A One-Way Road Back to the ‘50s : Orion Avenue: Despite reminders of the present looming nearby, the clean, closely knit neighborhood is largely unchanged from the days when Ike was President and Coca-Cola cost a nickel.
Somewhere around 1955, Orion Avenue became stuck in time.
As the decades lurched forward and the rest of the San Fernando Valley evolved into a sprawling, congested suburb, the shady stretch of street in the shadow of the San Diego Freeway in Van Nuys settled into a pace that has remained largely unchanged since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President and a bottle of Coca-Cola cost a nickel.
Picture-perfect houses are framed by white picket fences and vast green lawns that present themselves to the quarter-mile-long stretch between bustling Victory Boulevard and the neglected Sepulveda Drive-In. Ironically, two miles north on Orion, police have erected barricades to discourage drug dealers.
“We’re a rose surrounded by thorns,” one resident said.
But here, neighbors greet each other by name. Three generations of some families live on the block. And residents looking to sell their houses generally give first shot to neighbors’ children looking to buy.
World War II hero Audie Murphy once lived on the street, and “The Jack Benny Show” was written in an office behind one of the houses.
Orion is the street where America grew up--or wished it had.
“You’re raised on ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ‘Father Knows Best’ and all those wonderful shows, and when you turn off of Victory and start coming up the street, you begin hearing the theme songs to all those old TV shows,” said Barrett W. McInerney, an attorney who moved to the neighborhood in 1982.
Indeed, there is an almost back-lot feel to the neighborhood, as if the street and its tidy Colonial-style houses are an idyllic version of suburbia sprung from the minds of Disney “imagineers.” And if the canopy of liquidambars and the atmosphere of friendliness seem familiar, it’s probably because they are.
The 6200 block of Orion is the single most-filmed residential block in Los Angeles, according to city records. Companies that scout locations cite the street’s ability to look like Anytown, U.S.A., as much like suburban Duluth as Van Nuys. Not a single palm tree is planted along the street.
“It’s very LTB,” said Pam Carter, a resident of the street who is a location manager for Warner Bros. LTB is film lingo for “Leave It to Beaver.”
Houses on the block have served as the make-believe homes of millionaire Blake Carrington’s mother-in-law for the television show “Dynasty” and rock legend Richie Valens’ rich girlfriend in the movie “La Bamba.” Once, film crews covered a house in artificial snow in the middle of July for a car battery commercial.
Residents are paid up to $4,000 a day for renting their houses out for filming, and the money often goes toward home improvements to make the property even more desirable to film companies. Some noted a certain amount of friendly competition among neighbors to attract film crews, who shoot about 30 days each year along the block.
But this is not the neighborhood of Joe Everyman. The last house on the block to sell went for $600,000, according to property records. And houses so rarely go on the market that they are snatched up within hours of a “For Sale” being planted in the front yard--if a sign ever goes up at all.
Keith Mullins, whose red barn house is among the most popular with film companies, recalled that when a real estate company sign appeared on his front lawn, at least five people passing by stopped to make offers.
The sign was a prop in a commercial for a Midwest real estate company.
Informal tradition holds that before a house is made available to the general public, it is offered to the neighborhood. Residents Brent Carpenter and Bill Dennis grew up on the block, and now live a few doors from their parents. Their children walk down the block and across the street to visit grandparents.
“For me, it was kind of like moving back home,” said Dennis, a manufacturer’s representative.
Carpenter’s wife’s identical twin and her husband live directly across the street. He lives in the house once occupied by a family doctor who patched up neighborhood kids after football games.
When the houses do go on the market, sellers are able to work all sorts of conditions into the final deals, conditions that seem out of place in most escrows.
Part of Carpenter’s sale agreement includes language that guaranteed the former owners would receive half the yield from the back-yard garden’s several hundred square feet of eggplant, cantaloupe, asparagus and artichoke.
Mullins, a manufacturer’s representative, remembered haggling until 1 a.m. over the price with the old woman who owned his house. She wouldn’t come down. He couldn’t go up. They argued back and forth until the woman’s cat jumped onto Mullins’ lap. As he began to pet the gray, long-haired feline, the woman lamented not being able to take the animal with her when she moved.
Mullins told her the cat could stay.
“The house is yours,” the woman said.
This stretch of Orion Avenue, less than two miles south of police barricades erected to stem drug trafficking on the same street, has drawn “lookie-loos” since it was carved from a walnut orchard in the late 1940s.
At the time, Victory Boulevard was a country highway that turned into a dirt road not too much farther west. A riding stable occupied the dusty lot at the southern end of the block, where the Sepulveda Drive-In now stands unused. Promotional literature for the tract boasted that residents could pay their property taxes with money made from selling walnuts grown on their lots.
Dennis and a couple buddies would ride their bikes to the Sepulveda Basin and spend hazy summer days searching for crawdads and tadpoles. And Bill Bucher Jr. would sit on his front porch shooting his BB gun into the orchards.
It was Bucher’s father, William, who built most of the houses along the block between 1946 and 1952. Each house was different--a couple of Cape Cods, a few New Englands and a ranch or two. Some were improvised as Bucher built. The red barn-style house now owned by Mullins was an almost entirely different house from the one for which Bucher submitted plans to city officials.
The asking price for houses along the block was between $28,500 and $31,500, relatively expensive for the time. Lots were 100 feet wide and 300 feet deep. Until Bucher built this portion of Orion, few builders had tried putting big houses on big lots in the San Fernando Valley.
Bucher, who also built houses in Toluca Lake and Pacific Palisades, envisioned the entire slice of land bordered by Victory, Sepulveda Boulevard, Erwin Street and the Sepulveda Dam as covered with houses like those on Orion. But soon after Bucher began construction along Orion Avenue, the city changed the zoning on adjacent streets, shrinking the size of the lots and thwarting his plans.
The result is that Orion Avenue seems out of place among the smaller bungalows that line the streets to the east and west.
“It’s kind of a country sense right in the middle of the city,” said Becky Griley, who lives with her husband, Glenn, and three children in William Bucher’s former house in the middle of the block. “We’re almost like a little community of our own. We have a community feel that a lot of people don’t have.”
Other residents echoed Griley’s sentiments. Some can name every resident along the street, along with vitals such as how many children, occupation and how long they’ve lived on the block.
As proud of their neighborhood as they are, some of the residents of Orion became concerned a few years ago that it had become too well known among film crews. A few complaints were lodged a few years back with the city’s Office of Motion Picture & TV Coordination about the number of shoots, and filming was scaled back, according to office director Dirk Beving. Beving said there have been no complaints in recent months.
Residents said they have become accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the film industry, trucks blocking the street, having their houses remade to fit a director’s vision. For $4,000 a day, a lot can be forgiven. But residents also said they like watching the movies being made.
For the car battery commercial, crews blanketed McInerney’s yard and house in artificial snow and hung plastic wrap icicles from the eaves of the roof. As the monologue touted the battery’s effectiveness “even in the frigid cold of a winter night,” a shivering actor turned the keys.
Sure enough, the car started.
It was the middle of July, about 70 degrees.
“It was like ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” McInerney said, laughing.