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To Helms and Back

One Man's Quest Takes a Lot of Dough

September 22, 2002|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Lee Bixler can still hear the whistle on the Helms bakery truck that echoed through his childhood in Bakersfield. "My sister and I used to fight over who would flag down the Helms man," says the proprietor of the Helms Museum at the Antique Guild in the former Helms Bakeries building in Culver City.

The museum celebrates the days when mid-century Southern California was fertile pasture for bow-tied "Helmsmen" selling bread and sweets in their butter yellow panel trucks from San Diego to Fresno and San Bernardino to Santa Barbara. For Bixler, 56, the whistle is still blowing: The museum showcases highlights from Bixler's massive Helmsiana collection: photos of Helms Rose Parade floats, a wooden baker's box on wheels, bread racks, fruitcake tins, cardboard bread loaves. A framed letter dated 1948 states how much the King and Queen of England enjoyed Helms bread. The museum also displays a 1948 Divco Helms truck on loan from the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Then there's Bixler's Helms uniform ("Khaki pants, white shirt, blue bow tie, black belt, black shoes!"), which he wears when attending car shows in his restored 1962 Helms bakery truck. He delights in showing off one of the Viewmasters used by Helms drivers to pitch wedding cakes in 3-D. Bixler is currently adding display cases for his employee pins, invoices (100 pounds of flour for $3.48) and Helms cardigan sweater.

Paul Helms founded the bakery in 1931 and expanded it into more than 200,000 square feet in the Venice Boulevard building that now houses the Antique Guild. Bixler says the company was an official supplier for the 1932 Olympics. "I refer to [Helms] as the P.T. Barnum of bread," Bixler says, adding that Helms abhorred the term "truck" and once stated, "Garbage is delivered in trucks. My bread is delivered in coaches." The company peaked when Helms bread blasted off on Apollo 11 for the July 20, 1969, moon landing (orange stickers on view at the museum boast "First bread on the moon"), but Helms shut down the bakery in August 1969 rather than allow his company to unionize, Bixler says.

Bixler went to work at the old Helms building in 1977 as a planner and display director for the Antique Guild. He purchased the Antique Guild business in 1994 and receives free space for the museum from the building's owners. He started his collection in 1989 with a purchase of photos showing the bakery's construction. Two items continue to elude Bixler. "A 1932 Helms Olympic Village made of cardboard," he says. "I've tried twice and been outbid. I'd also love a miniature loaf of [real] Helms bread."

Bixler stays in touch with former Helms employees and fellow collectors as well as the many fans who still pine for their favorite Helms cookies, doughnuts and cream puffs. "People still talk about them," he says. "My grandmother loved the applesauce cake.''

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Helms Museum at the Antique Guild, 3225 Helms Ave., Culver City

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