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'Heart of Screenland' : From the Gabrielino Indians to gamblers looking for the fastest greyhound, Culver City enjoyed a rich, colorful past. A local writer tells all in a history published just in time for the city's 75th birthday.

August 23, 1992|BERNICE HIRABAYASHI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The year was 1928 and the strip was roaring.

Swanky nightclubs were a haven of bootlegging and vice. Gamblers whooped and hollered at greyhounds that rounded the local dog track.

But this was no budding Las Vegas; this road of iniquity was in west Culver City, along what is now Washington Boulevard.

Those freewheeling days of Prohibition as well as tamer times are recounted in the recently published "Culver City, Heart of Screenland," written by local historian Julie Lugo Cerra and published in time to celebrate the city's 75th anniversary this year.

Today, Culver City looks much like any other city, with its share of fast-food joints, housing tracts and cars. But according to Cerra, its past features a parade of visionaries, fitful growing phases and the richest concentration of movie-making lore in Southern California.

Cerra, 46, should know. Between her family history and her research, she's gotten to know the city inside out. The sixth-generation Californian is descended from the Lugos, a Spanish land-grant family who settled in La Ballona Valley. Her grandparents owned a rancho at what is now Cota Street and Jefferson Boulevard, near Roll N' Rye Restaurant.

The late Charles R. Lugo, Cerra's father, was a Culver City civic leader and served as a police captain until 1964. While in college, Cerra gave tours on the MGM lot, now owned by Sony Pictures Studios. In 1980, she co-founded the Culver City Historical Society and laid out a historical tour. Black and white photos dating back a century fill a wall of her Culver City home.

Writing a history book seemed only natural.

"It was something I needed to do," Cerra said. "I just needed to be pushed."

The book was published by Chatsworth-based Windsor Publications Inc., which specializes in city histories.

Cerra dove into research to augment the information she already had. She interviewed Culver City old-timers such as legendary studio-owner Hal Roach.

Retired Battalion Fire Chief Ray Moselle recalled how Mae West was a regular at the boxing arena, located where the Culver Center stands today. Moselle also recalled a young Ted Cooke, now the chief of police, working out in the ring.

An interview with Beverly Machado Szabo led to a search through out-of-print bookstores for a biography on the Machados, early settlers in La Ballona. She finally found it at a rare bookstore on Melrose and bought it for $150.

Roy Donovan of the defunct Citizen newspaper sat Cerra behind piles of newsprint dating back to 1925. Research on the Gabrielino Indians, who fished the shores of La Ballona Creek, took Cerra to old Spanish missions and the Southwest Museum in Highland Park.

The work paid off. Cerra was able to bring human interest to her stories, like the fact that divorce was an acceptable outcome of an unhappy marriage in Gabrielino society. In the last chapter, City Manager Jody Hall-Esser and other city officials agonize over how to maintain Culver City's small-town flavor with Los Angeles closing in on all sides.

"I never liked history in school because it was very dry," Cerra said. "(Schools) don't make history human enough."

The 144-page coffee-table edition is available through the Chamber of Commerce and local bookstores. The last third of the book is filled with profiles of longtime businesses and community members. They paid to be included.

Colorful anecdotes give the history life. Cerra recounts how in 1928, council members tried to stem lawlessness on the strip by passing a law prohibiting "the shaking of dice for money." Culver City had annexed the finger of land along Washington Boulevard out to the dog track in 1925.

In the 1918 election, City Clerk Katherine Megary couldn't vote for herself, because women didn't have the right to vote.

And the MGM lion was actually the idea of Howard Dietz, who dropped out of Columbia University in New York to work at the studio. Dietz entered the college mascot in the company's logo contest.

The book explains why residents near Washington and Sawtelle boulevards come across metal rings while digging in the back yard. They were used for tying down animals at a circus that used to be there.

Now that the book is finished, Cerra can devote more time to her many community activities. She is a school board member and community relations consultant for Sony Pictures Studios.

"It's been a lot of fun," she said of writing the book. "People have stopped me and told me it brought back a lot of memories. . . . In addition to that, I located a long-lost cousin."

Culver City resident David Glasser was so taken with the book he plans to track down some of the landmarks it mentions.

"People usually don't think about all the history that's here. It's interesting to know where things started from--the first school, the original families. . . . It's fun to look back."

In the final chapter, Cerra summarizes the city's efforts to plan for the future. She believes that projects like revitalizing downtown will return some of the pedestrian atmosphere lost over time.

"I think history is repeating itself in a lot of good ways," Cerra said.

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