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TV REVIEW : 'History Project': Piecing L.A. Together

October 05, 1989|IRV LETOFSKY | Times Staff Writer

We're always hard pressed to come up with an image of our Los Angeles that really works. A large orange doesn't do it. Nor Magic Johnson spinning to the hoop nor a surfin' dude. We are too multifaceted and gridlocked and polyglutted.

In trying to make sense out of our community of communities, KCET's "Los Angeles History Project" does pieces of the puzzle one at a time.

The public-TV station's four new half-hour episodes begin tonight at 8 (Channel 28) and will continue on successive Thursdays in the same time slot. Following at 8:30 each night will be reprises from the first season of the series.

The programs show from whence we came, not where we're going. They're interestingly packaged, considered, informative, although more sugared than sometimes seems appropriate.

An example is tonight's show, "Valor," in which quadruple-Bronze Star G.I. Al Ramirez and some of his barrio buddies from World War II remember the old segregated days in Los Angeles, particularly the 1940s.

Written and produced by Richard Parra and narrated by Ricardo Montalban, the program employs old headlines and old film to tell the tale of the Mexican-American combat soldiers (who won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group). Then it relates with some dispassion--where a little hysteria might have been in order--the G.I. rampage on the Zoot Suiters, then the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. Just one more of our scandals.

What is comforting, considering this grim heritage, is that Ramirez and his pals say they were taught that America is the best country in the world and they still believe it.

In "Ode to Central Avenue" (Oct. 12), written and produced by Arthur Barron, some oldtimers (age 66, 78 and 83) wax romantic over the glory days of "the Avenue" and the Dunbar Hotel and the Club Alabam--before the black middle class took flight and the decay set in.

In "The Big Orange" (Oct. 19), which Eddie Albert narrates, producer Bruce Henstell got a break with his focal family, the three generations of the Pankeys, pioneers in the Tustin orange orchards. Over the years they had shot home movies, which lend the documentary a lively dimension. There's no sugar added here, with the brutal picker strikes of the 1930s and then the slow but relentless invasion of the land snatchers.

In "William Mulholland: The Dream Builder" (Oct. 26), with David Carradine narrating, producer Susan F. Walker profiles the checkered life of the dauntless engineer of the 233-mile aqueduct that brings us our life-saving water. Although it's written with heroic flourishes (we can't forget that many of the dusty folk in the Owens Valley still feel we raped them), the story still sounds like incredible science-fiction.

But all of Los Angeles sometimes takes on an aura of science-fiction. The series doesn't entirely dispell that image, nor does it make entire sense out of our muddle of communities. But at the least it helps us realize that there's more to our rambling city than a jam-up at drive time.

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