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The soul of the city part III
Can the arts help restore Downey's identity?
WRITTEN BY :   Lawrence Christon, Contributor

DOWNEY – In response to a criticism for writing about a dead past, William Faulkner famously replied, “The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even past.”

Nonetheless, one of the sweeping developments of our post-war industrialized world, particularly in America, has been to bury it, in concrete, in blank glass and steel high-rises, generic retail franchises, corporatespeak, impersonal systems, any one of the thousand ways in which the power of the individual is reduced to the self-critical anxiety and historical amnesia of the consumer. “Please stay on the line, your business is important to us,” a recorded message says while Tony Soprano waits his turn on hold.

“If my business is so important, why can’t I get a human being,” he replies.

History and culture, the ideas, expressions, rituals, beliefs, music, architecture, art, fashion and cuisine, all the things that characterize social place, become more important to hang on to therefore. They help keep us from being swept away. Or, to put it another way, sold out.

It’s a bit risible for an outsider like me to hear so many people crow about how great Downey is. Great compared to what? Cudahy? After seeing how much of it has been dispersed and parceled away, and in Redd Foxx’s word, uglified, a lot of the gush sounds borderline delusional; particularly when a mere lift of the eyebrow at the idea of Downey as a fabled Brigadoon can draw acid scorn from its true believers.

But the fact that I’ve lived here for 35 years and still feel like an outsider suggests that a buried past still exerts its unique pull. A great many if not most people who were born and raised here deeply love it, even in their disappointment and critical alarm. Those two teen girls mentioned earlier in this series begged the rest of us to give them a reason to come home.

What is it that they, and their parents and grandparents remember and cherish enough to share by way of a cultural life? Who are their unquiet ghosts?

Long before the heyday of aerospace, Downey Avenue did brisk business, day and night. The Avenue Theater was built in 1925-a 1937 photo shows bright lights from the marquee, where “She’s Dangerous” gets top billing, flooding the sidewalk next to Speck’s Hardware and Furniture store. There was a small legit theater, closer to Firestone, where Mary Pickford and Will Rogers are said to have appeared. The Meralta, a movie house, came later. Still later, in Stonewood, a Twin Cinema occupied the space next to Farrell’s ice cream parlor, where the franchise sports bar BJ’s now stands.

In 1955, a year before Downey was incorporated, John Hume started a children’s theater that became a model for the region and was a big reason for the city to build the Downey Civic Theatre in 1970. Thereafter, in addition to children’s theater and children’s festivals, The Downey Association for the Fine Arts, in connection with the Civic Ballet of Southern California, became the umbrella organization for the Downey Civic Light Opera, the Downey Chorus, the Downey Chorale, the Downey Youth Band and the Rose Float Association.

There was a Theater Guild. There was an Experimental Theater group, coordinated by Kathryn Hume, that staged, among other things, “No Exit,” by “the existentialist playwright Jean-Paul Sartre” (chances are nobody knew what the word “existentialist” meant, including the Times’ reporter who wrote it, but it sounded impressive). Count Basie and Ray Charles played the Downey Theater, as did The Joffrey Ballet. “Madame Butterfly” and “La Boheme” were among the operas staged there.

In the winter of 1973, Roger Wagner of the famed Roger Wagner Chorale came down to conduct a festival of eleven choral groups and 300 voices. That season included the aforementioned operas, the DCLO bills, a barbershop quartet program that featured The Revelaire Chorus, The Pacesetters, and Upside Downeys. Psychologist Andrew Bietz gave free lectures-one of them titled, “Don’t Just Stand There”-and there were more free lectures by travel specialist Charles Noah, who talked about Southeast Asia. The Los Angeles Times, when it printed a Southeast section, regularly covered the Downey theater. The LAT’s Ray Loynd and Frederic Milstein reviewed plays and opera. That was before the Downey Symphony moved in. As a Times’ reviewer, I discovered the place in the mid-’70s and considered it a secret too well kept. The restaurant Kings was across Firestone, where I could get a drink and a steak after the show and enjoy saucy repartee with a weathered, bleached blonde waitress in a short taffeta skirt that concealed a nickel-plated .22.

Speaking of restaurants, you had your Googie-style Spires (which looked like a Martian space ship) on Downey and Firestone, and further west, the historic Johnie’s Broiler (where a number of movies, including “Heat,” with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, were shot). The McDonald’s on Florence and Lakewood is the oldest one still standing. For dining, rather than chowing down at a burger joint, you had Veronique’s, the Regency Room-where there was dancing to a live band-the Pleasant Pheasant, The Hearth, PortMar’s, and the Silver Saddle. Sambi’s and The Velvet Turtle came later. Marmac’s earned mention in TIME magazine as an all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet joint. Then of course there was Granata’s, with its delicious Italian fare and old world family appeal that made a grateful city appoint Ralph and Jeanette Granata Grand Marshalls at the 2009 Downey Christmas Parade.

Granata’s is gone now. Most of the others are too. And the small listing of movie houses and Downey theater programs mentioned above make today’s offerings seem skimpy and uninspired in comparison. The DCLO is shuttered. The once-prestigious Downey Museum of Art has no place to show its collection. The Symphony is struggling.

In his gorgeous, witty, luminous paintings, Robert Townsend, who has a legitimate shot at real greatness, re-creates a kind of magical realism he experienced as a kid growing up in Downey. That seems to be the thing so many people are earnestly trying to recapture, like waking up in a strange place after a long sleep and wondering if anything you remember was real, or if you yourself are real. Call it a new awakening. Some of the city leadership is beginning to help bring it about despite a persistent tendency to dismiss what it doesn’t want to hear (the price of knowing too little about art), and an emerging arts community is trying to give it expression.

Every creation begins with a dream of creation. In our next installment, let’s try to deal with a few new dreams and a few stubborn realities.

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Published: July 11, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 13



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