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On Paper, He's Quite the Collector

Timetables, tour books, catalogs: Bit by printed bit, Wally Shidler pieces together L.A. history.

February 20, 2006|Kelly-Anne Suarez | Times Staff Writer

Wally Shidler likes paper. A lot.

He delights in the everyday items other people discard, be it an outdated telephone directory or a PTA pamphlet. With these scavenged bits of ephemera, Shidler is creating a mosaic of his life's passion: the history of Southern California.

So when rail author John Heller needed articles and photos about Pacific Electric Railway substations, he knew he could count on Shidler. He doesn't just have a few copies of the railway's company magazine; he has nearly all editions from 1919 to 1953.

He's compiled his collection through years of foraging at swap meets, trade shows and used-book stores.

It's an eclectic archive: Every program of every show the Orpheum Theatre produced in its 1926 debut season, the 1908 Auto Club tour book of Los Angeles, a book commemorating the 25th anniversary of the German American Savings Bank. Shidler's got them.

Wondering what time P.E.'s Hollywood rail line rolled out of the station on June 15, 1934? Shidler has the timetable.

This love affair with ephemera has turned the 67-year-old retired motion-picture engineer into a resource for many who meet him. Whether it's an author, a city's centennial committee or a conservationist renovating an old railway station, people seek out Shidler.

"He's got an extensive collection, both on local transit and other history, all immaculately kept and cataloged," said Heller, a board member of the Electric Railway Historical Assn. of Southern California. "I've never seen anyone like Wally, who really takes care of it."

Shidler's collection is his passion. The Walnut Park resident never married and laughs about the one time he came close. He recalls introducing his then-girlfriend to his archive.

"She said, 'Wally, this stuff belongs in a museum, and you are not a museum.' " After a moment, he added: "She liked to fly; she never rode the bus."

As Shidler's friend and fellow collector Gary Watkins quipped, "That was the end of that relationship."

His collection does take up a bit of space. He has a closet filled with thousands of P.E. timetables, organized first by line, then by date. It's almost the entire set, from 1900 to 1958.

"I also try to find all the different printing dates," Shidler said, riffling through a shoe box of duplicates. "That's when it gets crazy."

Each piece is housed in its own protective plastic sleeve and filed alphabetically based on "what it is," although Shidler admits he often forgets what went where. An old edition of the Daily Signal, for example, could be filed under N for newspaper or H for Huntington Park.

To help him remember exactly what he has, he's created detailed catalogs that he updates frequently.

Aside from expanding his collection, Shidler spends much time with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He's vice chairman of the Gateway Cities Governance Council and a member of the MTA's Citizens Advisory Council. MTA board member Bonnie Lowenthal recently appointed him to the panel.

"He's completely committed to improving transportation and imparting his knowledge to others around him with similar interests," she says of the man she calls "a transportation genius."

When MTA officials recently grappled with a gap in bus service, Shidler solved the problem by devising an alternate route for the No. 258 line, Gateway Cities General Manager Alex Clifford said.

"It's incredible the kind of information you can learn from this person," he said. "It's not just learning about the line in the here and now, it's about what was."

With his words, photographs and knowledge, Shidler can transport you. Consider the journey to Mt. Lowe, an early 20th century getaway in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The $2.50 adventure began, he said, at 6th and Main in downtown Los Angeles, where an electric streetcar set out for Altadena. Passengers disembarked at Rubio Canyon and hopped onto an incline car, which dropped them at Echo Mountain. There, a narrow-gauge trolley awaited, ready to traverse the mountain's green slopes. At the end of the line sat the resplendent Alpine Tavern hotel.

"It was 'the world's greatest mountain trolley trip,' " Shidler said.

The Alpine Tavern burned down in 1936. Shidler was born two years later.

He's been a loyal rider of mass transit since he was a little boy. The tail end of the Depression and the rationing during World War II instilled in him a sense of frugality, he said.

Shidler paid cash for a two-tone Chevy in 1956. Fifty years later, it has traveled less than 100,000 miles. On the front seat, a 1978 Thomas Guide sits where a passenger might.

In a 1971 advertisement for an L.A. bus line, a Buddy Holly-esque Shidler -- lanky and bespectacled -- points to his baby-blue beauty with the caption, "By taking the ExtraCar, I figure to make this one last another 15 years." Shidler has tacked on another 20 to that original estimate.

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