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Helms Man Always Delivered The Goods

L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

October 17, 1994|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

Back when Los Angeles' new neighborhoods really did look like a TV sitcom set, housewives who really did wear shirtwaist dresses listened daily for the two-note whistle of the Helms man, who meandered the streets in a bright yellow and blue truck.

For 38 years, the whistle announced the arrival of the more than 300 trucks that crisscrossed Los Angeles, delivering cream puffs, jelly doughnuts, breads and cakes to thousands of homes.

Some housewives placed a large cardboard "H" in their windows as a sign to the Helms man--uniformed in tan pants, white shirt and blue bow tie--to come to the door.

But what began in the Great Depression ended in the convenience-first era of postwar America.

In 1969, when the Culver City-based Helms Bakery ended home delivery, Paul H. Helms Jr., the founder's son, said the business had fallen victim to "the irreversible reality" of modern supermarkets.

But at its height in the 1950s, the Helms firm operated 950 sales routes between Fresno and San Diego. It offered 150 bakery items and employed 1,850 people.

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The father of all these calories was Paul Hoy Helms. His father was a Methodist minister and his mother a schoolteacher who died in childbirth. He was shuffled among eight uncles. One would have a great impact on the boy's life.

The young Helms developed a passion for baseball, in great part from living with his favorite uncle, William (Dummy) Hoy, a center fielder for the Cincinnati Reds.

Both aunt and uncle were deaf-mutes, but William Hoy overcame that to become a pro ballplayer. He is credited with getting umpires to use hand signals to call balls and strikes because he couldn't hear them speak. Helms later said he learned not only sign language but compassion, and in later years hired more than threescore deaf-mutes as bakery employees.

In 1912, Helms began selling life insurance in Pennsylvania, where he met and married Pearl Ellis. Two years later, the newlyweds moved to New York, where Helms built up a small bakery from one route to 200.

But poor health forced him to retire at age 37 in 1926. Two years later, he moved his family to Los Angeles, where "within a few months, I was itching to get back to work." Helms figured this would be a good time to start a business, because people were eager to work.

On March 15, 1931, Helms Bakery opened at Venice and Washington boulevards, with 32 employees and 11 trucks. Until his death, Helms remembered the first name of each employee.

In 1932, he won the contract to supply bread to Olympic athletes here. For more than 20 years, Helms capitalized on the association by putting "Official Bread of Olympic Champions" on his wrappers.

Four years after the Olympics, Helms agreed to showcase sports memorabilia and archives. In 1948 he expanded the bakery, making room for Helms Hall, where the Helms Athletic Foundation (now the Amateur Athletic Foundation) operated for more than two decades.

Although he lacked a business background, Helms possessed promotional flair.

During World War II, he came up with a catchy new radio jingle that school kids soon were singing:

\o7 "Toot! Toot! Here comes the Helms man,

Toot! Toot! Right to your door.

With Olympic bread and pastries,

Coffee cake and other tasties.

Toot! Here comes your Helms man now.

Save a trip to the store, just walk to your door. Toot!"

\f7 By the early 1950s, Helms bakeries were turning out more than a million loaves of bread a day and delivering about 150 custom-made wedding and birthday cakes a week.

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Helms, who also took part in civic matters and charities, died in 1957 at age 67. His son, Paul Hoy Helms Jr., took over the business.

But the heyday was past.

In July, 1969, the company began an aggressive marketing campaign. Helms' bread rocketed to the moon aboard the Apollo 11 capsule. Its bread wrappers now read: "First Bread on the Moon."

But it wasn't enough. Supermarkets were too close, home delivery too expensive.

Five months after its bread went literally out of this world, the bakery turned off its ovens.

The old bakery building will soon house a furniture store, with no food--and especially no jelly doughnuts--allowed inside.

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