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Nudist Colony Founder Voted Citizen of Year

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are certain unspoken requirements for public figures in small communities. Don’t trounce the mayor on the golf course. Don’t flash the sheriff a fake driver’s license. When greeting visitors, wear clothes.

For the Topanga Chamber of Commerce’s new Citizen of the Year, the first two rules will almost certainly present no problems. But the third is a hurdle.

“If you’ll excuse me just a minute,” Ed Lange told visitors Wednesday, “I’ll get dressed.”

Lange, founder of Elysian Fields, Los Angeles County’s only nudist colony, has spent nearly three decades preaching the benefits of an all-over body massage by warm Pacific breezes.

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And, at 72, he can hardly be expected to start dressing on a regular basis, even if he is Topanga’s Citizen of the Year.

“Clothing,” Lange said, shaking his head in wonderment as he looked over his community of nude citizens. “We developed a clothing compulsiveness somewhere down the line.”

If he was surprised at the honor from the Chamber, however, Lange was stunned when a representative from Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office also presented him with a commendation plaque at a February ceremony.

Some other county officials had been working to shut down Elysian Fields almost as soon as it opened in 1967.

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The zoning battle over the nonprofit center became one of the most protracted in county history, finally ending in 1992, after 25 years, with each side having spent more than $1 million in attorneys fees and court costs, Lange said.

The final result: Elysian Fields had to widen its road for fire trucks and make other safety improvements in exchange for a five-year conditional use permit.

The gray-haired, gray-bearded and, on occasion, well-dressed Lange arrived in Topanga in 1967. He founded the Elysian Institute to promote what he calls a healthier attitude toward nudity by publishing books on the lifestyle and promoting seminars.

Elysian Fields--eight lush acres, and one fig tree, on the cusp of Topanga State Park--was to be a place of clothing-optional family recreation, an “opportunity to expand the senses.

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“Nude,” he says frequently, “does not mean lewd.”

But even in Topanga--where the comfortably bohemian still buy herbal extracts and tie-dyed shirts at the local markets and residents pride themselves on their reputation for unconditional tolerance--Lange was eyed with caution.

“Ed and I tried to join the Chamber 10 years ago,” Art Kunkin, Elysium Institute’s editorial director, said with a chuckle. “They wouldn’t even let us join.”

Over the years, many of the wary locals drove up the hillside to see just what kind of aberrant behavior might be taking place on top. While some visitors may have been put off at the thought--or sight--of a shoes-only tennis match, they found little of substance to oppose, Lange said.

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And in the end, so did the establishment.

Once shunned by the Chamber, Elysian employees now sit on its board of directors, said board member Pat MacNeil. Lange himself was elected to the post of treasurer a few years back after pointing out to voting members that he usually had no pockets in which to hide pilfered funds.

The board even holds many of its meetings in an Elysian conference room.

“We went from not acceptable to barely acceptable to quasi-acceptable to acceptable,” Lange said. That is, “after they found out I wasn’t the devil.”

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