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Music and clientele

Folk[6] and Jazz music[7] emanated from the inside out onto the porch, with singers such as Judy Henske, Steve Gillette (who later wrote songs for the Stone Poneys) and Lee Mallory (later with Sagittarius, Millennium) performing here during the early ’60s. Dave Myers sang folk songs at Café Frankenstein before forming his Del-Fi surf band, Dave Myers & the Surf-Tones. Comedian Lord Buckley performed here.[8] Famous photographer Lewis Baltz was also an early regular.

 

A legendary Beat era hangout in Laguna Beach, California, Café Frankenstein opened in 1958 under the stewardship of folk singer Doug Myres, writer George Clayton Johnson (of Twilight Zone fame) and artist Burt Shonberg. The building housed a “European” coffee shop, a bookstore and a leather goods and sandal shop.

Shonberg contributed an interior mural and a fabulous stained glass front window featuring the Frankenstein Monster. You can glimpse the window art in color, as seen from inside the club, in the picture here, if you can peel your eyes away from model Barbara Kellogg.

The nude photo session, in fact, brought charges of “lewd and obscene conduct” against the Café’s owners, just one of the many attacks by a very conservative community against the alternative club and its bohemian clientele of beatniks, surfers and folksies. It is said that two of the Café’s regular clients were undercover cops on the lookout for illegal activities and that both men eventually became supporters of the club.

Squaresville opposition to the hep establishment reached its hysterical apex when a local Church group protested against the window art on the grounds that stained glass was an art form exclusive to churches. Shonberg greeted them with a threat to erect a crucified Frankenstein.

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Café Frankenstein was sold in 1960 and operated as Club 480 until 1962 when it was demolished, along with the Shonberg art, to make room for a parking lot.

The images here are from a wonderful article on early Pop Surf Culture posted on Dumb Angel. Click through to read the Café Frankenstein story in greater detail along with more pictures, including one of the building itself.

Burt Shonberg painted murals for coffee shops, bars, restaurants and Beat clubs up and down the coast. He contributed covers and illustrations to science fiction magazines. His art was also used on an album by Arthur Lee and Love and a commissioned set of paintings was famously featured in Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher (1960).

Here’s Shonberg’s website, with a gallery of paintings that includes the House of Usher art.

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As tastes changed, a new scene grew up in Newport. O.C.’s first bohemian beatnik coffee house, Café Frankenstein, opened in Laguna Beach in 1958. A café employee, Sid Soffer, started his own place, Sid’s Blue Beet, and in 1959 moved it from Laguna to the peninsula. Everyone from Mississippi bluesman Son House to jazzman Art Pepper (who was busted for heroin outside the club) to future Monkee Peter Tork played at Sid’s.

However, it could easily have been a totally different story. It’s probably easiest to begin by explaining that McGuire stumbled into singing almost accidentally. Born in Oklahoma City in 1935 Barry’s background was decidedly blue collar. He remembers, “My life was kind of a mixed bag of different things. My stepfather was a construction worker so every time he would finish a job we would move to a different town and so I went to about five primary schools. Then when I was 16 years old I quit school and lied about my age and joined the Navy. Then they found out I was only 16 and they told me they appreciated my patriotism but told me I should go home and grow up. When I got out of the Navy I didn’t want to go back to school so I started working in construction, and I worked in commercial fishing for a while. Then I got into pipe fitting and put in overhead fire sprinkler systems for five years. Then one evening I just happened to stumble into a little coffee house in Laguna Beach, California, in a place called The Frankenstein Café. This was before hippies, back in the beatnik generation. It was kind of a Beatnik hangout where they would read poetry and there was a guy over in the corner playing classical guitar singing folk music – English and American folk songs. I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe how accessible the songs were and how they just resonated inside of me. I wanted to learn how to do that. So I bought a guitar and first thing I knew I was offered a job to go sing. I couldn’t believe it. It was like going to a party and getting paid for it! So I never auditioned for anything. I didn’t set out to be a singer, I just liked doing it and people liked listening to me.”

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One of the Cafe Frankenstein players will be ’60s survivor Barry McGuire.


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Café Frankenstein

During the 50’s the pre hippie era was shaped by the Beats and the Bohemian surf culture

Geez, do we live in not only the most beautiful place on earth but is also a place that is so rich in talented/eccentric people that shape American culture.

This story is about the late 50’s beatnik era in Laguna and how they shaped America’s music, art, movie/TV making, sci-fi, literature, occults, poetry, drug use, surfing and much, much more.

This story blew me away. I finally had to stop researching it since it was an endless abyss. I provided a lot of links on my web page if you want to follow the lives and accomplishments of characters of this story. Lots of major names. Click here

Summary:

  • In 1956 at the corner of Thalia and Coast Hwy at 860 S. Coast (where the Stand and car repair shop is) artists Burt Shonberg, Doug Myres (the Gateway Singers) and writer George Clayton Johnson (first Star Trek episode, Twilight Zone, Logan’s Run, Oceans 11) opened a beat coffee house called Café Frankenstein. Shonberg provided a Frankenstein stained-glass window – more on that later.
  • Cafe Frankenstein boasted a steady diet of beats, surfers, folkies, teens and all manner of weirdoes, and was suspected of harboring drugs and other debauchery. For two years straight, a pair of undercover cops were regulars at the Frankenstein, looking for a bust. But according to the last owner, Michael Schley, they instead became avid supporters.
  • The Frankenstein’s steady diet of controversy started early, with police busts for spiking the espresso with brandy and for allowing a woman to be photographed nude against the inside murals. Both charges were eventually dropped, but the damage had been done. The last straw was when the local ladies Church League came down on them for creating a stained-glass window of the Frankenstein monster. The Church League claimed that stained glass was only for use in the church, and rallied the community against the Frankenstein. Owner Burt Shonberg threatened to erect a crucified Frankenstein dummy in front of the coffeehouse, if they didn’t back off. They did back off, but it became harder to get kids in the door, as parents forbade them from going in.
  • It sold in 1960 to the sandal maker who was next door and lasted a couple more years.
  • Please peruse the people and their accomplishments in the ‘hap hazard’ compilation of write-ups I put on my web site. If you google anyone of the characters you’ll see how they all went on to keep producing leading edge stuff in all areas of our culture. Click here

“What I remember about the Frankenstein,” said artist Leonard Kaplan, who died in 2008, “was the taboo that the community of Laguna felt about it.” Kaplan, who lived behind Café Frankenstein during and after the coffeehouse’s existence, was no stranger to controversy.

An intensely private man, Kaplan was a dealer in pre-Renaissance art and a painter of haunted and erotic canvases that mixed the traditional world of oils with elements of taxidermy to create portraits of psychological terror, doubt, lust and violence. It is little surprise that Kaplan’s work was only assessed after his death (an exhibit was held at the Laguna Art Museum in 2009), but not surprising at all that he was associated with the Café Frankenstein.

“At first,” Kaplan related, “I thought these guys were a bunch of hucksters, ballyhoo and all. They were into jazz, I liked classical. But despite Laguna Beach being a supposed ‘artists town,’ I sensed in them a genuine outsider spirit.” Kaplan wasn’t alone. In fact, the Frankenstein became a literal mecca for area artists whose work was on the fringes.

Don Karwellis, who later became head of the art department at the University of California Fullerton, created Toulouse-Lautrec style paintings of the Café Frankenstein scene. Tom Holste, whose later works were hung at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, cut his teeth early on at the Frankenstein, painting airbrush portraits and abstracts on stretched canvas.

“Laguna Beach had a number of artists at that time,” remembers Lewis Baltz, an important figure in the New Topographic movement of the late 1970s, who was a regular at the Frankenstein during his teenage years. “[These were] overwhelmingly seascape painters whose work seemed destined for furniture stores. There was also a very small group of ‘serious’ abstract painters. They were counter-culture avant le mot, but not exactly beatniks.”

“The only artist who looked like a beatnik,” continues Baltz, “was Andy Wing, a tall, gentle and shaggy man whose skein-like paintings showed a distinct influence of Pollock.”

Many of Wing’s murals can still be seen all over Laguna Beach today. Besides painting abstracts and making collages at Café Frankenstein, Wing turned his own Laguna Beach home into a folk environment of assemblage art in a similar style to Albert Glade’s Enchanted Garden (1927-35) in Chino, CA, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers (1921-54) in South Central Los Angeles and Grandma Prisby’s Bottle Village (1956-81) in Simi Valley. To this day, Wing’s house — with its strewn pieces of colored glass, walkways of assembled broken pottery and strange collage paneling — sits back amongst tall-growing weeds along a back street just off the beach. Inside, a TV is constantly running, but no one ever answers the door.

Besides its collective of regularly-attending artists, the Café Frankenstein also boasted its share of quality bohemian music. Irishman Michael Gaffney, whom Baltz describes as “a petty thief and small-time drug dealer who had been in and out of jails since he was old enough to steal,” played a particular brand of acoustic blues inside the Frankenstein.

“It depends on what your definition of ‘performance’ is,” says John Merrill, who played guitar in a psychedelic rock group dubbed the Peanut Butter Conspiracy from 1966-69. “I mean, the place was so small there wasn’t even a stage. People would just sit on couches or sing from the corner of the room, real loose and all.”

Other musical artists who played Café Frankenstein include future surf instrumental giant Dave Myers, folk chanteuse Judy Henske (who dated Woody Allen during the early ’60s and inspired Allen’s Annie Hall character) and Lee Mallory, a runaway from the Inland Empire who later became guitarist of psych-pop act, the Millennium. Steve Gillette, who placed two songs on the first Linda Ronstadt/Stone Poneys album and played guitar on the second, wrote of Café Frankenstein in the liner notes to his 1967 solo album:

“It was while I was working at the doughnut shop (the hours were 3 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and living in Whittier, California, that I used to drive down to a little coffee house — now defunct — at Laguna Beach to listen to folk music.”

At other times, jazz guitarist Johnny Saint and flamenco guitarists such as Lenin Castro and a young Jose Feliciano played at the Frankenstein. “We also had a black conga drummer named Bob Collins,” remembers Michael Schley, “and this guy named Philipo, who walked around with a typewriter and would type a bio or personality sketch for a buck.” Philipo was actually Jack Phillips, a would-be TV personality who also called himself “John San Felipe.” But more often than not, it was Doug Myres, co-owner of the Frankenstein, who provided the entertainment.

By the time Café Frankenstein opened in 1958, Myres had already been a member of the Gateway Singers, a racially-integrated folk group who in 1950 were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), alongside New York City’s the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger), both bands accused of communist sympathizing (both cases later dismissed). After that, Myres became rhythm guitarist for the Easy Riders (featuring Terry Gilkyson, who wrote the huge-selling folk hit, “Marianne”), before opening the Frankenstein, where he would show up for performances in a hearse.

“It was a way-station between insanity and sanity,” says Michael Schley, “a portal of life that people passed through. It was supposed to close at 4 a.m., but it rarely did. Burt and Doug also didn’t shy away from controversy. They invited it.”

From the outset, Café Frankenstein seemed to be a target for local police scrutiny. In an article titled “The Café Espresso Kick,” the June 1959 issue of Rogue magazine declared: “The local ladies’ church league later complained of the use of stained glass in such a macabre undertaking, but withdrew their objections hastily when Frankenstein’s owner threatened to erect a full-size cross bearing the unhappy monster.” That incident merely scratched the surface.

On March 10, 1959, Laguna police hauled George Clayton Johnson, model Freda Kellogg and photographer Ron Vogel off to jail after receiving a tip that a group of kids saw Kellogg posing nude and playing bongos against the coffeehouse’s interior mural artwork. The kids had apparently been peeking through the window cracks and reported their guffaws to local law officers, who also seized the photography negatives (which were later used in Escapade magazine’s December 1959 issue). Said Judge C.C. Cravath at the trio’s hearing bearing indecent exposure, exhibitions and willful and lewd actions, held Tuesday April 14th: “I see a willful act, but don’t see anything lewd involved.” Case dismissed.

“That wasn’t the first time we’d gone to court,” insisted Sid Soffer, Café Frankenstein’s manager from 1958 to the summer of ’59, who passed away in 2008. “I got arrested for supposedly selling alcoholic beverages without a liquor license.”

According to reports in the Laguna Beach Post dated June 26, 1958, Judge Cravath also heard this case. “Basically, I was putting a little brandy extract in the Cappuccino Royal,” recalled Soffer. “It was so little that the alcohol pretty much evaporated when it was steamed. They tested it and everything in the courtroom.” The case, again, was dismissed. “They were out to get us from day one,” insisted Soffer. “We didn’t stand a chance.”

Despite not being a co-owner, Soffer was there from the outset. As part of the Laguna Carpentry Company, Soffer helped build the structure. Once he came to manage Café Frankenstein, Soffer cut a wall out on the south side of the coffeehouse and built a doorway for the patio. “I was the cook too,” Soffer remembered fondly. “We served sandwiches, Italian water ices, French pastries from the Sarno Bakery in Hollywood, Dutch pastries from Almondas, lots of great little bistro items.”

A few months after the nudity case, the Frankenstein again saw trouble. The Laguna Beach Board of Supervisors declared the coffeehouse outside the defined entertainment zone, thus rebuking their license to allow live music, accepting only solo piano or organ.

“I got them to allow one instrument,” said Soffer regarding the ordinance. “That was my last contribution to the café. It was passed that only piano and organ were allowed, but by getting it to be any one instrument, we could keep folk singers and bongo drums going.”

By the end of the summer of 1959, Soffer left Café Frankenstein to start his own coffeehouse, the Blue Beet, at 460 S. Coast Boulevard in Laguna Beach. By 1960, Soffer moved his café out of Laguna, up to the nearby town of Newport Beach, where Sid’s Blue Beet still operates near the Newport Pier to this day.

With the 1950s coming to a close, so too came the time for Johnson, Myres and Shonberg to move on. The trio sold Café Frankenstein to Michael Schley, who by that time was married to Constance Vining.

Vining had been running a sandal shop behind the Frankenstein (at 866 S. Coast Boulevard). Designs in Leather opened first in 1952 out of Vining’s home in the Treasure Island Trailer Court, but moved into the Frankenstein building in 1958 and featured Shonberg mural art, as well.

Whatever attempts Laguna had made to kill off the monster, by the end of 1959, the town’s youth was swept up in a more innocuous version of the bohemian phenomena. On December 10, 1959, the sophomore class at Laguna High School collectively decided to have a “beatnik day,” sporting berets and sunglasses with black turtlenecks for the guys and black leotards for the girls. The Laguna Beach Post was again there to capture the moment with a front page snap. In early 1960, even the Laguna Playhouse was putting on John Osborne’s disaffected play, Look Back in Anger, with its announced cast of “angry young men.”

From 1960 to 1962, Michael Schley and Connie Vining ran Café Frankenstein simply as the 860 Club. “We lasted for a little while,” laments Schley. “But once Shonberg was gone, everything that made the place unique went with it.” Asked why that was, Schley suggests several reasons: “For one, Shonberg kept it edgy. But, see, he was getting steady movie work and commercial work in Hollywood. With the way the town of Laguna was harassing him, you could hardly blame him for leaving.”

After the 860 Club closed in 1962, Vining’s Designs in Leather continued. But by 1964, both were gone, the building then razed and turned into a parking lot. Schley moved up to Hollywood for a while and ran the Xanadu Coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue, near Los Angeles City College, which hosted no less talent than bluesman John Lee Hooker, folk legend Pete Seeger and poet Charles Bukowski.

As for George Clayton Johnson, he began writing for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (eight episodes in all), as well the original Rat Pack vehicle, Ocean’s Eleven (1960), the first episode of Star Trek (1966) and the classic science fiction novel, Logan’s Run, which became an MGM film in 1976.

Burt Shonberg, by far the most interesting of the artists surrounding Café Frankenstein, continued creating commercial illustrations, mural commissions and fine art during the early 1960s. His album artwork for Ron Goodwin’s space-age bachelor pad LP, Music in Orbit (1958), features a pen and ink drawing of an Oz-like craft whose physiology combines a floating balloon apparatus with attached woodwind instruments and preternatural symbols, operating like a steam era piece of machinery. Childlike and esoteric at once, Shonberg’s imaginative genius saw its full consummation of influences in one fell swoop: Outer-space, inner-mysticism and bohemian abstraction.

His portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, used on the cover of Capitol Records’ 1960 Pathetique, 6th Symphony, seems emblematic of Shonberg’s style from 1960-62. Melding 18th Century impressionism with hints of cubism, the canvas becomes all Shonberg with the use of three dimensional splashes of casein color. Symbolic imagery bursts from the Russian composer’s head like living spirits of creativity. The burgundy, mustard yellow, black and powder blue hues were shades that Shonberg utilized heavily during this period, also creating a haunted portrait of Jesus Christ, who in the hands of Shonberg looks like a deeply tormented humanoid. Christ’s bald cranium is enlargened and his hallowed-out eye sockets speak a kind of expressionistic terror.

Shonberg also created similar portraits for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures film of Edgar Allen Poe’s The House of Usher (1962). Indeed, Shonberg’s Usher paintings live and breathe horror, like everything in the house, the results for its characters being catastrophic. Shonberg also created a grand canvas titled “Premature Burial” for a 1960 film of the same name. The painting views like a complex rendering of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno. Previously, Shonberg had been the art director on such B films as Code of Silence (1957) and The Brain Eaters (1958).

He’d also kept busy creating murals for other coffeehouses and bohemian emporiums throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. Among these were: Cosmo Alley in Downtown Hollywood, Sandalsville on Fairfax Avenue, the Seven Chefs and the Bastille (both in West Hollywood), the Purple Onion on the Sunset Strip and the 40 Thieves Café in Venice Beach.

In 1963, Shonberg moved to Paris with Valerie Porter, who introduced him to Pablo Picasso. From Paris, the three of them went on to Ibiza, where Shonberg was then introduced to Salvador Dali by Porter. Shonberg returned to the U.S. in 1965 and settled for a while in Greenwich Village, where he took part in a group art show titled “Psychedelic Art” at the Coda Gallery in nearby East Village. By year’s end, Shonberg was back in Southern California.

Only four commercial pieces of art by Shonberg are known post-1963. One is a silly advertisement for filmmaker Don Brown’s Surfhouse, a teenage surf movie theater that boasts a surfin’ woodie printed with Shonberg’s inimitable mystic symbols all over. The second is the cover to Arthur Lee and Love’s 1969 album, Out Here, which is really just a gatefold of Shonberg’s 1965 painting of the same name. The piece portrays a human figure sitting at the edge of a hill, when off in the horizon the sky opens up to him, striking a symbiotic relationship between the figure, the earth and the sky that is something of a psychedelic era rococo. Then there was an album cover for the Curtis Brothers’ self-titled debut on Polydor Records (1976), which utilized Shonberg’s 1965 painting titled “Seated Figure and a Cosmic Train,” described by Marshall Berle as “a self-portrait of Burt Shonberg sitting in his living room in Laurel Canyon during an LSD experience.” Finally, Shonberg created artwork for Spirit’s The Spirit of 76 – Tampa Jam – Electro Jam from the Time Coast album, based around a friendship that had blossomed between Shonberg and Spirit guitarist Randy California.

All throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Shonberg created wildly psychedelic and harrowingly spiritual artworks on canvas, wooden boards, music notation paper, napkins and just about any surface he could find. Sadly, very little of Shonberg’s art has been exhibited as of this writing, though those who own Shonberg’s artwork hold onto it dearly.

Marshall Berle has attempted to create a Burt Shonberg museum, but thus far has just gotten a web site off the ground. Ledru Baker Shoopman retained Shonberg’s personal portfolio, which contained hundreds of sketches and personal clues about Burt’s life. However, since Shoopman’s passing in 2007, his long-time girlfriend Joie has not returned phone calls. Shonberg did have one solo exhibition during his lifetime. Inside his portfolio was a poster for a 1967 show (sponsored by George Grief) at the Gallery Contemporary at 631 N. La Cienega Boulevard, in the central arts district of L.A.

Burt Shonberg died on September 16, 1977. His artwork has yet to be exhibited in a museum setting. Perhaps Shonberg’s full curatorial embrace is denied because the work stands too far outside the art/historical narrative. Indeed, despite a lavish use of pop culture iconography and skilled abstract brushwork, Shonberg considered himself an illustrator by trade and a classicist by temperament. His interest in courting the fine art establishment was perhaps latent and largely absent.

From today’s perspective, the centerpiece of all this remains the Frankenstein monster, a vernacular symbol of such pathos that its stoicism abides as a cornerstone for both pop culture fantasmagorians and literary elites alike. Shonberg chose to emblazon his own coffeehouse with the somber monster as a spokesperson for the entire arc of human experience, the same as Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of Ancient Greece, did for Achilles in Book 18 of The Illiad, commemorating with a shield the extremes of war and emotion in a richly detailed work of art. Life’s events, after all, are not ordered chronologically. They correspond rather to an inner architecture of collected experiences, rendered in art by those who live to tell the story. Burt Shonberg left his hidden, in plain sight.

NOTE: This article originally published in the Outre Gallery Journal (Sydney, Australia), issue #1, published July 2012.

Brian Chidester is the author of Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Era (Santa Monica Press) and the co-editor of Dumb Angel magazine. He currently lives in New York City and writes for the Village Voice .

Quoted excerpts from the book Out Here have been reprinted by permission of the copyright owner at www.burtshonberg.com .

The name of the coffee house “Cafe Frankenstein” was created by George Clayton Johnson

©2012 George Clayton Johnson ©2012 CafeFrankenstein.com – All Rights Reserved


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John Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams lived in Laguna Beach just before they became a famous American author and playwright

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In 1931, Steinbeck learned about Laguna Beach from another writer by the name of Hal Wire. Still an unknown at that time, Steinbeck and his wife, Carol, rented a room at 504 Park Avenue in Laguna Beach. It was here that he wrote a good portion of his second novel ‘The Pastures of Heaven’. The house – a shingled cottage – had been built back in 1912 for George Garbarino, a volunteer fire department worker. Garbarino rented the space to the soon-to-be famous writer from 1931 – 32. The price was $15 per month.

 

Author John Steinbeck

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In 1932, “The Pastures of Heaven” was released.  It was Steinbeck’s second novel, but still he and his wife did not have a lot of money. Back then, this was actually a poor part of Laguna. A reporter from the weekly newspaper, Laguna Beach Life, came over to interview the writer at the house soon after the book’s publication. Remembering his reporter days and how much he loathed a boring interview, that day Steinbeck decided to have a little fun with the reporter. In answer to her questions, he gave extreme and over-the-top answers that related to blood sacrifices and other horrific practices. Not getting the joke, the reporter fled from the house in confusion.

Steinbeck would not taste any real financial success until the publication of his next book, 1935’s “Tortilla Flat.” (Was Tortilla Flats back in the 70s named for this book?) However, he spent some very formidable time here in Orange County, crafting this brilliant collection of 12 inter-connected stories about the Corral de Tierra Valley in Monterey, California.

Although the house has changed a bit, it remains a literary landmark; where an up-and-coming icon of literature spent his last humble years before exploding on the scene as one of the most popular authors of his, or any, generation.

 

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Tennessee Williams is quoted as saying his Laguna summer “was the happiest and healthiest and most radiant time of his life”.

It’s an incredible story about how as a young man, he and his friend cycled from LA to Mexico and on the way back they went through Laguna Canyon and stumbled on an opportunity to ‘chicken sit’ a house and they stayed and had a blast.

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You got to read the rest of the story. Click here.

Written By Stacy Davies

Finding Summer Fun – and Poultry Peril – in Laguna Beach

Tennessee Williams, one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century, was also one of the few who wrote successful screenplay adaptations of his own work, including scripts for A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo and Suddenly, Last Summer. Long before he secured his place in literary and movie history, however, he was simply Tom Williams, a Mississippi-born kid furiously penning essays, poems and plays in an attempt to unleash his stubborn muse.

Williams received the nickname “Tennessee” from his fraternity brothers during a brief stint at the University of Missouri (just one of several schools he’d attend) during the early 1930s, but didn’t formally adopt the moniker until 1939. That was also the year that his westward quest for inspiration found him in California, engaged in a bird-plucking gig at a squab ranch in Hawthorne.

During that stint, the struggling writer received a telegram informing him that he’d won a special award of $100 from the Group Theatre in New York for a collection of one-act plays called American Blues. In his memoir, Williams recalls it as “a huge piece of encouragement and boost of morale” that was “far more important to me than anything convertible into cash.” Instead of buying a bus ticket to Manhattan, however, he bought a bike, and with clarinet player Jim Parrott in tow, the two peddled their way down to Tijuana and Agua Caliente for further adventure and inspiration.

Once their sojourn across the southern border had ended, Williams and Parrott found themselves haphazardly cycling through Laguna Beach down a dirt road in Bootleg Canyon (now Canyon Acres), and it was there that they happened upon a chicken ranch. The homestead was owned by an elderly couple who were in dire need of a vacation, and they offered the drifters occupancy of a small cabin at the back of the chicken run in exchange for minding the flock. Williams and Parrott agreed.

“I don’t know why I was so committed to occupations involving poultry in those days,” Williams wrote. “No analyst has ever explained that to me.”

It was May 1939, and with little more than a typewriter and Victrola in hand (Williams felt both were indispensible to his writing), the two stayed through the summer. They established “friendly relations with the chickens the first time [they] scattered their feed,” found part-time jobs as a pin-setters at the local bowling alley, cruised the night spots, and lazed along the beaches.

“In the thirties, [Laguna Beach] was a fine place to pass the summer days,” Williams wrote. “There was constant volleyball, there was surfing and surfers, there was an artist colony … and all of it was delightful. It seems to me that the best part of all was riding our bikes up the canyon at first dark, in those days when the sky was still a poem.”

Williams was also in a tempestuous struggle to wrench out his muse, particularly through poetry. Drawn to the soul-searching allure of jazz, he began writing Tenor Sax Takes the Breaks, in which he describes a vociferous coastal affair:

Singing the latest jazz tunes

with trumpets, with trombones

the tenor sax taking the breaks!

Ride out, boy!

Send it solid!

Or at high noon

on beaches disporting our bodies

that imitate bronze

While the drums beat out a quick rhythm

…Jitterbugs

snakes

swing addicts!

Boy in blue trunks

surf-rider

girl with your breast half-naked!

Where is disaster?

Only in newspaper headlines!

“I suppose that summer was the happiest and healthiest and most radiant time of my life,” he would recall. “I referred to that season as Nave Nave Mahana, which is the title of my favorite Tahitian painting by Gauguin, and which means ‘The Careless Days.’”

During that idyllic interval, Williams also began receiving letters from agents on Broadway who’d heard about his Group Theatre award. One told him she was not looking for serious material, but rather a “good vehicle” – to which Williams responded that the only vehicle he had to offer was a second-hand bike. He eventually signed with Audrey Wood, known as “the little giant of the American theatre.” She would be with him for the next 30 years, first helping him attain a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and, by 1944, promoting his break-through play The Glass Menagerie. A few years later, she would oversee the publication of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

Williams and Parrott stayed in Laguna until August 1939, “the month when the sky goes crazy at night, full of shooting stars which undoubtedly have an effect on human fate, even when the sun’s up,” but made a hasty exodus after they awoke one morning to find that a third of their flock had perished overnight from a mysterious disease.

Parrott actually left first, acquiring a beat-up Ford and heading up to Los Angeles to make quick money playing jazz, and Williams was briefly left behind. “This was, I believe, the longest time in my life that I went hungry,” he wrote. “I went without nourishment for about ten days except for some remnants of dried peas and some avocadoes I’d steal now and then from a grove in the canyon.”

As was his nature, Williams found inspiration in his obstacles – in this case, starvation – noting that after about three days, “God or somebody drops in on you invisibly and painlessly injects you with sedation, so that you find yourself drifting into a curiously, an absolutely inexplicably, peaceful condition, and this condition is ideal for meditation on things past and passing and to come.”

Parrott eventually returned and collected his friend, and they headed for the San Bernardino Mountains. New Orleans was soon to follow, where Williams would expand his jazz-beach poem, officially anoint himself “Tennessee,” and finally unleash in full the muse that had, at least in part, been helped along the way by the verse and adversity he’d found in Laguna Beach.

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New California Law Eases The Way For Second Units

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Even on single family zoned lots you can add a separate residence or an extension on your home for long term rentals, for accommodating your senior mom and pops or whatever you want. The purpose of this law is to address the affordable housing shortage in the state.

Initially a challenge in Laguna was finding the space for another parking spot but now they’ve amended the law so that an additional parking spot is not needed if a bus stop is within a half mile of the property. Many Laguna properties fall within this.

While I learned about this at a Laguna Beach sponsored presentation to contractors I recommend that you don’t get the detail information from me but to read the following city documents.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Laguna Beach Municipal Code contains provisions regarding Second Residential Units in Chapter 25.17.

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Here’s are some good article on the subject:

New California Law Eases The Way For Second Units

California Today: A Housing Fix That’s Close to Home – The New York Times

Meanwhile back to the Laguna Real Estate activity:
Steady Eddie with lots of sales (42) and lots of properties going into escrow (54)

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2017-06-14 10_59_32-Start

Click here to see the rest of detailed information on what is selling in what prices ranges and more.

Laguna Beach community information:

Click on the community name to get detailed sales activity information and click on ‘For Sale’ to show houses available. Please let me know if you’d like to see any of them.

 Area  For Sale  For Rent  Median Listing Price
North Laguna 31 66 $2,594,000
The Village 37 51 $2,596,000
Emerald Bay 21 17 $10,498,000
Rancho Niguel 22 18 $552,000
Woods Cove 21 35 $1,994,000
Main Beach 10 18 $2,274,000
Laguna Terrace Mobile Park 6 1 N/A
Arch Beach Heights 12 6 $1,348,000
South Laguna Bluffs 13 19 $5,062,000
Temple Hills 17 7 $3,622,000
Laguna Heights 28 3 $760,000
Irvine Cove 3 2 $10,494,000
Beacon Hill 12 6 $784,000
Country Village 12 7 $682,000
Three Arch Bay 18 10 $4,374,000

Articles from local papers and of general interest:

Own a home or renting? 5 questions about what Trump’s tax plan could mean to you – Orange County Register

How to stay on top of a home sale and still enjoy the summer – Orange County Register Southern California million-dollar home sales soar to record high – Orange County Register

I’m proud to announce that I’m now partnering with Frank Hufnagel, the top agent at Surterre Laguna, so that I might provide a wider spectrum of services like major advertising in local periodicals. We complement each in many ways and I’m pumped to move forward with a friend and top real estate professional.

Sean_Frank

www.welcometothedream.com

https://www.facebook.com/woodscovelagunabeach

https://www.facebook.com/VictoriaBeachLagunaBeach

https://www.facebook.com/welcometothedream

‘Free and non-committal property valuation on your home or on property you’re thinking of buying.’

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Are you using Zillow Zestimate to buy or sell a house, don’t.

 

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Don’t make any real estate decisions using Zillow’s Zestimate

As a realtor Zestimates drive me crazy. Everyone thinks they are a real estate expert and are in the know because they use Zestimate’s real estate values.

Over the years I continually had to address why they are usually wrong for buying or selling a property. I know I’m not believed. Even when the fine print from Zillow says the percent of accuracy can be way off.  And it can change drastically daily.

Well finally lawsuits have been filed against Zillow and the company just started a contest asking for people and companies to help them to get more accurate estimates.

Maybe this word will get out and people will turn to their realtors for true values.

Here’s a couple recent articles that might be of interest.

Zillow Launches $1 Million Zestimate Competition

Zillow recently launched Zillow Prize, a $1 million award to the first person or team who can most improve the company’s Zestimate algorithm

Can You Trust Zillow’s Home Price Zestimate? In a Word: NoClick here to read this article.​

Laguna Housing Market

$2.3M – Median Listing Price

$975 – Price per Square Foot

$1.9M – Median Closing Price

Laguna Micro Communities Information – click on the community for more info

Area For Sale For Rent Median
Listing Price
North Laguna 33 66 $2,698,000
The Village 42 50 $2,694,000
Emerald Bay 20 16 $8,698,000
Woods Cove 16 27 $1,798,000
Main Beach 13 17 $2,060,000
Laguna Terrace Mobile Park 5 1 $138,000
Arch Beach Heights 12 8 $1,348,000
South Laguna Bluffs 9 17 $4,372,000
Temple Hills 14 7 $3,888,000
Irvine Cove 3 2 $8,494,000
Three Arch Bay 16 10 $4,748,000
South Laguna Village 11 13 $1,328,000
Laguna Canyon 14 2 $3,998,000
Top of the World 14 1 $1,774,000
Montage 7 7 $11,272,000

OC Coastal cities market information – Click on the city for detailed info

Area

For Sale

For Rent

Median
Listing Price

San Clemente

390

139

$1,078,000

Laguna Niguel

308

121

$978,000

Laguna Beach

343

296

$2,398,000

San Juan Capistrano

226

18

$1,148,000

Newport Beach

488

202

$2,194,000

Huntington Beach

497

173

$798,000

Mission Viejo

842

138

$708,000

Laguna Hills

144

20

$938,000

Irvine

878

486

$916,000

San Diego

2,065

1,294

$598,000

Newport Coast

130

52

$3,764,000

Aliso Viejo

292

87

$566,000

Orange County Housing Report:  Applying the Brakes

As housing transitions into the Summer Market, there are more for Sale signs while demand softens.

The Summer Shift: The annual tradition is no different in 2017, housing is shifting from the Spring Market to the Summer Market.
Active Inventory: The active inventory increased by 4% in the past couple of weeks.

Last year at this time, there were 6,267 homes on the market, 11% more than today.

Demand:  Demand dropped by 3% in the past couple of weeks.
Luxury End:
 Luxury demand dropped by 7% in the past couple of weeks while the inventory grew by 4%.

Click here to read the whole OC market report

Local and seller/buyer articles

Orange County condo prices hit all-time high as buyers are priced out of house market – Orange County Register

$84,000 a year now qualifies as low income in high-cost Orange County – Orange County Register

Low housing supply pushing rents higher – Orange County Register

How to Sell a House: 4 New Rules That Can Make or Break a Sale | realtor.com®

Think Your Credit Score Is Too Low To Buy A House? Maybe Not – Realty Times

Income needed to afford an Orange County house now at $154,120 a year – Orange County Register Own a home or renting? 5 questions about what Trump’s tax plan could mean to you – Orange County Register

I’m proud to announce that I’m now partnering with Frank Hufnagel, the top agent at Surterre Laguna, so that I might provide a wider spectrum of services like major advertising in local periodicals. We complement each in many ways and I’m pumped to move forward with a friend and top real estate professional.

www.welcometothedream.com

https://www.facebook.com/woodscovelagunabeach

https://www.facebook.com/VictoriaBeachLagunaBeach

https://www.facebook.com/welcometothedream

‘Free and non-committal property valuation on your home or on property you’re thinking of buying.’

Sign up here for Sean’s Laguna Stories Newsletter
Sign Up here for Sean’s Laguna and OC Real Estate Newsletter

 


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Can You Trust Zillow’s Home Price Zestimate? In a Word: No.

I got an email from Zillow last week. Seems my house has gone up in value another $2,000+ dollars in the past 30 days. And it’s going to rise another 3.5% in the next year, according to their Zestimate®. Fab!

Except that it’s just speculation. When it comes to Zillow’s Zestimates, you have to take the numbers with a grain of salt. Make that a big shake of salt, right over your shoulder. And maybe a stiff drink. And a frank conversation with your real estate agent.

“Shoppers, sellers and buyers routinely quote Zestimates to realty agents – and to one another – as gauges of market value,” said the Los Angeles Times. “If a house for sale has a Zestimate of $350,000, a buyer might challenge the sellers’ list price of $425,000. Or a seller might demand to know from potential listing brokers why they say a property should sell for just $595,000 when Zillow has it at $685,000. Disparities like these are daily occurrences and, in the words of one realty agent who posted on the industry blog ActiveRain, they are ‘the bane of my existence.'”

Are faulty Zillow estimates irritating, dangerous, somewhere in the middle? It all depends on your personal situation. A real estate investor, a seller in a high-end neighborhood, or an obsessive real estate watcher (ahem) may be able to brush off a $15,000 error. But for many people across the country, the word of Zillow might as well be the word of God. So, yeah, dangerous.

Price errors

Errors in sales prices are one of the issues Investopedia pointed out in its look at Zillow’s Zestimates.

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spoty

“Zillow factors the date and price of the last sale into its estimate, and in some areas, these data make up a big part of the figure. If this information is inaccurate, it can throw off the Zestimate,” they said. “And since comparable sales also affect a home’s Zestimate, a mistake in one home’s sales price record can affect the Zestimates of other homes in the area. The Zestimate also takes into account actual property taxes paid, exceptions to tax assessments and other publicly available property tax data. Tax assessor’s property values can be inaccurate, though. The tax assessor’s database might have a mistake related to a property’s basic information, causing the assessed value to be too high or too low.”

In June, Zillow’s much-maligned (by industry experts, anyway) Zestimates got an upgrade with a new algorithm. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff has famously called his company’s price estimates, “a good starting point” and copped to a median error rate of approximately 8%. With their new algorithm, they say it’s dropped to 6.1%.

image004


Marketwatch

John Wake, an economist and real estate agent from Real Estate Decoded, applied Zillow’s updated 6.1% margin of error to “Zillow’s own estimate of the median sale price in the U.S. in May 2016 of $229,737 and got a typical error of $14,000. He then took a sample city, Denver – a city in which estimates are actually more accurate than average” – and found “the error spread in 2016 is a lot tighter and more focused on the bullseye of the actual sales price,” but that “their Zestimates are scattershot.”

In his example, “a Denver home has a fair market value of $300,000. According to Zillow’s Zestimate Accuracy Table, 10% of their Zestimate prices were off by more than 20% from the actual sale prices. Half of that 10% are Zestimates that are too high by 20% or more, and half are Zestimates that are too low by 20% or more. That means you have a 5% chance Zillow will give you a Zestimate of $360,000 OR MORE, and a 5% chance Zillow will give you a Zestimate of $240,00 OR LESS. Yikes!”

Missing data

It gets even more complicated without all the data that gets fed into Zillow’s algorithm. Limit the available info and the margin for error grows.

That same email I received included a couple of new listings and info on recent sold homes in the area. Notice anything interesting about these recent sales?

image005

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Yep, no sales prices. Texas is one of about a dozen states without a mandatory price disclosure law, which makes property appraisals challenging and which makes it even more difficult for Zillow to come up with an accurate Zestimate since it eliminates one of their key data points.

In the case of my home, they’re a good $11,000–15,000 high on their sales price estimate. And that’s based on my direct knowledge of sales prices in my neighborhood—not list prices, not tax assessments, and not assumed sales prices based on trends.

Which brings up another issue that leads to inaccurate estimates. In many neighborhoods, sales trends and prices vary street to street. But Zillow’s estimates are a one-size-fits-all program. In my masterplan, the building of high-density units on the southern edge of the community a few years back took a bite out of the value of homes on the perimeter streets. Sales of homes with a first-floor master also get a bump here.

And then there’s the fact that this community is also split between two elementary schools. Zillow wouldn’t know which one buyers prefer and wouldn’t account for a difference in sales price between two otherwise comparable homes. But, people who live here would, and so would the local real estate agents.

Which only reinforces the importance of working with one, BTW.


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The Laguna Woman Story

© 2003 Steve Turnbull

It was a hot, sunny day in Laguna Beach California in 1933, when 17 year old Howard Wilson showed up at his pal Ed Marriner’s house to talk to him about something that he had been thinking about lately. Howard had plans for a great adventure that day.

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Howard and Ed often spent time together, roaming over the empty Laguna landscape searching for local Indian artifacts. They both had been well schooled in the lay of this rugged land, the coastal bluffs, it’s rivers, hills and canyons. They both had spent most of their youth scrambling amongst the hidden treasures of this unique coastal environment, and they loved it deeply. They shared a common interest in the history of the area, and especially the living history of the inhabitants that were living here before the Spanish “discovered” them in the late 1500′s.

They also knew exactly where to look amongst the cliff tops and fields of coastal Laguna for places the Indians lived and worked. Indian village sites were scattered everywhere along the coast and easy to find – if you knew where to look. The patches of rich black soil filled with small bits of chipped and burned rock, mixed in with seashells by the thousands, that told them this was the living floor or “midden” of a vanished people who once populated the coast.

The makers of these middens, were a semi-nomadic group of desert culture people that had come into the Southern California area around 3,000 years ago, displacing the older “Oak Grove” people, who were here before them by nearly another 3,000 years earlier. Little is known of these earlier “Oak Grove” people from that ancient time, but a great deal is known of the more recent folk.

Coming from the harsh deserts of the Southwest, they had brought with them the tools and traditions of a nomadic people who had learned to fashion their lives around the constant need to migrate in the never ending hunt for food. When they arrived at the coast they continued their ancient habits after a fashion, but only between the oak tree filled mountains with their plentiful acorn supply, and the coast with it’s unlimited supply of fish, clams, abalone and small game. Life was so good and so easy compared to the desert, that they kept their tools and culture little different from what they already knew. Apparently they felt little need to improve their circumstances – it was near perfect as it was.

When the Spanish missions were established, these unfortunate and gentle people were rounded up and named after the missions to which they were sent. The Laguna people were split in two groups. Those north of Aliso Canyon were sent to Mission San Gabriel and called the “Gabrielinos”, while those to the south of Aliso were sent to San Juan Capistrano Mission and became the “Juanenos”.

Howard had already amassed a sizable collection of stone tools, arrowpoints, carved shells, and cooking utensils left behind by these now vanished peoples, but that was not their goal today. He had bigger, more exciting plans for today’s adventure. Today they were going to look for something new. Something entirely different.

They went looking for a rumor…

The rumor was that a few years earlier some workmen were digging the foundation for a new house on St. Anns Drive when they found some skeletal remains…a few old skulls…that looked like humans. The workers supposedly crushed them up and tossed them into the cement mix for the slab and continued working. Howard figured that if it were true, there might be other remains still to be found in the area, and it would be a perfect way to spend a sunny summer day with his adventure buddy Ed.

The boys set off with the the typical high hopes of youth, thinking that finding a an old bone would be quite a thrill, little knowing that even their wildest dreams of discovery would not match what they were about to do…

They were about to meet the first American!

Howard knew that anything buried in Laguna’s soft, sandy soil would be quite easy to dig up. So easy in fact, that he only brought along a screwdriver to use as a digging tool. It was what he had always done before, and he couldn’t imagine why he would need anything else.

The boys left the house and headed down off the sloping hillside to the Pacific Coast Hwy., then walked south until they arrived at St. Anns Drive, a short street that ran back up the hillside, perpendicular to the recently paved Highway. The first block of the street had been graded down a long time ago, about five feet lower then the surrounding ground level to meet the PCH at a more favorable angle. This exposed a 100 foot long bank of sand colored soil on top of a layer of solid rock. They began to inspect this exposed earth as a good place to start.

Howard walked along to the west, carefully inspecting every tiny rock and bump along the face of the bank, when he suddenly saw something unusual down near the very base of the cut. Bending down for a closer look, he realized that he was looking at the end of a long bone sticking out of the hard rock. Howard yelled to Ed to come see, pulled out his screwdriver, and began to chip away at the rock. Immediately Howard realized that there was something very odd about this whole thing, and made a mental note to himself about it, because the bone was encased in solid rock – not the soft soil one would expect for a burial. He chipped away for many minutes until at last the bone fell free.

The boys looked closely at the bone and knew that they had found something that might be human, but they weren’t really sure. Howard knelt back down and began to chip again at the hard rock to see if there might be more bone now exposed. Sure enough, he spotted what looked like another smoother and more rounded piece of bone further into the rock, and began again to chip and dig away at the hard rock surrounding it. He chipped at it for many minutes, working up a good sweat, but he had made very little progress. Tiring rapidly from the effort, Howard handed the screwdriver to Ed who began to try his luck at the task. Ten minutes later, Ed had made very little headway, and a lot of sweat too. It was in very solid rock. This was going to take forever, they both agreed.

Realizing that the screwdriver was completely inadequate for the job, Howard decided that he would run back to his house to get a pick axe. Ed stayed and continued to work with screwdriver, and within an hour, Howard came excitedly running back with this new more powerful tool. Resting just a minute or two, Howard then began to whack much more forcefully at the rock with the pick. This time, he began making better progress. The rock was shattering away from around the bone quickly now.

In his enthusiasm, and with a tired arm, Howard struck hard at the rock, but the pick glanced off the rock and struck the bone with a loud “thwack”!

Whoa!

They both held their breath and peered closely at the damage. There was a small nick in the smooth surface, but the bone appeared to be solid and unbroken. With a much more careful and gentle swing from then on, the boys finally succeeded in removing the large bone from it’s rock tomb.

Holding it up to the light at last, Howard now knew for certain that what he had found was a human skull.

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But what he wouldn’t know for almost another 40 years was that he held something far more important.

He was holding the first American in history!

When the sun began to sink low to the horizon and shadows became long, an exhausted but exhilarated Howard returned home with his prize. It still had pieces rock and dirt clinging to it, and could use a good scubbing, so he went out to the backyard washing sink to clean it off under the faucet. As the dirt washed away, and he had time to think about it, he began to question just exactly what it was that seemed odd to him. He had seen other skulls of the local Indians before in books from the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. But something looked a bit different with this skull.

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It seemed to have a much more gentle slope from the eye sockets up and over the top of the skull, not the usual abrupt rise he’d seen on the other skulls in the books. Was this important he began to wonder?

And the fact that it was encased in very solid rock began to puzzle him too. How long would it take for soft sandy soil to turn into hard solid rock, he wondered? Surely the local Indians couldn’t, and wouldn’t, bury this individual in solid rock. He knew how hard it that rock was was, and knew that he’d never heard of nor seen any type of Indian tool that could dig through that kind of material. And the fact that the first bone he’d found – which he now recognize as part of a leg bone -was found at a random angle above and behind the top of the skull. It just didn’t fit in with the idea of a normal burial.

Maybe the bones washed out of the hills above a long time ago, he thought. Or maybe this individual – Howard had begun to think of the skull as a man – had been crushed under some sort of rock avalanche, or trapped in a fast flowing stream and buried under the mud, which after maybe a thousand years would turn to rock, or…. well, he just didn’t know.

His mother, Grace, came out to see what Howard was doing and to tell him to get washed up for supper, when she saw the skull in his hands. Howard proudly and excitedly began showing it off to her. Grace Wilson was a sweet and nurturing soul who loved that her son was so interested in the local Indians, but the thought of a dead man’s skull in her house gave her pause.

“You’re not going to bring that old thing in the house…are you?” she asked.

“Yes! Of course!” said Howard happily.

“I think you should throw it in the trash” Grace replied hopefully, “I don’t know if I want it in the house.”

“Oh, but I’ll keep it in a box so won’t ever have to see it.” Howard replied smilingly.

Grace could now see that it was very important to Howard, and like it or not, she also knew that there was going to be a human skull in her house.

“Ok then, wash up now and come in for supper”, Grace smiled in resignation.

I’ll toss it in the trash when he’s forgotten about it, thought Grace to herself. He’ll never miss it.

He wanted to know how old it was.

That was the question that began to burn in Howard’s imagination. He studied the shape of the gently sloping brow every night in his room. He poured over every textbook on early man in America that he could find, trying to match it up to something similar, but he couldn’t find any pictures or drawings of skulls that matched up very well. They all seemed to have a strong vertical rise from the eyebrow ridge to the top of the skull, yet what he was holding looked somehow more graceful and delicate. Was it just the way this individual was shaped? Or was it a genetic trait of an entire population, and this was just the normal shape of one of it’s members?

To answer that question, he needed to know how old it was to see if it was a member of the recently arrived Jaunaneos, or maybe one of the far more ancient “Oak Grove” people. He suspected the latter, as the skull was found in rock, and rock takes a great amount of time to form. But then again, how long was that he wondered? In 1933, dating archeological material was a pure estimate based on a number of clues – Where it was found, what tools were found with it, how deep it was found, local sedimentation rates…a long list of “guesstimates” that would point to a general age, but nothing definite.

 

He decided to ask an expert.

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In 1935, he wrote a letter, and included a detailed drawing, to the respected Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, the local authority on the Indians of California. He received an answer from Dr. Frances E. Watkins, the Assistant Curator, who wrote that while it was most likely a prehistoric skull, he felt that it was not an especially primitive type.

image017Click on image to read the original reply from the Southwest Museum in 1935

Dr. Watkins took the time in his letter to further elaborate on some of the scientific and historical knowledge of the coastal Indians at that time, meager as it was, and this fires Howard’s enthusiasm by validating his own theory. Here it was…an actual scientist confirming his suspicions of the skull possibly being older then the recent Jaunaneos, and maybe even of the ancient “Oak Grove” people! Although it was not a positive endorsement of a great age, he now knew the skull might be something important, maybe very important. It fueled his desire to answer the one big question that he had started with:

How old was the skull?

It began a lifelong quest, and Howard never wavered in his focus. There would eventually come an answer. A positive, definite, scientific answer…but it would be an answer that nobody expected!

In 1937, Howard loaned the skull to Mr. David Phoenix, a local Laguna Beach Geologist, to take with him to Santa Barbara. Mr. Phoenix was attending a geological seminar there, and he agreed to set aside some time to take it over to the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum for analysis.

Dr. David Banks Rogers, the Director of the Museum, inspected the skull and immediately became excited with what he was holding. He recognized it as exactly what the museum had been looking for for many years! He felt it was the “missing link” in a long chain of evidence of prehistoric man on the California coast that the Museum had been carefully gathering. He said it was definitely a specimen of the “Oak Grove People”, a type of man that inhabited the California coast long before the present day Indians that were here when the Spanish came along.

Dr. Banks noted that the shape of the skull, being so small in measurement, with it’s barely perceptible rise from the eye sockets upward, and the unusual flatness at the top of the skull so different from that of modern coastal Indians, confirmed Archeologists theory’s that these people were short, blocky, and small in stature.

image018Los Angeles Times – 1937
Click on image to see full-size

The Archeologists had already surmised this from many subtle clues gleaned from archeological excavations. He said that from what they had found, they were poor hunters of big game, and ate great quantities of seafood and acorns…hence the name “Oak Grove”. Although the scientists had found remnants of primitive baskets, and rather crudely made arrow points, they appeared to not have any knowledge of the art of pottery making.

Now the news of the find hit the newspapers. It became the topic of much conversation within the town of Laguna, and great interest and debate by the archeological community in California. Everyone wanted to get a look at the skull, and Howard was invited to many a meeting in the area to bring the skull for the locals to “ooh and aah” over, and for scientists to puzzle over and ponder.

Of course, Grace Wilson still had her doubts about having an old skull in her house, and all the fuss didn’t ease her concerns one bit. She had occasionally tossed the skull in the trash after Howard first brought it home.

When he would discover it missing, Howard knew what had happened and he would quickly fish it out of the trash can again, and replace it on the shelf in his closet without saying anything about it. He knew it was a sensitive subject with Grace, and he didn’t want to make matters any worse.

But now – after this public fuss and all – Grace knew she couldn’t toss it out again. She finally had come to an understanding with the situation. She may not like the skull being in her house, but since the scientists thought it was important, it could now stay for good. Howard knew it too, and he felt relieved that his prize would not end up in the garbage dump again if he went away for a while!

In 1937, Howard received a letter from Dr. A.O. Bowden, head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California requesting to see the skull. Howard packed it well, and sent it off to the University, excited to know that the most respected scientists in Californian Indian studies would be weighing in with their opinion.

A few months later, the skull was sent back, along with a letter from an instructor, Ivan A. Lopatin. The letter read in part as follows:

“After close visual examination and comparison with other skulls in our laboratory, I am able to say only that the skull under consideration does not differ from that of an average California Indian. The Skull was exposed for years to the influence of the atmosphere”.

Of course, the fact that the skull was found five feet underground encased in solid rock didn’t seem to influence this studied opinion at all.

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Reply from USC in 1937
Click on image to see full-size

But how could the skull have been exposed to the atmosphere for years?, thought Howard. It seemed impossible to him. He remembered thinking at the time that maybe the skull had been exposed to the atmosphere for years before it became buried so deep in the ground, but that would make it even greater in age then he or anyone else thought possible, so he dismissed the thought himself.

The letter was very discouraging to Howard. Lacking any positive scientific method with the technology of that time to positively date the skull left him with little choice but to accept the opinion of those of greater knowledge. If they said it was nothing special, then he must accept that opinion. But, it was difficult to accept when the opinion didn’t seem to fit with the facts.

Howard put the skull back in it’s little box and back on the shelf in his closet, and there it stayed. Howard soon went off to war in the Pacific, returned home to begin raising a family and grow his Building Design profession.

It would be almost another 20 years till the skull came back out into the light of scientific inquiry.

A chance meeting of Artist George Stromer and Howard Wilson.

image001Sculptor George Stromer with Dr. J.J. Marky holding the Laguna Skull.

In 1953, Howard was reading the local newspaper, The Laguna Beach South Coast News, and in it was an article that set him to thinking.

The article concerned a local sculptor, Mr. George Stromer, who had been sculpting the heads of prehistoric men, using the archaeologic skulls as the basis for his approach.

Using an exact copy of these skulls as the foundation for his work, Mr. Stromer would add what he thought was the clay equivalent of muscle and skin over top of it, resulting in a hopefully realistic portrayal of the the original owner of the skull. He was trying to bring ancient man to life. Howard contacted Stromer, and offered the Laguna skull to him to model, and Stromer readily agreed.

The model he produced showed more about the artistic thinking of Mr. Stromer then it did of the reality of the Laguna skull. While the size of the brain case was approximately correct, the other features were the product of a fertile artistic imagination. He produced the likeness of a small-brained man with strong projecting eyebrow ridges and an unusually large and forward thrusting jaw. This incorrect model resulted from both preconceived notions of what a primitive man “should” look like, coupled with the fact that there was nothing to the actual skull below the midpoint of the eyesockets with which to base his model upon.

But this chance meeting of Howard and Mr. Stromer did more then produce a fancy sculpture. It set in motion a chain of events which eventually took the skull to Museum of Man in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, through the hands of the famous Dr. Louis Leakey, and finally to the high-tech Carbon 14 Dating facilities of the UCLA Geophysics lab.

The age of the skull was going to be answered – but not for another 15 years!

The Laguna Woman gets her first date and flies to Paris!

 

p1The artist George Stromer had worked previously with an anthropologist from Oceanside California, Dr, J.J. Markey, who was directing the Indian projects centered around San Louis Rey mission area. Mr. Stromer thought that Dr. Markey might be interested in seeing the skull and asked Howard if he could take it to him to see what he thought, as Dr. Markey’s area of specialization was Southern California coastal Indians. Howard of course said yes, as he was still curious of anything he might learn about the skull he had found as a boy, 20 years ago.

Dr. Markey’s first impression on seeing the skull was how much it reminded him of ancient aboriginal skulls from Australia he had studied, and asked Howard’s permission to study the skull further. Using a new and somewhat imprecise technology then called a “Wall Screen Counter” – the forerunner of today’s precise Carbon 14 dating method – Dr. Markey was shocked when the results indicated a possible date of more then 25,000 years old! This was exciting news! The earliest known specimen of man up till then was only 9,000 years old, yet here was a individual that was possibly 2 1/2 times older then that!

Great excitement erupted in American archeological circles, and Dr. Markey quickly made plans to take the skull to the “Musee de l’Homme”, The Museum of Man, in Paris France. The greatest collection of prehistoric archeological skulls in the world, over 20,000, were housed there for study, and Dr. Markey wanted to have the Laguna Skull compared with them.

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Immediately, the scientists in Paris noticed that tiny mollusk shell fossils and other fossils of small plants still stuck to the skull were of a type that had become extinct over 100,000 years ago, thus raising hopes that the skull might be of the same age.

They also agreed that the skull looked astonishingly like the same cranial segments of certain primitive tribes of Bushmen, who still live in Australia.

Markey stated that “The similarities are sufficiently striking to justify the conclusion that the present day native Australians and the Southern California a common forefather” and that he must have crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America from 25,000 to possibly 400,000 years ago. But still, there was no way yet to say with absolute proof just how old the skull was, and that was where the subject lay. Until science invented a positive dating system, everything was just a guess.

The skull then traveled throughout Europe, to museums in Madrid, Belgium, Holland, and eventually the British Museum in London. After eight long years of scientific study, the skull finally came home to Laguna in 1961 and back in it’s old box on the shelf in Howard Wilson’s closet. There it stayed for many years… Till once again, in 1967, incredible fortune came along and changed history forever. Dr. Louis Leakey, the world famous Archeologist was about to meet the Laguna Woman!

Dr. Louis Leakey gets a gander at the skull, and immediately sends it to UCLA for a precise date…

Frank Tubb was a building contractor in Santa Ana with an interest in the archeology of Orange County. He had already discovered a 17 million year old fossil Whale in Mission Viejo during the construction of one of his housing projects. He was intrigued by the Laguna Skull, and had contacted Howard to see the skull for himself.

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Through an odd coincidence, he was also an old friend of Dr. L.S.B. Leakey, who, as it happened, was also in Newport Beach on a lecture tour that week. Dr. Leakey was considered the dean of contemporary Anthropologists, having discovered man’s earliest ancestor, 2 million year old Homo Habilis, at Olduvai Gorge, Tanganyika in 1960.

Tubb called his old friend Dr. Leakey and asked him if he’d like to see the skull too. Leakey, often inundated by locals bringing old things for him to see during his tour, usually would turn down such a request, but he decided to look at the skull for the sake of his old friend.

Howard took the skull to Balboa where Leakey was staying with friends and was told by an assistant there that the DR’s schedule was so busy and that he could only spare 10 minutes. Howard entered the room and produced the skull.

“He took one look at the skull and began grinning ‘Oh! Gee, that looks great!‘ he said. I thought I’d never get out of there.” said Howard later.

Leakey apparently instantly recognized the possible significance of the skull, and became so interested in finding out it’s true age, that he asked Howard if he might take the skull to the Geophysics lab at the University of California in Los Angeles to have it dated using the now very precise method of Carbon-14 dating.

In fact, it would be dated by the very scientists who invented the C-14 method of dating, Dr. Willard Libby and Dr. Reiner Burger. If anyone in the world could find the most precise date possible, using the most accurate lab procedures, it would be these two men. Howard agreed to the dating and handed the skull over to Dr. Leakey, then went home to wait.

Ironically, just during the preceding year, Howard had offered the skull to two prominent California Universities for examination: Both had turned it down.

They would soon find out they had missed out on the most exciting discovery in American Archeology.

The Laguna Skull is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere!
The news rocks the American Anthropological community!

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Dr. Willard Libby, Dean of the UCLA Geophysics Lab was awarded The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1960. “for his method to use carbon-14 for age determination in archaeology, geology, geophysics, and other branches of science”.

The Laguna skull was brought to him by Dr. Louis Leakey and Dr. Rainer Burger, the head of Anthropology Department at UCLA. Together the three scientists applied the most rigorous testing possible to the Laguna Skull to determine once and for all it’s actual age.

Anything that lives on earth breaths. You do, I do, a bacteria does. The air contains many elements that become part of a living organism as it breaths. including a large amount of the stable element Carbon 12 (C-12), with a small percentage of the unstable isotope Carbon 14 (C-14). All during our lives we take in the same proportion of C-12 to C-14, but when you die, no more C-14 is taken in, and it begins to slowly decay over time into the stable isotope C-12. It takes about 60,000 years for all of the C-14 to decay into C-12. By measuring the amount of C-14 left in the bones or in other organic materials, scientists can calculate how long the organism has been dead. Carbon-14 dating has become the most sensitive and reliable method for dating recent archaeological finds, and today it is the standard tool used by research labs worldwide.

Working carefully and deliberately, the three scientists ran their sensitive tests for many days at the UCLA Geophysics Lab. About 20 percent of the skull would have to be crushed up and burned for a testing sample, so the area at the back of the skull was chosen to leave as much of the skull intact as possible for future study. The entire small leg bone fragment found along with skull was destroyed for testing also, but the results were worth the loss.

The results finally confirmed what many had suspected. The skull was old… very old.

At 17,000 years old, they were the oldest human remains ever found in the entire Western Hemisphere. Nearly twice as old as anything previously known. The Laguna Skull is the FIRST American!

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At the same time, a number of sensitive and precise measurements of the skull’s various morphological features made by Dr. Berger also changed how the world thought of the skull. Using very precise measurements, the sex of the skull could be positively stated.

Dr. Berger also now announced to the world that the skull was not “Laguna Man” as everyone had thought, but “Laguna Woman”!

At last, scientists had the truth, and it rocked the world of Anthropology. Entire careers had rested upon theories of when people had first entered the New World, and now most of those theories crumbled.

The generally accepted theory was that early man had entered the Americas by walking across a land bridge between Asia and the American continent that was exposed when the sea level fell when much of the water in the oceans were locked up in the great glaciers that covered the land during the last ice age. This land bridge was formed across what is now the Bering Straits. According to the best physical evidence at that time, the date of mans’ entrance into the Americas was around 9,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Elaborate and well reasoned theories supporting this belief fell with a resounding crash. Here before them was proof that the migration ( if it actually happened the way scientists imagined ) had occurred much earlier then any one thought possible. Twice as early!

But even more astounding, the Laguna Woman is probably far older then this official date.

The many years of human handling had added much “fresh” C14 to the skull. The “younger” seashells imbedded in the bone, along with recent organic material and minerals that had leeched into the skull all conspired to make the skull date younger then it actually was.

Dr. Louis Leakey was convinced that if the skull had not been so contaminated with fresh C14, that it’s actual age would have proved to be between 30 to 40,000 years old! Stunning!

This startling news set off intense archeological interest in looking for more bone fragments that might still be in the same area where the skull was found so many years ago on St. Anns Street.

Now the hunt was on again!

Now the hunt for more specimens of Laguna Woman is on!

The possibility of recovering more remains from the same location where Howard found Laguna Woman in 1933 excited many archeologists, and a full-scale scientific exploration of the site on St. Anns street was launched.

In the 35 years since the original discovery, more houses had been built along the street, but the long exposed bank of earth was still accessible, and the property owners were more then thrilled to allow the archeological team to dig up their front yards…provided they returned the land to it’s original form.

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A team of professional archeologists were gathered together under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Tomchak, Professor of Archeology at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa California, to conduct a through excavation the discovery site. Students from UCLA and other surrounding universities joined in with great enthusiasm.

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Throughout the summer months of 1968, the scientists carefully poured over every pebble and twig they dug up, searching for the tiniest clue. They found a few small pieces of “worked” stone, and many rodent bones and sea shells, but nothing more of any human remains. A geological assessment of the site showed that it was a 5-8 deep covering of earth that probably been washed down from the coastal mountains behind the town. This is probably where Laguna Woman came from too. She most likely died up high in a valley near the mountain top, called Hidden Valley, then later washed down to the present site during torrential rains.

This is a work-in-progress.

I’m writing it in fits and starts, so stop back by later to read the complete story. In the meantime, click on the newspaper articles below to read what was being said at the time. I’ll present them better soon. Thanks!

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