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.
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.
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.”