Tuesday, April 21, 2015

When the Beach Boys sang...

...about "gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old strip," they must have been referring to Hawthorne Boulevard, the main drag which runs north and south through their hometown.

(By the way, check out some of Mike Love's "white guy" dance moves in the video above. He'd fit in real well at one of my extended family's gatherings.)

Before we cruise up and down Hawthorne Boulevard in my deuce coupe (okay, my son's late-model Honda Civic), let's drop in at the Hawthorne Historical Society Museum with its excellent neon sign salvaged from the old Hawthorne Grill.

As you can see, the museum is only open for three hours a day, two days a week. When I breathlessly told my son on Tuesday that I had visited it he asked me, "Were you the only one there?"

"How'd you guess?" I answered. (I suppose everyone in LA is a comedian.)

I reminded him that when he was little he thought the lyrics "I'm makin' real good bread" referred to Brian Wilson's proficiency at baking superior loaves of marble rye.

We were even.

When I was at the museum, I had a nice conversation with a couple of older women (and there were other people there) who seemed positively thrilled at the chance to talk to someone about Hawthorne's illustrious past.

They told me, for example, about another famous resident of the town. (No, not Chris Montez.)

Apparently, for the first seven or eight years of her life Norma Jeane Baker lived with foster parents at this house at 4201 W. 134th Street, not far from Hawthorne Middle School. Ms. Baker grew up to become the actress Marilyn Monroe.

The women at the museum told me that Hawthorne had once resembled a small Midwestern town. And, looking at the various displays, I had no trouble believing that.

But out on Hawthorne Boulevard, especially in front of the shuttered Hawthorne Plaza, the town seemed a little, well, down-at-the-heels.

In some ways Hawthorne reminded me of the movie Back to the Future, and what the town of Hill Valley would become by 1985. Or Pottersville, the dystopian version of Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life.

From a post I found about Hawthorne Plaza (spoiler alert: it's not a pretty picture):

Once upon a time there was a thriving aerospace community in south Los Angeles County called Hawthorne. Hawthorne was an “all American” town, in fact the town spawned one of the greatest musical groups in history, the Beach Boys . . . they went to Hawthorne High School. Hawthorne was a model of the middle class dream, where families would come to work, buy a house and raise a family and to fulfill the American dream.

You can still see remnants of that town, such as this sign in the middle of Hawthorne Boulevard celebrating the home of Northrop Corporation as the "Cradle of Aerospace."

In 1977 the Hawthorne Plaza opened its doors to meet the booming retail needs of the city. The Hawthorne Plaza was 900,000 sq ft . . . it was huge, two stories and had a five-acre parking area. The Hawthorne Plaza was an “indoor” mall so the residents did not have to brave the harsh Southern California weather in winter when temps would sometimes dip into the low 60’s!

The Hawthorne Plaza began to falter as several other large scale “shopping mall” projects were completed in nearby Torrance and Redondo Breach. The Hawthorne Plaza struggled to find and maintain quality tenants to occupy the location along with its anchor stores of “The Broadway,” “Montgomery Wards” and “JC Penny.” 

The Mall was looted during the riots of April 1992 and from that point on went on a quick downward spiral into oblivion. The Hawthorne Plaza was put out of its misery and closed in 1999. It has sat, virtually untouched except by vandals for the last 13 years.

Kitty-corner from the depressing Hawthorne Plaza and immediately across the street from Chip's, a good example of southern California Googie architecture, is the local Fosters Freeze franchise.

Why is this noteworthy?

Not just because it gave me an opportunity to take an ice cream cone break, but because it was one of the places where Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys actually hung out.

In fact, it was at this "hamburger stand" that Brian was said to have spotted a girl driving through one day in a Ford Thunderbird, which inspired him to write the 1964 hit "Fun, Fun, Fun."

From there I drove south on Hawthorne Boulevard, past two other businesses I thought may have been around in Brian Wilson's day.

The first was Phil's Bicycle Shop, which Googlemaps describes as a "low-key bike shop with sales & repairs."

And the second was Leon Imperial, which appeared to be a discount furniture store.

Finally, at the far south end of Hawthorne Boulevard, past the middle school and close to Marilyn Monroe's childhood home, was Pizza Show, a family-run joint since 1958 and another one of the Beach Boys' real-life hangouts.

I didn't stop in; I wasn't in the mood for pizza after having just wolfed down that ice cream cone.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Beach Boys' music in my formative years. As I mentioned earlier, I idolized my oldest brother and romanticized the mid-1960s. And although my taste in music has since evolved to include some classical and jazz as well as succeeding generations of rock 'n' roll (but not rap!), the Beach Boys were my first love, musically, and I'll always turn up the volume when one of their songs comes on the radio.

I mean -- come on -- girls, beaches and endless summer? What's not to like?

It was time now to put the city of Hawthorne in my rear-view mirror and drive on.

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