By Kevin Bender
Thank you to former Gov. Schwarzenegger and others who donated land or worked to make possible the 67-mile Backbone Trail across the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a scenic and hiking jewel for Southlanders to treasure.
I’d like to acknowledge another actor and philanthropist who helped start the trail in 1944. His spirit fills the mountains, canyons and coast of Santa Monica and his park legacy is growing across Southern California more than 50 years after his death.
Born Leopoldo Antonio Carrillo in the mud brick pueblo of Los Angeles in 1880, he was reared and lived in Santa Monica. In his autobiography he waxes lyrical about a youth spent fishing and hunting, rambling and roving around the Santa Monica Mountains. “Lions, fish, quail, plover,” he wrote, “dogs, horses, coyotes, swimming, lassos, branding, fiestas! The mountains and the sea were mine.”
The Carrillo family legacy begins in Alta California in 1769 with three members in the Portolá Expeditions. By 1885, historian H.H. Bancroft wrote the Carrillo family “must be considered in several respects the leading one in California by reason of the number and prominence of its members and of connections by marriage with so many of the best families, both native and pioneer. ”
The 19th-century Carrillos were old-school, Spanish-speaking Californios. Leo was a modern Californian, a young man with talent and 20th-century ambitions. Just after 1900, Leo left SoCal to start a fifty-year career in show business, first in vaudeville and then on the Broadway stage.
Sound in movies succeeded and siren Hollywood beckoned. Leveraging his ethnicity and skills at mimicking dialects, Leo was perfect for character roles in the talkies, and mostly played roles of Italian or Mexican descent. Returning home, he built Los Alisos (The Sycamores), his “ranchita” home on 14 acres on East Channel Road in Santa Monica Canyon in 1932. He was back, with New York wife Edith in tow, in his beloved California.
For two decades, Leo acted. After more than 90 movies and at the age of 70, you and I would be thinking retirement at the rancho. Not Leo! The 1950-56 TV series “The Cisco Kid” rocketed Leo to wide popularity. He played the lazy, English-challenged sidekick Pancho, ironically a far cry from the athletic and articulate real-life Leo.
Acting was not all he’d been doing this whole time. He was also giving back to California.
In 1938 and 1942, he was urged to run for governor (as his great grandfather Carlos Antonio Carrillo had been) but decided not to. Despite being a Democrat, he campaigned for old Republican friend Earl Warren when he ran for and won the governorship in 1942. It was then Leo found his true calling as outdoorsman and pioneer environmentalist.
Warren appointed Leo to the State Parks Commission. Leo served from 1943 to 1961, helping to preserve and acquire state parks, monuments and landmarks. During that time, he also fought against the defacing of public beaches by oil drilling or other industry.
“Natural resources, beauty spots, historic sites …,” Leo wrote, “ … should be perpetuated and conserved for future generations … never be used for any purpose except the benefit of the citizens and the education of children.”
This leads us back to the very beginnings of the Backbone Trail in time and place.
Leo and Will Rogers had been friends since vaudeville days and next-ranch neighbors since 1932. Will died in a plane crash in 1935. In 1944, Will’s widow Betty Rogers gave their 186-acre ranch to the people of California as a State Park.
That was the first step in a 72-year journey of transfer and acquisition in the Santa Monica Mountains culminating in the 2016 completion of the Backbone Trail.
And there at the Oct. 1, 1944, Rogers Ranch acceptance ceremony, dressed in cowboy hat standing behind dignitaries and Governor Warren, is the master of ceremonies and chairman of the State Parks Commission — Leo Carrillo.
Leo’s parks service led to Malibu’s Leo Carrillo State Park being named in his honor in 1959.
When Leo’s cancer forced him to resign the Commission just months before his death in 1961, the Commission expressed “ … its appreciation and commendation to Pancho, Mr. California, and our State’s beloved Ambassador of Good Will, Señor Leo Carrillo, for his untiring efforts on behalf of the State Park system.”
At heart and in service, in word and deed, Leo was much less Pancho and much more a Park Man. But even death could not stop Leo’s relationship with the Santa Monica Mountains and his contributions to California.
In 1953, Leo and wife Edith endowed a trust. Upon the death of their last heir, the assets of the trust were to go to the State of California and be used to acquire public parkland in the Santa Monica area. Edith died in 1953; Leo in 1961. Their only daughter Antoinette passed away in 1978 and her one adopted son in 2012.
Soon after, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was approached by the Attorney General’s office about using trust proceeds to acquire property for a public park.
The Conservancy authorized entering into an agreement with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority for the acquisition. Trust funds paid for a portion of acquisition of Decker Canyon Park in May, 2014. The Carrillo funds acquired 163 of 425 total acres. The Leo A. Carrillo and Edith Carrillo Memorial Park is named for the 163 acres. The Backbone Trail runs inland from it and the Coastal Slope trail runs right through it.
Leo has two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but three public parks named for him. Leo Carrillo State Park runs from the Santa Monica Mountains to the beach in Malibu. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park in Carlsbad is listed in the register of National Historic Places and a municipal park since 2003. It was Leo’s 1,700-acre cattle ranch and get-away from Hollywood. And now, we have the new Carrillo Memorial Park that sits next to the State Park.
Two stars to three parks sums up Leo’s ratio of stardom to service.
On the last page of his book Leo reflects on a long, successful life: “I have trod many a stage. Applause has been mine. Many dreams have come true. The everlasting hills are my proscenium. The vaulted sky is my roof. The stars lean down to pronounce their benediction. I have spoken my lines. ‘Pais, agua, sol.’ [Earth, water, sun] These are the simple things, the true things, the good things. Let them, when the time comes, signify my exit.”
He passed away, at his Santa Monica home, just weeks before his autobiography, tellingly titled “The California I Love,” was published.
So put down the paper, turn off your TV (or device) and go walk some of the Backbone Trail. Or grab some friends and visit one of your three southland Leo Carrillo parks. As Pancho would say, “Let’s went!”
Take a dip. Take a hike. Or just take a look. They are yours for the taking.
And as you swim in the sea or ramble our gorgeous Golden State, think on Leo’s words and enjoy his everlasting parkland legacy. “Earth, water, sun … Simple, true, good.”
Kevin Bender is the archivist at Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park in Carlsbad and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Reach him at 760-710-1422.