For Seniors : Traveler, 71, Is on the Road Again--as a Docent for L.A. Conservancy

Joe Spencer doesn't analyze things. Ask him a "why" question or a "how come" and he looks up at the ceiling for an answer. He never had a grand plan for himself.

But in a way, Spencer is like an explorer who moves from one big experience to another with zest and commitment. "If I get something out of it, fine. If not, I'm out of it," he says.

With the exception of his longtime marriage to wife Judy, Spencer's eight-year tenure as a volunteer docent with the Los Angeles Conservancy is a record for him.

He was reading an article about what to do in L.A. and one of the suggestions was a walking tour of the Broadway movie theater district sponsored by the conservancy. He took the tour and the next week he volunteered to become a docent.

Spencer was a shy person, had little to do with the public, never talked to strangers, and rarely volunteered for anything. "I was bored--had nothing to do. My wife was ill and I was looking for something to do without getting into trouble," he says.

Spencer, 71, was born in New York City, moved to Boyle Heights with his family when he was a teen-ager and frequently went Downtown because it was the hub of the city. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mechanical engineering, and served in Okinawa with the Army in World War II.

In classic Spenceresque, he describes his war experience in an almost matter-of-fact manner. "When you're 20 or 21, you don't think about it as a horrible experience. I was more intent worrying where my next beer was coming from than worrying about what a horrible experience it was," he says.

After the war, Spencer used his college degree for six years and became restless. Discounting was the new way to sell appliances. Spencer and a partner devised a catalogue to supply wholesalers with the up-to-date prices. Dealers loved it because they didn't have to make incessant phone calls. Spencer sold the book for a yearly subscription. He rented a mimeograph machine and hired a secretary. He made money.

"I was never set for life. Rich meant a paid-for car and $500 in the bank," he says. "After six years, we took the money and traveled. Came back and I had my last 'job' building an apartment house. Any idiot can build an apartment house so I put $10,000 together and built one myself. I made $5,000. And I thought, 'You know what? This could be a living.' We took the profit and blew it on a trip through the Panama Canal."

When Spencer came back he built another apartment house, made a larger profit, packed up his wife and two children and took off for three months to Tahiti and the South Pacific. First-class.

Today, Spencer does most of his traveling by introducing people to the city they call home but have never seen. His favorite spot is the Watts Towers.

"People are always telling me how scared they are to go there. They're missing out. It's unique," he says. "One man worked 37 years and single-handedly built all 100 feet of it. And one day he just walked to his neighbor's house and gave him the deed and left town.

"The city owns it now and it's a shame because there's no money or interest in up-keeping it," Spencer says. "It's hard to describe the towers. Once you see this unique piece of art, you can get a high just leaning against it and looking up. We have no idea what was in the artist's mind."

Spencer eventually wrote the tour he leads and did the voice-over for a public television special on the Watts Towers hosted by Huell Howser. He officially leads one tour a month but usually does more.

When he gets home he takes a five-mile walk to loosen up. It's tough for him to walk so slowly during the tour.

On June 22, he's taking a group from a Downtown office building through the theater district. The conservancy is also featuring a series of classic films in the historic theaters during the entire month of June.

"Just the effect you got when you went to one of these theaters," he says.

"It was during the Depression when the Los Angeles Theatre opened. Inside, Albert Einstein was the guest of honor and outside were the bread lines. There was a ladies' room which was a haven for women to come to. Not only was it clean but it was spectacular--like in a palace. Even the names of the theaters--Palace, Majestic--conjured up a fantasy. When a person went to the movies in those days it was like being king for a day."

Docents come from all walks of life but they all have one thing in common--a love for a certain part of Los Angeles. Spencer has that but admits he's a lousy docent for architecture.

All docents are trained in five weekly sessions and devote one Saturday a month to leading a tour. Spencer also trains people and says anyone can be a docent.

"Anybody who can stand on their feet for two and a half hours is eligible," he says. "You don't need the knowledge; we'll give you that."

Spencer says he goes back to New York once a year "for a fix." But the Los Angeles Conservancy is an integral part of his life.

It keeps him moving.


The Los Angeles Conservancy is an active nonprofit organization dedicated to the recognition, preservation and revitalization of the history, culture and architecture of Los Angeles. To join the conservancy, call (213) 623-CITY.

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