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Life and Love in Bellflower

July 27, 1989|AL MARTINEZ

The first thing you notice as you drive into Bellflower is a marquee on the Hosannah Chapel that says, "It is illegal to burn trash, but it's legal to burn the American flag."

It would be difficult not to notice because the chapel sits in the center of town and dominates the street, its marquee afire with a defiant irony that Nathan Hale would no doubt find inspiring.

Not long ago, the building housed a theater that showed pornographic films, a situation so upsetting to everyone but a salacious few that the city bought the building and resold it as a church.

There is no place for Debbie doing Dallas in Bellflower. They barely tolerate Fritz's Topless Bar.

"The theater building was becoming a cesspool for winos," City Councilman Joe Cvetko said as we passed the chapel. "They used to stand there and urinate against the side of the building. Now it's a beautiful temple."

Welcome to Bellflower, a city of 52 churches and no jail.

For those who rarely stray south of Marina del Rey, Bellflower is a town of 60,000 souls just off the Artesia Freeway, between Compton and Cerritos. It is not to be confused with Bell Gardens, which is near Cudahy.

I was there recently at the behest of Cvetko, a retired mail carrier, who objected when I wrote that nobody important goes to Bellflower.

How was I to know about Pete Ellis, Dallas Raines and the famed Eazy E?

They were among the celebrities mentioned by Cvetko when he challenged me to visit Bellflower, home of the Bellflower Buccaneers and the town where Howard Jarvis, Paul Gann and Earle Christo met to formulate Proposition 13, the 1978 California property tax initiative.

Earl Christo?

He's a wily, 82-year-old ex-mayor who runs a tuxedo rental store and is considered to be the quintessential town booster, Mr. Bellflower himself.

Prop. 13, according to Cvetko, should have been the Christo-Jarvis-Gann Amendment, because it was Christo who organized the first meetings in a room at the Acapulco Motel.

"It's a damned shame," Cvetko said as we drove through town, past Henry Moffett's Chicken Pies, Boo's floor coverings, the Blue Goose Family Restaurant and solid stucco houses with plastic windmills on their lawns.

"Everyone mentions Jarvis and Gann, but who in the hell mentions Christo?" Cvetko demanded.

"You've got a point," I said.

We also drove past Magdalena's, a French cafe praised by critic Elmer Dills.

"You know what he said after he praised it?" Cvetko asked. "He said, 'Too bad it's in Bellflower.' " Cvetko laughed. "We have a sense of humor here," he said.

To be fair, although that is not a prerequisite to being a newspaper columnist, many other celebrities have visited Bellflower, other than car dealer Ellis, television weatherman Raines and rap master Eazy E.

It is said, for instance, that an ex-congressman, an ex-Lakers star, an ex-Long Beach mayor and an ex-TV series lead often drop by Magdalena's.

Also, I should mention that the television movie "Everybody's Baby" was filmed on Ardis Avenue, a moment of glory that neither Ardis Avenue nor Bellflower will ever forget.

Bellflower was founded at the turn of the century by Dutch dairy ranchers and became a city in 1957. The Dutch influence would explain the plastic windmills on the lawns.

No one seems certain why it is called Bellflower. One theory links it with the Bellefleure apples grown by pioneer settler William Gregory. But for the caprice of human judgment, I could be writing about Appleville today.

"Lookit here," Mayor John (Johnny) Ansdell said, slapping a piece of paper in his hand. We were in his City Hall office.

He held a list of celebrities who have visited Bellflower. Vickie Van Hoek, Willard Murray, Mike Brown, Curt Marsh and Nimrod McNair, to name a few of the better known ones.

Atop the list was the Great Seal of Bellflower, the Friendly City, its blue and gold logo adorned with two hands clasping in a handshake. Below that, the motto: "We have the time."

"The time for what?" I asked John (Johnny) Ansdell.

"For everything," he said grandly. Bellflower is that kind of town, where store clerks smile, the mayor is not under investigation for malfeasance and being a Belle of Bellflower carries with it more honor than scorn.

You can still say "Have a nice day" in Bellflower and not be questioned for drug addiction.

"We are extraordinary people," Mayor Ansdell said.

"Damned right," Cvetko added.

Did I mention that Billy Barty once came to Bellflower?

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