When you drive through a part of town you don’t know well and don’t live in, the details of the place — its businesses, buildings and homes — can seem random, lacking any real significance. But live or work in a neighborhood for a while, and it takes on an added dimension, that of personal history. And one sees not only what is there now, but the combined layers of years of memories and associations with each place, and knowledge of what came before.
This is how North Hollywood native Kent Willard, the subject of our , sees our community. Driving around with him has been a revelation; never before have I learned so much of the history of this town. His was a different North Hollywood, as you will see — a great place for a kid, a place with great hamburger stands with car-hops on rollerskates, drive-in movies, slot car racing, baseball games, ice-skating and endless bicycle adventures.
Then there were his years as owner of Willard’s, in which he spent a lot of time at his beloved Red Lantern, and because of close friendships with LAPD detectives, gained a lot of first-hand knowledge about infamous crimes in the neighborhood.
Kent is currently living in the Valley Shelter, and has valiantly remained sober since getting there. Patch succeeded in getting him to a clinic, the Comprehensive Community Health Center on Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood, where he was seen by a doctor who has prescribed medications he needed. Time spent with his daughter Katie has considerably elevated his spirits as he looks toward the new year, and for the first time we're happy to bring you a photo of Kent smiling.
With LAFH, he’s on the path toward permanent housing, and well on his way to fulfilling his goal of eventually opening a new Willard’s Florist. This is more than a pipe-dream; he’s been studying the reality of the florist business in the Digital Age, and is designing a new business model that would compete with the advent of Internet-based flower delivery companies. When it comes to the flower business, the man has long been extremely savvy, and that hasn’t changed.
And so to wrap up our series of stories with Kent Willard in 2011, with things looking much rosier than ever, we are happy to bring you this tour of his private North Hollywood. While driving Kent around, I took advantage of his generosity of spirit and his love of local history to ask him about his memories of this town he knows so remarkably well. What follows are an assortment of those memories.
Kent Willard: “North Hollywood was a great place to grow up. I loved it. We had a lot of fun when we were kids. Riding bikes, playing ball.
"Jack Webb used to love North Hollywood to do his TV show [Dragnet]. And we somehow had a way of always finding out where he was shooting, and we'd ride down there on our bikes and watch.
"I spent a lot of time in North Hollywood Park, played Little League there for eight years. The freeway came through and cut the park in half there, and there was a pedestrian tunnel. So there was a bridge that went over the wash, as you came out of the pedestrian tunnel, and we’d lower our Schwinn Sting-Rays by rope down from the pedestrian bridge down there. Then we would climb over the fence and repel down the ropes to our bikes and go in the big drains. And we’d ride our bikes in those big drains — it was dark in there, pitch-black, and we’d have a lantern on our bikes to see by.”
The Victory Drive-In (10137 Victory Blvd., west of Coldwater Canyon): “It was a great old-style drive-in theater. We loved going there; we went there a lot. Right there where the restaurant is now is where the screen was. And behind that was where you’d park. We had so many great times there. It was one of many drive-ins at the time. There was Pickwick Drive-in in Burbank where the Pavilions is now, and one on Sepulveda just north of Oxnard, right next to the San Diego Freeway. And the Roscoe Drive-in on Roscoe just east of Van Nuys Boulevard. It is a shame they closed all those.”
Red Lantern Inn (5409 Laurel Canyon Blvd., northwest corner of Chandler Boulevard and Laurel Canyon; now a senior residence): “I loved the Red Lantern. I ate there almost every day or went to the bar. I’d walk there from Willard’s. It was my place. It had high-backed booths, dark-wood paneling, excellent food. Joe Capra, the nephew of movie director Frank Capra, opened it in 1956.
"It was a good steak and fish house, good food, good portions, good prices. Good atmosphere. Probably seated 200 people. They had a bar. It closed in October of 1989. I was there for the closing night; they had a party for invited guests. It was like all the regulars' living room. Everybody was comfortable there and everybody knew everybody. So it was bittersweet, mostly bitter.
“Across Laurel from the Red Lantern [on the northeast corner of Laurel and Chandler] there was a Mobil Gas Station—and in the middle of that L-shaped shopping center there was a Piece of Pizza restaurant. They had a chain. I used to go there quite a bit.”
A&W, now Four'N 20 Restaurant (4723 Laurel Canyon Blvd.): “Where Four'N 20 is now used to be an A&W Root Beer. Not a drive-thru, a regular restaurant. I went there a lot. They used to give out those glass mugs, and you’d take them home and put them in the freezer so they’d be all frosty for root beer.
“Four'N 20 used to be south of there about three buildings — they had a free-standing building. Then they sold that property and moved to where the A&W used to be, and that is their current site.”
Laurel Plaza (Macy’s) (6150 Laurel Canyon, north of Oxnard): “Now there’s just Macy’s there because, as most people know, most of it was destroyed in the earthquake. It was very nice there. [I] used to spend a lot of time there. It was a big shopping area, and they had an ice-skating rink in there, a couple of restaurants. A pet-store, jewelry story, several other stores. And across Laurel there, where Gold’s Gym is, had a lot of nice stores there. Now everything but Gold’s Gym is closed. There were a lot of nice stores there – furniture stores, clothing stores, a mattress store.” (.)
Bob Burn’s, now Sizzler (6343 Laurel Canyon Blvd., south of Victory): “That was a great place called Bob Burn’s restaurant. It became Gaylord’s and then the Sizzler. It was divided down the middle; it was half-dinner house and half coffee shop. The dinner half held the bar, a very nice bar.”
The Lamplighter (corner of Sylvan Street and Laurel Canyon Blvd., still-standing but closed.): “A nice little restaurant, pleasant food, good service. It used to be a Van De Kamp’s restaurant and they had a big windmill on the top of the place. Then it became the Lamplighter, which was owned by a guy named Pete Metzos. He passed away maybe eight or ten years ago, and his son George now runs the restaurants. But they’re not under the name Lamplighters anymore.
"Originally Pete owned Conrad’s in Glendale, and he sold that and he opened this Lamplighter at Laurel and Sylvan and opened one on Van Nuys Boulevard, and opened one on Vanowen in the West Valley. He sold that one, and the fellow kept the name Lamplighter but apparently the quality of food and service wasn’t that great, so George didn’t want to be affiliated with him, so he changed the name of the Lamplighter on Van Nuys Boulevard back to Corkys, which it was originally called when Pete bought it. Then George bought the and kept the name Paty’s. So there are no Lamplighters left with the exception of the one which is not owned by the Metzos family anymore.”
Little Vienna (northeast corner of Magnolia Bouleavard and Whitsett Avenue): “Across the street from the post office, there was a dinner house called Little Vienna. They had good food, nice bar, strolling violinists. Nice ambiance. That was a good place. Almost directly across the street from the post office. That building, where the post office has been there a long time. However, that building where it is used to be a market. Where the Dollar Tree is now used to be Wally’s Market, so there were two markets very close.”
Alpha Beta Market, now Cambridge Farms (northeast corner of Burbank Boulevard and Whitsett Avenue): “Originally that was an Alpha Beta market. There were a lot of little shops there. Across the street where there is a 7-Eleven, there was a slot-car place – something they used to have – kids could bring their little slot-cars in, put them on the tracks there, and race. I used to go there quite a bit with my slot cars, and race them. Just east of where the 7-Eleven is. Across the street, Edwin’s Pharmacy has been there forever.”
Randy’s Donut’s, now Bank of America (northwest corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Magnolia Boulevard): “Right on the corner was where the bank is now was Randy’s Donut stand—which had the giant doughnut on top of it; that doughnut was at least 25 feet tall on top of the building. And that doughnut got moved down to Manchester and the 405 Freeway. That is an icon now. That was there in North Hollywood first.
"Next door to it was Robby’s, that was a little bar about the size of a boxcar right next door to it. Other miscellaneous little shops."
Johnny’s Restaurant, now AM-PM (southeast corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Magnolia Boulevard) “…used to be a Johnny’s Restaurant. Girls on rollerskates do car-hop service to your car. They’d skate up to your car. And give the kids a little Johnny logo cartoon character face-mask with a stretchy band you’d put behind your head and little holes to look out for your eyes. It was a great neighborhood, a great place to grow up.”
Jon’s Market (southwest corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Magnolia Boulevard): “….right on the corner there was a drug-store that used to sell everything from drugs to cosmetics to small animals. And I mean that for real, they used to sell fish and turtles and stuff like that. And then there was a little strip-center right behind it that used to have a flower shop, of all things, and a couple of other miscellaneous shops.
Dupar’s /Trader Joe’s (southeast of Ventura Boulevard and Laurel Canyon Boulevard): “Right behind where Trader Joe’s is, up that hill, there used to be a lot of cabin-like homes which were primarily used by the studios, CBS there, to house people. There was a Tiny Naylor’s there and also Dupar’s was there and there was also a Dupar’s.
"At the southeast corner of Laurel and Ventura, where that shopping center is now was a famous gas station and car wash, it was there for about 60 years. From the late 40s or early 50s, they tried to make it a historical landmark. It was very modern for its time. But they leveled it, put up what’s there today.
"On Lankershim there were a lot of little stores, jewelry stores, clothing stores. At Chandler and Lankershim was a pharmacy for many, many years. On the opposite side of the street, where the Metro Rail is, was an Alpha Beta there and then it became Olsen Electronics and then it became Pep Boys and then Pep Boys moved up Lankershim just north of Oxnard. And of course, the train depot – which is still standing, though closed now — is there.
Tommy’s Flowers, now Or Hachaim Academy (northwest corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Oxnard Street): “That used to be Tommy’s Flowers. The owner, Mike, was a friend of mine. He was held up once. And there’s an alley behind there right on the west side of the Hollywood Freeway between where the park is on the north side of Oxnard.
"[The robbers] came down that alley and came into the back of Tommy’s, and apparently he wasn’t moving fast enough, so they shot Mike, the owner of Tommy’s, and he ran out, in his haste to get away from the bullets, ran right through the plate-glass window, ran across Laurel Canyon and collapsed in the 7-Eleven parking lot. But he survived. He put the flower shop up for sale two months later. Never sold it, so he just walked away from it.”
Basil’s/ Lenny’s/The Blue Flame now (northwest corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Burbank Boulevard): "Before it was there, Mike, who owns the property, had a place there called Lenny’s, which lasted about two years. Before that it was a large boxy building which had a greasy spoon diner, which Mike owned. It was called Basil’s. There was a liquor store next door to it, and a bar called the Blue Flame that was next to it. Not a great bar, but it’s where I watched the first space shuttle landing. April of ’81."
(12516 Magnolia Blvd.): "There were several crimes there. There was one where the guys came in with guns, started shaking down people at the bar, and there were two off-duty cops in there — separate from each other, but apparently they knew each other — they saw what was going on, and they stood up and took out their guns, and said, 'Freeze – LAPD.' Then the bad guys squeezed off a few rounds and then the good guys squeezed off a few rounds – the cops apparently had [bullet-proof] vests on, and they knew they had been hit because it was all on camera.
"Then the bad guys ran out the door and got away. But they were eventually caught when the guys from the SIS unit of the LAPD got them. They were hitting just bars and they went to a place out on Tampa by Parthenia called The Classroom. SIS followed them there – they went in and held up the place, and when they came out, SIS announced who they were. The guys jumped in their car and drove off, went into a bunch of back streets and went down a cul de sac, and SIS followed them down there and shot them all, killed them.
"Going east on Chandler, that’s where was – and then there were mostly industrial buildings. They weren’t set up for retail down there."
Bank of America, location of the (northeast corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Archwood Street): "I was working. It was two weeks to the day after Valentine’s Day, the 28th of February, 1997, and I just got off the phone talking to my brother, saying ‘Well, we’re through with Valentine’s Day, and it’s gonna be boring for awhile and I wish something exciting would happen.'
"Then I walked out of the store and there were sirens and just one black and white after another followed by ambulances. Heading north on Laurel Canyon. And before too long there were patrol cars, FBI, armored cars, national guard, army units. And they set up a command post right at Victory & Laurel Canyon. That was quite a day. I went next door to the sign shop, where they painted signs, and I went over there and asked the owner’s son if he saw what was happening, and he was watching it live on TV.
"He said, ‘Yeah, come over here and look at this – this is right up the street!’ We saw both of the guys get shot and killed. The first guy to go apparently shot himself as he was being shot. Shot in the head at the same time as he shot himself in the head. And he dropped right behind the bank just to the east of the bank next to a cinder block wall.
"Then the other fellow, whose tires had been shot out on his car, he started going east from there towards Lankershim, got out of the car and tried to hijack a guy in a pick-up car who was going in the opposite direction, pointed a gun at the guy. Just then four cops rolled up who had just come from a training session at the police academy, and they got out ready to rock and roll, so they rocked and rolled. Shot him dead.
"So that turned out to be a more exciting day than I had thought it would.
"It's changed a lot, North Hollywood. But it's still a great place to be. Great place to live, to work, to raise a family. And I've done all of those here. And more."