MAIN STREET — Fred. E Basten is an accomplished author and chronicler, having penned or collaborated on nearly 40 books, including “Santa Monica Bay: Paradise by the Sea,” a pictorial history that is practically required reading for anyone who calls Santa Monica home.
But he’s probably more well known for his other job as a travel counselor for the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau. The slender, reserved man with the rumbling voice and relaxed demeanor has helped thousands of visitors over the last 10 years discover the city by the sea, pointing out attractions and landmarks while offering stories on Muscle Beach or the old pleasure piers. Having lived in Santa Monica for 53 years, he has plenty to share.
“I love telling them all the spots to hit,” Basten said with a smile during an interview earlier this month at the Santa Monica Visitors Center on Main Street near Pico Boulevard. “It’s been a joy for me.”
That’s ironic given that Basten isn’t the most outgoing person you’ll meet; he prefers to let his writing speak for him. He’s never been married. He lives alone and considers his books to be his children.
For the most part, he’s reserved unless asked about a topic he’s researched, like the emergence of the Technicolor Corp., which revolutionized movie making by ushering in color. His book on the subject, “Glorious Technicolor: The Movies’ Magic Rainbow,” is considered to be one of the most in-depth looks on the company.
He credits his work with the Visitors Bureau for helping him open up and socialize more. And for his efforts he was recognized by the nonprofit charged with promoting Santa Monica as a premier tourist destination.
“Fred is an integral part of our team and such a wonderful asset to our community,” said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the Visitors Bureau. “His love for Santa Monica is evident in the work that he does and his gifted storytelling has kept our city’s history alive for future generations. For the past decade, our visitors have been provided the opportunity to meet and to learn from an extraordinary man and author.”
Basten’s love for Santa Monica can be traced back to his roots in Chicago. Born in the years after the Great Depression (Basten refuses to give his age; “ages are only important in obits,” the author writes when asked for his age a second time), he lived with his family in a small apartment by the beach; his grandparents lived a short distance away on Lakeshore Drive overlooking Lake Michigan.
“I’m kind of a water baby. I have to be near the water. I have to see the water,” Basten said.
As a kid, he remembers spending a lot of time with his grandmother at the beach, visiting museums or attending the grand movie palaces owned by Balaban & Katz Theater Corp. where he got in for free thanks to his father, a drummer with his own pit band that provided music for the stage shows that preceded films in those days.
“My grandmother was a big movie fan and I became a great big movie fan,” Basten said with a laugh. “I remember seeing all the major movie stars of the time. I saw Judy Garland, Betty Grable; they’d come to promote their films.”
So imagine Basten’s delight when his father decided to move the family to Los Angeles in 1944. Basten was going to see Hollywood for himself. His father, mother, a “big Charleston girl,” and Basten packed up their car, borrowed some gasoline ration stamps and took Route 66 to the West Coast.
They followed radio personality Truman Bradley, a friend of Basten’s father who had the cash to open up an appliance shop. Basten’s father became the store manager and the family settled in Westwood. He attended University High School and got his first job as an elevator operator at Sponberg’s Department Store.
“I loved Sponberg’s, but it had a terrible smell,” he said.
Basten attended UCLA where he initially majored in business at his father’s suggestion.
“He went through the Great Depression and said if you have a business background you will always be safe,” Basten said. “I almost flunked out of school. I didn’t know anything about numbers and I’m not interested in anything like that.”
He was put on academic probation, switched his major to art history and took off from there. He got a job at Foote, Cone & Belding Advertising in downtown Los Angeles, where he started off in the mail room, “like everyone did back in those days.” He soon was promoted to the copy department, where he had the pleasure of working with “Sex and the Single Girl” author and Cosmopolitan magazine legend Helen Gurley Brown.
“At the time she was going with Jack Dempsey the boxer, who was quite a bit older than she was,” Basten said.
Basten went on to serve as an assistant to the public relations director at Max Factor and was the director of publications at A & W Root Beer in Santa Monica for 13 years. When the company moved their headquarters to Michigan, Basten stayed in Santa Monica and pursued his writing full time.
“I didn’t want to move back east again, I didn’t want to work for somebody else or another company,” Basten said.
So he pulled out piles of old photographs he had collected of Santa Monica and decided to put a book together. He didn’t know it at the time, but Santa Monica was about to celebrate its 100th birthday. While one book on its history was being written by a reporter with the old Outlook newspaper, Basten was putting together his own. It became a hit.
“Everybody loved it. I was hauling cartons of books to the book stores around town every week because they couldn’t keep it on the shelf,” he said. “They said at one time that everyone in Santa Monica had a copy of that book on their coffee table.”
It has been in print under one name or another since 1975. Another one of Basten’s books on the historic Chateau Marmont hotel, a haunt of many celebrities, is currently being developed into an HBO mini-series. Basten said he is busy with four projects now, but he won’t discuss them.
“I just don’t want people to know what I’m doing,” he said.
When the former “beach rat” isn’t writing or at the Visitors Center, he can be found walking along the boardwalk or the Third Street Promenade.
“I still love the beach, but I don’t get down there too much anymore. I like to wander around and see what’s happening. There’s always something going on,” he said. “It’s not dull around here.”
With people like Basten, it certainly is not.
“There might be a different look, a lot more people and more congestion, but it’s still Santa Monica,” Basten said when asked to reflect on how Santa Monica has evolved over the years. “I wouldn’t move for anything. I love it.”