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For old-time vaudevillian, the show indeed goes on

Carleton Ralston, who grew up in a show business family, is a prolific letter writer and as he nears 100, shows no signs of slowing down.

January 24, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Carleton Ralston is one of The Times' most prolific letter writers and also a frequent correspondent with politicians up to and including the president. He is also turning 100 this week.
Carleton Ralston is one of The Times' most prolific letter writers… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Carleton Ralston of Eagle Rock is a man of letters. Not a famous man of letters. Rather, a man of many letters.

Since 1990, the Los Angeles Times has published 19 of his letters to the editor, an impressive record given the huge volume of correspondence the paper receives, most of which is never published. Times letters editor Paul Thornton said he wished all writers "would exhibit his humility and wit."

Ralston also writes to the president, whoever he may be (Bush, Carter, Obama), the mayors and senators.

He has a lot to say because he's lived a lot. Ralston turns 100 this week. His birthday wish is a new computer to continue his epistolary career.

"You have an urge that rises from your stomach up into the lungs and you have to let it out," he said, explaining his passion for writing.

Ralston has several recurrent themes in his letters. One is how to judge politicians.

"Learn to count on what a candidate has done, not what he is going to do," he wrote in a 2010 letter to The Times. "Push through the ballyhoo to the crux of a question."

He votes the man, not the party: a Reagan man, he's also a big Obama supporter. "You maintain always the courtesy of a strong, cultured gentleman," he wrote to Obama in January.

He comes up with clever references, like this one in a 2001 letter pleading with the media to drop its salacious pursuit of then-Rep. Gary Condit's relationship with the slain intern Chandra Levy.

"Please, please, can't we have an end to this tempest in a chamber pot?" he wrote

Ralston earned his way with words at the feet of the master. His was a vaudeville family, two parents and four brothers and sisters. Fleeing New Jersey during the polio epidemic of 1917, they worked their way across the country by rail performing Shakespeare in jails, schools, libraries and theaters.

"Wherever there was an auditorium," he said. Decades later, the family sport around the dinner table was for someone to start a line of Shakespeare. Another member would finish it.

The family act was as much physical as literary; Ralston's father taught the children acrobatics and gymnastics. Ralston showed me a picture of himself standing on his hands on top of a ladder outside the old Fox Wilshire Theater, where he worked while at UCLA, which he attended on and off from 1931 to 1951.

When the family arrived in Southern California in 1917, there were two lines of work: oranges and motion pictures. The Ralstons picked Hollywood.

Ralston's sister, Esther or "Tee Tee", become a silent film actress known as "the American Venus" after one of her title roles. Her star is on the Walk of Fame.

All the bigwigs visited Esther's Hollywood Hills mansion, walking down the marble staircase to her basement, which was lined in colored tile, and swimming in her pool. At the height of her career, Esther Ralston made $8,000 a week but lost it all in the Depression. "I remember her talking about going to somebody else's house and having to eat off her old china and silverware," Ralston said.

Ralston worked as an extra. The family lived in Edendale, where Ralston learned to swim in the sandy-bottomed Los Angeles River. They also lived on a ranch in Glendale where every Sunday, farm ladies would load three long tables with food of every description.

"There are no more farm girls anymore," he said sadly.

His father taught him how to box, and he later competed for UCLA. He hoisted himself up on his cane to show me how to punch with your whole body, from the legs up.

His pugilistic background informs his correspondence, as in this 2005 letter contesting an article advising parents to teach children to share their troubles.

"To most men, a rollicking good time is leaving the city behind and entering the haven of his home," he wrote. "For this, a boy should learn a fast, straight left to the chin and a way to make a living."

His writing impulse took shape early: He wrote a humor column called Cobwebs for the Daily Bruin newspaper in the 1930s. It poked fun at campus goings-on with characters like Sourpuss Sorghum and Frank Finnwhinny.

"I can't stand somebody who's too full of himself," he said. Later, he wrote an advice column for the lovelorn under the pen name Sally White.

After serving with the Navy during World War II, he graduated from UCLA, taught in the Central Valley, then worked for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety for 35 years.

In retirement, Ralston got a boat and flew an ultra-light plane. He draws cartoons for friends and family, writes poetry and plays and composes melody and lyrics, though he never took a music lesson.

And he continues to elevate the public discourse in Los Angeles, bringing the courtly sensibilities and punchy diction of another age to contemporary issues of gun violence, war and democracy.

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