Retro : If That Was Then, It Is Not Now


As Ralph Story suggests, "Strike the set!" might well be the motto of Los Angeles, where landmarks and just about any other recognizable structure have a reputation of being here today and gone tomorrow.

The changes in the landscape have been documented many times before, in print and on the air. But it is a tale told again with a nice flair Sunday night on KCET in the documentary "Things That Aren't Here Anymore," hosted and narrated by the veteran newsman Story.

Long identified with feature pieces from his 1960s stint at KNXT-TV (now KCBS), where he turned out segments called "The Human Predicament" for the news and a series known as "Ralph Story's Los Angeles," the broadcast journalist feels that perhaps Los Angeles "is getting a little sense of history."

His thinking is that with earthquakes and other natural disasters on everybody's mind, perhaps all "the rocking and rolling and floating away" may have an impact: "Los Angeles has been shaken by so many things, maybe it's saying, 'We ought to hold on to our roots.' "

He's not making any great claims about such an effect in his KCET special: "It's just a little stroll down memory lane. I don't think it's going to suddenly save our past. Los Angeles is a very transient town. I'm not a missionary. But if this spurs people to save things, great."

What the documentary recalls are mostly familiar places and oddities of the past that still convey a sense of wonder, grandness and colorful inanity that helped, for better and worse, to create an image of L.A.

Of course we see Pacific Ocean Park as well as the wondrously splendid but now closed department store, Bullocks Wilshire. We are reminded of the little old Beverly Park and its pony rides that once occupied the corner now dominated by the huge Beverly Center.

Again we see the old Clifton's Pacific Seas Cafeteria downtown. And even if we remember or only heard about it before, it may be a bit astonishing, in this age of huge malls and gigantic discount stores, to be reminded that Helms Bakery once had 500 trucks--they called them coaches--on the road, delivering bread and other goodies right to your door.

At least in the rough cut that I saw, there were a few small attempts at analysis--one segment refers to the demise of Bullocks Wilshire, suggesting there was some impact when the old movie stars and the old money moved farther west.

But it is the sights in Story's broadcast that remain with you. What would a look at L.A.'s past be without a peek at the old Cocoanut Grove? We also see Angels Flight, called "the world's shortest railway," just over 100 yards long--a twin-cable car system that serviced Bunker Hill and may be restored, half a block south of Third Street, between Hill and Olive streets.

We also see shots of Central Avenue in its heyday, when, as one woman recalls, it was like "the main street in a small village." But Story says the program pointedly avoided overemphasizing Hollywood: "TV news shows tilt toward celebrities, and that's only a little bit of Los Angeles.

"L.A. is a collection of neighborhoods, but I think it's beginning to congeal a little. People are saying it's becoming a city rather than just a camping place."

If "Things That Aren't Here Anymore" sells enough videos for KCET, says Story, there may be a sequel: "Things We Left Out the First Time." If L.A. keeps turning history into parking lots, there'll always be enough material.


"Things That Aren't Here Anymore" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on KCET.

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