel bad about what you did?”

“Well, I feel pretty good right now!”

“But how about driving all those condors out of the refuge?”

“You mean those big yellow buzzards?”

“Yes, Mr. Cash, those yellow buzzards.”

“I don’t give a damn about your yellow buzzards. Why should I care?”

The government gave him a reason to care, by suing him for the cost of putting out the fire. He was fined $125,000, ultimately reduced to $82,000 in a settlement.

By now, Cash clearly was out of control. Later that summer he was banned from the Grand Ole Opry after he deliberately smashed the stage lights during a performance. And in October 1965 he made national news when he was arrested in El Paso for smuggling hundreds of pills across the border from Juarez.

On the increasingly rare occasions when he was home, he often was surly, even in public.

“My mom waited on him and his wife up at the Ojai Valley Inn many times,” Leslie Gibbeson Dey told the OQ. “She said he could be a real ass and that his wife would always apologize for him afterwards.”

In years past, Johnny’s hit songs had publicly expressed his love for Vivian: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” But in 1964, as the marriage crumbled, he went to No. 1 with “Understand Your Man,” which carried a very different message:

Don’t call my name out your window, I’m leavin’

I won’t even turn my head

Don’t sent your kinfolks to give me no talkin’

I’ll be gone, like I said

You’d just say the same old things that you’ve be sayin’ all along

Just lay there in your bed and keep your mouth shut

‘Til I’m gone

Don’t give me that old familiar cryin’ cussin’ moan

Understand your man

 

This would be Johnny’s last No. 1 song for several years, until “At Folsom Prison” put him back on top. His self-destructive antics were hurting his career. Jonie Mitchell recalls him stumbling into the Ban-Dar in Ventura, usually with Sheb Wooley in tow. “He’d drop in when he was about half-tanked,” she said. “He was going down, down, down.”

 

IN June 1966, Cash left to go on tour and never returned. In August, Vivian filed for divorce.

When the dust finally settled, she got the house in Casitas and Johnny’s share of the Purple Wagon Square mall in Oak View, an investment property he co-owned with Sheb Wooley. But Johnny retained the Johnny Cash Trailer Rancho, where his parents still lived. And so he returned to the Ojai Valley at least one more time, in January 1968, to visit Ray and Carrie. When he drove to LAX on Jan. 10, Ray came with him, to attend the Folsom concert. June was with him too; within three months, they would be married.

By this point in his life, Cash finally wasfighting back against his addiction, and was mostly staying sober. The show of course was a big success, and the resulting live album kicked his career into the stratosphere. He spent the rest of his life with June in Tennessee, where they both died in 2003. (For more on the Folsom concert and how it came about, see the companion story, “Jailhouse Rocked.”)

As for Vivian, she married Distin and moved to Ventura, where all four of her girls attended St. Bonaventure High School. Rosanne, who went on to become a country music star in her own right, recalls the move from Casitas as a positive turning point.

“It was as if, with that move, someone had opened all the windows and let the light and air inside,” Rosanne wrote in her memoir. “My mother almost immediately flourished, making a lot of friends, joining a garden club and a bowling league, taking dance lessons, playing card games, and hosting memorable parties.” Vivian died in 2005.

And the house? It’s still there, brooding over the (still) little town of Casitas Springs from behind the row of conical Cypress trees Johnny planted. Vivian sold the property to a family friend, Jack Newman, who lived there with his family for about 20 years before he sold it to the current owner, Montecito Fire Chief Chip Hickman.

But people still associate the place with Cash, especially since the 2005 release of the film “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Ojai’s own Reese Witherspoon as June Carter.

During the many years Newman lived there, he noticed a recurring phenomenon: Strangers periodically would pull off Ventura Avenue at Nye Road and point their cars up his long, winding driveway. They would drive all the way to the top, pause there for a moment or two, then turn around and leave without ever getting out of the car. They were trying to connect with an American legend.

“People would just drive up and drive back down again,” Newman said. “They just wanted to see where Johnny Cash lived.”