Stuck on Labels : Gordon McClelland has picked his passions since he was a kid. His love for fruit crate ads blossomed into a career.
Consider these three distinctly SoCal vignettes, the sort of everyday serendipity that sets Southern California apart:
* In the late ‘60s, a teen-ager spends the afternoon surfing by the Huntington Beach Pier. Later, waiting for his mom to pick him up in front of a nightclub, a car pulls up and two men he recognizes as legendary blues men John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed get out. They find the club door locked, so the two musicians stand on the sidewalk shooting the breeze with the wet suit-clad surfer in the late afternoon sun.
* A 15-year-old kid goes to a rock club, interested in seeing the light show. But the light show guy doesn’t show up that night, so the teen-ager tells the club owner he has a light show and can fill in. He runs home, gets his family’s slide projector, and bluffs and improvises his way into a job. When the club owner’s poster artist winds up in jail, the kid also tells the owner, “Sure, I do posters,” and spends the next couple of years doing light shows and posters for shows by the likes of Chicago and the Mothers of Invention.
* A 12-year-old boy gets a work permit to pick and pack oranges in the orchards near his Villa Park home. He falls in love with the labels used on the old fruit boxes, paintings depicting an idealized California--an agrarian utopia with mission-style buildings, rosy-cheeked beauties and lots of fruit rolling around. He begins collecting the labels, which no one else seems interested in. Three decades later, he’s making an enviable living as the foremost expert and dealer in the now-hot collectibles.
The kid in all these instances was Gordon McClelland.
Now 43, he surfs three or four days a week. He lives with his wife and 12-year-old son on the outskirts of San Clemente, and commutes to the Santa Ana business complex where the publisher of his several books on fruit labels and California artists has given him space to work on his projects.
Three of the walls inside are decorated with some of McClelland’s 14,000 different fruit box labels--one wall devoted to oranges, another lemons and one apples--while strewn about elsewhere are surf-related paintings, boxes of old maps and travel brochures, concert posters, surfboards, record albums and a ‘60s vintage pinball machine titled Surf Champ.
Bearded, tan and wearing shorts and a knit sport shirt, McClelland noted: “The link basically between anything I do is that it all relates to California history or culture. That, and I’ve noticed that just about everything I’ve ever done has been something I was involved with before I was 13 years old.”
McClelland was exposed early on to the work of California artists because his mother had taken painting lessons from some of the same painters he wrote about in his book on watercolor artists, “The California Style, 1925-1955" (he collaborates with other authors on most of his titles). He had been into surfing and music since he was a kid, and he traces his interest in fruit labels to the “Dobie Gillis” TV show.
“It started for me with an interest in signs. There was an episode of ‘Dobie Gillis’ where they showed where Maynard G. Krebs lived. I thought beatniks were the coolest thing in the world, so I was paying attention. And when they showed his place, the walls were covered with signs. I went right across the street, took a Sunkist Growers sign and put it up on my bedroom wall,” he recalled.
When he got his work permit at 12 and began working in the groves and at a packing house in Orange, he fell in love with the labels and started collecting them.
It’s a curious notion, isn’t it, an Orange County with actual orange trees growing in it?
“It had a particular kind of character, the way we lived then,” McClelland said. “It was a real nice mixture of agriculture and suburban living, not really a rural agrarian place anymore, sort of in the middle. We lived right next to a big stand of eucalyptus trees and there were orange groves right behind my bedroom. It always smelled good and we could go out and play in there, build treehouses, run wild. And there would be the old-style bums, hobos, hanging out camping in the groves. It was great.”
By his late teens, he was collecting the fruit-box labels on a major scale. The fruit industry had largely shifted in 1955 to using cardboard packaging instead of wood crates, and most had been keeping their labels in storage. Hence, McClelland would sometimes turn up thousands of uncirculated labels that the packers were only too glad to be rid of. Other than enjoying them, McClelland says he had no particular plan for what to do with the labels he was amassing.
Although many in the late ‘60s seemed to think that the styles of the day had sprung without precedent from their psychedelicized minds, McClelland said his 1920s fruit labels were a source of inspiration for him when he began doing concert posters for the White Room club in Buena Park.
“I’d been trying to figure how to effectively combine words with images, and realized that’s exactly what the fruit labels were,” he said, pointing out similarities between the innocent labels and his posters advertising Alice Cooper and local ‘60s heavyweights the Stack.
Along with having his old posters from the White Room shows and other concerts, the club’s owner, John Gardell, also works in the office with McClelland, as sales rep for the book publishing company.
McClelland met Gardell in 1967 when he was 15 and credits him with being a significant influence on his life.
“I started working when I was 12 because my father had always done farming and carpentry; his perception of the way things work was ‘you get a job,’ so he always encouraged me to get a job. Then I met John and he encouraged me not to get a job.”
McClelland held sign-painting jobs and did the college grindstone bit for a while. Instead of the 9-to-5 life, he opted to work for himself, see the world and enjoy life.
“One thing I’ve always liked about this area--and when I traveled I found people elsewhere also responded to this thing about California--is all the activity here of people taking chances and starting up unusual, weird businesses and seeing if they can make it happen,” he said.
He didn’t have a business plan in mind when he started gathering his fruit labels, and he is still surprised that he’s been able to support himself for decades with it.
When the collectibles market sprang up in the 1970s, he suddenly found that he could support himself by working just one day a month selling fruit labels and other old items at the Rose Bowl swap meet. That left the rest of the month free, he said, to go “picking.” Rather than picking fruit, that’s a term dealers use to describe their forays through thrift stores and other locales for old wares.
He also connected in the ‘70s with a German collector who would fly McClelland to Europe annually to sell him fruit labels. He’d travel there for four to six months, “Then I’d come home with 10 cents in my pocket, but with a roll of European posters I could sell here to get back on my feet.”
Since marrying, he’s led a somewhat more stable existence, aided by the rise in popularity of the fruit labels. There are some labels, ones made in the late 1800s, that can command from $2,000 to $3,000. There are, however, hundreds of old labels that can still be purchased for a few dollars, while thousands of others sell from $50 to $500. Even though he has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of labels, he says he’s actually worked to keep prices down, so it will be a fun hobby instead of a speculator’s market.
He’s co-authored several books on the labels, with a new one, “An Illustrated Price Guide to Citrus Labels” in the finishing stages.
One thing he’s attracted to in the labels is the innocent, idyllic quality expressed by many.
“I think they reflect a time when people had different sensibilities, when they could pull off ads like this and have them accepted at face value. If you were creating images like this in 1972 or today, it would be considered tongue in cheek, naive. People weren’t hep at the time these labels were made, and I like people who are not necessarily hep.”
He insists that his feeling for the art isn’t one of longing for another time.
“People always seem to think that I wish I lived back in 1920 or something. I’m so happy I live now. I have no desire to be in any other time. To me this isn’t a way of living in the past; it’s a way of enjoying what I’m doing now. I enjoy my life more now knowing all this went before and how the people who did it thought.”
Asked if he’s gotten rich off his childhood interest, he opines that he perhaps could have if he’d worked himself into a frazzle.
“But I don’t slave at this, and we don’t live real lavishly. I work just hard enough for everything to work and then quit. . . . I always told my wife the worst thing that could happen was that I’ve have to move back into my van and live on the beach all the time. That’d be real bad, huh?”