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The go-to guy in L.A.

November 23, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps the most significant result of Benedikt Taschen's move to Los Angeles last year is his company's new emphasis on Americana and California pop culture. To head the L.A. editorial operation, he hired Jim Heimann, author of "California Crazy," a groundbreaking work on roadside architecture. A master at elevating the ephemeral, Heimann has also written books on menu design, matchbook covers and noir-era crime photos, and he created the graphics for the watering holes the Good Luck Bar and El Carmen.

He jokes that he was selected for the bars and restaurants he can show Taschen when the publisher's in town. The two have a kidding relationship in which the good-natured Heimann serves as the butt of many jokes even as he mimics his boss' accent and halting delivery.

Heimann, who calls himself an "urban archeologist," is the kind of guy who can name every nightclub that's ever been on Sunset and every Googie coffee shop architect.

This mind-set has shaped a number of Taschen books -- on print ads, California imagery, hot rods and hula girls. Due next year: an ambitious volume on L.A.

Some books are the result of editors, including the publisher himself, meeting with collectors and choosing every image. This was the way Heimann met Taschen, who had come to his house to see his legendary collection of paper ephemera. (Heimann recalls the meeting as "sort of formal and ... German.")

But many of the images -- including the bulk of the huge "All-American Ads" books spanning the 1930s to the '60s -- come from Heimann's three decades of haunting flea markets.

It's just past dawn on a Sunday morning, and Heimann is stalking the campus of Pasadena Community College, hunting from stall to stall for material.

"This is pretty racy stuff for the '50s," he says, holding up small pinup books put out by strippers with names like Dixie Sparkle.

He flips through 1971 Dodger programs, looking for period ads, picks up a 50-year-old Winchell's Donuts cup, an old International House of Pancakes cook's hat, scrapbooks with ticket stubs.

A few minutes later, he comes across a major score: a 1946 Chicago Sun with a two-page cartoon spread on "The Atomic Future." One page is a happy our-friend-the-atom display with a utopian, labor-saving scenario; the second page shows the world as a bleak, post-apocalyptic nightmare.

"Benedikt's really interested in this stuff, because it didn't exist in Germany," he says.

Taschen's taste looms over Heimann, even from thousands of miles away, especially his interest in the whimsy of post-World War II consumerism. "When Germans see this stuff, it's like another world," he says. "They say, 'Americans had everything. We had nothing.' "

Heimann feels he's uncovering something important about L.A., a city that moves so fast it disappears, leaving only a paper trail. Some of this material will show up in the L.A. book, which aims to document hidden aspects of the city.

"People think L.A. was all orange groves and Midwesterners, but here you get a new insight into L.A. history," he says of flea markets. "The paper ephemera really puts it into focus. You get these black nightclubs that white people weren't even aware of and never photographed. I found a program from a black drag show on Central Avenue in the 1940s. Or you can find a box of letters that looks kind of anonymous, but it all becomes bits and pieces of the puzzle."

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