“During the last of 10 laps, I was struggling in fourth place when one of the men in front of me fell and I coasted home in third place and won the first trophy in my life.”
Hundreds of millions of people have read the Hollywood sign as they came in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport. In the early days of the sign, the 1920s, it read Hollywoodland and was illuminated by thousands of electric light bulbs. Each letter was about 40 feet high and made of sheet metal attached to telephone poles. The light bulbs illuminated hopes and dreams of the Southern California settlers.
The monstrous sign was virtually in the center of Griffith Park. It was full of fire roads carved on the side of a hill of decomposed granite. As a youngster, I have no idea how many times I rode up there, but it was a lot. The first time I saw ice on the ground was on one of those roads and so I rode my bicycle back home, got my ice skates and had a nice afternoon skating while looking down on Los Angeles basin.
I had already spent dozens of days at the Polar Ice Palace making endless left turns for 35 cents. During my first year in high school, I came up with the $28 for a pair of custom-made, racing skates with offset blades as offsetting the blades allowed me to lean further into the corner as I went around and round without the shoe itself hitting the ice.
In January 1942, a Los Angeles daily newspaper held the Southern California speed skating championships. I rounded up $5, borrowed a friend’s bicycle and rode it to a dance and costume shop on Hollywood Boulevard and purchased a pair of black ballet tights.
I was not surprised when I skated for the first time in those black tights when spectators laughed at my skinny little legs and long, racing blades, but I just knew I could skate much faster as there was no wind resistance that my jeans otherwise made.
The race was not staged as you see it in the Olympic television broadcasts, but rather everyone lined up at a starting line and all left at the same time. During the last of 10 laps, I was struggling in fourth place when one of the men in front of me fell and I coasted home in third place and won the first trophy in my life. It is probably around here somewhere in a box in my closet full of mementos.
By then, the Hollywoodland sign had been shrunken to Hollywood and the light bulbs were lost somewhere to history (and lots of rock throwing by young kids.) Maybe this was about one of the times they propped up the letters to preserve the sign.
I rode my bicycle all over Southern California in the 1930s and I could see the sign everywhere I pedaled south to Newport Beach and as far north as Malibu into the northeast corner of San Fernando Valley at Pop’s Willow Lake.
There was a large, flat spot that had been excavated to erect the sign, but it sadly became a trash-filled picnic area with thousands of beer cans every summer.
I got to know the road there and back well on my bike. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy because the ride back down the mountain was steep and you could ride faster than you really wanted to, especially if you knew the dips and curves. Fortunately for me, I never did crash on the descent.
This was long before the invention of the wetsuit for surfing and diving, and in the winter months when the 20-mile distant ocean dropped to 47 or 48 degrees Fahrenheit there was no sense in riding my bicycle to the beach and freezing.
At the same elevation and several miles to the east, is the Griffith Park planetarium. Again luck was on my side because construction started in the mid-1930s. We used to go up there on Saturdays and see how construction was coming. When they leveled the place for the planetarium, they shoved the dirt off the side of the hill and it formed a talus slope. We could run on the flat, parking lot and leap into the air and drop as much as 12 vertical feet into knee-deep soft dirt.
On one of those leaps, I landed leaning too far forward and did three or four somersaults and finally came to a stop down in the larger rocks at the bottom. It was an uncomfortable ride back to my house on my bicycle and, of course, in those days the family had no accident insurance. I ended up in the first aid room at the local police station and was treated with lots of iodine and bandages, however with nothing broken.
My three children were all born in Southern California within 20 miles of where I was born. Today, two of them still live there. This part of the world is still a wonderful place to live if you’re fortunate enough to live within 1 mile of the ocean. Nearby Malibu Beach is where the light surfboard was invented in the late 1940s by Bob Simmons who lived in Pasadena with his mother, an invention that changed the world forever for anyone looking for freedom. I was one of them, however, I was not smart because I kept riding my 100-lb., 11-foot long redwood surfboard for another five years.
There was a magic time in the 1940s and 50s when you hung up your surfboard in the garage, took your skis down and made sure your skid chains worked and started checking the snow report with a local ski shop.
Warren Miller is history’s most prolific and enduring ski filmmaker. Visit warrenmiller.net or his Facebook page at facebook.com/warrenmiller. Read more of Warren’s stories at TheTahoeWeekly.com.