YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

In Finding Father, He Solved a Musical Mystery

Family: Whittier Mayor Allan Zolnekoff loved his adoptive parents, but was a grown man before he understood his talent for playing instruments.


If you doubt genes set the course of human behavior, please meet Whittier Mayor Allan Zolnekoff.

His loving and hard-working parents--Dad polished bumpers and Mom ironed clothes--had few visible talents. Zolnekoff said they couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.

So where did young Allan get his passion for guitar? And what about that shocking red hair?

For decades the answers were locked in the files of the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers, where Zolnekoff was born in 1953. Social workers told his adoptive parents little about the infant, except that he came from a musically gifted family. They passed on one request from the baby's birth mother: that the boy be raised by a traditional Russian family.

The baby was 2 months old when he was delivered to Annie and Paul Zolnekoff, filling up their modest Whittier home. "We were so happy, because finally we had a baby," recalled Paul Zolnekoff, now 82.

Zolnekoff's adoption was never a secret, even though the circumstances of his birth remained a mystery.

"From the time I was young my parents told me the story about how when I was brought home from the adoption agency I was so small that my father was too scared to hold me," Zolnekoff said. "It was a perfect way to tell me about my adoption. I always knew."

But something was always missing in his life, he said, something out of kilter. "When you're adopted," he said, "you don't always feel like you belong."

So began a common quest of adopted children--but one that yielded some unusual answers.

As a boy, Zolnekoff would sing himself to sleep. Later, inspired by Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and others, he taught himself guitar, and then harmonica.

Although music was important, it was never Zolnekoff's true calling. He became an electrical systems planner for Southern California Edison. But as mayor of Whittier's 83,000 residents, he has learned to play politics with a musician's ear.

"It's the closest thing to performing I know," he said. "You have to be sensitive, sometimes loud and assertive. Anger is even valid at a council meeting. You play all the emotions--just like Miles Davis."

He grew up on Whittier's working-class south side and doesn't mind comparing himself to Richard Nixon, another home-grown politician. Since his first election to the City Council in 1992, Zolnekoff has gained the reputation of being a tireless campaigner. He shocked his colleagues on the council by switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party five years ago, and then returning to the Democratic Party.

"I am conservative as a Democrat, but for a couple of years I was a liberal Republican," he said. "A lot of this is fueled by the fact that some believe that in Nixon's hometown you have to be born in the party to be a Republican. There was nothing I could do to measure up to their standards."

Critics, like former Mayor Victor Lopez, say Zolnekoff has too big an ego.

"Too much I, I, I. He goes to everything and puts himself up front," Lopez said.

Quest to Find Birth Parents Began in 1981

Growing up, Zolnekoff said, he never gave too much thought to finding his birth parents.

"Had I had a dysfunctional upbringing, I would have been in a serious search," he said. "But my parents did a good job of raising me."

He took up the quest in 1981, around the time his then-wife, Janice, was pregnant with their first child. The couple was concerned about the possibility of genetic abnormalities. He asked his parents and learned that he was born Glenn Terrence Mitchell.

Zolnekoff contacted an agency that helps adoptees and birth parents find each other. To his amazement, the agency had two letters for him on file.

"You have grandparents in North Hollywood who have been looking for you," Zolnekoff recalled the woman saying. After being unable to reach them by telephone, Zolnekoff and his wife drove to the house and knocked on the door. An elderly man opened the door.

" 'Hi! I'm Glenn Terrence, your grandson.' He said 'Who?' 'I'm Glenn Terrence, your grandson.' And then he said, 'Oh! Come in! Come in! Sit down! We've been looking for you.' "

William Mitchell's hands were shaking as they sat on the living room sofa of the house in North Hollywood. There was no denying it, he thought: The visitor had his father's distinctive red hair, and Mitchell soon learned he had his musical touch.

Grace Mitchell, the grandmother, had been in the shower when the visitors arrived. When she joined the conversation, the two grandparents spoke repeatedly about Keith.

"They said, 'Keith this,' 'Keith that,' " Zolnekoff recalled. "Finally, I asked 'Who is Keith?' "

They answered: "He's your father."

Glenn Terrence Mitchell was the only child of jazz bassist Keith "Red" Mitchell and Dunya "Doe" Samoyloff, a part-time actress.

During a 40-year career, Red Mitchell was featured on more than 1,000 albums. He died in 1992 at 65.

Los Angeles Times Articles