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L.A Then and Now

A Violent Performance at the Bowl

October 19, 1997|Cecilia Rasmussen

Today, the Hollywood Bowl is synonymous with the gentle pleasures of fine dining and fine music under the stars. But more than a century ago, when the canyon still was known as Daisy Dell, it provided the backdrop for the violent theatrics of one of the fiercest characters ever to perform on the stage of Southern California history.

Then, Daisy Dell was part of a tract of land called Bolton Canyon, which belonged to "Greek George" Caralambo, who moved there after a stint in the U.S. Army Camel Corps.

Born in Smyrna, now called Izmir, Turkey, Caralambo learned to handle camels before arriving in Texas in 1857 with the second load of camels purchased by the War Department as part of its attempt to introduce the "ship of the desert" into the American West.

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Caralambo, along with nine other Greek, Syrian and Turkish camel herders, including a Turk named Hi Jolly, were paid $15 a month to drive the camels used to haul the supplies to build the famed and short-lived Butterfield overland mail route. The camels' Army career ended with the outbreak of the Civil War--though not without providing Caralambo with a typically violent adventure. While leading the herd of camels back to Los Angeles from Ft. Mojave, his Homeric beard stopped an arrow fired by a Mojave Indian--who, unimpressed by camels, resented the trespassing on his land.

Jobless after all the camels were auctioned off, Caralambo caught gold fever and headed for Holcomb Valley, then known as the hellhole of the San Bernardino Mountains. He quickly established himself as kingpin of a particularly rowdy saloon. For Caralambo, one day's work involved shooting a bystander who cheered when Caralambo's horse ran second in a race, gunning down a cheat caught filing off the horn tips of a bull about to fight a grizzly bear, and shooting a cook. The motive for the latter assault remains obscure.

In 1865, Caralambo headed for New Mexico, where he shot and killed Alfred C. Bent, the son of New Mexico's first governor. In a note, Caralambo confessed to the killing but said it was in self-defense. Then he faked his own suicide and returned to Los Angeles, where he changed his name to George Allen.

He tried to get a government grant for his seven years of service as a camel driver. But instead, in 1867, he was rewarded with a large chunk of useless land west of the Cahuenga Pass, in Bolton Canyon.

It wasn't what he had in mind, but he built a wooden shack there anyway. In the meantime, while Caralambo and his wife, Cornelia Lopez, were operating the La Brea Waystation near what is now Kings Road and Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, a Slavic immigrant recalled only as "Marsovich" moved onto the property and filed a mineral claim.

Caralambo fumed, but uncharacteristically decided to handle the problem nonviolently: He sued Marsovich. After several years in the courts, Caralambo won, but Marsovich still refused to move. Returning to the tried and true, Caralambo bit off Marsovich's ear--a novel though effective form of eviction.

Not wanting any more trouble with squatters, Caralambo and his wife, who was ready to give birth, moved into the cabin in Bolton Canyon. Their first house guests were the infamous bandit Tiburcio Vasquez and his lover, Rosario, who happened to be the wife of one of the bandit's trusted soldiers, as well as Cornelia Lopez's sister.

While Lopez screamed with labor pains, Caralambo galloped to town--not for a doctor, but to betray his house guest for a $15,000 reward.

On May 15, 1874, a posse of seven stormed the tiny cabin to capture the unarmed bandit. Lopez, who had just delivered a girl, had purposely moved Vasquez's gun to another room while fixing his meal. The heavily armed deputies stopped his attempt to escape by shooting him first in the shoulder, then peppering his backside with buckshot as he attempted to climb through a window.

After being hauled off to jail, he was tried, convicted and hanged in Northern California the following year.

Caralambo never collected his reward.

Before the turn of the century, his wife died, and Caralambo remarried and sold his Bolton Canyon property for $500.

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Short of cash, he decided to try again for a government pension. This time he heard that Charles Lummis, onetime Times city editor, writer, craftsman, founder of the Southwest Museum and defender of the city's poor, was the man to help him.

In 1903, when he visited Lummis' home in the Arroyo Seco, Caralambo realized that almost 50 years earlier, he had camped with his camels on his way to Ft. Tejon under the huge, four-pronged sycamore tree in the center of Lummis' patio.

Lummis sympathized with the former herdsman and took up his case, but without any luck.

In 1913, living in a wooden shack at La Mission Vieja in Montebello (forerunner of Mission San Gabriel), penniless and a widower, "Greek George" Caralambo, the former trailblazer, died.

Except for a brief mention in history books, it was almost as if Caralambo was destined to be forgotten. He was laid to rest in Mt. Olive Cemetery in Whittier. No headstone was placed to mark the grave. Nearly 50 years after his death, the Native Daughters of the Golden West commemorated his unmarked grave with a tombstone. In 1968, Mt. Olive and nearby Broadway Cemetery were condemned and the land was converted into Founders Memorial Park, leaving Caralambo's remains, along with a few thousand others, somewhere between a park bench and a picnic table.

Today, his chipped tombstone rests in a storage yard behind the Pio Pico Mansion.

The colorful, if tempestuous, Caralambo may yet be rescued from obscurity, however. Steve Pastis, editor of the Greek American publication Hellenic Calendar, is at work on a book, "Greek George and Hi Jolly," and Caralambo's great-great-granddaughter, Juliana Waychus, a Madera schoolteacher, has a documentary film in the works.

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