When I walk at the Bolsa Chica wetlands I rarely wear a watch. That's because of the fire station located across from where I park at Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. There's a large sundial on the side of the building and so that's how I measure time while I'm there.
Warner Fire Station 7 opened in 1977, and the sundial was merely a novel idea the architect, Dick Tom, had when he designed the station. He explained this to me as we sat on the deck of his home in Huntington Harbour the other night, as multi-colored lights from the annual boat parade, now in its 50th year, reflected in the black water.
To the music of the light-festooned passing vessels, he told me all about other buildings he designed in the area, including banks and other fire stations. But we also got to talking about Tom's earlier life, which prompted a move inside their cozy home (which he designed in 1972) to look at some photos.
There, both he and his lovely wife, Marilynn (whose wonderful paintings, sculptures and other handmade works of art adorn walls, shelves and other spaces not taken up with pictures of their daughters and grandchildren) took my family on a journey back in time, to Los Angeles in the early 1930s.
The Chinese-American Tom, then known as Layne Tom Jr., was born and lived right by the USC campus (where one day he would go to school for architecture). But as a child in the '30s, his mom got him singing, music and acting lessons in the hope that he might be cast in Hollywood as a child actor.
And that's how he became "Son #3" in the famous Charlie Chan film series staring first with 1937's "Charlie Chan at the Olympics." Chan, the fictional Chinese-American detective character popularized by Warner Oland, was wildly popular at the time, and so it was a major achievement for the young actor. But that was just the beginning.
From there he landed a major role (that of "
As he got older he played older sons within the Charlie Chan series along with other roles on the big screen. Then he enlisted in the Navy, and came home after two years on an aircraft carrier to go to college at USC.
And 62 years ago, he married Marilynn.
Tom told me how much fun it was to work at all the big studios with so many of Hollywood's most iconic stars. But architecture was his first passion and so that is what he pursued. Still, as he looks at all of the black-and-white glossy photos on the wall, he wistfully describes the past, of how nice Shirley Temple was on set, of the 13 weeks he spent on "The Hurricane," and how even today, Charlie Chan fans reach out to him via the mail for autographs.
Eighty-five years old now, Tom is a quiet, humble man. I see him slowly and steadily walking their small dog some days across the street from us, and I just marvel as I watch him, knowing where he has been and all that he has done. I picture the young boy on so many movie sets, the soldier at sea, and the talented designer that thought to put a giant sundial on the side of a fire station, something I take full use of (as long as the sun is out).
This week, I just thought you might enjoy the story of these neighbors of ours — exceptionally interesting, vibrant and creative people that have left a meaningful mark, especially here in Huntington Beach. Each time I see them, I'm reminded of something I learned early when we moved here in 1999. You just never know who you will meet in this city.