The more Santa Monica is overrun with new development the more I’m drawn to stories of “old” Santa Monica. This past Tuesday I covered a get-together of friends who grew up in Ocean Park almost 75 years ago.
This remarkable reunion was hosted by Tom and Sandy Chatham at their beautifully restored Ocean Park home on Third Street that was originally built by Tom’s great-grandfather in 1906. To put that in perspective, Teddy Roosevelt was president and World War I, the “war to end all wars,” (talk about false advertising) was eight years away.
To appreciate the reunion it might help to visualize Santa Monica in the late 1930s. No high-rises, no condo developments, no congestion, no freeways, no smog and no jet plane fumes and noise. Ours was just a sleepy beach paradise. At least, in retrospect, it certainly seems that way.
What a “colorful” atmosphere in which to grow up. Instead of concrete shopping malls and multiplex movie theaters there were dance halls, whorehouses and gambling ships. (A quick water taxi ride from the Santa Monica Pier to the 1.2 mile limit.) Ocean Park was definitely rough and tumble but, like Mark Twain’s Mississippi River, it was a fertile playground for fascinating adventures.
Even the self-named “Ocean Park Indians” remind me of Twain. (In the photo here, only nine were actual O.P. Indians; the others were wannabes who lived east of Lincoln.)
The O.P. Indians lived only a few blocks from the pier and the Casino Gardens, which had 1,500 lights and 14,000 square feet of dance floor. The best big bands took trains cross county to Santa Monica to play for the rebellious swing dancers, proponents of a dance craze that swept the nation. (Imagine a bigger craze than “twerking” with or without Miley Cyrus.)
Weekends featured the rowdy Swing Shift Dances which went from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. But it was during the day, when the bands rehearsed, that the O.P. Indians had their greatest thrills.
Because there was no air-conditioning, the doors to the mammoth Casino Gardens were propped open to catch a breeze. The Indians would sneak in and covertly witness the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The Indians were especially riveted by the Dorsey brothers who, right on stage, drank, did drugs, and even had fist fights.
There were so many adventures to be had. For example, the O.P. Indians could hop a trolley car between Pier Avenue and Marine and go to downtown L.A. There were the spectacular and ornate movie palaces such as the Orpheum, Loew’s State and the Million Dollar Theatre.
But back to Tuesday’s reunion where the weather was perfect as tables and umbrellas filled Tom’s backyard. The food was delicious and plentiful. (Hot dogs, chips, fruit, coleslaw, potato salad, cake, soft drinks and wine.)
It all made an ideal setting for 40 happy souls (including wives and significant others) whose friendships go back almost three quarters of a century. “We’re sharing some great stories,” said Ron Accosta with a wry smile. “Some of them are even true.”
Given all the joyous reminiscing, at least for the afternoon, the clock had been turned back on octogenarians who were once again carefree kids.
Host Tom Chatham, a legendary athlete at Samohi, became an administrator at Palisades High School. Also attending the reunion was Ronnie Sewell, whose popularity as an O.P. Indian wasn’t hurt by the fact his father operated the pier’s popular “High Boy” roller coaster! Ronnie became a driver for the French Pioneer Bakery on Rose for 45 years.
Erwin (Erkie) Cheldin was an insurance executive while David Ross was a chemical engineer. Melvin (Bobo) Lewis had a distinguished teaching career at Hamilton High School. An outstanding tennis player, he still plays at age 81. Jerry Hook owns a furniture manufacturing company while Karl Kolb retired from the Paper Mate Pen Company on Olympic and 26th.
Irwin (Irkie) Jerry Feldman is a semi-retired CPA, while Ocean Park’s “Walking Wikipedia,” Ron Accosta, at 79, is about to launch a Venice and Santa Monica tour business previewed at www.venicebeachbustours.com. Ron’s brother Dan, at 91, is a salesman extraordinaire at Shoe City in Whittier. (Amazing!)
Given the modern breakdown of the family and how often people move, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever attend a 75th reunion of my childhood friends. If I ever do, all I can say is, I hope it’s catered by Tom and Sandy.
Wishing speedy recoveries to Don “Tank” Limbocker, Regis and Phyllis Donnelly and Jim and Elaine Dreibelbis, all of whom were unable to attend due to illness. Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.