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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

Listeners across America were held in thrall for more than six months as contestants--one per week, chosen from their essays--tried to solve the show's maddeningly arcane riddle.

The last line tipped off George.

As an Oregon State College journalism graduate, she knew that newspaper reporters typed "30" at the end of their stories. "That's all, that's all," she reasoned, could mean "30, 30"--perhaps 30 degrees latitude and longitude?

Those lines meet near Cairo, Egypt, a city at low elevation built on ruins. As for "Windbag," Cairo contains "air."

Her answer, coming in a live broadcast at NBC studios at Hollywood and Vine, left Linkletter momentarily speechless. Program personnel rushed up to George with smelling salts, in case she felt faint.

"I'll be eternally grateful for Cairo," she said.

Hoping for a Break While Struggling

"I have not talked with anybody about this for many years."

Vivienne George, 82, leaned on a walker as she answered the door of her apartment in a well-appointed retirement complex in Redlands. Her hair is silver and she looks frail, but when she flashes her broad smile she is immediately recognizable as the woman who waved at a publicity camera 51 years ago in front of her new house.

The Georges were married in 1943, just three months before Ward was called up from the National Guard and sent to the South Pacific. He was discharged in 1944, having contracted a series of debilitating tropical diseases.

They lived in Lebanon, Ore., about 30 miles south of Salem, getting by on his disability check and her various jobs.

"I would take anything I could get: picking beans, working in an office, selling articles on the side," she said. "I was trying to break into journalism."

The phone call from Hollywood came to a grocery store about a quarter-mile from her house.

"The man from the store had to trek up to the house in the mud to tell me someone in Los Angeles wanted to talk to me," George said.

A few days after her triumphant "People Are Funny" appearance-- adorned in a leaf-print dress paid for by Linkletter's people--George was driven out for a look at her new home, but the driver got lost. "He asked people where Panorama City was and nobody had ever heard of it," she said.

The public had been invited to witness the moment when the contest winner got her house, and Linkletter was furious with the driver.

"He says, 'Where have you been? I have 30,000 people here and I've been having a hard time holding them,' " George recalled. "I had never seen such a mob. Everybody wanted my autograph."

At one point she boarded a helicopter for an aerial tour of her new neighborhood. As it lifted her above the crowd, she saw only construction and orange groves. "I looked down and said, 'I've never seen an orange grove before.' So, the pilot asked me, 'Would you like to pick an orange?' "

He took the helicopter down so she could get one. "That's what I remember most of the whole thing," George said. "Picking that orange."

A few days later, Ward George was flown to Los Angeles and more pictures were taken, but out of the limelight things had already begun to sour. Vivienne George called to inquire about an office job at Lockheed, but was told she would have to report for work right away. "I couldn't," George said. "We had to go back to Oregon to get our things."

The offer was withdrawn. She heard nothing more from show officials about a job.

The Georges returned to Oregon, where their reception was only partially celebratory.

State officials sent them a notice demanding that taxes be paid on their prize. She lost her job. "The man who ran the office heard I had gotten a job in California, so he gave mine away," she said. And the grocer with the town phone was sulking: "He was unhappy because I didn't mention him on the show."

Trying to Get People to See the Future

"I would stand on a box and tell people that all this bare land was someday going to be the heart of the Valley."

When salesman Herb Lightfoot went to work for Fritz Burns in 1949, the roads were still dirt and only a few homes in Panorama City had been completed. He would point to a lot and tell of wonders to come.

"It was show business," said Lightfoot, now 82.

"Visit this dramatic new city being built," said an ad. "See how well Kaiser engineers and architects have interpreted the desires of 'Mr. and Mrs. Modern.' "

One Sunday, Lightfoot sold 23 houses.

To avoid the uniformity that made suburban developments the object of ridicule, Burns rejected traditional street grids. "He liked the 'curvilinear' streets, as he called them, not just straight lines," recalled Ken Skinner, who joined Burns as a bookkeeper in 1949.

Likewise, although the two- and three-bedroom houses--priced at $9,150 to $10,500--all shared the same basic layout, Burns' designers created 70 different exteriors.

The New Englander had three plain columns in front, the Panorama included a picture window in the living room, and the Catalina situated the garage toward the back for a longer driveway.

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