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Special Delivery for Nat King Cole

Homage to an Unforgettable Angeleno

February 16, 2003|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Entertainer Nat King Cole made quite a stir in 1948 when he bought a home in L.A.'s exclusive, predominantly white enclave of Hancock Park. The Cole family endured years of harassment, including racial epithets left in their yard and the poisoning of a family dog. Hancock Park residents even presented a petition against "undesirables." Cole responded with the same coolness and poise that graced his silky vocals. "His comment was, if he saw anyone undesirable, he would let them know," says Cole's daughter Carole, who lived with her family in Hancock Park through the mid-1960s. "Eventually the community had a change of heart."

That change is belatedly memorialized at the newly renamed Nat King Cole Post Office at 265 S. Western Ave. The unassuming station at the confluence of Hancock Park, Koreatown and Country Club Park is the former Oakwood Station Post Office that, before relocating in 1988 from a nearby Western Avenue space, processed mail for the route that serviced Cole's former home on Muirfield Road. Congressman Xavier Becerra dedicated the office in December with more than 100 in attendance, including Carole Cole, her sister, singer Natalie Cole, and their uncle, musician Freddie Cole. Becerra credits the late George Richter of Hancock Park as a moving force in the choice of Cole for the renaming.

Renamings are done by legislation; the bill, signed by President Bush in October, was sponsored by Becerra and 65 members of Congress, including the entire California delegation. The Cole post office is rare: Outlets are most often named for politicians (another exception is a San Fernando Valley station named after the late Lakers announcer Chick Hearn). A sign for the facade and an interior display arrive this spring, says David Mazer, a postal service spokesman.

"He was due," Becerra says of Nat King Cole. "He really believed what America could stand for. People should know that about a guy who is unforgettable."

Cole was born Nat Coles in 1919 in Montgomery, Ala. An accomplished pianist and singer, he came to Los Angeles shortly before World War II during a jazz tour and never left. The Nat King Cole Trio's "Straighten Up and Fly Right" was a hit for Capitol in 1944. With the trio and later as a solo act, Cole topped the charts with "Route 66," "Mona Lisa," "Unforgettable" and others. He recorded at least 700 songs in 23 years with Capitol, whose record-shaped headquarters on Vine Street--long known as "the house that Nat built"--was just a short drive from Hancock Park.

Cole faced racism beyond his front door, Becerra says, and would not perform in segregated venues. In 1956, Cole was attacked while performing in Birmingham, Ala. "He got back onstage and finished," Becerra says. "He was also the first African American to host a television variety show. His program was taken off the air in 1957 after just one year because advertisers would not support a black host."

Would Nat King Cole approve of his post office? "He would be flabbergasted and probably pleased," says Carole Cole, who oversees her father's music catalog through the family's King Cole Productions. "He did a great deal for civil rights but never made a big deal of it. That it now bears his name says something about the area and the country as a whole."

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