Historian C. Richard Arena set up his tape recorder on the dining room table of long-time Bell residents Merle and Margaret Lopp.
As he fast-forwarded the tape, Arena explained how the interview would proceed and talked a little about the goal of his ongoing oral history project: to tell the human side of Bell's quiet past through the voices of its elderly citizens and others who shaped the city.
"I thought this was about Bell, not me," Lopp said. "I'm not originally from Bell, you know?"
"It is about Bell," the gregarious Arena answered. "You are Bell."
For the next two hours, Arena encouraged Lopp, 78, and his 74-year-old wife to reminisce about Bell, a city of 28,000.
Along the way, Lopp recalled how he came west from Kaylor, Penn., in 1923, with 24 people packed in two Dodges, an Overland and a Buick. His father rented a two-bedroom house in Cudahy for $35 a month. Lopp recalled that he was closing the J.C. Penney Co. store on Atlantic Avenue "about three minutes before 6 p.m." when the 1933 Long Beach earthquake struck.
The oral history project, commissioned three months ago, is part of the city's 60th anniversary celebration, commemorating the Nov. 7, 1927, incorporation. Mayor Jay B. Price originally handed Arena a list of 15 interview subjects for the Bell project, but other names came up in the course of the interviews, and the list grew. Arena said he has interviewed 46 people so far and hopes to talk to about 60 Bell "authorities" altogether.
According to Price, the long-term goal is to transcribe the taped interviews and publish them as a series of biographies and Bell's only history book.
Arena is not new to oral histories. He worked closely with Artesia historian Albert O. Little, who died in September at age 87, on a project commissioned last year by that city on its 111-year anniversary. Before that, Arena headed the Richard Nixon Oral History Project from 1971 to 1973, an effort sponsored by Whittier College, in which he interviewed 350 people on the before-politics life of the college's most famous graduate.
Price, 72, a Bell City Council member for more than 30 years and a resident for 50, said that in searching for written records of Bell's history, he learned that the Industrial Post, a local newspaper published since 1894, destroyed all its archives up to 1970.
"I couldn't believe it. I was sick," Price said. The Bell Historical Commission has tried to make up for that loss by collecting hundreds of pages of old newspaper clippings from personal memorabilia and copying them on microfilm for inclusion in the state library in Sacramento and other Southern California libraries.
According to Price, one of the most important changes in Bell's history was the annexation in the early 1960s of the former Cheli Air Base, a World War II storage and staging facility. The 313-acre annexation was the basis for a major redevelopment project, thus providing the city with a valuable source of tax revenue. A second important change has been the gradual shift in demographics over the last decade to a predominantly Latino population.
As Bell celebrates its 60th birthday, the city finds itself ranked as one of the five poorest areas in Los Angeles County, based on estimates of 1987 household income, according to the National Planning Data Corp.
But Councilman George G. Mirabal said the city is "up and coming" and city planners are taking steps to rebuild its deteriorated economic base, particularly through redevelopment projects along Randolph Street and Atlantic Avenue and in the Cheli project area.
Bell's most famous native was probably Alphonzo Edward Bell Sr., son of the city's founder, James George Bell, and a developer who founded Bel-Air and Bell Gardens. Arena interviewed Alphonzo Bell Jr., the developer's son, who served three terms in Congress as a Republican representative of the 28th District.
Other notables who lived in Bell are John Ferraro, president of the Los Angeles City Council, and jazz pianist Stan Kenton. Both attended Bell High School.
Then there was wrestler Paul McClary, known as the "Bell Boiler Maker" on the California wrestling circuit. While a member of the National Guard, McClary was assigned as Charles Lindbergh's personal bodyguard when the aviator visited Los Angeles after his solo cross-Atlantic flight in 1927. Arena interviewed McClary's sister, Myrtle.
And don't forget 100-year-old Henry Pettit, who won the 1912 Russian Grand Prix Auto Race and still has the pictures to prove it. Pettit has lived in England and is a world traveler, but settled in Bell 20 years ago, according to Arena.
Arena says most of those interviewed remember "the good old days when it was so safe you could leave your door unlocked." Many say the 1933 Long Beach earthquake is their most dramatic memory.
Meanwhile, Arena must compete against time, which erodes memories and steals what historians call "primary sources." At least one subject has died since being interviewed. "Some of these people, when they go, will take a lot of history with them," Arena said.
One hour into the Lopp interview, the retired truck driver remarked: "I'm taking too long."
"It's not too long," Arena assured him. "We're talking about a lifetime."