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SATURDAY JOURNAL : Building a 'Future' in 1948 : A riddle and a single house launched 'American way of life' in Panorama City.

THE CHANGING SUBURBS. The series will explore new aspects of the Southern California suburban experience on occasion throughout the year.

September 04, 1999|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It was not just a house, it was a future."

Week after week, millions of Americans tuned in to the "People Are Funny" radio show in 1948 as contestants tried to solve a riddle and win just about the grandest prize imaginable: a new house, the first in the glittering new Los Angeles suburb named Panorama City.

No matter that this "scientifically planned" suburb was just a vast, dusty construction site amid dairy farms and orange groves in the largely undeveloped northern San Fernando Valley.

No matter that the floor plan of the three-bedroom, one-bath, ranch-style house would be largely indistinguishable from 1,999 others to be built around it.

It was 1,056 square feet of hope for millions of Depression-reared, war-weary young Americans--whites only need apply--looking to nest. "The envy of every 1948 housewife," a news release gushed.

It was a fully furnished home of one's own in the midst of a cruel national housing shortage. GIs had returned from World War II ready to start their families and stake their claim to the American dream, only to find they had to move in with parents or scramble to find a rentable attic.

The prize house came with a car and a job.

"That's why we said we were giving away a future," said John Guedel, now 85, who created and produced the hugely popular radio show hosted by Art Linkletter. "A future for an ordinary American."

Secretly, the radio stunt played a small role in fighting the Cold War by boosting efforts to sway an Italian election. Publicly, the suburb's developers wrapped themselves in the flag.

"It was an act of patriotism to have a home in the suburbs," said historian Elaine Tyler May, author of "Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era." "We were showing the world with our prosperity: our new houses, our jobs, our communities. It's when 'The American way of life' emerges."

Into this vortex of optimism, patriotism and hype came Vivienne George, a 31-year-old office worker living without a phone in a small Oregon town.

One of 680,000 entrants, she arrived at the Hollywood radio studio on week 30 of the "People Are Funny" contest with a bright smile, an optimistic mien and, most important, the correct answer to the riddle.

George became an instant media celebrity, and took possession of her "future" in the "new garden spot in the Valley," as developers called it.

But a future, like a community, doesn't always turn out according to plan. The first house of Panorama City, if walls could speak, could testify to that.

A Baffling Riddle, Help for Europe

Big Chief Windbag, gloomy and gay,

I'm one over others that lie in decay.

Where may I be found?

Upon low ground . . .

That's all, that's all I will say.

The riddle was baffling. The only clue given radio listeners was that the answer was the name of a place.

Guedel, who later created Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" and wrote the television pilot for "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," devised a contest in which entrants sent in a dime and a 100-word essay on the benefits of life in a democracy. They were told that the essays, and CARE packages bought with the dimes, would be sent to Europe to help bolster the spirits of people whose lives were ravaged by the war.

Actually, all the essays and packages went to areas in Italy where State Department officials--who had contacted Guedel--wanted them as ammunition against Communist candidates.

"It worked," Guedel said. "The Communists lost."

Back home, Fritz B. Burns, already a legendary residential developer whose considerable fortune had been built on low-cost housing and showbiz-style promotions, was looking for a way to hype his next big project.

Burns had come to Southern California in the 1920s and immediately recognized it as a developer's promised land. In 1926, to help promote his endeavors, he sponsored a traveling professional football team, the Los Angeles Buccaneers.

Foreseeing the killing that could be made when the GIs came home to start families, he teamed up with Henry J. Kaiser in 1945 to form Kaiser Community Homes.

On opening their first major project, in the Westchester section of Los Angeles, they described mass-produced housing as "America's answer to the so-called accomplishments of communists and fascists."

For their second big development, Burns and Kaiser turned to the Valley, buying Panorama Ranch in part because it was close to future jobs. General Motors was building its biggest West Coast automobile assembly plant nearby.

"Burns knew that would bring people and other businesses to the area," said Greg Hise, a USC urban studies professor and author of "Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the 20th Century Metropolis."

With the land and the ability to build up to 40 houses a day, but lacking a means of promotion, Burns donated a house and a car to the radio contest. The promise of keeping the world safe for democracy while living in a free home in sunny Southern California proved an irresistible draw.

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