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A flash of inspiration becomes a sign of the times

July 07, 1988|SYBIL BAKER | Baker is a copy editor on The Times' suburban desk. and

"I don't know why, things pop into my mind," says Johnny Catron of Pomona, a band leader, former car dealer and entrepreneur.

Things pop into everybody's mind, of course. But they often disappear faster than a soap bubble. What makes Catron different is that the things that pop into his mind stick there until he acts on them.

After all, this is a guy who came to Los Angeles from Oklahoma City as "a kid in 1937," he says, "in a Model A Ford, with a bass fiddle and $2," and eventually ended up with a '39 Rolls-Royce and three classic Mercedes-Benzes in his garage and a list of big-band gigs long enough and glamorous enough to make your feet twitch to fox-trot.

The way a billboard about AIDS rose on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont bears witness to Catron's style.

A couple of months ago, he was watching TV, and a project was mentioned: an educational campaign on AIDS that would involve billboards and posters with eye-catching graphics and slogans.

A slogan popped into Catron's mind after he turned off the set: Avoid Instant Death . . . Stop! "I just sat down, and in about three minutes this came to me, just spelling out the word (AIDS)," he said.

He tested the phrase on Dr. Raymond Mahony of Anaheim, a friend, and was encouraged. He asked another friend, Greg Kunz of Kunz Advertising, "Do you ever do anything for good will, for free?" He urged another friend, Jack Lebo an illustrator for Big Band Magazine, to "dream up something scary to go with it."

Kunz agreed to donate the billboard space, and Lebo "came up with this Grim Reaper idea," Catron said.

Catron paid the sign painters' $800 fee. The billboard, with the word AIDS spelled out vertically in red letters and the rest of the slogan and illustration of the Grim Reaper in black on a white background, was finished about the middle of June. Westbound motorists on Foothill can see it on the north side of the street, in an undeveloped section between Padua Avenue and Central Boulevard.

The other side of the billboard advertises an adult book store. "I didn't like that too much," Catron says. "That shows the other side of the coin, doesn't it?"

Something about Catron, an affable gent in a pink shirt and broad suspenders, suggests early Arthur Godfrey--or at least, his public image: homespun, kind and shrewd. When he talks about his project, it is with a sort of embarrassed earnestness.

He defends the aptness of instant in his slogan, conceding his use of the word has been questioned more than once. "But the first moment a person finds out, it's instant death for them. So I think it's the right word, even if it is a lingering death."

And when he says stop , does he mean stop having unsafe sex or does he mean abstain from sex?

"Sex is here to stay," Catron says. "Telling someone to abstain from sex is like. . . . " Outstretched arms and a shrug supplant the words that would have finished the sentence, and the earnestness dissolves for a moment in laughter.

He grows serious again, however, when asked about the recently defeated Proposition 69, which would have required physicians to provide public health authorities with the names of patients who have AIDS or who test positive to exposure to the AIDS virus, and might have led to widespread quarantines.

He says that there are too many AIDS victims to "put them behind barbed wire."

In his heyday, Catron and his big band had frequent engagements at the Hollywood Palladium and the Catalina Casino, the Ambassador, Beverly Hilton and Century City hotels, ballrooms such as the Stardust, Goldenwest and the Aragon, the state fairs and the colleges.

When the popularity of the big bands took a downswing in the late '40s, it popped into Catron's mind that nobody much was dealing in foreign cars.

Then, in 1951, he read that Pomona was the third-fastest-growing community in the United States, and that "pop" was a real explosion. It led to his building there, in 1955, what was one of the first Volkswagen dealerships in the nation.

And his band played on. During the next decade, he played at, among other places, the Palms in Glendora, and the owner happened to mention that he was looking for a buyer. "You got any money?" he asked Catron. In 1963, Catron bought the Palms, a restaurant and ballroom seating 800, and sold it just last year.

Although his ideas have habitually led to action, not all of them have achieved wide success. Catron's song, "I'll Take Los Angeles," for example, which he had hoped would hit the big time, never became popular. And more recently, an "evening of appreciation" for the Los Angeles Fire Deparment he had planned for late June fell by the wayside.

But Catron recently patented an idea for an inflatable mattress that he uses in his own pool. Instead of pumping up the mattress itself, he figured: Why not just line three sides of it with empty plastic soda bottles?

It's an idea that definitely floats.

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