Dec. 21, 2017
By Sarah A. Spitz
Noel Blanc once blow-dried the athletic field at Santa Monica College. With his jet helicopter. For real.
It was in the 1980s and Noel—whose name in French means “White Christmas” and who was Bar Mitzvah’ed at the original Casa del Mar—was called upon to help with an “emergency situation.”
A big game was scheduled, but heavy rains had turned Corsair Field into a shallow lake.
Someone called Noel to ask whether he’d consider using his helicopter for an unusual purpose.
“I flew it over to the field, then hovered about six feet above the ground for about an hour so the rotor blades would blow all the water away and the game could proceed,” Noel told me during a recent lunch at Enterprise Fish Company, one of his regular eateries. It worked.
That’s just one of hundreds of stories Noel Blanc tells, not just about his own life but about early days of Santa Monica, Venice, Playa del Rey, the Pier, Ocean Park, World War II, work he’s done, celebrities he’s known…You can spend hours listening to Noel’s stories, something my friend Ted Bonnitt has done for years, sharing some of them with me, until finally I asked to meet him myself.
Ted’s an East Coast transplant who came to work on a public radio show, broadcasting during the LA Arts Festival in the ’90s from KCRW where I worked. Shortly after, he moved to the same apartment in Ocean Park where he still lives, with his pediatric eye surgeon wife, Laura and their musically gifted daughter, Samohi Marching Band and Orchestra member Elaine.
Ted loves Ocean Park like a native. One Sunday about 20 years ago, he found himself at the “Algonquin Table of the West,” a neighborhood tradition at the Main Street Farmers Market, where he met Noel.
They hit it off because they were in the same business: producing funny, creative radio commercials. Then Ted discovered that Noel’s dad was Mel Blanc, “the man of 1000 voices,” who created the voices for Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam and other beloved Looney Tunes/Warner Brothers cartoon characters, plus hundreds of voices for TV, film and radio. The floodgates opened and Noel’s stories poured out.
Noel looks like he’s in his mid-50s, but he’s spent 74 of his 78 years mostly in the Santa Monica, Venice and Playa del Rey areas.
“My grandparents lived in Ocean Park and my parents met at a dance hall on the beach, just a few hundred yards from where my wife Kat and I live now.”
His dad bought a house in Playa del Rey in 1938, “where barely 300 people, including Cecil B. DeMille, lived at the time, and friends like Jack Benny, George Burns and Red Skelton would come out on weekends to relax at the ocean with no one else around.
There was just one little restaurant that closed at 2 o’clock, a drug store, one market, one gas station, that was it.”
The family shopped in Ocean Park, which he describes as, “A great cosmopolitan area with major stores. Thousands of people from across the city would hop on the Pacific Red Car, head to the beach to cool off, go to the Pier Avenue shopping district then maybe catch a movie.
“People say it’s crowded now,” he mused, “but it’s nothing compared to what it was back then,” he continued. “The beach was much narrower – all the sand dredged from the Marina was added to make it three times wider.
But the funny thing is, the numbers of people visiting started dropping off after air conditioning was introduced in the ‘50s.”
Noel remembers that the West Coast was the most vulnerable place in America following the attack on Pearl Harbor. “People were jittery. Douglas Aircraft, Standard Oil, Lockheed were all here.
We had nightly dim-outs, there were machine gun placements from Playa del Rey to the Venice marshes” (Marina del Rey) “and tracers were shot off to hit targets in the ocean as training for anti-aircraft gunners. My dad patrolled the area as an air raid warden, while my mom made pots of chili to feed the troops marching around our streets.”
“And,” Ted prompts him, “there was that whole decoy thing at the SM airport.”
“Right,” responds Noel, “they strung up a false cover over the entire airport and put up fake model homes, so from the air, it would look like a village instead of an aircraft plant.”
About three months into the war, a pipe at El Segundo’s Hyperion Plant broke, spilling raw sewage into the ocean. Noel says, “The Army Corps of Engineers could have fixed it in a day and a half, but my theory is that they used contamination as the excuse to lay barbed wire up and down the coast, and keep people off the beach, to prevent anyone from signaling the enemy.
It stayed closed for a few years after the war ended.” He was there the day it reopened in 1947. “They poured in so much chlorine, the water turned green.”
Fortunately, in the not-too-distant future, Noel Blanc and his author/wife Kat will be producing a podcast, telling even more of Noel’s reminiscences. I’ll share more about that here, two weeks from now. Meanwhile, Happy Holidays!
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.