Monday, November 2, 2020

Newspaper Wars Part 4: Signal Hill’s Checkered Past


   This is the final chapter of "Signal Hill's Checkered Past."  As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the alleged “political boss” of Signal Hill in the 1960s and 1970s was Thomas W. Denham, Sr.  To some Denham was a trusted public servant, revered by many. Others saw beyond his Southern charm, claiming he was looking out for his own interests, using the press, as well as his police chief son, to achieve his own aims.
Signal Hill City Hall
Signal Hill City Hall

            In 1962, Denham secured a seat on the Signal Hill City Council, a position he held from 1962-1974. He was also mayor from 1964-1965 and again in 1967-79. He took steps to secure his influence. He and other businessmen began subsidizing the Signal Hill Tribune, the town’s only newspaper by purchasing block subscriptions from publisher H. Fred Harris. Signal Hill began publishing its ordinances in the Tribune in type so large it cost the city extra newspaper space. David Caretto, future city manager of the city told the Los Angeles Times in 1981“The city was subsidizing the newspaper.” As a result, the paper printed what Denham and his supporters wanted them to, ignoring stories of police brutality, and launching scathing stories about their opponents.

The 1968 Election
            Thomas W. Denham Sr.’s reign was not without challenge. In 1968, 23-year-old, USC graduate, Sandra Miller decided to run against him. She and her husband Don Bazemore owned the Long Beach Argus, a weekly newspaper in Long Beach and started a Signal Hill edition called the Beacon and later the Green Sheet, in opposition to the Denham-controlled Tribune.  The election became one of the most vicious newspaper fights in Signal Hill history.
            Denham survived, but Miller and her supporter Gertrude Beebe defeated two members of the Denham slate.  The other city council members, not up for re-election that year, were Denham supporters.  The next four years Miller described as the most bitter four years of her life. 
            Her first legislative act was to remove Fred Baxter, city administrator. Members in the audience supported her, citing corrupt civil service matters and alleged harassment of city employees prior to the election. Only Gertrude Beebe, also new to the council, supported Miller’s move.  But public opposition to Baxter continued and in July 1968 he resigned to accept a similar position in Victorville. 
The 1970 Election
        The 1968 election was a seeming “victory” for Miller, but Denham was not one to lose easily. He shifted his supporters into high gear. “It was a fight for survival,” his son Tom Denham told the Times in 1981. If the women were able to oust one more member of the council in the 1970 election, their anti-corruption platform would have taken over the old-boys’ rule.  Mayor Denham would not let that happen.  He called in the press, and the police force headed by his son to help in the battle.
            Soon the newspapers entered the fray. The Tribune began by calling the Green Sheet “the Green Thing.” It accused Miller and her associates of fronting for gambling interests. It ridiculed her as “our cute little 23-year-old miniskirted council lady.” It implied she and Bazemore were not married, since she had kept her maiden name.
            The Green Sheet, in return, accused Mayor Denham of rail roading street improvements in front of Denham family property. It described him as “King of the Hill.” As police chief, it said, his son “wouldn’t qualify as a dog catcher.”
            The war intensified with Denham calling in the police. They arrested Bazemore on suspicion of being drunk. The Green Sheet reported the incident:
            Two policemen jerked both of Bazemore’s feet out from under him while he was spread-eagled over the trunk of the police car. He fell with his head hitting the police car bumper. Three officers then picked him up and threw him into the back of the car. One braced against the next car in the parking lot and with both feet kicked him to the floor of the police car.”(LA Times 10/11/1981 from an earlier article in the Green Sheet)
Long Beach Municipal Court Judge Charlie T. Smith dismissed the charge of drunkenness, saying it was purely a setup. Not deterred by the decision, the Signal Hill police continued to harass Bazemore. In another instance they followed Bazemore into Long Beach and arrested him on suspicion of bouncing a check. He was again taken to jail and beaten. He was acquitted of the charge. He was arrested at least four more times on minor charges such as disturbing the peace.  
            In another instance, Miller had her car ticketed for double-parking while she and Bazemore loaded their newspaper racks and for obscuring their license plate with a bumper hitch.  Police said it wasn’t harassment, it was done to stop them interfering with police work by following officers with microphones and cameras and listening to the police radio – as part of a “power play” to take control of the community. Miller told the Times “There was an atmosphere of total corruption in the city. There was a constant feeling of oppression.”
            Bazemore, who had attended the University of Tennessee for one year before completing his marketing major at the University of Virginia, cast himself directly into the battle by running for city council in 1970 on a platform against nepotism in city government. Bazemore pointed out that one of Mayor Thomas Denham’s sons was police chief, the other a sergeant, and the son-in-law of former police chief William Stovall (now councilman) was also a police sergeant.           Less than half of the city’s 2,276 registered voters turned out for the election. Bazemore secured 239 votes of 1,026 votes cast.  He lost to George Papadakis (724 votes), and former police chief William F. Stovall, running for re-election (693 votes), all Denham supporters.
The 1972 Election
            In 1972, three of the five seats on the city council were at stake. Thomas Denham had decided not to seek re-election, but incumbents Miller and Beebe were in the running. It seemed certain that Miller and Beebe, would be elected.  Miller’s husband Don Bazemore decided to once again cast his hat into the election.  But Bazemore was not able to secure nomination papers for the April election. Every time he went into City Hall, City Clerk Merle Hunt was “out of the office” and had not appointed anyone else to hand out the papers. It was an act which Denham knew would trigger Bazemore’s temper…and it did.
            When it came time for public business at the next council meeting Bazemore accused City Clerk Hunt of purposely trying to deny him the proper paperwork to run for office. Hunt denied the charges and Bazemore called him a liar. His temper flaring, Hunt charged Bazemore from his desk, as members of the audience restrained Hunt. Bazemore said they could settle their difference outside, but Mayor Stovall ordered Bazemore arrested and charged with “offering to duel.” As Councilwoman Miller started to speak into her council microphone, Hunt lashed out at her telling her to “shut up your big mouth.” An angry Bazemore demanded to know why he was being arrested. Stovall told him he would find out when he got to jail.  Police officer Malcolm Guleserian and Mayor Stovall wrestled Bazemore to the ground. Guleserian applied a restraining hold across Bazemore. When Bazemore said he couldn’t breathe Gulesorian eased the pressure. In March 1972, Bazemore was convicted in Long Beach Municipal Court of disturbing the peace, put on two years’ probation and fined $625.
The Easter sunrise service had been a tradition on Signal Hill since 1916

            Perhaps it was this act of her husband, who ran the Beacon with Miller, or Miller’s questioning of paying city workers to erect the platform for the Easter sunrise service at Rotary Park which led to her defeat.
             In March 1972, Miller wondered why taxpayers should pay for setting up for a religious service. She thought the idea of using volunteers should be explored.
            She had been set up by the Denton contingent, just weeks before the election.  Mayor Stovall responded that he was sorry that she was against Easter. Miller said she wasn’t against Easter and doubted if the council would do the same thing for Passover. She pointed out the Supreme Court had ruled against using taxpayers’ funds for religious purposes.  At this point Councilman Papadakis joined the spat by suggesting the same objection might be raised against authorizing use of the city park by the Girl Scouts because they referred to God in their oath. Papadakis went on to add that if anyone chose to sue the city, for them to go ahead.  Miller closed the discussion by commenting that a taxpayer’s suit would be terribly expensive and she did not think a taxpayers’ suit would win. Her statements may have cost her the vote of city employees, who had always been the ones who built the platform for Easter services in the park, and the vote of those who thought her anti-Christian. 
            In the April 1972 election, Gertrude Beebe led with the most votes (404), followed by Keaton King (504) and William Mendenhall (502). Sandra Miller with 365 votes came in 4th.  Under the new regime, Fred Baxter was asked to return to his old job as city administrator, with a $4,500 ($28,000) raise. It was a position the former Air Force colonel would hold for three years, resigning as Signal Hill city administrator following a stroke in June 1975. His assistant, John W. Jameson, was selected to replace him.
            The Green Sheet and Beacon died. Miller said the Denham machine went after every advertiser they had, destroying the paper.
The 1980 Election
            As the 1980 election neared, Thomas W. Denham Sr. was dead. Richard Denham was no longer the police chief, and Sgt. Tom Denham was a year away from retirement. Two Denham men on the Council were under attack. One of them, Reginald Balchin, had been accused by Councilman David Bellis of concealing some of his property holdings and voting on issues that would increase their value. The other Denham man, Marion (Buzz) McCallen was accused of violating several city ordinances at his used-car lots, and at his massage parlor.
            But for this fight, the Denhams no longer could count on the Tribune. Published Fred Harris had sold the newspaper to Ken Mills, 42, a former editor of the Contra Costa Times. The Denhams approached Mills with offers to help with financing. However, Mills, who wanted to establish the Tribune’s independence, resisted. The Tribune’s total advertising dropped to half a page.  Mills’ problems compounded because he refused to block subscription purchases his predecessor had accepted from power groups, such as the Denham machine and oil companies. Mills said they were unethical – and could cost him his second-class mailing privileges.  Mills was going broke.
            Tom and Richard Denham tried to buy the paper outright. At the last minute, a group of politicians aligned with the Silent American Majority (SAM) a group opposed to the Denhams, offered to contribute money to keep Mills alive. They solicited other contributions at meetings, the $5 and $10 bills kept the paper going. The Denhams started a newspaper of their own – the Signal Hill Star (1980-84). Finally, the financial strain was too much. Mills sold the Tribune back to its former publisher, who sold it to the Denhams the same day. But it was too late. The voters threw Balchin and McCallen out of office in a recall election. Meanwhile brutality claims against the police continued to mount, culminating in the 1981 death of African American Ron Settles, found hanged in his jail cell two hours after his arrest.
            In October 1981, maverick city councilman David J. Bellis, who led the successful recall of fellow councilmen Balchin and McCallen survived a recall of his own. However, Bellis, an author and political science professor, lost in the absentee ballot vote. He was suspicious City Clerk Merle Hunt who hand-delivered about half the absentee ballots in the recall did some campaigning while voters filled out the ballot. 
            Bellis began feuding with council members soon after he was elected in April 1980. Then mayor McCallen asked Bellis to resign after Bellis admitted he once was a heroin addict. Another citizen asked Bellis to submit to a physical examination and lie detector test to prove he no longer took drugs. Bellis agreed to the physical but refused the lie detector. In the notice of intent to recall, Bellis was accused of concealing his former heroin addiction from voters, making false statements on his candidate and office-holder’s campaign statements, of disregarding the interests of voters and of “conduct reprehensible, intolerable and deleterious to the operation of city government.”  As the drive to recall Bellis gathered momentum, the councilman financed the printing and distribution of The Signal, a 12-page tabloid which he called a “public information bulletin” that criticized local politics. That, and the nationwide media attention over Ron Settle’s death in a Signal Hill jail, rallied support for Bellis. Councilman Papadakis said: “the media did a job on our city. Bellis used (the media) very effectively. He does anything to gain people’s sympathy.” (LA Times 10/29/1981)
            Bellis won reelection in 1984 and remained on the council until September 1986. He resigned after accepting a position as associate professor of public administration at California State University, San Bernardino and moved to Lake Arrowhead.  During his term in office he oversaw a change in administration in the Police Department following the death of Ron Settles in 1981. He also oversaw the city’s redevelopment efforts, which brought the Price Club (now Costco) to the city.


Andrew, Bob. “Hill election wide open – no incumbents on ballot.” Press Telegram, 1 April 1970.

Andrew, Bob. “Mayor applies the handcuffs in council’s uproar.” Press Telegram, 2 February 1972.

Barber, Mary. After Signal Hill recall 3 councilmen left, 1 will be mayor. Los Angeles Times, 16 November 1980.

Beebe refuses to be bullied.” Independent Press Telegram, 2 April 1972.

 Goodman, Mike & Meyer, Richard. “Brutality Charges. Signal Hill: Power to the Police.” Los Angeles Times. 11 October 1981.

 LaRiviere, Anne. Bellis survives Signal Hill recall. Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1981.

 Lowe, Hal. “City Chief quits, blasts Signal Hill.” Press Telegram, 19 June 1968.

 Mader, Vint. “Incumbents Win, lose in Signal Hill Election.” Press Telegram, 10 April 1968.

“Signal Hill Councilman Bellis resigns.” Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1986.

 “Signal Hill reporter guilty in ruckus.” Press Telegram, 9 March 1972.


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Interesting Elections: Part 3 - Signal Hill's Checkered Past


            In October 1959, Long Beach Independent reporter Bob Wells described how the 4500 residents of Signal Hill liked their politics loud, partisan and frequent. At the drop of a hat, it would take up recall petitions and remove what it considers to be the “boil on the body politic.” The recall weapon was first brought into use in 1926, a short time after the city was established in 1923. The populace swept from office a council it blamed for a street paving job it felt was not up to standards. Recalls followed in 1935, 1948, 1953, 1958 and 1959.

            On April 7, 1959, Signal Hill traded in its 17-man police force for officers almost outnumbered by the population of the “island” city. The change gave the 4000 residents of the city the full law-enforcement services of the 3800 member Sheriff’s Department. Along with the 20 or so men who worked out of the Signal Hill substation (Signal Hill police officers would be absorbed into the Sheriff’s department) , the city would be covered by narcotics, vice and other special details from other sheriff’s offices. Under the contract, the city paid $113,000 ($1 million today) a year for services. The council felt that for the $113,000 they would be getting more protection than under the $168,000 ($1.5 million) police budget. The change, the council stated, was the end result of months of morale-shattering unrest during which officers were fired, rehired and then fired again. On June 24, 1959, county fire and ambulance service for Signal Hill also went into effect.

            Cities contracting out for services was a relatively new thing at the time.  Citizens believed they should have been consulted on what would in later years become a basic municipal action. However, other issues were such as a $90,000 ($800,000 today) police building – just completed in 1959 – sitting virtually unused because the county sheriff’s office worked through a Lakewood station, and five police cars and a city fire ambulance being placed “in storage” were also decisive factors in the recall. In October 1959 75% of the city’s registered voters turned out to give the recall a 2.5 to 1 majority.  Recalled were four of the five city council members – Harold V. Clark, Frank B. Vaughn, Emil B. Haughty and Benjamin A. Moyle (who also served as mayor).  Only Councilwoman Nellie Combellack, who had not voted for the contract move, remained in office.  The contract for police and fire service with Los Angeles County ended July 1, 1960.

            A reader told me an interesting story about moving into Nellie Combellack’s former home at Orange and 33rd Street in the summer of 1959. Shortly after the Smith’s moved in and had gone to bed the family heard two loud blasts. Not wanting to disturb his wife, who had just returned from the hospital, Mr. Smith got up without turning on a light, looked around and didn’t find anything wrong. However, the next morning the Smiths’ found lots of glass, shredded drapes, the back of a new chair shredded with stuffing covering the floor, holes in the living room and kitchen windows and the hallway door leading to bedrooms full of shotgun holes. The debris ended just a foot from where the recently hospitalized Mrs. Smith was sleeping.

            Sheriff's  officers were called and seemed VERY surprised that the house did not belong to Mrs. Combellack. They started questioning family members as to who they knew who could have done it. They asked the Smith daughter if she had a jealous boyfriend, etc. In between questions, they kept asking about Mrs. Combellack. Mr. Smith said after they left he thought the sheriff's did it. His parting words to them, his daughter recalled, were “make sure you tell people Mrs. Combellack doesn’t live here anymore.” When the sheriff's were contacted asking about the status of the investigation the Smith’s got the feeling no one wanted to talk about it. No leads. However, the family did feel fortunate that the door onto the hallway and Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s bedroom door was closed, or someone could have been seriously injured or killed. The Smith daughter, who told me this story, said the family would talk about it over the years and remark that not everyone got their house shot gunned in the wee hours of the night…especially in 1959.

            Nothing was reported in the press about the incident and no suspect was ever found.


Kid Mexico
            Drama surrounded many Signal Hill elections such as the one in April 1952, which had Bingo King Kid Mexico (Tod Faulkner) afraid that his gambling interests would come to an end. On election day Faulkner said he needed guys with cars to drive certain Signal Hill citizens to the polls.  An undercover reporter for the Long Beach Independent signed up to be a driver.

            There was no mention then of what drivers were to be paid, but word had circulated beforehand that they would get $15 ($146) each – plus a big fat $30 ($292) bonus if the gambler’s slate won. Faulkner’s campaign manager, Cliff Waters told drivers he had a list of 1200 registered voters whom they believed would vote the “right” ticket. Waters then explained who the “right” candidates were – Mayor Lloyd J. Tomlin, Loring R. Jones and James F. Walsh. Drivers went out at 7 a.m., knocking on doors, ringing bells, and making pitches for Faulkner’s slate of candidates. Each driver was given a pack of cards, more or less sample ballots, on which crosses had been marked opposite the names of Tomlin, Jones and Walsh. Drivers were told to hand a card to each passenger to guide him or her in choosing the “right” candidate.

            The undercover reporter was surprised to find most people already up, and they weren’t surprised to see someone at their door so early. Perhaps they had been told beforehand that drivers would be around. However no one, except one sickly lady, accepted the reporter’s invitation to ride to the polls. This wasn’t so hard to take when one realized that the polling place was only two blocks away from the street were the reporter had been assigned. Despite Faulkner’s actions only Mayor Lloyd Tomlin, who had been in office since December 1946, was reelected.  In July 1953, Faulkner pleaded guilty to election fraud charges which involved his trying to rig registrations in the November 1952 Signal Hill election.  An anti-gambling ordinance passed by a vote of 1358 to 660. But Faulkner was not one to give up.

            Faulkner found religion. He claimed that in April 1958, God and Faulkner’s dead wife Edna appeared to him, telling him to go out and preach the word of God. One person he found “ungodly” was Signal Hill City Administrator-Engineer Charles Trygg. In 1962, Faulkner, admitted he helped finance a four-page smear sheet against Trygg distributed in Signal Hill just before the April 10 municipal election. The paper referred to the city administrator as “Big Wig Trygg,” “Boss Trygg” and “Mr. Big Trygg” and cast innuendo on Trygg’s competence, although no specific charges were made.  Faulkner was successful. A new city council asked for Trygg’s resignation. Trygg resigned, though the charges brought against him were not revealed.


A persistent  Faulkner decided to run for council himself in 1964. His platform included: effective zoning to provide for high-rise developments without sacrificing single-family residential areas; working to create a modern “downtown” area with top-quality retailers; creating a municipal auditorium for conventions and other meetings; attracting  modern businesses in order to keep the tax rate low and get Signal Hill moving ahead. He also pledged to keep away politics and gambling. Faulkner ended up running sixth among nine candidates.

(For more about Faulkner see my 2016 blog “Kid Mexico.”)


             In the April 1968 Signal Hill election another “interesting” campaign began when City Council candidate George Papadakis offered to pay 5 cents for each election poster of Floyd Jones which was removed from any power pole, school or public property.  It seemed zealous supporters of Jones had stuck campaign posters on illegal places such as power poles, schools or other public property. But Jones posters had also appeared on private property and youngsters who wanted to collect a nickel for every poster they could find snapped up all the Jones posters all over town, including ones Jones had tacked to his own home and garage. In retaliation, the Jones contingent planned to put 6000 Jones posters throughout Signal Hill and invite the kids to tear them down and redeem them from Papadakis at 5 cents apiece. The thing was 100 or 200 posters would be attached to a single nail, so everybody would get a shot at the bounty money.


            George E. Papadakis, a Torrance school teacher, Floyd Jones and Gertrude Beebe were running to fill the vacancy of Morris L. Shoup, who decided not to run for reelection.  Floyd and Beebe both lived in the 7-year-old Flintstone Apartments at 2165 E. 21st Street, known for its two-story high mosaic dinosaur with red mazda eyes, which adorned the front of the apartments (see my Flintstone Apartments article). Papadakis was their neighbor who owned a small apartment house outflanked by the Flintstone.

            Earlier I wrote about Papadakis’ fight with Flintstone owner Miles Shook over partying at the apartment building and how, as a city planning commissioner, he was able to convince the city council to pass a city-wide anti-noise ordinance in 1962.  Ironically, he was now running against two residents of the Flintstone.        

            Both Jones and Beebe agreed that Signal Hill needed to be straightened out. Here’s where the gut fighting and nit picking came in: Floyd Jones said he wanted to know why the curbs in front of the apartment house owned by the mayor were not painted, allowing parking, when in front of other apartment houses they were painted red.  Jones called the Signal Hill Police Department “worse than a Mack Sennett comedy,” and he deplored the nepotism in the department, epitomized by the fact that the police chief, Richard Denham, was the mayor’s son.

            A native of Wheatland, Wyoming, Mrs. Beebe taught elementary school in that state for six years after graduation from the University of Wyoming before moving to Signal Hill in 1935. She served as city treasurer from 1942 to 1966.  Mrs. Beebe, held the distinction (and possibly the state record) of being reelected as city treasurer and as city clerk, all on the same ballot in 1966. She said this about the City Council and the Police Department: “The city councilmen are no more than puppets for the city administrative officer (Fred Baxter) and the police operate in pathetic fashion. Many of our patrolmen are the finest law enforcement officers one could find, but politics prevents them from doing their duty as they see fit.” (Press Telegram, 3/15/1968)  She also mentioned remedying the city hiring policy, which barred blacks from being employed by the city.         

            Gertrude Beebe won a seat on the council and continued to serve as councilwoman until March 1976 and as mayor from March 1974-March 1975. Papadakis bounced back in April 1970, continuing an on and off career as council person until March 1984, also serving as Mayor from April 1973-March 1974 and from March 1981-July 1981. Floyd Jones also made another run for a council seat in 1970, charging misuse of city funds “so the politicos can make a killing in real estate.” He also favored a break up of “family control of Signal Hill.” He lost.

            Another candidate who won in the 1968 election was Sandra L. Miller who served on the council until April 1972. More about her and her fight against the political bosses of the city in my final chapter of Signal Hill's Checkered Past.



“Hill elects councilmen Tuesday.” Independent Press Telegram, 12 April 1964.

 “Kid Mexico handed $500 fine, no jail in vote fraud.” Long Beach Independent, 7 August, 1953.

 “The ‘Kid’ shows ‘em how to vote up on the hill.” Long Beach Independent, 9 April 1952.

 Robeson, George. “Politics gets sticky up on Signal Hill.” Independent Press Telegram, 15 March 1968.

 Robeson, George. “Signal Hill is the West’s Tammany Hall.” Press Telegram, 5 April 1968.

Wells, Bob. “Signal Hill recalls 4 council members.” Long Beach Independent, 28 October 1959.

 Williams, Sherm. “Signal Hill vote 3-to-2 against keeping Trygg.” Long Beach Independent, 20 June, 1962.

 Whearley, Bob. “Signal Hill trades in its police force.” Press Telegram, 7 April 1959.

 “Signal Hill’s fire, service pact OKd.” Press Telegram, 1 July 1959.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Flintstone

            In June 1962 an excited, pretty incoherent woman, called Long Beach Independent reporter Bob Wells about a red-eyed dinosaur that had been keeping Signal Hill residents awake in the wee morning hours by diving for olives in a black swimming pool filled with Martinis. Intrigued by her story he decided to visit the indicated area – 21st Street and St. Louis Avenue. There he found Miles Shook, and his new 28-unit apartment house, the Flintstone. Some elements in the woman’s story were explained when Wells gazed upon a two-story high mosaic dinosaur with red mazda eyes that adorned the front of the apartments. In the patio he found a black-bottomed swimming pool that Shook fondly referred to as “The tarpit.”
            The Flintstones animated sitcom was one of the most popular programs on television in the 1960s. It entered the ABC broadcast schedule on September 30, 1960 and continued until April 1, 1966.  Though set in the Stone Age it added features and technologies found in mid-20th-centruy America. Shook decided to take up the theme.  
            The one-and two-bedroom apartments were part of Signal Hill’s plan to turn oil land into productive real estate. But they hadn’t planned on Shook’s sense of style and way of doing business. The apartments had the bedrooms on the first floor, from there a cantilevered iron stairway led to the combination kitchen, bar and hi-fi lounge upstairs. Every apartment had a built-in electrically cooled beer keg. The apartments were furnished like a Playboy penthouse, despite Shook’s decorator’s advice   silk screened drapes (black flint stones on white), Chinese birdcage chairs that swung on chains from the ceilings, Scandinavian sofas, Danish glass bottles and early American rugs.
Iron stairway in the Flintstone
            Shook also had 200 apartment units scattered around the southern part of the county. He had recently opened another apartment house called the Pink Pussy Cat in Paramount, with a pink pussy cat on the front wall. Local officials sent a sheriff’s car around to protest the mosaic, but there wasn’t a law on the books to stop him.
            Reporter Wells asked him about a rumor that Shook had lured six tenants away to the Flintstone from an apartment house on Redondo Avenue after the landlord at the latter location had imposed a curfew on night swimming in the pool. “Six?” Shook said. “I got 14 of them.” As Wells turned through the plastic bird-of paradise plants back to reality, Shook shoved a flat stone into his hand. It was an invitation to the grand opening of the Flintstone, featuring a five-piece band. 

            The Flintstone loomed high beside George Papadakis’ apartments, and Papadakis claimed the noise and partying from the Flintstone pool was unbearable. At every meeting of the Signal Hill City Council he would come armed with his “diary” he and his wife kept since the Flintstone opened in August 1961. The noise was bad enough but it became unbearable after the grand opening celebration in June 1962. Attempts to get Shook to regulate pool hours was ignored.  Shook’s manager said no one else in the apartment complex had complained, in fact they liked the idea of being able to take a swim whatever the time of day.
George Papadakis
            In his diary, Papadakis documented the throbbing of bongo drums and exuberant shouts of “Hey, bring down another beer.” All this centered around the heated Flintstone swimming pool – dubbed the “Tar Pit” by its owner Miles Shook in keeping with the Flintstone motif.  The heated pool, near Papadakis’ bedroom, was open 24 hours, which made sleep impossible. Frustrated, he decided he needed to get into politics.
            In 1962 Papadakis became a member of the city planning commission and after a large party at the Flintstone on November 10, 1962, he decided to cash in on his new found power. He convinced police to arrest Gerald Kling, Wallace Blaylock Jr., and Gerald Nicholas guests at the party.
            Kling was arrested as he sat in a chair in the patio and was charged with using profane language. Nicholson was arrested on a drunk charge in front of the apartment house.  Blaylock, arrested as he stepped from his car in front of the address, was charged with having a loud muffler on his car and not having his driver’s license in his possession. They claimed they were victims of city harassment against the tenants of the Flintstone and its owner, Miles Shook. During the trial officers admitted to a city policy of “selective enforcement” in the neighborhood. In January 1963, the three were acquitted of misdemeanor charges after a two-day jury trial. 
            Later the three young men sued Paul S. Kemner, the town’s former mayor, Police Chief W.S. Stovall, George Papadakis and three police officers for false imprisonment, assault and battery, malicious prosecution and conspiracy. The suit was for $906,000, however the matter was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
            Out of all of this Papadakis was able to finally get a good night’s sleep. In December 1962 he convinced the City Council to pass a strict anti-noise ordinance.  In 1968, he decided to run for city council…but that’s another story I will be writing about later.
The Flintstone today - Hillside Manor
The "Tarpit" is no more
What of the Flintstone Apartments? Today you will find it under a different name – Hillside Manor – at 2165 E. 21st Street, Signal Hill.  There is no dinosaur out front, the pool is no longer black.  In any case, I doubt residents know the history of the apartment building which Long Beach reporter George Robeson once described as “the closest thing to a Playboy Club that Signal Hill ever had.”

If any of you remember "The Flintstone" and would like to share memories or pictures, please contact me through my website or leave comments below.

“$906,000 in damages sought for arrests.” Press Telegram, 21 November, 1963.

Robeson, George. “3 file claims of false arrest. " Press Telegram, 9 February 1963.

Robeson, George. “Politics get sticky up on Signal Hill.” Press Telegram, 15 March 1968.

Wells, Bob. “This man’s real Shook.” Press Telegram, 8 June, 1962.

Williams, Sherm. “Splashes in night irk neighbor in Signal Hill.” Press Telegram, 18 July, 1962.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The “boss” of Signal Hil - Part 1: Signal Hill’s Checkered Past

Congressman Craig Hosmer, Signal Hill Mayor Tom Denham,
Councilmember Bill Mendenhall, Gertrude Beebe,
Councilmember Paul Kemner and Kathleen Brady 
           Up until the mid 1980s, Signal Hill was described by many as the last frontier in this part of the Old West.  The 2.2 square mile town was an oil town whose inhabitants included roughnecks, gamblers, prostitutes and those ready for a fight. The city was a gun-toting town, where police handed out pistol permits regularly. It was a place where some made it quite clear that blacks and Jews were not entirely welcome.  It sat on the edge of what many called the “Black Ghetto,” an area to its south where Long Beach African American were allowed to live.  It had its own form of politics, where recall elections were frequent, and where drifters were brought in for municipal elections. They lived in tents for the 45-day residency period and then voted and moved on. Both sides in a hot issue hired these tent voters, and the outcome of a city election in Signal Hill often depended on which faction had the most tents. 
            In 1981, Los Angeles Times reporters Mike Goodman and Richard E. Meyer wrote that up until his death in March 1979 the city was controlled by Thomas Webster Denham, Sr., a Southerner with a gracious, soft-spoken accent. He sold his land and dairy in Florida in 1945 and headed west to Signal Hill with his wife Carribelle, and three sons. By 1962 oil production revenue had dropped off to a point where the surface property for the first time in the city’s history was more valuable than the subsurface wealth. The city sought other avenues of revenue in order to compensate for the loss and encourage further improvement. By 1967, 96 substandard houses had been demolished, of 1300 old oil derricks only 50 were left and 50 open oil sumps cleaned up. Real estate was now becoming the “black gold” of the city. One of the major players in the real estate marker was Thomas Denham, who developed an interest in politics.
            Denham was a trusted, even revered by man in Signal Hill. They called him Mr. Tom. He secured a seat on the Signal Hill City Council, a position he held from 1962-1974. He was also mayor from 1964-1965 and again in 1967-79. He took steps to secure his influence. He and other businessmen began subsidizing the Signal Hill Tribune, the town’s only newspaper by purchasing block subscriptions from publisher H. Fred Harris. Signal Hill began publishing its ordinances in the Tribune in type so large it cost the city extra newspaper space. David Caretto, future city manager of Signal Hill told the Times “The city was subsidizing the newspaper.”
            With his father’s backing, Richard Denham was promoted to police captain. Richard Denham was a graduate of Hamilton Junior High, attended Poly and graduated from high school in Georgia. On his return to Signal Hill, he attended LBCC where he took special classes in law enforcement including USC and California State College, Long Beach where he secured his teaching credential. He was the first member of the Signal Hill Police Department to graduate from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s training academy. He joined the department as a patrol officer in 1954, but resigned after 6 months to enter the contracting business. In July 1957, he rejoined as a patrol officer, promoted to sergeant in October 1960 and captain September 1, 1966. When Chief William F. Stovall Sr. retired January 1, 1968, Captain Denham succeeded Chief Stovall in the job.  
            Richard Denham hired a number of new officers, most with no police experience. At least four had been fired or forced to resign from other departments, according to the Times. “They were losers or men he could control,” said John Jameson, city manager at the time. “Denham would give them one more chance. That’s what he’d tell him.” Among those hired was his brother Tom Denham Jr. Richard Denham said he wanted his officers to be tough. Businessmen applauded the toughness. They saw themselves as a special target, surrounded by the larger urban area of Long Beach and abutting the Long Beach ghetto. Toughness meant security for their property. At the same time, it meant security for Denham property.
            Since 1968, when Richard Denham became police chief, forty-two of those arrested by Signal Hill police formally accused them of beatings without justification.  Several suffered broken ribs, another a punctured lung, several were crippled and one was partially blinded. Two died.  Most accusations of police beatings were hardly noticed. Few, if any, were reported in the Tribune. When anyone filed a claim for damages, the City Council routinely rejected it and turned it over to the insurance carrier.
            Most of those arrested and brutalized by police were transients, some black, some white. Nobody even knew them, but in August 1976, local resident Clifford Holzhauer got into an argument with his wife Susan and asked her to leave the house. She had – and Holzhauer took their 7-month old baby to family members in Sacramento. Susan wanted to see the baby, but Clifford would not tell her where the youngster was.  Susan called police and they arrived along with Susan. Signal Hill officers, with their guns drawn, told Holzhauer to produce the baby. He told them the baby was OK but was not in the house. Police then pushed Susan out the front door, stepped in, and began beating Holzhauer 30 to 50 times. He pleaded with his wife, locked out of the house, to help him because they were “killing me.” She couldn’t do a thing. He lost consciousness and was taken to USC Medical Center where he had neck and groin injuries, three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Police charged Holzhauer with battery. A jury acquitted him.  He sued Signal Hill and agreed to an $8,500 ($39,000 today) settlement.
            When Holzhauer complained to his neighbor who was on the city council he was told not to get involved and to let the insurance company take care of matters. What did attract the attention of others on the council, however, was absenteeism. The Denham brothers were mixing work on family enterprises with police work, and police work was getting short ended. Several on the council staged a small revolt, denying Richard Denham a raise. The Denham’s fought back, also targeting city manager John Jameson who had supported the council’s action. But Jameson was in trouble for another reason – he was interested in putting some blacks on the police force. But Richard Denham told him “no.” Something Denham denied. Jameson said the city’s attitude toward blacks was best demonstrated by an industrial buffer zone it created between its residential area and the city limits, which touched the Long Beach ghetto. Others said Signal Hill racism was typified by its American Legion post, which had its charter revoked in 1964 for calling Jews “a mongrel race” and preaching “niggers don’t want integration and the Jews are pushing integration.”Those that had opposed the Denham’s were voted off the council and Jameson fired.
            On March 22, 1979, Thomas W. Denham, Sr. died leaving an estate worth approximately $1 million ($3.5 million today) and a smoothly running political machine. Before the year was out Police Chief Richard Denham decided to quit. There was a hitch. He was only 47 – three years away from early retirement. He threatened the city with a very substantial stress related disability claim that he would drop in return for a three-year leave of absence, which would keep his city insurance in force. He agreed to pick up the premiums during the leave. Denham claimed the stress was caused by the loss of his raise and criticism of absenteeism. His doctor confirmed the stress and Denham was granted a deferred retirement.
            The Council needed to find a successor. Ten years before, Denham had granted Gaylord (Red) Wert, a police dispatcher, an unusually dramatic promotion. Wert had no other police experience and Denham made him the department’s only lieutenant – his second in command. Now the City Council, without seeking any other candidate, appointed Wert chief of police. He had never been a patrol officer and had never taken a chief’s exam.
            In 1981, Signal Hill gained national notoriety because of the jailhouse death of African American football player Ron Settles.  As mentioned in my earlier article on Settles' death,  Settles was stopped for speeding on June 2, 1981, taken to jail and repeatedly struck with fists and billy clubs. The police said he resisted arrest.  Two hours after his arrest, he was found hanged from his cell bars. A coroner’s jury said the death was a homicide. Police and a grand jury said he committed suicide. Following Settles death, Douglas Miller, who lived in the black area of Long Beach at the bottom of Signal Hill said he stayed out of the town and so did his neighbors. “Things always were rough up there. But now it’s worse. They’ve got killers up there.”
            In May 1982, Signal Hill Police Chief, Gaylord (Red) Wert was fired after a new city council took over the governing of the city. A new city was born. Some believe it was Settles’ death and the attendant publicity and looking into past history that changed the city so radically. 
Councilmember Wilson
In 1997, a city that once closed its eyes to racial injustice and allowed certain officials to display their disdain for people of African descent elected one of these persons to head their government – Edward H. J. Wilson.  A native of Ventura, California, Wilson was reared across the United States and Europe. His father was a career military man. Wilson graduated from high school in Holland and came back to the US to attend college.  He served five terms as Mayor and in 2013 ran unsuccessfully for the 70th State Assembly seat. He still serves on the Signal Hill City Council.

Cheatham, Charles, “T.R. Philosophy is good enough for Denham” Independent Press Telegram, 23 June 1968.

Goodman, Mike & Meyer, Richard. “Brutality Charges. Signal Hill: Power to the Police.” Los Angeles Times. 11 October 1981.

Robeson, George. “Politics gets sticky up on Signal Hill.” Independent Press Telegram, 15 March 1968.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The “New Deal”

  As we look ahead to an uncertain economic future brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic, let's look back at what steps government took to propel the Depression economy forward.          

On March 4, 1933, a huge crowd gathered around radios on Pine Avenue to listen to the inauguration of a new President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. 
This new invention, the radio, brought the ceremonies in Washington to life.  To many, it felt as if they were actually witnessing the event, listening to the music, the cheers, the vows taken and the inaugural address itself.  Some thought it was actually better than being there, for how else could you get a first-hand, detailed report of things as they happened?  It was definitely preferable to being part of the crowding, milling mass in Washington.
            Later that evening there was a gathering in the Municipal Auditorium to celebrate the new Democratic regime. Various speakers, the Municipal Band, and the American Legion Drum Corps helped celebrate the new leadership that most hoped would pilot the country to a more prosperous era.
            Roosevelt was quick to act.  On March 6, 1933, in order to keep the banking system of the country from collapsing, FDR used the powers given by the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 and suspended all transactions in the Federal Reserve and other banks and financial institutions.  On March 9, Congress met in a special session and passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act.  This gave the president the power to reorganize all insolvent banks and provided the means by which sound banks could reopen their doors without long delay.  As Roosevelt was "shaking up" the financial community, Long Beach experienced a "shaking up" of its own.
  In late February 1933, demolition work on the picturesque old Hotel Virginia began.  It was estimated that it would require fifty men over a period of sixty days to complete the work   Huge fifteen ton air compressors operating 18 compressed air hammers were brought in and huge steel chutes running from the building to a continuous line of trucks  were employed.  However, the demolition crew got some help they weren’t expecting---at 5:54 p.m. on the evening of March 10, 1933, an earthquake struck.
         Memories for thousands were flash frozen --- preserved for a lifetime --- when the ground around Long Beach shook for 11 seemingly never ending seconds.  The killer force quake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, occurred at the optimum time to save lives.  Most people were home for dinner, off the streets and away from the schools that would face almost total destruction.  Still, 51 people were killed in Long Beach and an additional 91 in surrounding areas.
            Bricks and debris rained down on the streets, loosened by the powerful movement of the earth.  Buildings crumbled, streets buckled and fires erupted in several spots. Telephone poles swayed and snapped, putting the city's 32,052 phones out of service.  Electricity was gone but an alert gas company worker turned off the city's gas lines during the temblor preventing further fires.
            Fortunately, the city had a disaster plan, and the help of the Pacific Fleet anchored off the Long Beach coast. Electricity was restored to the downtown area by 7:30 p.m., but outlining hospitals were without power.  The city disaster center got on their portable radio and called on anyone with access to bootleg liquor to bring it to the command center.  From here they took it to hospitals to use in sterilizing surgical instruments.  Within an hour after the first jolt, all roads leading into the city were patrolled with the help of 2000 Navy men who came ashore with loads of blankets and supplies immediately after the first shock.  They stayed for almost a week, helping anywhere they could.
            In the area affected by the earthquake, 4,883 people were injured; 1,893 homes were destroyed, 31,495 damaged; 207 buildings were declared uninhabitable, 1,550 were deemed repairable.  All of the Long Beach schools suffered considerably, as did the city's churches.  On March 13, the State Legislature voted $50,000 ($996,000 today)for emergency relief in the way of food and clothing.  Later $150,000 ($3 million today) was appropriated for rehabilitation work in the quake struck area.  On March 14, the Senate passed a bill appropriating $5,000,000 ($100 million) as an outright gift for relief.  Long Beach, however, declined to accept any of this money, advising Washington authorities it did not desire charity, but rather an opportunity to borrow the money needed to carry on the work of rehabilitation.  Acting on this, Congress amended the act permitting loans from the funds.
            Long Beach bounced back quickly.  Rebuilding operations began the day after the quake.  By March 16, more than 5000 men were employed at removing debris and putting the town back together. Business activities resumed as quickly as possible.  By March 15, 75 stores had reopened.
            Tourists flocked to Long Beach to see the damage.  On March 20, over 200,000 cars and one million sightseers were in town.  By April, Long Beach was more or less back to normal. 

The Economy in 1934
            1934 marked the turning point in Long Beach's economic decline; after all, it would be hard to sink any further after the disasters of 1933.  Things were getting better. Long Beach was recovering from the effects of the earthquake; the Pacific Coast Club reopened in January with a week-long celebration; the renovated, redecorated and refurbished Imperial Theater opened its doors in August.  On June 30, 1934, beachgoers had a treat in store for them when a new $400,000 ($7.7 million), 37-acre state park on Alamitos Bay Peninsula opened. On September 1, 1934, five thousand attended the opening of the new Long Beach post office. The seven-story steel and concrete building was a far cry from the original one-story frame structure at Pine and Ocean which housed the first Long Beach Post Office forty-nine years earlier. 
            Gradually the Depression was lessening, but conditions in Long Beach were not as rosy as they seemed. In 1934, the finances of the city were at the lowest ebb in years.  In January, a petition was filed to recall all nine members of the City Council, the City Manager and the City Attorney.  Failure to prosecute the oil companies, who owed the city large sums of money on royalties, was given as the major reason for the recall.  Other charges cited were: incompetence, mismanagement, misuse of public funds, carelessness and a disregard for the rights of the citizens of Long Beach.  On July 10, voters ousted all City Council members and the City Attorney.
          It was an interesting time for Long Beach.  How was the city to run when there were no elected officials?  The City Charter stated recalled officials had to leave office at once. City Attorney Reid complied and George Trammell was appointed by the Council to fill the vacancy.  But what to do without a City Council?  There were two options:  the governor could intervene and appoint a temporary Council until the vacancies were filled, or, based on State law, the recalled Council could continue to hold sessions and transact business until the election of their successors.  Since State law superseded local laws, the second option was instituted, but not for long -- an election for new officials was called for August 17, 1934.
            It was a fascinating election.  There were more than 130 candidates for the nine offices and when election records were checked it was found that a vast throng of men and women registered to vote were not qualified to do so.  Despite these problems, Frank Barnes, Clarence Wagner, John Schimmer, Benjamin Kirkland, Thomas Eaton, Carl Fletcher, Melvin Campbell, Leroy Cederberg and Virgil Spongberg were voted into office.  The new Council members pledged to institute strict economic measures in running city government and balancing the budget.  It would be up to them, according to the City Charter, to either keep the current City Manager and City Attorney or seek new ones.
            The new regime faced the immediate problem of balancing the budget.  On August 24, 1934, trying to live up to their campaign pledges, the Council voted an eighteen per cent salary cut for all city employees. By doing this, they balanced the budget and avoided raising tax or gas rates or abolishing free trash collection. City employees were outraged, having already taken cuts ranging from 13 to 30 per cent during the past three years.  The firemen, with their wages fixed by city ordinance, flatly refused to accept a wage reduction.  The Council quickly backed down coming up with an indefinite plan for slashing here, pinching there and raising the gas rate.  The Council needed help and help was to come in the form of a new City Manager -- Randall Dorton.
On September 13, the City Council agreed on the selection of Randall M. Dorton, City Manager of Monterey for nine years, as the new City Manager of Long Beach.  Dorton was a graduate of the University of California, holding a master's degree in political science.  This was the first time since the appointment of Charles E. Hewes in 1921 that Long Beach had selected a candidate from outside the city to fill the important administrative role.  Hewes had tried to be an impartial manager, abiding by the City Charter, not the political machinations of the city.  He had been recalled the following year, and a "Long Beach man" appointed in his stead.  Would another "outsider" fall victim to the Long Beach political machine?  Amazingly, Dorton set a record for time in office.  The average time spent in the role of City Manager by his eight predecessors (Charles Hewes, Charles Windham, Charles Henderson, H.S. Callahan, George Buck, C.C. Lewis, E.S. Dobbin, James Bonner) was eighteen months, Dorton, who began serving on October 1, 1934 left office on August 31, 1939.
            Dorton had a hard road ahead of him.  Within six months of their election, another recall attempt was aimed at the new City Council.  Proposition 17, on the ballot in 1935, was designed to stop what was called "recall racketeering."  It was common practice for hired people to take voters to City Hall to sign recall petitions.  Often those who signed were given monetary rewards.  Proposition 17 prohibited such practices and also increased the required number of recall petition signers from 10 to 25 percent of qualified voters.  It also exempted the City Manager from recall, making the Long Beach Charter conform to the general plan of the Council-Manager form of government, which stipulated Councilmen were responsible to the people, and the City Manager to the Council.  The charter amendment carried by a majority of 5150 and the anti-recall forces swept all but one of the 137 precincts in the City.

            Long Beach survived an earthquake in 1933 and a recall election in 1934. Better times were to follow when, on May 6, 1935, Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration by executive order, to organize "light" public works projects for those workers not employed by the "heavy" public works agencies such as the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). All were to work for their money because Roosevelt shared former President Herbert Hoover's aversion to the dole, calling it, “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
            In order to qualify as a WPA project, the projects could not compete with private enterprise and had to have a persuasive social value.  Where people had useful skills, the WPA eagerly used them.  Discovering that artists, musicians, and writers were hit hard by the economic times of the 1930s, the WPA organized projects to utilize their talents.
Naples Canal Walls After 1933 Earthquake
            Not all proposed WPA projects were approved, much to the dismay of Naples residents. Since the early 1930s, the canal walls of Naples, built in 1905, had been crumbling.  The 1933 earthquake was the final straw, collapsing the already fragile walls.  For four years, Naples residents petitioned the City and the federal government to repair them, even threatening to secede from Long Beach if their demands weren't met.  They were outraged when WPA Administration officials turned down funding saying the canals should be filled in.  The costs were too high in proportion to the number of people to benefit, the government claimed.  Eventually, with the aid of state, county and city funds, reconstruction work started.
            On August 26, 1939, Naples held a celebration and formally dedicated the new walls.  In attendance was Arthur M. Parsons, 81, known as the "father of Naples."  It was due to his efforts that the community had begun.  Adding a touch of pageantry to the afternoon's celebration was the appearance of King Neptune and his court, which floated down the Rivo Alto Canal.  Perhaps the most popular event was the men's bathing beauty contest, which brought lots of laughter from the on lookers.
            A few days after the Naples dedication, war broke out in Europe. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. On September 3, Poland’s allies declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. The Great Depression was soon over as European nations looked to America and the country’s industrial strength to supply their economic and war needs. Industry and employment skyrocketed in the United States, especially in Southern California with the growth of shipyards, aviation and oil production.