Block Party : Every Year Since 1953, Neighbors Have Gathered--Not Even a Terrible Fire Could Put a Damper on Tradition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was dinner time at the outdoor garden party in Bel-Air. But instead of gourmet food on expensive china, guests ladled home cooking from a variety of potluck dishes onto plastic trays. They even brought their own tables and chairs, and there wasn't a maid in sight.

In a community where many fabulously wealthy residents prefer to insulate themselves behind the high walls and shrubs of lavish estates, the residents of this west Bel-Air neighborhood gathered Sunday for something much more down to earth: a block party.

With their million-dollar homes and mountain views, Linda Flora Drive and Orum Road seem an unlikely setting for such old-fashioned neighborliness. But residents say their block party is an annual tradition that remains unbroken since it was first held in 1953.

"Each year it's changed," said Clara Berry, whose family was the first to move into the neighborhood in 1951. "New people have moved in and old people have left. But I think it's wonderful that we still get together."

Families from more than 50 homes on the two dead-end roads throw the bash each year in the street or someone's back yard. Even in 1961, when the Bel-Air Fire burned down the neighborhood, residents gathered among the ashes to keep the tradition alive.

"After the fire, you could see smoke rising and just the fireplaces standing," said Berry, who barely had time to grab her two children and escape before her house caught fire and burned to the ground. "It was really eerie."

The fire burned 5,850 acres and destroyed or damaged 447 homes. The block party was held on the foundation of one of the destroyed homes. Turnout was low, Berry said, but those who attended offered each other emotional support, shared sad stories and debated among themselves whether to rebuild or move.

Berry, 71, wore a straw Panama hat with fresh rosebuds circling the headband in keeping with the flower theme of this year's party. About 80 guests attended the event, which was held in the back yard of plastic surgeon Ian Brown.

In the afternoon, children arrived for swim races in Brown's pool. During dinner, costumed residents took turns explaining their outfits. Connie Goldman, a bag of fertilizer perched atop her head and a coil of hose slung over her shoulder, started her explanation with the question, "How does my garden grow?"

Guests took turns at the microphone to update each other on what had happened in the last year.

On an ominous note, two LAPD officers took their turn to warn of a recent string of robberies in Bel-Air. The officers told how victims had been tailed home from shops and restaurants, then robbed in their driveways.

Children, oblivious to the speakers, ran in large circles in the garden.

"I think this is a great time to meet new people on the block and have fun," 10-year-old Ross Borden said.

His father, Rick, watched nearby. Last year, organizers got the party together so late that it became a Christmas party at his home, the investment banker said.

"It was a last-ditch effort," he said. "I think the older people expect the younger people to pick up the torch."

Marge Bowers, who started coming to the parties in 1959, said the block party tradition was started by resident Lorita Baker Vallely, a literary critic, lecturer and part-time actress who read stories to neighborhood children. Vallely began staging puppet shows and plays using children as actors, and parents started throwing a party around the productions.

The plays became more and more elaborate, with stage sets, costumes, lighting and sound. The plays stopped years ago when the number of young children dwindled, Bowers said.

Stage designer John Westmoreland, 43, started coming to the parties when he was 4. He remembers learning to swim with other children in the neighborhood and capping off the summer with the block party swim races.

"I know it's kind of silly," he said, "but everybody had pools built before we learned how to swim."

Westmoreland also directed and staged the block party plays for many years. He filmed one of them, a slick musical, which he played after dinner. Guests laughed at seeing themselves as children 20 years ago.

Although Westmoreland moved from the neighborhood when he went to college, he returns to the party each year.

"It's like coming home for Christmas, but a lot more fun," he said.

Ian Brown's wife, Judy Summers Brown, said she and her husband decided to host this year's party for the sake of their two children. Earlier, the family appeared in burlap sacks as the "spud family."

Still wearing a hat with potatoes hanging from it, Brown recalled her own memories of the joys of growing up in a neighborhood full of children.

"I guess I'm looking for a little bit of Pennsylvania in Los Angeles," she said. "I want to create a sense of community for my children, and for me, by reaching out to our neighbors."

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