Helen Gazzera, the Pumpkin Queen of Calabasas, surveyed her golden realm Friday in search of the perfect Halloween jack-o'-lantern for 2 1/2-year-old Jessica Hamlin.
Gazzera, who has been selling pumpkins for 20 years, quickly found it--a nicely formed 25-pounder sitting near her Mulholland Drive stand.
With a grin, Gazzera scooped the huge fruit off the ground and hefted it into an aging Radio Flyer toy wagon. Jessica squealed as the wagon was pulled toward her mother's car.
Then, lowering her voice, Gazzera offered a confession about the pumpkins spread out at her feet, looking very much like they had sprouted there: "We grow these in Moorpark, not here in Calabasas."
In this community, such a fact is almost a sacrilege.
Origin of Name
"Calabasas" means pumpkins in Spanish. The name was bestowed 190 years ago by a passing Spanish priest who noticed the local pumpkin vines. The early inhabitants, Chumash Indians, relied on Calabasas' pumpkins as an important source of food.
But Calabasas has run out of its namesake.
Tomatoes, bell peppers and corn are grown at the 12-acre Calabasas farm jointly operated by Gazzera's husband, Mike, and partner Guido Giacopuzzi. But pumpkins aren't.
And what was the community's only other commercial pumpkin patch has been closed to make way for a 1,200-home development.
Even the festival has moved.
In the early 1970s, the community's clapboard-fronted main street was the site of an annual autumn Pumpkin Festival staged by townspeople. The festival flourished until it outgrew the block-long Calabasas Road "downtown" area and was moved to Chatsworth.
Gourd in Disguise
On Friday, the closest thing to a pumpkin visible along Calabasas Road wasn't a pumpkin at all. It was a large gourd that had been painted orange and decorated to resemble a jack-o'-lantern.
It was for sale for $25 in one of the yuppie-style boutiques that has sprung from the remnants of Calabasas' original storefronts in the past few years. "The gourd doesn't come from here. It's from Paso Robles," store clerk Charlotte Costello said.
Sitting on the front counter at Carol Embry's Calabasas manicurist shop was a ceramic jack-o'-lantern, a glazed grin on its face. "It's a local pumpkin," Embry joked. "It comes from our storeroom. It's been with us for two years now."
Up the street, the produce manager of a new Ralphs supermarket acknowledged that his pumpkin supply was imported. The manager, Louie Cirrincione, said he was uncertain where Friday's supply of about 100 pumpkins had been grown, although he speculated that they might have come from the Sepulveda Basin area.
Large Patch of Past
As recently as 1978, many supermarket pumpkins in Southern California came from Calabasas.
Rancher Wilda Sampo leased 3,500 acres along Las Virgenes Road and planted 40 acres in pumpkins each year. At the time, the Sampo Ranch pumpkin patch was said to be the largest between San Diego and San Luis Obispo.
Sampo's one-time farmland is now earmarked for residential development. On Friday, poster salesman Ben Slocum of Eagle Rock was selling $15 "laser art" pictures from his van, parked where the Sampo pumpkin stand once stood.
"I've been asked where the pumpkins are," Slocum said. "But the only thing close to Halloween I've got are some fall scenics and a real nice wizard poster."
As for the Pumpkin Queen, Helen Gazzera acknowledged that her Calabasas reign might also be coming to an end. She rents the site that houses her stand, and that land also is earmarked for development--an expansion of the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.
"We used to raise pumpkins behind Litton, over in Warner Center and down where they are building the Marriott Hotel, and we had to move," the Woodland Hills resident said. "Now we've got 12 acres in pumpkins out in Moorpark. We've brought in five or six truckloads from there so far."
Gazzera said she hopes that her Calabasas pumpkin stand will survive a few more Halloweens.
"This is the only time of the year I work," she said. "I get tired lifting pumpkins all day, but the kids are so cute when they come in here. They make it fun."
As she spoke, Jessica Hamlin and her mother drove off in their Volvo, leaving one fewer pumpkin in the makeshift patch.