[The following story appeared in our local newspaper The Easy Reader on Nov. 17th, 2005. It is heartwarming to me because I have lived in the same house on the beach with several other roommates since 1980, the year I left Bethel in New York. The day I was called into a judicial committee meeting after turning in my letter of disassociation I went surfing instead. - Randy]

Memories of an El Porto childhood, Part I

by Don Spencer

Watercolor of Highland Ave. and Manhattan Beach Blvd. by Don Spencer. One of the artist’s first jobs was changing the letters on the old La Mar Theater marquee. Spencer 1 pg 30 Don Spencer at work in his El Porto studio on a volleyball sculpture. Photo by Kevin Cody Cover spencer’s mom view.jpg In 1932 the author’s father built a house at 124 Moonstone Ave. This was the view his mother painted from their second story deck looking south at beach shacks along 41st Street. Artistic license was taken with a depiction of the ocean this close but the houses are authentic. El Porto sketch by Don Spencer. This scratchboard drawing depicts one of several characteristic weekend shacks located midway between Moonstone Street and 42nd Street. This image was a 1952 high school homework project. Captain Mare’s home was on Crest Drive between 42nd and Sea View. The author’s mother did this painting in the 1930s.

I had the good fortune to be born of parents who lived in El Porto.

My father built his first house in 1930 on 43rd St. In 1936 my parents and brother were living in another Frank Spencer built home at 3905 Crest Drive. This was where I entered the scene. At that time, living on Crest Drive between 39th and El Porto streets, the surrounding view was of bare sand dunes. Directly to the east, across Crest Drive on undeveloped Standard Oil property, acres of natural dunes rolled over the hill. On this property my dad built a swing for his two sons. One of my earliest memories (I was three or four at the time) is a swing ride. My older brother stood, his feet on either side of me, on the wood plank seat making us go higher and higher. The drama of our house in the foreground, surrounded by sand, broad sky, and the sea beyond shifting with the changing perspective I can still recall with joy.

In July of 1941 I remember hiking into the Standard Oil dunes with my father and brother to set off firecrackers and sparklers. It must have been 1941 because after Pearl Harbor a barbwire, chain-link fence was installed around the Standard Oil perimeter. It was set back far enough to the east that properties along Crest Drive could have room to install wooden or brick supports for parking cars, clotheslines, and trash incinerators.

We local boys had what we called the Five Second Club. Members could climb from one side of that barbed-wire fence to the other within five seconds. Adults were excluded from our treks. Behind that fence we could wander at will. I remember one winter’s evening adventuring alone, hiking the dunes with wind-blown sand stinging against bare ankles. Wind patterns sharpened in shadowed relief as a bold sun reached for the horizon. From the silhouetted houses below, windows began to glow amber, little islands of warmth against a darkening sea beyond. Eventually, I knew, my father’s shrill whistle would signal that dinner was waiting.

My mother, May Hoard Spencer, was a professional artist. Most of her work involved fashion illustration for stores such as Bullocks and Macys, but sometimes she would pick up easel and paints and explore the visual pleasures of her immediate world.

The war years

Soon after our entry into the war, the area of sand between Crest Drive and the Standard Oil fence was occupied by military tents. Jeeps and soldiers with guns, but always with smiles for us youngsters, seemed to be everywhere. Later, north of 45th St., on the Standard Oil property, we found some of the roofed-over, plank-supported machine-gun emplacements they had built in the dunes, now half filled with sand by the blowing winds. Our imaginations thrilled to look out through the gun slots toward the sea where it was believed an invasion force might appear. Wherever we played, background noise often included the sounds of airplanes undergoing their first flights. The P-38 was not quiet. The staccato of machine guns being tested over the Pacific were a reminder of serious business for the adults. But for my young mind, it was a signal of adventure.

I recall many days when we could hear the sounds of car radios drifting up from Highland. Without air conditioning, windows would be open. Without a traffic light at Rosecrans and Highland, southbound cars would be backed for many blocks awaiting their turn at the four-way stop.

Parking was a problem then as well as now. However, in those days there were many vacant lots and few curbs. On weekends, my dad would help the city-bred beach visitors remove cars from their selected sand traps. Clutches engaged, wheels would spin, throwing sand until axels instead of wheels supported the vehicle.

The Walkers lived at the corner of Crest Drive and 40th Street. The two boys, Bob and Jim (a future Manhattan Beach mayor) were several years older but I knew they were sharp and energetic. We collected scrap metal and such for the war effort. The pile of salvaged debris was collected on the north side of 40th St. in a vacant lot until it was hauled away to make military might. Across Highland on 40th was a gas station. With old cars waiting to be worked on, it fit the look of its neighboring pile of war effort debris. The owner’s son was often seen playing bit parts in Hollywood movies. Ira’s Market occupied then what is today the Harvey Washbangers “Washtub”. The market front could be entirely opened so that one could enter anywhere from the sidewalk.

School days

Getting to school required a bus ride to El Segundo. Earlier in the morning than I liked, there were usually about 10 of us waiting in front of the small Five and Dime Store (now the Hawaiian Hut restaurant) on the Highland side of the Walker property. The trip to El Segundo took us along the beach, which afforded great views of the ocean, past the refinery pier and slowly curved up through the dunes near Playa del Rey. El Segundo had a fine school system, being well supported by the refinery. It also had a terrific new swimming pool.

Memories of an El Porto childhood, Part II

by Don Spencer

Don Spencer at work on a new sculpture in his El Porto studio. Photo by Kevin Cody

Sometimes students living in El Porto were given passes to ride the public bus system. No one seemed to be concerned that anyone would do us harm. Occasionally, I would ride the bus deeper into Manhattan just to explore.

When sent from my house to the market, I would walk south along Crest Drive to 38th St., cut diagonally across an empty sand lot to Rosecrans Pl., walk by a small plain house and then, watching for cars pulling into the parking area along Highland, enter the Safeway market at the corner of Rosecrans and Highland. It later became Edwards Market. That location is now a parking structure adjacent to a widened intersection. My comic books and sometimes a cherry soda were purchased on the other side of Rosecrans in a drugstore renting from the still-existing El Porto building. A gas station occupied the northwest corner of Rosecrans and Highland. It seems like Pancho’s was always where it is in some form. For a while, Pancho’s was known for serving good Chinese food. In the early ‘50s, in a converted home, there was a Mexican food restaurant at the southeast corner of 39th and Highland. I believe that a fire ended its life around 1955. A “form follows function” triplex now occupies that location. In 1953 and 1954 I worked as a busboy at the La Cita Restaurant, then occupying what is today the El Porto Market at 41st and Highland. They had a wonderful buffet and a cook who could attract diners from throughout LA. They also had a good piano bar. When the piano player wasn’t entertaining they had a jukebox with lots of popular songs. “Vaya Con Dios” will always be a part of my memory. The El Porto Market at that time occupied a building on the eastside of Highland next to Kelp St. Its parking was in an excavated area along 41st St. that entered and exited off Highland. My very first job was in this market working as a stock boy.

During high school days one of my best friends worked in the soda fountain at the northeast corner of El Porto and Highland. After work he would fix malts and walk up the block to where I was living at 3911Crest Drive. My mother liked the ping pong table in the middle of our living room. That malt store where my friend worked later became a barbershop.. Today artist Dennis Westerlund has his gallery there.

The wild days

This part of town I always considered high energy. The “Turf and Sand” was always popular with dancing in the “unincorporated” half and food in the Manhattan half. Crowds would overflow on weekends and holidays. Later it became the Frigate, and then the Pelican. Now, it’s Baja Sharkeys.

In the 1960s the “Bluebook” became a popular gathering place for young and noisy energy. It was located on the eastside of Highland between 40th and Kelp in a building that had earlier been inexpensive apartments. My wife and I lived at 3904 Highland from 1964 to 1967, and in the mornings I could usually find, strewn about the adjoining sand lots, drinking glasses from several of the local establishments. Moonstone St. during these years provided home to many hippy types. Banners flew above and those wishing to ban the war were high below. Love abounded. Free love, publicly expressed in front of Players Liquor, put one couple in trouble with the law.

College years had me living in Los Angeles and then Westwood. For 17 years I lived in Manhattan Beach east of Sepulveda on 18th St., near Rowell. Another four years were spent living on a boat in Hawaii and later King Harbor. During these years, my parents saw the wonderful dunes smothered by government and refinery needs. There was a period (the early ‘50s) when anti-aircraft guns and barracks occupied the southwest corner of the Standard property. An ugly rock berm was built the length of Crest to protect El Porto from refinery fires. (In 1967 there was such a fire.)

This wall of rock and debris was somewhat less offensive than the storage tanks behind. Slowly, Chevron, no longer Standard, began to clean up its image and I was among several on a committee to clean up Crest Dr. Jim Walker kept us focused and I was able to provide sketches showing the esthetic possibilities of strategically placed parkettes and Queen Palms. These ideas were accepted, eventually becoming the much greener look of today. Fees are now levied against the adjacent property for the maintenance of these improvements.

In 1990, emulating my father, I built my own home on Crest Drive directly next to the house my dad built in 1932, which is itself directly next to a house he built in 1941. In all my travels no place has been found that contains a better all-around setting for depth of life qualities. I have had many exceptional experiences, but no adventure has ever exceeded the quality of my childhood among the dunes.

Don Spencer, with the help of art scholarships, earned a BFA from UCLA, and a MFA from the Otis Art Institute. He worked as a commercial artist in Santa Monica, and from 1967 to 1977 was an art instructor at El Camino College from and operated Spencer Art Gallery in Manhattan. His water color paintings and pen and ink drawings of local scenes were sold through many local businesses.

In 1978 he built a sailboat and with his family cruised the Pacific to Mexico and the Hawaiian Islands. Since 1995, he has concentrated on figurative sculpture

Spencer is the author and illustrator of “Think, If True, Feel Good,” a book about how ideas and beauty emerge from our understanding of fundamental truths. SBP

This scratchboard drawing depicts one of several character weekend shacks located midway between Moonstone Street and 42nd Street. This image was a 1952 high school homework project. I was thinking that it might be fun to become an artist.

In 1932 my father built a house at 124 Moonstone. This was the view my mother painted from its second story deck looking south at beach shacks along 41st Street. (Artistic license was taken with a depiction of the ocean this close but the houses are authentic.)

Captain Mare’s home was on Crest Drive between 42nd and Sea View. This image was painted sometime in the 1930s.