A Timely Gift : Palos Verdes' Outdoor Talking Clock Can Also Carry a Tune

Times Staff Writer

Every hour it will call out the time, and at noon there'll be a greeting, too: "Welcome to Palos Verdes." The National Anthem will play.

Every 15 minutes, it will chime. On special occasions it will also sing--"Jingle Bells" at Christmastime, for instance.

Eventually, in addition to English, it will tell time in 52 different languages--a new one every week.

Talking Clock

It is an outdoor, flowered, talking clock--the first one in the United States, says Michel Medawar,the man who built it. It is about to become the big attraction in a little park at Deep Valley and Crossfield drives in Rolling Hills Estates.

The ground-level timepiece, which Medawar is donating to the city, will be dedicated at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. Entertainer Danny Thomas, a friend of Medawar and a board member of his Torrance-based clock company, will be guest speaker.

Medawar, 52, said he left his native Lebanon in 1975 after two clock factories and five stores he owned were burned in civil war fighting. He settled in Rancho Palos Verdes and became an American citizen. He says the clock is a way of saying thanks to the United States and the Palos Verdes Peninsula for giving him and his family a home.

"I am living in a great country and I want to make this country greater and greater and be an example for every American and foreigner in this land," he said.

But Medawar concedes there is a commercial motive as well for donating the clock, which he said costs $300,000. "I want to market my clock all over the United States, and I want to decorate every city and state with my flowered talking clock," Medawar said. "This is a demonstration." Officials in Rolling Hills Estates say they are happy to have the clock, which Medawar first offered several years ago but which had to await the right spot.

Planning Director Stephen Emslie said the ideal location turned up last year when developer Terry Cole came in with plans for an office building near the Courtyard Mall. He had long-term leases on two corner pieces of property, and the city said it would let him build more office space on the larger parcel if he would dedicate the smaller one across the street--only 12,000 square feet--for a park with the clock as the centerpiece.

Cole said he was able to put up a four-story building instead of three floors with the square footage "credits" he received for not developing the small lot.

"It's our attempt to construct and landscape the main entrance to that whole Courtyard shopping area," Cole said. "Hopefully, it will become an attractive spot."

Said Emslie, "It will be something different. Not every city has one of these clocks."

Culmination of a Dream

Mayor Hugh Muller called the clock and the park the culmination of a dream for Medawar and Cole. "They both worked hard to make available the clock and the land to put it on," he said, adding that the business community hopes they will attract more people to the Courtyard area.

The clock, which comes complete with a waterfall and fountain, is computer-controlled and its speech comes from a programmable tape. It is powered by electricity and has its own battery reserve should power fail. The clock is synchronized by way of a U.S. satellite and Medawar said it should have virtually perfect accuracy. People will be able to ask the clock to state the time by pressing a metal flag in front.

Although a volume control makes it possible for the clock to be heard a mile away, the sound will be restricted to the immediate area. "I don't want anyone to complain," Medawar said. The sound will automatically stop at 10 p.m. and start again at 8 a.m.

Maintained at No Cost

The clock and the park will be maintained at no cost to the city, according to Emslie. Medawar's company has agreed to take care of the clock mechanism for 49 years. Cole put about $185,000 into developing the park, which his company will maintain for 50 years.

"My background is watchmaking," said Medawar, who caught the bug from his father. "This is in our blood, clocks and the time."

He said that when he was 8 years old, he stole a watch from his father's store while on his way to school. Instead of listening to his teacher, he took the watch apart, repaired it and put it back together. "I figured it out myself," he said.

At 14, he said, he had his own watch repair business in Beirut. It was when he was busy in his store repairing watches that he decided he really wanted to build big outdoor clocks. "I wanted to do something for the people outside, not only for those whose watches I had in hand," he said.

Medawar make his first talking clock in 1960 when he built one for a church in Lebanon and equipped it with reel-to-reel tape that called out the hours and chimed.

In 1969, he put in his first floral talking clock in downtown Beirut, where it still tells time in the war-torn city. "It is half in Christian territory, half in Muslim," he said.

When he lost his businesses to the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Medawar came to Rancho Palos Verdes, where he said he "started over" in his garage. The first clock he made was titled "God Bless America." It is framed for mounting on the wall and depicts light from heaven shining on the Earth, with North America in the center. "It is custom-designed and can play the anthem," he said.

Great Mosque of Mecca

Four years ago, Medawar said he installed 450 tower clocks in the Great Mosque of Mecca, the religious center of the Muslim world. The clocks all the faithful to prayer five times a day. He said he was thanked by the royal family of Saudi Arabia: "The family appreciated that I, as a Christian, made something for the Muslims."

Medawar makes talking clocks that look like antique lampposts, map clocks showing the time in many parts of the world, traditional grandfather clocks, even a Lord's Supper clock programmed to recite verses from the New Testament.

The biggest item in his catalog is a 60-foot tower clock with neon, selling for $500,000. For a less ambitious budget, there are small talking watches selling for $49.

John Metcalfe, a clock historian with the National Assn. of Watch and Clock Collectors based in Pennsylvania, said clocks were talking before the turn of the century using various devices. "They go back almost as far as the phonograph," he said.

First With Computer

Medawar, however, said that he was the first person to build outdoor talking clocks and to employ a computerized time system. "There weren't any before mine," he said.

And floral talking clocks? "They sound like something horribly new," Metcalfe said, with a touch of British showing.

Medawar said he plans to donate another talking clock to Washington, D.C. Originally, it was to go on the White House lawn, but the location probably will be changed to a park across from the White House so everyone can see it. He hopes to see it activated on the Fourth of July.

He said he plans a third donation, to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which is entertainer Thomas' favorite charity.

After that, Medawar said, other floral talking clocks will be strictly business.

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