SIMI VALLEY – Finally got in some good bicycling today. Sunny, 74 degrees and 47 miles from West Hollywood through Beverly Hills, Sherman Oaks, Ventura Ave, Woodland Hills, across Santa Susanna Pass to Simi Valley, home of the Ronald Reagan Library.
Pastor Gary Stevenson from Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church let me stay in the parish youth room for the evening. He also invited me to share in a community meal that night.
The church began the effort several months ago in an effort to help the homeless and people having trouble catching a break in the poor economy.
I spent most of the evening at a table with Ken, his wife Irene and their friend Bernita.
Ken lived in Simi Valley for 25 years; he was a walking history book. We talked mostly about the Hollywood happenings in the community in the 1970s.
Errol Flynn and the Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed in Simi Valley, as was (Johnny Weissmuller) Tarzan, Rin Tin Tin , John Wayne cowboy flicks and, if ever the Star Trek crew beamed down to another planet… it was shot in Simi Valley.
“Bob Hope bought property in the area in 1967; he called it Hopeville,” said Ken.
A brush fire put an end to Hopeville, taking with it a majority of the movie sets except for the original Fort Apache, a movie directed by John Ford with a cast starring John Wayne, Shirley Temple and Henry Fonda.
Simi was also home to Corriganville; it was America’s first theme park opened in 1953 by cowboy actor Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan.
The 2,000-acre site featured a blacksmith shop, Marshall’s office, general store, Silverdollar Saloon, and Wells Fargo Bank & Hotel. Corriganville had over 20,000 visitors a day and made over 3,500 movies.
Ken and Bernita took turns telling stories.
Ken, 59, had large, square wire-rim glasses and spoke with an easy-going slowness, like there was nothing on his calendar for infinity.
He had patience and a good memory, except his timelines were a little cloudy and he’d often generalize – “it happened in 1970-something.”
Bernita, 66, was a well-insulated woman with a lot of spunk. She had long grey hair and wore a small, framed pendant of Jesus around her neck.
Bernita had relatives in Green Bay and Milwaukee, and felt an instant connection to me. She spoke with urgency and an outline.
“I have three things to add and then I’ll be quiet,” she said… several times.
The pair said Simi Valley was known as the safest city in the United States and the primary industry used to be farming.
“Apricots, peaches, oranges and even hay across the entire valley,” said Ken. That dried up when Simi Valley failed to keep up with farmers in the Midwest.
“Zsa Zsa Gabor used to go to Ralph’s Market on L.A. Avenue, which was next to Green Acres, and I bet that’s how they got the name of the show,” said Bernita, finishing her sentence with arms folded, lips pursed and a confident head-nod of satisfaction.
Ken said he didn’t know too much about that.
He said Simi Valley doubled in size over the last five years. Once Rocadyne, a jet and rocket fuel company, went under the city turned into a bedroom community with neighbors commuting 40 minutes, one way to L.A. or Ventura.
In Simi Valley today, the industry (a loosely used term) is strip malls.
“You should go see Grandma Prisbrey’s house where her husband built a foundation around their trailer using cement and bottles,” said Bernita, with another serious head-nod and a matter-of-fact attitude.” Like ‘you can take that to the bank.’
Ken swung his gaze from Bernita to me, nodding in affirmation. “That bottle work actually enhanced the value of their property,” he said, noting the Prisbrey’s were on top of four earthquake faults.
In fine detail, Ken tried to explain how to find the Prisbrey place while Bernita looked like she was about to fly out of her seat.
“He went to the dump and brought back bottles,” she said, a bit exhausted.
I later found Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 1984.
The bronze-plated plaque on the fence said the small plot on the main drag through Simi carried a fantastic assemblage of remarkable twentieth-century folk art.
In 1956, Tressa Prisbrey, then nearly 60-years-old, started building a fanciful “village” of shrines, walkways, sculptures and buildings from recycled items and discards from the local dump. She worked for 25 years creating one structure after another to house her collections.
Today, Bottle Village is composed of 13 buildings and 20 sculptures.
It kind of reminded me of the witch’s house in Fox Point. There were waist-high walls of blue bottle glass set in cement. A series of headlights from a vehicle were stacked two rows high in the shape of a water fountain you may see in a town centre.
Ken returned to the topic of Hollywood films and television shows.
Big Sky Ranch, which was an area with more housing developments, apparently was the place to see remnants of the old Hollywood sets.
Little House on the Prairie was one of the last television shows filmed in Simi Valley. “You know who wrote the music for Little House on the Prairie,” said Ken.
“You won’t find much of that set left; they exploded the town in the last episode,” said Ken.
During the season finale the railroad was apparently set to come through town and there was nothing Pa or Mr. Edwards could do to stop it.
Seriously, they had to raze all Walnut Grove so the railroad could go through?
Ken looked at me with a blank stare as if to say ‘it was just a TV show.’
But seriously, the whole town? I guess that’s government – even back in the day.
– There are really beautiful trees in California. One species has bright flowers that look like fine pink feathers on a fly-fishing lure. The other spectacular tree, the Jacaranda has soft purple trumpet-shaped flowers the color of a ribbon in an Easter bonnet. In Beverly Hills the streets were lined with Jacaranda, which looked like somebody pulled a broad brush of lavender though the treetops.
– I was on the UCLA campus today. Wow, that’s big.
– Saw a guy eat out of the dumpster on Hollywood Blvd. today. He got a pretty nice slice of pizza with maybe three small bites taken out of the pointy end. I admire the California mentality towards recycling.
– Simi Valley has a population of 150,000, the city is about 15 miles across, there are two main east/west roads and bicycling lanes on most streets.
– Simi Valley is in a soup bowl, so to speak. You have to climb six miles up and over and drop down six miles to get into town. Then, there is a steep climb up and over to get out. Anywhere you stand in Simi, you’re surrounded by the Santa Susana Mountain range.