It has been years since I looked through “The Los Angeles Book” and even longer since I read it. Then several weeks ago, I bought a copy so I could point out a particular photo of Chavez Ravine to a Chapman University student who was interviewing me for a documentary on the Dodgers.
That pretty much sums up the 1950 collaboration of Lee Shippey and Max Yavno (d. 1985): You remember the pictures and forget the words. In fact, Yavno once said he never read any of Shippey’s text.
Muscle Beach by Max Yavno.
Granted, I post Shippey’s columns because he writes about a broad variety of subjects, but his text for “The Los Angeles Book” is like an almanac. I didn’t detect any glaring factual errors, but he ignores quite a bit of history and is muted in his criticism. For example, his harshest words about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is: “Uncle Sam now is spending a few millions to compensate for the shameful wrongs done then.”
Carthay Circle Theater by Max Yavno.
Even if you have never heard of Yavno, you have seen his work. His photograph of Muscle Beach is probably his best-known image (he spent three Sundays getting the perfect shot), and his photo of Carthay Circle Theater is used for the cover of “Los Angeles A to Z.”
Oil derricks and City Hall by Max Yavno.
One of the oddities about “The Los Angeles Book” is that Yavno’s photographs take a much harder edge than Shippey’s text. The somewhat bland recitation of facts is juxtaposed with gritty photographs, like the shot of oil derricks and City Hall. (And to the uninitiated, yes, abandoned oilfields are all over Los Angeles).
Chavez Ravine by Max Yavno.
Yavno’s photograph of Chavez Ravine is the reason I bought the book. The Times file photos I have found of the area were taken after most of the houses were cleared away. This is the only image I know that shows what it was like before the bulldozers rolled. Notice the dirt road and ramshackle mailboxes, the antithesis of the post-World War II mania for modernization.
Unfortunately, “The Los Angeles Book” has been out of print for many years. Copies aren’t terribly expensive and, frankly, you can’t consider yourself literate about Los Angeles if you haven’t spent some time with it.
Here’s a bit of the book, courtesy of the OCR software of my scanner:
LOS ANGELES IN 50,000 B.C.
MOST PEOPLE think of Los Angeles as an egregious young upstart, fed on real estate-promotion hormones till it has grown abnormally. But visit its County Museum or La Brea Tar Pits and you learn it has a past long antedating history. It is the only great city which can show you what life was like within its borders fifty thousand years ago.
The first explorers to see what now is Los Angeles found the Tar Pits, recording them as "lakes and springs of petroleum." But it was not till recent years that scientists discovered that those lakes were the world's greatest treasury of prehistoric skeletons. Through countless centuries oil had bubbled into them, till some were quagmires two hundred feet deep. Sand and dust blew over them, coating their surfaces so they looked solid. Those crusted surfaces held rain which formed tempting pools in a thirsty land. Imperial Mammoth elephants, much larger than any now existing, waded into the pools to drink and found themselves helplessly mired. Their bellowings only brought saber-toothed tigers, dire wolves, prehistoric lions and many other carnivorous animals and birds to attack them, and they too were trapped. They sank slowly but inevitably into an oily bog so preservative that even the insects which swarmed about them thousands of years ago, and sank with them, are intact now when the oil is melted away.
Though it is a good museum in many ways, the Tar Pit discoveries are the main reason why some millions of visitors, including paleontologists from other lands, have gone to the County Museum. Most of them gape in wonder at reconstructed creatures they can hardly believe ever existed anywhere.
Some of them joke that a paleontologist is a guy who can reconstruct the jawbone of a donkey into a dinosaur. But when scientists declared that some of the skeletons dug up in the Tar Pits were "at least fifty thousand years old," G. Allan Hancock, who owned the property, presented it to the county, and it became Hancock Park.