Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Richard Cortez Past History of The City of El Monte

Hello everyone I have been writing for the Mid Valley News since Feb. 2011 and some of you have asked to see my past articles. I will post them here. If you have any ideas for stories please feel free to contact me.

Mid Valley News A Soldiers Story

By Richard Cortez

A Soldier’s Story
May 25, 2011-I would like to use my column to tell you the story of one man who served his country. He was born in Los Angeles, California on October 13, 1921. He was the youngest in his family. He had a mother, brother and sister; their father had abandoned them early on. In 1929 at the age of 8 the great depression started and his family was broke. His mother cleaned houses and washed laundry to support her family. He left school in his teens to join the CCC corps to help support his family. At the age of 20 he received a letter from Uncle Sam, “Greetings!”

Just like many Americans he didn’t want to go but, off they went to fight for God and country. During his time in the Army he had a lot of firsts. First time on a train, first time on a boat, first time on an airplane and first time from California. Prior to his draft he got married and while in boot camp his wife gave birth to a daughter. After boot camp he was given leave to see his newborn daughter then he was shipped to the west coast to be shipped to Africa then onto Italy.

He was in a mortar company and they fought their way in the mountains of Italy. At one point they were ordered to halt. Most of their heavy artillery was shipped to England for D-Day. He spoke of the cold, the rain and the lack of food. Interesting thing though he would never speak of casualties but, I am sure there were many men who passed during their tour. While on a break in a small village the men found bottles of wine and how would you say “had a few,” this led to his first encounter with a General. The men were drinking and a jeep pulls up to where they were and it was Lt. General Mark C. Clark, CG who stopped and asked “What are you men doing?” “Drinking Sir!” they replied. The General looked around and said “Carry on Men.”

One day while on patrol he was wounded in the lower back. He would say “I was in a small fox hole and my butt was sticking up to high.” He was shipped to England and then flown to the United States to return home. Arriving at Fort Mac Arthur California he was honorably discharge on September 25, 1945. He returned to Los Angeles to his mother’s home and his wife and daughter to settle down. One day at the LA Coliseum he attended a celebration in honor of our service men returning home and during the national anthem above their heads flew four military planes which made every service man to duck and cover, which given the fact they had all just returned from war was a normal thing to do.

While he was adjusting to civilian life, six months later tragedy struck, his wife suddenly died of tuberculosis. A few years later he met and married his second wife. They had three boys and lived not too far from his mother who insisted on raising his daughter. With his boys he would make them stand in formation and salute him. His wife would talk about how he would have nightmares of the war and would wake up screaming. His second wife died after 32 years of marriage and again he was lost.

He did marry again and at the age of 79 he had a stroke and lived for five more years. Even though he could not talk he would still have recurring nightmares of the war.
To me he was a proud American. His name is Alfred P. Cortez, Sergeant in the United States Army 91st Division the 362nd Infantry Regiment. To my brothers, sister and me he was “Pop.” On this Memorial Day Dad, I am standing tall and saluting you.

Mid Valley News Sears and A&W Root Beer

By Richard Cortez

Sears came to El Monte in or around 1958. It was located on Peck Road between Stewart and Sitka Street. The building had three stories. The main floor was for retail and the basement had retail and the credit department. The top floor was used for the warehouse. When you entered the store the first thing you would see was the candy and popcorn stand. The smell of the freshly made popcorn would fly all through the store and would make you hungry. The Craftsman tools were the best tools made in America and came with a lifetime warranty. For the women Sears had stylish and reasonably priced clothing. In August Sears would have their white sale and mothers would stock up on clothing and bedding for the new school year. Families would charge them on their Sears credit card and pay off the balance in time for next year’s white sale. Sear had the best appliances for the home. It was a status symbol for families to boast they had a Kenmore washer and dryer or a Coldspot refrigerator. For the car you had to have a Diehard battery which never failed. When the Sears building was designed it was in the middle of the cold war and the architect made sure that there was a bomb shelter in the lower basement of the building. The basement was so large that Longo Toyota uses it to store their new cars.  Sears closed down in the early 1980’s and a Latin themed specialty grocery store opened and closed. So what opened in its place you got it Sears!

A&W Root Beer
The A&W Root Beer stand was built around 1957 and was located on Peck Road just shy of Lower Azusa Road. Right after World War II A&W entered the fast food business to compete with McDonald’s. The food menu was similar to all hamburger stands of the 1950’s. Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers and French fries but, what made their menu stand out was the Root Beer. You could get a frosty glass mug of A&W root beer. The frost from the glass would turn the root beer into ice similar to a smoothy. “I would walk bare footed to the A&W stand and get my frosty root beer for a nickel” explained Clarke Moseley of his memories of El Monte. A&W was torn down around 1977 and replaced with a mini mall. The donut shop is approximately where the stand was located.

Mid Valley News Medina Court Men's Breakfast Club

The Medina Court Men’s Breakfast Club

By Richard Cortez

It seems that I might have some fans of Memories of El Monte. There is a group of men who gather once a month and talk about my stories. My little stories of El Monte from the past convey good memories to these guys who not only remember them but lived them. I am talking about The Medina Court Men’s Breakfast Club. The club is made up of over 30 men who grew up in the Medina Court area from the 1930’s up till today.

I got a call from Clarke Moseley owner of Mid Valley News telling me about these guys and thought it would be interesting to talk to them. So with a phone number in hand and a name I called Ron Venegas. “Hello” Ron said, “Hi this is Richard Cortez from Mid Valley News” I said feeling like a salesman, “Oh yeah you’re the guy who writes Memories of El Monte” Ron said. Well Ron and I hit it off with a lot of similar life experiences and by the end of our conversation Ron invited me to their next breakfast.

That Friday morning I got up early filled my briefcase with all my research papers and books including many photographs that I have downloaded from the internet and headed to Denny’s. As I drove into the parking lot there had to have been 20 or more guys waiting. I introduced myself and was invited into their special place to have breakfast. I first met Joe Torres who is the president of the club and then I met Ron Venegas, Vice President who led me to a table and introduced me to the guys sitting at my table. I was a little uncomfortable at first you know, not knowing anyone but, the guys would come up to me and introduce themselves some carrying photo albums of their families and friends who lived in Medina Court.  They made me feel right at home.

I am sorry I didn’t get everyone’s name but, I did get to talk to one of the older guys, his name is Frank Flores at 80 years old he was a wealth of knowledge about Medina Court and El Monte. Philo Hernandez and with his son talked about the church basketball team who were the 1952 City Champs and went on to play the El Monte High basketball team and won.

Mr. Hernandez also talked about his uncle Tony Ortiz who in the 1940’s was one of the first successful businessmen of Mexican descent. All the men spoke about the parish priest, Father Coffield who would not only looked after their spiritual well being but, was the basketball coach and football coach. He would mentor the boys to stay in school and work hard at whatever they did in life.

Porfy Castruita came over to my table with a photo album. He showed me pictures of his family growing up in Medina Court. He had some great pictures of himself in the Navy. While he was in Hawaii he was on the aircraft carrier that recovered one of the Gemini spacecrafts.

I asked Ron Venegas how long the breakfast club has been in existence and what the club did. “The group has been together for 6 years,” Ron said, “And our goal is to promote goodwill and to continue our lifelong friendships.” The Medina Court Men’s Breakfast Club does more; they assist members and families in their time of need. They also support a funeral fund. They want to preserve their history and further their children’s education and to encourage the children to get involved in their community. The club has a Picnic in August and a Dance in December to raise money.

I walked away from my meeting with these guys and felt a kinship of sorts. I walked away with the facts of the men that served our country that fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Some of the medals that were won were the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. Some of the men went on to be a University Professor, a Doctor, and Professional Business owners. To me this is the American dream. This is what we fight for in the United States. I found that these men are friends who make up a family. In a time when you don’t even know your neighbor it is a shame that our community is not like the people from Medina Court

I want to thank Ron Venegas and Joe Torres and all the guys in the Medina Court Men’s Breakfast Club.

Mid Valley News Second Article

By Richard Cortez

Let’s begin our tour with “The Pit”. The Pit was a hamburger stand located at 610 Garvey and Hoyt (oops Tyler). The Pit was opened in the early 1950’s by one of the employees from “The Hat”. This may be the reason why The Pit resembles The Hat building. The Pit was most famous for their Pastrami double dipped sandwich. The Pit became very popular with the high school gang who would be there every Saturday night. Last year I met with Bob Summers the youngest brother to Mary Ford at a pub he was playing at and Bob told me there was a recording studio called “The Sound House” located in El Monte right off of Merced and after they were done recording the whole gang would go to The Pit for burgers and malts. There was a big grin on Bob as he recalled The Pit. I want to thank Cristy Sheehan for sending me the picture of The Pit.
The Nashville West was located right in the center of Five Points across the street from “Crawford’s Market” and “Pep-Boys”. The Nashville West was a country and western bar that had live entertainment. Although many great country and western bands played there one of the house bands became the favorite of the bar. The house band didn’t have a name so they took the name of the bar. The Nashville West Band consisted of Gib Gullbeau, Gram Parsons (who started the rock group “The Birds”), Clarence White and Wayne Moore. Some nights their friends would drop by and sit in. Glen D. Hardin, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Lloyd Green would jam along with the guys. In 1967 The Nashville West Band recorded a live album at the bar called what else “Nashville West”. Can you imagine how cool that would have been to be there that night? Well the Nashville West is gone but it will remain in record form for many years to come.

Rosemead airport was located where Flair Park is today next to the 10 freeway. The runway ran along the Rio Hondo River northeast to southwest and was bordered by Ramona Blvd before the 10 freeway was built. The airport was first documented in 1942 and was called the Western Air College Airport owned and operated by the Heasley brothers. By 1944 the airport was renamed Rosemead Airport. Sometime after WWll the Heasley brothers sold the airport to Fletcher Aviation Corp. The Fletcher Company manufactured droppable fuel tanks for airplanes during the Korean War. Fletcher also manufactured napalm bombs. The Fletcher Company tried their hand at manufacturing planes but could never break into the market. In 1950 Goodyear picked Rosemead airport to be their west coast headquarters for the “The Goodyear Blimp” Enterprise. In ordered to land the blimp the Goodyear Company would recruit students from the local neighborhood to work the ropes. You had to be 16 years old and male to do this job. Unfortunately this only lasted 6 months Goodyear decided to move their operation to Culver City where it is still in operation. By 1962 or 1964 the airport closed down for good but the Fletcher Company continued their manufacturing portion of their company. The airstrip was demolished and office buildings were built. One of the companies that occupied a building was Aerojet. Now Aerojet continued the legacy of air flight by manufacturing rocket engines. Areojet best achievement was the rockets for the space shuttle.
On our last stop of our tour is KRLA. There is a vacant lot located next to the 60 freeway on-ramp. On the corner of Lexington and Galletin Road stood the home of the transmitter site for KRLA 1110 am. Yes the KRLA we all grew up with and loved. The original oldies station in the southland started out as KPAS owned and operated by The Burke Family from Santa Ana. The Burke Family also owned a newspaper and started the radio station to promote the sale of their newspapers. In 1942 the Burke family bought the land and built a transmitter building and erected 6 broadcasting towers with studios located at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. KPAS would broadcast news, church services and plays. In 1945 The Pacific Coast Broadcasting Company bought the station from the Burke family and change the call letters to KXLA. Pacific Coast changed the format of the station to country and western music. One of the disc jockeys was Cal Worthington. Today you know Cal Worthington as owner and spokesman of Cal Worthington Ford. In 1959 KXLA was sold to The Eleven Ten Broadcasting, Inc. owned by Canadian Jack Kent Cook. Eleven Ten again changed the call letters to KRLA. KRLA was up against KFWB the big rock and roll station in town and KRLA fought back with out of this world contests. The contest consisted of KRLA hiding a treasure chest somewhere in Southern California or did they? Well you guessed it they didn’t the FCC was informed and after investigating both the contest fraud the FCC looked at the owner Jack Kent Cook. It turned out he was not a US citizen. In the United States you must be a citizen to own a radio station. In 1964 the license was pulled from Eleven Ten and was put in trust with Oak Koll Broadcasting. Oak Knoll was part of KCET public television station that would run KRLA as a non-profit station. From 1964 to 1979 the money generated by KRLA was used by KCET and thus KRLA had no money to buy or fix any of the broadcasting equipment. The equipment was breaking down so much that they finally had to move all their operation to the little brown transmitter building in El Monte. That’s right I bet you didn’t know that your favorite oldies station in town was broadcasting from El Monte. The disc jockeys still broadcast from the Huntington Hotel studios but everything else was done from El Monte transmitter building. In 1979 the FCC finally granted the KRLA license to Bob Hope and other investors. They moved the transmitter and towers to Irwindale and thus ended an era. The transmitter building still stands as a testament to KRLA’s time in El Monte.

Mid Valley News First Article

Memories of El Monte

By Richard Cortez

Part 1

In the spirit of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the City of El Monte I would like to take you on a tour of some of our past history. Our first stop on our tour begins at the corner of Wiggins and Valley Blvd. Here on this corner was a building of tremendous size. Built in the late 1920’s it got its start as the El Monte High school gym and auditorium. In 1932 the Olympics came to Los Angeles and our gym was enlisted as a practice venue for gymnastics, boxing and wrestling. This began the myth that the gym was used as the wrestling venue of the 1932 Olympics. Sorry but this is not true according to the United States Olympic committee there is no record of our gym as an official venue.

In 1933 the Long Beach earthquake destroyed about 40% of the El Monte High School buildings, but our gym survived. Right after the earthquake the El Monte Union High School District decided to build a new high school two miles from the original high school. The finished high school opened in 1939 and the old gym was used for mostly storage.

1941 brought the United States into World War II and our gym was brought into action. The US Defense Department rented part of the building and Northrup Aircraft Company rented out the main hall until the end of the war. Sometime before the war ended the El Monte Union High School District decided to sell our gym to the American El Monte Legion Post 261. After the El Monte Legion Post bought the gym the war ended so the El Monte Legion Post 261 moved into the basement and used it for their clubhouse with future plans for the grand gym and auditorium.

1945 brought a new owner and new name on the sides of the gym. The El Monte Legion Stadium was born. The El Monte Legion Post 261 used the auditorium for veteran’s dinners and welcoming home celebrations for our returning veterans. The 1950s would bring on a whole new excitement for our gym.

The American El Monte Legion Post 261 was looking for other uses for the stadium and boy did they come a calling. One was a country and western star named Cliffie Stone. Cliffie had a radio show on KXLA 1110 Pasadena called “The Hometown Jamboree”. The show was broadcasted five nights a week and was the highest rated radio show in Southern California. In 1949 KCOP was looking for television shows to fill their empty schedules and you guessed it “The Hometown Jamboree” fit the bill. The show was broadcast live every Saturday night at 7:30 pm.

Cliffie Stone decided to bring the television show to the people so he needed a big auditorium to do it and The El Monte Legion Stadium fit his needs. The show was broadcasted from the Legion Stadium for seven years. Some of the stars that appeared on the show were Tennessee Ernie Ford, Tex Rittier and Johnny Cash to mention just a few. During my research I found a blog that talked about living near the Legion Stadium and one person told a story of how he would walk home from school and while he passed the stadium he could look in the side door and see them rehearse for the Saturday night show.

In 1953 “The Hometown Jamboree” move to KTLA channel 5 and lasted until 1959. During this time KTLA also had a wrestling show with Dick Lane as the announcer which became one of the highest rated Sunday night shows. The producers of the wrestling matches wanted to make use of the popularity of the show so they produced their own wrestling matches at the Legion Stadium.

Most of you probably attended these wrestling matches and saw some of the best wrestlers from television. Guys like Freddie Blassie, Gorgeous George, The Flying Frenchman, Bobo Brazil and Pedro Morales. Unfortunately I was too young to go to the Legion Stadium to see the wrestling matches but I can imagine how cool this would have been to be able to see the wrestlers live and in person from TV.

Boxing was also a big feature at the El Monte Legion Stadium with many boxers moving from local status to mainstream fighters wining many championships. The boxing card is from 1948. I was hoping to write more about boxing but there is little to nothing on the web.

Wrestling and boxing weren’t the only sports that grazed the Legion Stadium “Roller Derby” came to town. The team “The Thunderbirds” or “The T-Birds” would bring their oval racing track set it up in the stadium and skate against some of the toughest teams around. Teams like The Northern Hawks, The Detroit Devils, New York Bombers and The Texas Outlaws against Ralphie Valladeres, Shirley Hardman, Ronnie Rains, Shirley Vega, John Hall and Danny Reilly just to mention a few of the players. Wrestling and Roller Derby was very lucrative to the Legion Stadium every sporting event was filled to capacity. But sports weren’t the only shows in town, the best show in town was about to be born.

In 1954 Rock and Roll came to the radio waves in the southland and two of the best disc jockey’s brought us the best of oldies and the Eastside sound. One of them was Dick (Huggy Boy) Hug. The other was Art Laboe both DJ’s were told many times to stick to the standard fair of music being played on the radio but neither guy could ignore what was going on with popular music that the teens of the late 1950’s were listening to. Both DJ’s wanted to bring the music to the kids by putting on shows at local hall’s and venues. The promoters had one problem in the City of Los Angeles that problem was an ordinance that would not allow integration or the gathering of teens in one place in The City of Los Angeles. Promoters had to look for an auditorium in the County of Los Angeles and boy did they find one. The El Monte Legion Stadium fit the bill. Not only was it in the county but it was big and could hold a lot of music hungry teens that were willing to travel from all parts of Southern California.

One of the first performers to produce a show at the El Monte Legion was Johnny Otis a rhythm and blues band leader who had his own show called “The Johnny Otis Show”. It was so successful that it set the standard for all the shows that came after. Art Laboe later joined in by promoting shows with artist like James Brown, Ritchie Valens, Cannibal & the Headhunters, The Cochrane Brothers, The Carlos Brothers, Don & Dewey, Larry Bright, Bo Diddly, Tony Williams, Brenton Wood, The Penguins, Dick Dale and The Deltones, Righteous Brothers and The Tornadoes. There were two house bands one was The Phantoms and the other was The Romancers they would back up most of the single acts. As a side note while I was working in Huntington Beach many of my clients would tell me how they would drive to El Monte to attend many of the shows as teens. They would talk about how great the shows were and amazed at the diversity of people that would attend. I still can’t believe that in our City of El Monte that there was a place that you could see the most famous recording artist perform live. Today if you want to see a top recording artist you have to travel to Orange County, Los Angeles or Hollywood and put up with bad parking not to mention the price of tickets. I guess we had it pretty good at one time.

The 1960’s and 1970’s The El Monte Legion still had concerts and sports as a matter of fact a band called “The Grateful Dead” recorded a live concert on December 28, 1970 which was supposed to be release as an album but it never made it. There are bootlegged copies if you can find them. The Beatles were seen at the stadium but only via a closed circuit television broadcast from Washington D.C. again another myth has been put to bed sorry The Beatles never played live at the stadium.

Times started changing and sports and concerts were not doing well. With the diminishing draw to the stadium the American El Monte Legion Post 261 decided to sell the stadium. The US post office was looking to relocate the post office to a new building so the federal government bought the stadium and the land it was on. By 1974 the building was torn down and the new post office was built. One bit of interest is while the demolishing of the stadium was progressing gambling equipment was found in the basement. It is rumored that maybe a slot machine or other gambling paraphernalia is still around.

In writing this article I tried to stick to the timeline as approximate as I could but due to the information that I gathered dates would vary from one source to the other. I hope you enjoyed this little journey down memory lane if you were lucky enough to attend a wrestling match or boxing or felt the excitement of the roller derby or saw your favorite rock and roll star that you will smile as you drive by the location of our little gym “The El Monte Legion Stadium.

In my next tour we will visit The Pit, Nashville West and a look at the Rosemead airport.