Jerry Johnson has given a Christmas party at Lazy J Ranch every year for 52 years, first at the original location in Canoga Park, more recently at the second site in the Malibu hills. For the last several years, those around her have worried that the parties were too much work, that she's too old. This year, they insisted. The invitation read, "Please join me as I host my end-of-a-tradition Christmas Party with a little help from my friends."
She has no shortage of them. Lazy J is a children's camp. Since 1945, Hollywood movie stars have sent their kids to Johnson to be taught character -- and how to muck out stables. Johnson started the parties for camp counselors. Over the years, the guest list grew, as guest lists do. Young counselors brought their parents. Older counselors brought their children. The children had more children. Neighbors got wind of the eggnog. Soon the parties became an annual event.
They attract a horsy bunch. Go to a Lazy J party without ever having been on a horse and you'll leave knowing the difference between a flip mount and a pony express mount, and able to argue the merits of bareback riding. Yet you also will come away sure that Christmas at Lazy J is about much more than camping or riding. As working ranches disappear from Southern California, the place where Maverick and Madame X -- James Garner and Constance Bennett -- shipped their kids has become a kind of living museum, a holdover from the glory days of old L.A. Against all odds, it's still a place of big country, big cars, big drinks, of love, death, glamour, grudges and grit.
The setting could not be more Californian. In the late 1950s, after developers forced the camp from its original 40-acre site in Canoga Park, Johnson moved the ranch to a 165-acre spread in Ventura County, in the Malibu hills. It is far enough away from L.A. that there are blankets of stars, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes and the darting scrub birds of the chaparral.
The ranch house was built in 1929 by William Boyd, a silent screen actor in Cecil B. DeMille films, and later "Hopalong Cassidy" in the talkies. It also was briefly owned by Duncan Renaldo, the "Cisco Kid," whose child went to Johnson's camp. To picture it, imagine a San Simeon that a movie cowboy could afford. The result, oddly enough, is a place that would have suited Zorro: earthy and fantastical at the same time, and altogether lovely.
Structurally, the house is little changed from Boyd's day. After entering through a tiny kitchen with a wood-burning stove and lined with Malibu tiles, one proceeds into a living room-great hall with an arching timbered ceiling and flanks of windows along each long wall. There is a walk-in fireplace, the baronial sort big in the '20s. The western flank of windows overlooks a voluptuous canyon covered in blue-green scrub. This descends to the Pacific. From the eastern windows, there is a view of the ascending hillsides, the Santa Monica Mountains, with a craggy peak, Old Boney, finishing off the horizon.
Given the theatrical scale of the place, most Angelenos would hire an interior decorator. But when Johnson moved in more than 40 years ago, she furnished it herself. She was so satisfied, she left it that way.
Several days before the party, the tree is up and lighted, and the banquet table built by Boyd to go with the house partly laid. The great room is furnished gentleman's club style, with a maze of grouped chairs and couches. The positioning of the furniture says much about Johnson's big-heartedness. It directs people into convivial groups. A better collection of mismatched but somehow highly compatible lamps would be hard to find outside the haphazard elegance of English drawing rooms. The play of color in the seemingly random choices of upholstery also could be English. Its rightness only looks like a happy accident. Chintz and moss green are interspersed with rich swathes of red. Pale blue walls set off gold curtains. The play of cool and warm colors is assured.
Then there is good junk -- colored glass, horse heads, cowboys and Indians -- all displayed with elegance, heart and humor. When it comes to this Wild West clutter, Johnson's making her jokes and living with them too. Four-foot-high carved and painted cowgirl and cowboy figures hold up some big lampshades.
Johnson isn't a born Westerner. She just liked it here. She learned the principles of design so evident in her living room back East. She was born to an affluent family in Winnetka, Ill., near Chicago, at a time when people wore gloves and hats to town. A beauty, she briefly worked as a hat model at the grand old department store, Carson Pirie Scott & Co. In addition to a teaching degree from Northwestern, she studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.