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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Some area legends live longer than others

Urban folk tales abound in Southern California, a region known for open-mindedness toward unconventional ideas, but shelf life can vary greatly.

April 04, 2010|By Steve Harvey

A restaurant with a past?

A historic marker on Figueroa Street mentions a rumor about the 86-year-old Original Pantry Cafe "that has refused to die."

The story has it that in the 1950s, a Midwestern reporter covering the Rose Bowl dropped in to eat and "a couple of waiters had some fun with the out-of-towner, telling him that all the employees were ex-convicts," the marker says. "He duly wrote it up, and the legend, for that's all there is to it, circulates to this day."

Who knows why the tale caught on? Possibly because the Pantry had a tradition of employing mostly male, middle-aged waiters who were no-nonsense types -- men not given to small talk.

Adding to the legend, one now-retired waiter was nicknamed Bogie because he resembled Humphrey Bogart, the tough-guy star of countless gangster movies.

The story, passed down from generation to generation of faithful customers, seems more of a joke these days. The Pantry doesn't receive job applications from inmates being released, as it once did.

But many Pantry workers see nothing funny about it. "I am an educated man," said one waiter. "It is insulting."

Nevertheless, the waiter said that when a customer asks about the legend, "I just laugh." (No use raising suspicions by getting angry.)

Urban folk tales have long abounded in Southern California, which should come as no surprise, given the region's open-mindedness toward unconventional ideas.

Some legends come with built-in expiration dates. There was the May 1994 rumor that some sober drivers pulled over for swerving in the Topanga area had told officers they were startled by an angel that appeared in their back seat. The angel said a disastrous earthquake would occur June 16. (The forecast proved faulty, by the way.)

Some of the tales have faded with time, such as the story that flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was buried with a live telephone line in her casket in 1944 in case she was able to pull off a miracle.

Others have more of a regional appeal, such as the notion that Azusa stands for "Everything from A to Z in the USA."

"We hear that one a lot," said Azusa librarian Leila Hassen.

The grittier truth is that Azusa was derived from an Indian word that has been translated as "skunk place" or "grandmother," according to historians Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt in their book, coincidentally titled "Los Angeles A to Z."

Nor was El Segundo ever "El Segundo a Nada" ("Second to None"), as some boosters claim. The real name refers to the fact that it was the site of Standard Oil's second refinery in California.

Finally, an oft-told tale says that the designer of the 75-year-old Long Beach Traffic Circle was killed on that intimidating stretch of road. "I've also heard he's buried under the pavement," a Long Beach engineer told The Times in 1993, "but I don't think either story is true."

Several years ago, a Times reporter searched through records to find out who the designer was but was unsuccessful.

So the legend persists.

Show business has also been the source of myths.

One holds that after Walt Disney died of lung cancer in 1966, his body was placed in a deep-freeze chamber with the hope that he could someday be brought back to life. (In one version, he is under Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.)

Snopes.com, debunker of urban folk tales, speculates that the story may have been prompted in part by Disney's penchant for privacy and his reputation as a "technological innovator."

But his death certificate indicates he was cremated. His remains are buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

Around 1968, a rumor cropped up that Jerry Mathers, the child star of "Leave It to Beaver," had been killed in Vietnam. But he never served in Vietnam, according to Snopes.

And unlike Disney (so far, anyway), Mathers did later come back to life in television with a reunion movie, a series and other appearances, thus spiking that rumor.

Possibly the oldest area legend concerns the existence of "earthquake weather."

Historian Ralph Shaffer found a July 16, 1886, Times article that said: "We had a light shower yesterday morning . . . and today has been a thunder day, and seems very warm. . . . This seems a little earthquakey."

One theory is that the term originated among transplanted Midwesterners who thought that just as there were (legitimate) tornado warnings back home, there must also be quake warnings out here.

The belief would be more comforting except, as Caltech seismologist Kate Hutton pointed out several years ago, "no one can ever agree what [earthquake weather] is."

Some say it is characterized by still, muggy air. Others say windy, muggy air. And the sky must be overcast. Or it must be sunny.

Maybe that back-seat angel could clarify what's earthquakey.

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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