PALOS VERDES

In the early 60s I lived in Palos Verdes. This is the stubby thumb of land hitchhiking along the California coast next to Los Angeles. Mostly this story is about death and destruction and as we meander north it concludes with an implausible tale involving pornography in the public square. Sit down. Strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I was 15 and the most memorable thing that stands out to me from that time was when my cousin and I hung out with a redheaded hoodlum from San Pedro (the town directly to the south) named Carl Butts (everyone called him Red, of course). Red was a little older and had a car and a penchant for mayhem. He also supplied the cigarettes. I can’t say it was entirely his idea when we pried up a manhole cover from the middle of the road and rolled it down one of the incredibly steep streets in Pedro, but it mostly was.  The manhole cover took off slowly enough but by the time it careened though the second intersection it went airborne and left a 3” deep groove in the pavement before going even higher and coming down with the ferocity of Kamikaze—and it just kept on rolling. The manhole cover blitzed into downtown at what seemed like 500 miles an hour and rocketed through the next intersection before entering a garage (though the sidewall) leaving a cartoon-like perfect hole. It either went out the far wall or sliced a Studebaker in two and even if this was the early 60s I think it’s possible it’s still going. Dangerous, stupid and illegal. You know, kid stuff.

But this wasn’t what made Red so memorable. No, that was time we were standing at the top of a cliff harassing the beachgoers below. I’ll never forget the image of Red with his Camel’s rolled in the sleeve of his tee shirt and his hair Brillcreamed to a perfect ducktail. We had been casually chucking rocks at the people 100 feet below when Red pried up a chunk of concrete that he thought would get their attention and over it went. A piece of rebar projecting from the block snagged his leather jacket and Red went along for the ride. He was dead on arrival. Red wasn’t a close friend but he did die in front of us so we took notice for sure. And there went the car and cigarettes.

Around that same time a mile or so north there was more stuff falling in the ocean. Portuguese Bend, or Ooops!, as the locals called it, is a cove strangely devoid of houses for such a valuable venue, even today. In fact it is the largest undeveloped tract of land on the coast for miles around. This was not always the case. When I was a kid, developers built a lovely community equipped with a gate guard to keep the rabble at bay beyond the walls.

Private enclaves on California beaches are rare because the beaches are deemed to be the property of the people and access must be provided. In the late 50s this notion had not taken hold so you could wall off a beach, build houses all over the hills and sit by your pool and contemplate your roof as the values shot through it. At first the values in Ooops! did go up—but soon tumbled, along with the homes themselves, as the earth began to subside. It was just an inch or two in a good year and many folks decided to ride it out. And ride they did because on a bad day the land could move several feet. One family was quoted as saying they agreed to not park in his neighbor’s pool if the other agreed not to swim in their neighbor’s garage.

It seems that the subdivision was built on unstable soil and the weight of the structures was too much so the whole joint simply melted into the sea in a few years. There are still a few homes on the edge of the collapse but they aren’t worth much because the water, power and sewer are all laid above ground giving the place a desperate feel. Oh, and the gate guard, he’s gone.

Next to Ooops! is the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Wayfarer’s Chapel gripping the edge of the cliff. This is a glad little glass masterpiece and is one of the most popular wedding venues in the world. It’s booked for the next 200 years so don’t bother calling. Lots of famous folks have been married there like Dennis Hopper who once married a ballerina about a half a century younger than himself. Oh, Dennis. The chapel is run by the Swedenborgians. They are a tiny heaven-and-hell Christian sect with only a few thousand members. The list of famous congregants includes Helen Keller, Johnny Appleseed and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s father.

Jayne Mansfield got married to the former Mr. Universe, Mickey Hargitay, before her head fell off. Poor Jayne. She somehow drove under a tractor-trailer and the entire top of the car was sheared off. This resulted in a law requiring trucks to install what came to be known as The Mansfield Bar to help prevent this.

From 1959 to 63 we lived in an old roadhouse which had been built during Prohibition in the Roaring 20s. When I say we, I include my mother Marilyn, my sister Jane and one or another of mother’s several husbands as well as a parade of hangers on. When I say roadhouse I mean speakeasy, which featured girls, gambling and gin. This place had been established way out of town and by Model T it was far enough to allow plenty of time for a warning phone call to empty the joint. It was actually a tiny casino with one great room and a couple of lean-tos that we used as bedrooms. With the customary irregularity of my somewhat chaotic upbringing this house was located smack in the middle of a garbanzo bean farm. I don’t know who owned the farm but it was regularly planted and harvested. Sixty years ago PV was part of the LA megalopolis and I guess I can say that for a few years I grew up on a farm in Los Angeles. This seems unlikely but Palos Verdes was a drowsy hamlet where nothing ever happened—until it did.

Long forgotten now, but a big deal then, was the wreck of the Dominator. The Dominator was a WWII Liberty Ship that was part of Aristotle Onassis’ vast fleet which had been converted into a grain freighter. On a dark and stormy night the ship strayed off course and was caught fast on Rocky Point. Finally, something happened! Within hours, hundreds of people packed the cliff tops to watch as tugs worked to pull the ship free. Schools canceled classes, people ditched work. Soon thousands came, tens of thousands and finally hundreds of thousands. Eventually over a million gawkers descended on our neighborhood. They trampled the garbanzo beans, peed in the hedges and ran the grocery store out of Cheetos, Abba Zabbas and RC Cola.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

The ship’s crew was alright but the salvers had no luck extracting the vessel and she began to break up. The grain washed ashore where it proceeded to rot causing the town to smell like a garbage dump and not in a nice— maybe I’ll paw through this and find cool stuff—way. Then some scuba divers decided that it would be just the thing to reconnoiter the wreck and two of them were swept under the hull and drowned. What had been a festival devolved into chaos and tragedy. There were valuable lessons here for an impressionable kid such as: Keep your eye on the radar as you approach Rocky Point, transport grain by train, don’t scuba dive where there are signs warning Danger, don’t scuba dive here, that sort of thing.

Immediately overlooking the Dominator was Palos Verdes High School where I shared space with two of the dumbest kids I ever met, Daulton Lee and Chris Boyce. I think I had a history class with Daulton but I can’t recall exactly because he was not particularly memorable at the time. That changed all of a sudden a few years later.

These two are remembered as The Falcon and The Snowman. Chris was actually into falconry and I saw him flying his bird once. Daulton became a coke dealer so he was the Snowman. After high school Chris got a job at the avionics firm, TRW, and he eventually stumbled across top-secret defense documents. Daulton thought it would be a good idea to have his friend copy the documents and sell them to the Russians. They managed to make contact and sold secrets to the commies for a few months. Chris used his money to buy more drugs and finally decided to bypass his friend and go directly to the Russians and, in one of the most moronic moves ever, threw a note wrapped around a rock over the wall of the Soviet embassy in Mexico City saying essentially, “You wanna buy some classified documents?” Immediately after he threw the note he was caught by the Feds, who had been following him, with documents in his pocket marked TOP SECRET.  These junior spies were given very, very long sentences.

Our simple lives on the hills above the tranquil sea seemed punctuated with one disaster after another, none grander then the 1963 epic fiasco, Cleopatra. Have you seen this sword and sandal film recently? Ever? Don’t miss it or at least see some of it. This is a good example of what can go wrong when things, well, go wrong. Like so many filmmakers before and since a bunch of insiders gathered round the ol’ martini bar and through cigar clenched jaws said to each other, “It’s gonna be great and we’re gonna make ten tons of do-re-me.” The budget was two million but after five million had been spent and not one usable foot of film made it into the can they canned the director and hired the best, Joseph Mankiewicz. Joe had a string of hits: Philadelphia Story, The Quiet American, Guys and Dolls and On the Beach and nine, count em, nine, Academy Awards. No number of Oscars would have helped this catastrophe. The project was doomed from the very beginning.

As time dragged on the producers lost two of their three lead actors and then the third, Elizabeth Taylor, got sick and had to have an emergency tracheotomy on the set. Then the weather killed the desert foliage that had been brought to the studio in England and the rain melted the sets.

Taylor was in contract for a record-setting $1 million. This amount eventually swelled to $7 million due to the delays of the production. This is equivalent to over $47 million today. During filming, Liz met Richard Burton and the two began a public/private-love/hate affair as the world looked on in wonder. Because they were both married to other people their relationship resulted in a caustic moral outrage and this brought bad publicity to an already troubled enterprise. Can you imagine such an affair having a negative effect on a movie today?

By the time the Cleopatra production team rolled into our town the movie was already famous and they were still shooting it. One day coming home from school I saw my sister tearing out of the house screaming some gibberish from which I extracted the words Richard and Liz so we jumped on our bikes and peddled hell for leather to the cliffs where we found hundreds of people shooting a big scene with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. They were the Pitt and Clooney of 1960s and there they were just down the street. “Hey, guys, no scuba diving on the wreck, now.”

45 years after this film was made I watched it in its three and a third hour entirety for the first time and I was amazed. The film is pretty good in parts and very good in the big scenes. Liz had countless costumes glued to her somewhat husky frame, each more ghastly then the last and there is so much skin in this flick that I had to cover my dog’s eyes. Some in the press referred to the film as Nipples on the Nile.

Adding even more vava to go with the voom there is an undeniable crotch shot in a bath scene (she spent no little time in the bath) causing countless prints to be incinerated at that exact point where the projectionists tried to get a better look. Some critics wished all the frames had been incinerated.

The film script hews fairly closely to the historical record and there’s no denying that the colossal sets are magnificent. The acting in Cleopatra is bizarre and they never finished a shooting script so they improvised much of the dialogue as they went. Rex Harrison as the seducer of Liz Taylor is a bit hard to believe and Richard Burton can act up a storm, but in a dress, with his knobby little legs poking about, he looks like he’s gadding about in a prep school play.

The first cut came in at nearly 5 hours but the theaters refused to exhibit it because they could only manage one showing a night. The studio hacked an hour out of it so now it’s too short to make sense but way too long to sit through even for a 14-year-old looking for lady parts. It was the last film to have an intermission—probably because so many people didn’t come back for the second half. 

The film went 2,200% over budget—to around $44 million, or around $300 million in today’s dollars making it the third most expensive film of all time. Pirates of the Caribbean cost slightly more but it was a hit.

Before we leave Palos Verdes come to Malaga Cove with the hilarious fountain. It’s been in the middle of town since the 1930s. It is a copy of a fountain in Bologna, Italy and the replica was donated to the town on the basis of a somewhat blurry photo. When it arrived and the fountain was erected it wasn’t the only thing that was erected.

There are four mermaids holding their breasts as streams of water gush forth in all directions. The statue of Neptune surmounting this extravaganza arrived with his manhood intact and on full display. The locals quickly ordered a marble fig leaf be applied to cover the working parts of the King of the Sea but attempts to fashion bathing suit tops for the mermaids wasn’t quite as successful.

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