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A ranch gives up the ghost

USC plans to sell comic Jack Oakie's estate to a developer, erasing one of the last traces of the Valley as a getaway in Hollywood's golden era.

August 02, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

TIME stands still at Oakridge.

The stone house on the Northridge hilltop is locked. Through its darkened windows can be glimpsed empty rooms that for nearly a half-century echoed with the laughter of comic actor Jack Oakie and a nonstop flow of Hollywood buddies.

Its curving driveway, circling an ancient oak, is cracked. The back lawn, where Oakie and his celebrity friends lazed away summer days by the pool, is overgrown and brown.

Oakridge is a monument to a long-vanished lifestyle in the San Fernando Valley, perhaps the last of the multi-acre ranches that stars from Hollywood's golden era bought in what then was the outskirts of town.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had one down the street from Oakridge. Zeppo Marx, the brother of Groucho, Harpo and Chico, owned one in Northridge. So did actor William Holden and actress Janet Gaynor. Studio mogul Harry Warner had a working ranch in Woodland Hills that is now Warner Center.

As development spread across the Valley floor, the Hollywood ranchos disappeared one by one.

Oakie and his family were determined that Oakridge would not meet the same fate.

Until he died in 1978 at the age of 74, the radio and movie comedian battled to preserve low-density agricultural zoning around the home.

His wife, Victoria, continued his fight, persuading Los Angeles officials to designate Oakridge a historic-cultural monument in 1990. Two years before her death in 2003 at the age of 91, she bequeathed the estate to the USC School of Cinematic Arts. "I feel it is too beautiful to be torn down when I'm gone," she told city officials.

But time is ticking at Oakridge.

USC has decided to sell the house and land, and use the money for its film school.

A developer is weeks away from buying the nine-acre estate near Devonshire Street and Reseda Boulevard for a 28-home subdivision. City officials, meantime, are scrambling to preserve Oakie's English manor-style house. They would like to buy it and turn it into a cultural center that would salute pioneering Hollywood figures who had their own ranchettes in the Valley.

"The Oakie house is one of the last vestiges of the San Fernando Valley's personal connection to the movie industry," said City Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Chatsworth and Northridge areas. "James Cagney's ranch is gone. Lucy and Desi's is gone. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans' is gone."

THE 6,400-square-foot home was designed by architect Paul R. Williams and built in 1937 for actress Barbara Stanwyck. She sold it to Oakie in 1940 when she married another Northridge resident, actor Robert Taylor.

In his biography, "Jack Oakies' Double Takes," the actor recounted the idyllic early days in Northridge:

"When we bought our little ranch, very few people lived out our way. The mailman, who whiled away his time at our house, told me that of the 40 or so names and addresses that comprised the town, there were days when not even one of them had a letter for him to deliver."

In those days, groceries had to be brought in from Hollywood and Beverly Hills, he recalled in Victoria Oakie's 1980 memoir, "Jack Oakie's Oakridge."

"For an ice cream, we used to have to bicycle five miles down to Topanga Canyon and Devonshire Street to the old two-story brick complex called the Chrysler Building. It had the only drugstore and ice cream fountain in all of the far northwest Valley. On those bicycle trips we could take off our sweaters and hang them on a branch of a grapefruit tree in an orchard along Devonshire Street and

two or three hours later come by and pick them up on the way home."

Oakie planted orange, lemon, apricot, plum, peach, lime and fig trees. Friends such as boxing champion Jack Dempsey helped water them when they dropped in to visit. And there was a steady stream of friends of the former vaudeville performer turned radio and TV personality.

Former Los Angeles TV weatherman George Fischbeck visited Oakridge to "play cards and drink whiskey" with Oakie and his friends.

"It's not a Hollywood-type mansion. It was a good house. And that's the way he was, a good man," said Fischbeck, of Woodland Hills. "We played around a table that wasn't that fancy. Vickie would bring in sandwiches. She took good care of Jack -- she put up his pictures on the wall of his den, a side room off the kitchen."

In another of her books, "Life With Jack Oakie," Victoria Oakie explained why she and her husband never moved from the Valley to Palm Springs, like other Hollywood figures did in the 1960s.

"My husband was very proud of the eight bathrooms that we had at Oakridge. Jack always believed that we had the best and that it was best to hold on to it," she wrote.

For a time, the couple felt secure that zoning restrictions would protect them. Not so.

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