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GREETINGS from PARADISE : In Pre-TV Days, Pastel Penny Postcards Described L.A. to the Folks Back Home

July 17, 1988|Joyce Miller

THE POST CARD, DATED Oct. 4, 1927, showed the ornate Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. "Dear Earle," a tourist had scrawled on the back before mailing it to San Francisco, "Am having one thrilling time. . . . A good way to get a good laugh here is to walk the street and watch the natives."

Los Angeles' reputation as some kind of lush asylum obviously had an early start. But in those pre-television days, when it was up to post cards to describe Southern California to the folks in Iowa, Kansas and New York, the images and words were overwhelmingly flattering. We know that millions of people were lured to Southern California by climate and economy, but we may never know how many migrations were inspired by the wonders shown on a penny post card.

Before color film allowed us the brash, glossy post cards of today, there was the classic Southern California card. It started with a black-and-white photo of a tourist attraction or a "typical" scene, which was then tinted with sublime, unearthly colors that originated in an artist's airbrush and rarely in nature. The 14 idealized, pastel visions on these pages are reprinted from "Greetings From Southern California," a post-card collection with text by Los Angeles writers Carolyn See, John Espey and Lisa See Kendall, writing under the collective pen name Monica Highland. Published this month by Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co. of Portland, Ore., the book contains almost 300 post cards from about 1910 to 1950, including a few of the thousands Carolyn See inherited from her father, collector George N. Laws.

Many of the sights--the Brown Derby, Angel's Flight--have vanished. Others are all but unrecognizable--a quiet enclave called Westwood, the manicured Venice canals, the Redondo Beach Pier. Even when the cards were new, they were prone to the kind of whimsy that could exaggerate an orange to half the size of a flatcar. But others carried images that were indeed real, yet so exotic that, See says, they "had quite literally never been registered in the American consciousness: a 'picture palace' built like an Egyptian temple, desert landscapes more appropriate to the Sahara than to the United States, little girls perching alternately on alligators or on mountains of fresh-cut roses."

Collectors and dealers maintain that antique Southern California cards are so plentiful that they aren't particularly valuable. But their worth is in the preservation of lost Los Angeles. See says her father, a post-card "fanatic," once explained his obsession this way: "They are beautiful . . . in a way which nothing else quite matches. It's as if you saw an idiot actor who never made more than $70 a week playing his heart out at the . . . Crescent Theater in a town you never heard of. The artists who created these cards, by and large, had no formal education. They saw what they thought of as beautiful and set about to record it. They knew they'd never get rich but they also knew their work would end up all over the nation. Those early post cards were like valentines sent from their own hearts."

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