Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

"All the News That Fits, We Print"

When last we met, I was in the middle of a series of reports about railway adventures.  I ended the section section with a note about doing a musical discussion for July, but as so often happened, another topic appeared.  My subject for this month’s Old Curiosity Shop is something that has fascinated me for years--newspapers.  I met my first wife when we were on the staff of the Monrovia-Duarte High School newspaper, The Wildcat, and during the mid-1960s, I eked out my day job pay by delivering the Los Angeles Times.  What really got me going on this topic was a new book by LA Times writer Patt Morrison, "Don’t Stop the Presses."

One of my childhood memories was the ad campaign when the Los Angeles Mirror started publication in 1948.  I remember billboards with huge letters proclaiming such qualities as “It’s DYNAMIC!”  When it finally appeared, it was a tabloid, a format common in big cities like New York and Chicago, and it was an evening paper. It was in competition with Hearst’s Herald-Express, and I remember the news vendor at the corner of First and Huntington in Arcadia, hollering out, “Get your Herald Exxxpresss Pay-per!” as we passed in the afternoon.  But as the years went on, the market for evening papers shrank, as people started watching the news on TV when they got home, and the decline and final disappearance of electric railway service meant that tabloids designed to be easy to read on the trolley were doomed.  Finally, in Jan. 1962, Times-Mirror Corp. shut down the Mirror, and Hearst merged their morning Examiner with the Herald-Express to become the Herald-Examiner evening paper.  The “Her-Ex” struggled on through the '60s, but recovered somewhat in the late '70s, finally shutting down in 1989.

My most memorable experience with the Herald Examiner was back in the mid-1970s, when I was working nights at Hoffman Electronics in El Monte.  When I came into work one afternoon after spending the weekend at the Railway Museum, one of my colleagues showed me the front page of the paper, with a big headline and lead story about two skydivers perishing in Perris.  “That’s where your railway museum is, isn’t it?” “Yes”  “Did you know about this accident?” “Saw it.”  I had been out in the back storage area of the museum, gathering parts for some track work.  Parachute jumpers are a common sight out there; the local airport is a center for such activities, and a nearby field is used in the morning for balloon ascensions.  My hunt for track hardware was interrupted by a terrible scream, and I saw two skydivers coming down much too fast because their chutes had become entangled and were not properly deployed.  Fortunately for me, the actual impact area was screened by buildings and trees, but when I saw an ambulance leaving the area without red lights and siren activated, I knew the worst had happened.  Normally, such an event, tragic though it was, probably would not make the front page of a Los Angeles newspaper-- I suspected that the editors had been waiting for another story to “break” and when that didn’t happen before deadline, they grabbed this story to fill the page.

A cliché in the old B-movies about intrepid news reporters is the scribe, with the press pass stuck in the hat band of his fedora, running into a hotel or diner to use the pay phone.  He gets the paper’s switchboard operator and says, “Betty!  Get me the City Desk!”  The connection is made and he says excitedly, “Chief!  Hold first page for a replate!  I’ve got a story that’ll blow the lid off this crummy town!!”  Then we have the stock footage of the giant rotary presses spinning out the latest editions, and the bundles of papers with screaming headlines landing at a newsstand.  The thunder of the great presses is a dramatic sound, like a steam locomotive racing through the night.  Back in 1969 and '70, when I lived in Duarte and worked the night shift in San Bernardino, there were two periods when I didn’t have a car.  To get to work, I’d take the SCRTD 64 line bus to Pomona, and then ride Union Pacific train 104 to San Bernardino (at half fare because I had a Santa Fe pass).  I usually had some time to wander around downtown Pomona and one day I stuck my nose in the press room of the local paper just as they were getting ready to run the afternoon edition.  There was a test run to make sure everything was ready to roll, then the pressman cranked the controller that regulated the motors, like bringing a streetcar or electric locomotive up to speed.  Soon the press was in full roar, a thrill for anyone who appreciates hard-copy news and big machines.

Back in the 1960s, my dad and I were chatting, and the subject of the Buck Rogers comic strip came up.  We realized that it had been a while since we’d seen it in the Sunday comic section, and, with all the NASA activity of that period, we came to the conclusion that space travel had migrated from the “funny papers” to the front page.

A childhood memory from around 1950 was the time my mother had some business to attend to at the old Pasadena Star-News offices on Colorado Boulevard.  My brother and I came along, and got to visit the “wire service room” where Teletype machines were clattering away with news dispatches from all over the United States.  One of them was printing out a report of a serious storm in Florida.  Years later, when KFWB started its “all news” format, they’d have a tape loop of Teletype noise running in the background, even though actual news reports were probably coming in on newer (and quieter) equipment.

During this same time frame, I had jobs that didn’t pay very well, so I eked out my wages by delivering the LA Times in the Duarte area.  This meant getting up at about 2:30 a.m., going to the paper spot (where we received, folded and loaded the papers in our cars) and driving our routes during the wee small hours.  Our first paper spot was a building in the Marigold Gardens complex.  This was an old collection of buildings on Huntington Drive east of Highland Avenue.  There’s not a trace of the Gardens, the property is now covered with residential development. According to local oral tradition, it housed a speakeasy during the 1920s and may have also included a “house of ill repute.”  By the time we were there, the only other business was a diner that was open during rather limited hours.  At one point, the Times dealer decided to move to better quarters, and we relocated to a large store-room next to the Duarte Unemployment Office.  This too has completely disappeared.

We were a motley crew, as one might expect, all united in the cause of keeping our income sufficient to cover our outgo.  My first dealer had lived in Duarte even longer than I had; he remembered when his dad was the dealer and he was one of the carriers.  Back in the 1940s, the Times was distributed to the San Gabriel Valley by the Pacific Electric interurban cars; the PE had some cars that were mostly for passengers, but had a baggage-express section at one end.  They were called “combines”-- one of these was involved in a grade crossing collision at 5thAvenue on the border between Monrovia and Arcadia that my mother photographed before I was born, and it may have been returning from its morning trip to Glendora, dropping of papers on the outbound trip.  Chuck Nash, my first dealer told me how the PE cars would bring the bundles of papers to the grade crossing at Bradbourne Avenue, where the conductor would throw them off.  Sometimes a mean conductor would toss them to either side of the street just to make the carrier work harder.  By the time I was in the retail delivery element of journalism, The Times had a fleet of propane-fueled GMC box truck to deliver the bundles.  The daily editions came in two pieces: The feature sections including the classified ads, which were not time sensitive and came out during the day, and the front page and sports sections, which were delivered around 3 a.m.  Today’s home delivery papers come in plastic bags, but in the old days, we assembled and folded the papers, then used tying machines to secure them with string.  We’d pile them onto special carts, move them outside and load them into our cars.

I had two or three different routes-- one of them went up into the Bradbury Hills, where one morning, I came around a bend and saw a man carrying a rifle.  Making sure my hands were visible, I said, “Hi!  I’m just delivering the LA Times.”  And he replied, “You’re OK.  I’m looking for coyotes.”  One of my tasks on this route was to drop a bundle of papers at Royal Oaks Manor, a senior citizens facility (where, many years later, my mother would spend her last months).  One of the residents was probably among the oldest newspaper carriers in the U.S.  When he was a boy, living in Whittier back around 1900, his Times dealer had to hitch up a horse and wagon and go to the Santa Fe station in Santa Fe Springs to pick up the papers.  Life became much easier for him when the Pacific Electric completed their line to Whittier and papers could be delivered to a much closer location.  A much less affluent area was the trailer park on the south side of Huntington Drive at Mount Olive Drive  This was definitely a trailer park and not a “mobile home community.”  It looked grungy enough in the dark, and probably worse in the daytime.  But occasionally we’d get a subscription from there and I’d have to find where the trailer was.  This location is now the on-ramp to the 605 Freeway.

Fire! One morning I was delivering on the southeast part of town, when I noticed smoke and flame up ahead. Engine Co. 44 was responding, so I didn’t have to worry about reporting the blaze.  I was able to finish that street without getting in the way of the fire fighters.  We had one fellow in our crew who was regarded as somewhat of a flake and not the sharpest chisel in the tool chest.  But our opinion went up several notches when we found that he had spotted a house on fire.  He banged on the door to rouse the occupants, made sure everyone was out, and had a neighbor call the fire dept.  Well done, buddy!

I had a subscriber at the end of a long dead-end street just north of Duarte Road off Buena Vista Avenue.  While heading for the far end, I noticed a small child on the porch of a house about halfway down the street.  I thought, “that’s peculiar-- what’s this kid doing out around 5:30 a.m.?”  It got even more interesting on the way back-- the toddler was on the street, walking toward Buena Vista, a usually busy street.  So I stopped, took the kid by the hand, and led the wanderer back to the house I had noted earlier.  I knocked on the door, which was opened by a sleepy parent, handed over the child, possibly with a comment about “Missing someone?”

One of the side benefits of getting up in the wee small hours of the morning was doing some trainwatching.  I had noticed that every morning around 2:45 a.m., I’d hear a train going through Duarte, and finally I got curious enough to get up earlier than usual and take a look.  I went down to Duarte Road near the City of Hope, and observed the Santa Fe block signal west of there was yellow.  Soon it turned red, and along came the train.  It had a set of rare “Alco PA” locomotives and a motley assortment of express, Railway Post Office and specialized container cars, with an old heavyweight coach bringing up the rear.  I asked a fellow railfan at work, and learned that this was Train 8, the eastbound mail train.  Although one could ride this train, it didn’t have any food service, and wasn’t shown in the public timetables.  

One morning I drove down Highland Avenue several minutes before the mail train was due.  To my surprise, the crossing gates came down and a WESTBOUND train came through.  It had streamlined passenger cars, and when it cleared the crossing, I drove along Duarte Road and saw that it was slowing down.  It came to a stop right about where the Gold Line yard is today, and a crewman got off and threw the switch to route it into the Monrovia siding.  With much creaking and groaning of the old rails into the siding, it got in the clear just in time for the mail train to come racing by.  I could see window shades rising in a sleeping car, with passengers looking out, probably wondering, “Where the heck are we?”  The fact that some of them had a good view of the local cemetery didn’t help matters any.  I finally figured out that this was Train 19, the westbound Chief, which should have been in Los Angeles before midnight.  I was told that the mail train had rights over everything else on this track, so there was no question about which train went “into the hole.”

The siding was removed some time in the 1970s, but its roadbed was reused in recent years for the eastbound Gold Line track.  On another evening, I decided to drive to Arcadia to see the train in a better light.  While I was waiting, a patrol car pulled up and an Arcadia Police Officer asked what I was doing at this hour.  I explained that I was an LA Times carrier on my way to the paper spot, and had just stopped to watch the mail train go through.  He asked, “Which direction is the train coming from?” I pointed westward to the block signal west of Santa Anita Avenue and said, that yellow signal means the train should be here in about five minutes.  As if on cue, the signal changed to red, and I said, “It should be here soon.”  The officer got back into the car, and I heard him say to his partner, “Anyone who likes trains can’t be all bad.”

Going back to my boyhood days, I never had a paper route, but some of my classmates did, and one delivered the local paper, the Monrovia News-Post.  Their building on Palm Avenue, across the street from Library Park is still there, but was long ago transformed into a community center.  The daily issue was thin enough for the carrier to fold into a square, with two triangular segment folded into each other so it formed something easy to throw that was about six inches on a side.  

Moving into the 1970s, my daughters took over a route in the northeast part of Duarte, getting up at 0-dark-30 to deliver the Pasadena Star-News (I think the Monrovia News Post was history by then).  They ran their route on bicycles, trading off the hilly section from the flatlands.  It gave them work ethics that have stayed with them over the years.  Only if there was a heavy rainstorm would I get up and carry them around the area in my pickup truck.  They finally gave up the job when high school kept them too busy for that early shift, and I suspect that they were among the last teenage newspaper carriers to deliver from bicycles.

Newspapers have a tradition of getting their issues out, even in the face of disaster.  When I was in San Francisco for the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, one of the souvenirs of that commemoration was replicas of the combined editions of several SF papers that were printed on borrowed presses in Oakland.  In my own experience, Pat and I were traveling across the US in June 1990, and stayed overnight in Limon, Colorado.  The first hints that things were not normal were shiny pieces of twisted sheet metal on the outskirts of town.  They looked like a modern art project, but the truth came out when we headed for the motel where we would spend the night. Several building along the main street were severely damaged, there may have even been a tavern giving new meaning to the term “topless bar.”  We soon learned that while we were “back east” and not paying much attention to national news, a tornado had ripped through Limon, and among the unusable buildings was the home of the Limon Leader, the local newspaper.  So the staff went to “Plan B” and published with the facilities of a neighboring town’s paper. To quote from Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition!”

Getting back to the inspiration for this article, Ms Morrison’s book is a paean to newspapers, and a warning that as they shrink and disappear, their vital functions are only partly replaced by on-line media.  We used to hear radio news reports quoting Al-Ahram in Cairo, Egypt, referring to it as the “semi-official” newspaper.  Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Pravda (that’s Russian for “Truth”) was the official voice of the Kremlin. The New York Times is sometimes called the “paper of record” for the USA.  By contrast, up until the 1960s, the LA Times was considered to be a reactionary, provincial second rate rag.  It wasn’t until the great grandson of the founder, Otis Chandler, became publisher that the LA Times gained a bit of respect from the media pundits. The editorial page shifted to the left, and other reforms took hold.  Paul Conrad’s editorial cartoons drew praise and Pulitzer Prizes, but caused much consternation, especially from Republicans.  Conrad even wound up on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” which he probably took as a great honor.  One of the special sections that was added to the Times and appeared in issues delivered to my neck of the woods was the San Gabriel Valley section.  This section included a column on live music events, and it was what Pat was reading one afternoon in November 2000, when she asked me if I’d ever heard of a singer named Evie Sands.  If you’ve been reading Bobby Boy’s Old Curiosity Shop for a while you know why that represents a major turning point in my life.

The past several years have not been happy ones for newspapers in general and LA Times in particular.  Times-Mirror got sold down the river (or up Route 66) to the Chicago Tribune.  The Tribune spun it off into something called “Tronc” which sounds like a noise made by cartoon dinosaurs.  The Tribune interests even sold off the historic Times Building at First and Spring in the L.A. Civic Center area, making the Times a tenant in the building they used to own.  But help has arrived, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who has made a fortune in biomedical development and other medically-related fields.  In the old Western movies, the hero wore a white hat; for the LA Times he wears (figuratively) a white coat.  He has already brought in a respected editor, and cancelled plans to shut down the Washington DC news bureau.  Going back to his teenage days, he earned money for college by delivering newspapers in his native South Africa, and he remembers seeing the presses running at the newspaper printing plant.  There are no guarantees in this world, but the readers of southern California should be glad to know that “The Doctor Is In.”

One photo in Ms Morrison’s book shows three women around an old flat-bed press, which looks a lot like the one in the Monrovia High print shop where the Wildcat was printed.  This reminded me of a big distinction between school newspapers and the professional press.  I would go into the print shop after class and help set headlines using individual pieces of type and a composing stick.  On a commercial paper, members of the editorial staff were strictly forbidden to touch any printing media.  I can also mention the usual practice of having one person write the story, the “body” while another staff member or editor writes the headline.  This dichotomy was brought to mind when LA Times staff writer Nita Lelyveld wrote an article about a family from northern California who visited the Los Angeles area, coming south on a combination of buses and Amtrak trains.  When they arrived in LA they got around using Metro rail and bus service.  Ms Lelyveld’s article showed how a family can have an enjoyable time in LA, Santa Monica, etc. without driving into town or renting a car.  But the headline writer implied that their vacation was a perilous adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

This is Bobby Boy, saying “That’s 30 for this edition of the Old Curiosity Shop” (“30” being old telegraph code for “end of message”)

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