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L.A. Then and Now

Time capsules hidden too well for their own good

People who conceal the caches are often gone when it's time to unearth them. A nonprofit group tries to combat the problem with free registration.

February 22, 2009|Steve Harvey

One of the biggest moments of the city of Corona's 1985 Labor Day celebration was supposed to be the opening of several time capsules buried beneath City Hall.

"But," The Times reported, "something was missing: the time capsules." Workers tore up a concrete walkway where they expected to find as many as 17 containers left by high school classes dating back to the 1930s. But "it was just empty underneath," one participant lamented.

The Georgia-based International Time Capsule Society has listed the missing Corona memorabilia as among the "Nine Most Wanted" capsules on its website.

As it turns out, innumerable cities have had similar disappointments with long-buried time capsules -- and Indiana Joneses are in short supply.

The Bay Area city of Livermore expected to unearth a historic cache a few years ago but came up with only pennies and bottle caps. Officials began searching for a Fillmore capsule in 1999 for the town's Jan. 1, 2000, celebration. They're still looking.

San Francisco lost one capsule when it was inadvertently thrown into a dump.

Burbank was more fortunate.

Just the other day, city officials were notified by an L.A. Times history blogger that it was time to fetch a 50-year-old time capsule.

The Times' Larry Harnisch came across a 1959 newspaper article mentioning that the capsule had been entombed in a just-constructed bridge and was supposed to be opened Feb. 5, 2009.

Workers removed the bridge dedication plaque, noticed a dark patch of concrete and freed a capsule containing 47 photos of the city as well as a prophecy of what life would be like in Burbank in 2009. (One yet-unrealized prediction: Folks would be making "short-haul" flights in "vertical take-off" craft.)

But Burbank's case was the exception.

"A lot more are being sealed than opened," said Paul Hudson, co-founder of the Time Capsule Society at Georgia Perimeter College.

The society is trying to combat the problem of lost capsules by registering them at no charge.

So far, it has listed about 5,000 -- most of them in the United States, where interest in such things seems to be the greatest.

"Perhaps it's because our history is so short," said Hudson, a history professor.

The built-in problem with time capsules, of course, is that they are usually buried by folks who won't be alive to remind anyone when it's time to open them.

And don't depend on the Time Capsule Society, which is a volunteer operation run by Hudson in his spare time.

"We can't make any guarantees if someone's expecting a wake-up call in 2050," he said. "We just don't have the resources."

But, he adds, the capsule-casualty count would be reduced if participants would take one precaution: Don't bury the memento. Install it in a structure with an identifying plaque.

Burying it "almost ensures it will get lost," said Hudson. "And even if it's unearthed, it will be a soggy mess."

Such was the sad case of a capsule planted at Sunset and Vine to celebrate movie making in Hollywood.

It held an original script and film print of "Gone With the Wind," among various other artifacts.

When it was dug up in 2004, Johnny Grant, the "honorary mayor" of Hollywood, took one look at the disintegrated contents and said, "There's 'Gone With the Wind.' It's gone with the wind."

A new capsule was buried inside a stainless steel box designed by Future Packing and Preservation of Covina. "If it fails, we'll replace the unit," a spokeswoman told The Times. "But not the contents."

The suspense is mounting. It's due to be recovered in 2037.

Of course, a capsule's survival chances are even dicier when it's buried in secret.

Take the case of the "MASH" treasure, which is also on the Time Capsule Society's "Nine Most Wanted" list.

In 1983, members of the TV show's cast clandestinely buried a medical chest filled with props in the 20th Century Fox parking lot.

But the studio sold that piece of land, and a construction worker found the box.

Contacted by the worker, Alan Alda told him to "keep it," the actor recounted in his memoir, "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed -- and Other Things I've Learned."

Alda grumbled that he didn't expect anyone to find it "for a hundred years or so."

He'll get no sympathy from Corona.

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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