"It was not just a house, it was a future."
Week after week, millions of Americans tuned in to the "People Are Funny" radio show in 1948 as contestants tried to solve a riddle and win just about the grandest prize imaginable: a new house, the first in the glittering new Los Angeles suburb named Panorama City.
No matter that this "scientifically planned" suburb was just a vast, dusty construction site amid dairy farms and orange groves in the largely undeveloped northern San Fernando Valley.
No matter that the floor plan of the three-bedroom, one-bath, ranch-style house would be largely indistinguishable from 1,999 others to be built around it.
It was 1,056 square feet of hope for millions of Depression-reared, war-weary young Americans--whites only need apply--looking to nest. "The envy of every 1948 housewife," a news release gushed.
It was a fully furnished home of one's own in the midst of a cruel national housing shortage. GIs had returned from World War II ready to start their families and stake their claim to the American dream, only to find they had to move in with parents or scramble to find a rentable attic.
The prize house came with a car and a job.
"That's why we said we were giving away a future," said John Guedel, now 85, who created and produced the hugely popular radio show hosted by Art Linkletter. "A future for an ordinary American."
Secretly, the radio stunt played a small role in fighting the Cold War by boosting efforts to sway an Italian election. Publicly, the suburb's developers wrapped themselves in the flag.
"It was an act of patriotism to have a home in the suburbs," said historian Elaine Tyler May, author of "Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era." "We were showing the world with our prosperity: our new houses, our jobs, our communities. It's when 'The American way of life' emerges."
Into this vortex of optimism, patriotism and hype came Vivienne George, a 31-year-old office worker living without a phone in a small Oregon town.
One of 680,000 entrants, she arrived at the Hollywood radio studio on week 30 of the "People Are Funny" contest with a bright smile, an optimistic mien and, most important, the correct answer to the riddle.
George became an instant media celebrity, and took possession of her "future" in the "new garden spot in the Valley," as developers called it.
But a future, like a community, doesn't always turn out according to plan. The first house of Panorama City, if walls could speak, could testify to that.
A Baffling Riddle, Help for Europe
Big Chief Windbag, gloomy and gay,
I'm one over others that lie in decay.
Where may I be found?
Upon low ground . . .
That's all, that's all I will say.
The riddle was baffling. The only clue given radio listeners was that the answer was the name of a place.
Guedel, who later created Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" and wrote the television pilot for "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," devised a contest in which entrants sent in a dime and a 100-word essay on the benefits of life in a democracy. They were told that the essays, and CARE packages bought with the dimes, would be sent to Europe to help bolster the spirits of people whose lives were ravaged by the war.
Actually, all the essays and packages went to areas in Italy where State Department officials--who had contacted Guedel--wanted them as ammunition against Communist candidates.
"It worked," Guedel said. "The Communists lost."
Back home, Fritz B. Burns, already a legendary residential developer whose considerable fortune had been built on low-cost housing and showbiz-style promotions, was looking for a way to hype his next big project.
Burns had come to Southern California in the 1920s and immediately recognized it as a developer's promised land. In 1926, to help promote his endeavors, he sponsored a traveling professional football team, the Los Angeles Buccaneers.
Foreseeing the killing that could be made when the GIs came home to start families, he teamed up with Henry J. Kaiser in 1945 to form Kaiser Community Homes.
On opening their first major project, in the Westchester section of Los Angeles, they described mass-produced housing as "America's answer to the so-called accomplishments of communists and fascists."
For their second big development, Burns and Kaiser turned to the Valley, buying Panorama Ranch in part because it was close to future jobs. General Motors was building its biggest West Coast automobile assembly plant nearby.
"Burns knew that would bring people and other businesses to the area," said Greg Hise, a USC urban studies professor and author of "Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the 20th Century Metropolis."
With the land and the ability to build up to 40 houses a day, but lacking a means of promotion, Burns donated a house and a car to the radio contest. The promise of keeping the world safe for democracy while living in a free home in sunny Southern California proved an irresistible draw.
Listeners across America were held in thrall for more than six months as contestants--one per week, chosen from their essays--tried to solve the show's maddeningly arcane riddle.
The last line tipped off George.
As an Oregon State College journalism graduate, she knew that newspaper reporters typed "30" at the end of their stories. "That's all, that's all," she reasoned, could mean "30, 30"--perhaps 30 degrees latitude and longitude?
Those lines meet near Cairo, Egypt, a city at low elevation built on ruins. As for "Windbag," Cairo contains "air."
Her answer, coming in a live broadcast at NBC studios at Hollywood and Vine, left Linkletter momentarily speechless. Program personnel rushed up to George with smelling salts, in case she felt faint.
"I'll be eternally grateful for Cairo," she said.
Hoping for a Break While Struggling
"I have not talked with anybody about this for many years."
Vivienne George, 82, leaned on a walker as she answered the door of her apartment in a well-appointed retirement complex in Redlands. Her hair is silver and she looks frail, but when she flashes her broad smile she is immediately recognizable as the woman who waved at a publicity camera 51 years ago in front of her new house.
The Georges were married in 1943, just three months before Ward was called up from the National Guard and sent to the South Pacific. He was discharged in 1944, having contracted a series of debilitating tropical diseases.
They lived in Lebanon, Ore., about 30 miles south of Salem, getting by on his disability check and her various jobs.
"I would take anything I could get: picking beans, working in an office, selling articles on the side," she said. "I was trying to break into journalism."
The phone call from Hollywood came to a grocery store about a quarter-mile from her house.
"The man from the store had to trek up to the house in the mud to tell me someone in Los Angeles wanted to talk to me," George said.
A few days after her triumphant "People Are Funny" appearance-- adorned in a leaf-print dress paid for by Linkletter's people--George was driven out for a look at her new home, but the driver got lost. "He asked people where Panorama City was and nobody had ever heard of it," she said.
The public had been invited to witness the moment when the contest winner got her house, and Linkletter was furious with the driver.
"He says, 'Where have you been? I have 30,000 people here and I've been having a hard time holding them,' " George recalled. "I had never seen such a mob. Everybody wanted my autograph."
At one point she boarded a helicopter for an aerial tour of her new neighborhood. As it lifted her above the crowd, she saw only construction and orange groves. "I looked down and said, 'I've never seen an orange grove before.' So, the pilot asked me, 'Would you like to pick an orange?' "
He took the helicopter down so she could get one. "That's what I remember most of the whole thing," George said. "Picking that orange."
A few days later, Ward George was flown to Los Angeles and more pictures were taken, but out of the limelight things had already begun to sour. Vivienne George called to inquire about an office job at Lockheed, but was told she would have to report for work right away. "I couldn't," George said. "We had to go back to Oregon to get our things."
The offer was withdrawn. She heard nothing more from show officials about a job.
The Georges returned to Oregon, where their reception was only partially celebratory.
State officials sent them a notice demanding that taxes be paid on their prize. She lost her job. "The man who ran the office heard I had gotten a job in California, so he gave mine away," she said. And the grocer with the town phone was sulking: "He was unhappy because I didn't mention him on the show."
Trying to Get People to See the Future
"I would stand on a box and tell people that all this bare land was someday going to be the heart of the Valley."
When salesman Herb Lightfoot went to work for Fritz Burns in 1949, the roads were still dirt and only a few homes in Panorama City had been completed. He would point to a lot and tell of wonders to come.
"It was show business," said Lightfoot, now 82.
"Visit this dramatic new city being built," said an ad. "See how well Kaiser engineers and architects have interpreted the desires of 'Mr. and Mrs. Modern.' "
One Sunday, Lightfoot sold 23 houses.
To avoid the uniformity that made suburban developments the object of ridicule, Burns rejected traditional street grids. "He liked the 'curvilinear' streets, as he called them, not just straight lines," recalled Ken Skinner, who joined Burns as a bookkeeper in 1949.
Likewise, although the two- and three-bedroom houses--priced at $9,150 to $10,500--all shared the same basic layout, Burns' designers created 70 different exteriors.
The New Englander had three plain columns in front, the Panorama included a picture window in the living room, and the Catalina situated the garage toward the back for a longer driveway.
The vast majority of the Panorama City houses were bought with loans issued by the FHA or the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. Many Panorama City houses were bought with $500 down.
But Panorama City houses were not for everyone.
A "Conditions, Covenants, Restrictions" document filed with the county recorder declared that no Panorama City lot could be "used or occupied by any person whose blood is not entirely that of the white or Caucasian race."
The document was not unusual for housing developments of the time. "If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes," read the 1939 Underwriting Manual issued by the Federal Housing Administration.
Thurgood Marshall, then a civil rights lawyer, won a landmark 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley vs. Kraemer, essentially nullifying racial restrictions in housing, but many developers, including Burns, continued to issue them.
"The salesmen would have a sliding glass door on their offices out in the field," recalled Edward Kussman, now 87, who founded Pacoima's NAACP chapter in 1956, when it was one of the few Valley areas open to blacks. "When they saw a minority coming toward them, they would slide the door closed."
The Panorama City racial restrictions were entered into county records on Aug. 31, 1948. The next day, the Georges signed the deed to their new house.
Feeling Like Strangers in a Strange Land
"There was a big sign out front: 'This is the house won by Mrs. George.' "
When Vivienne and Ward George finally moved in, their nearest neighbor was several blocks away and telephone service had not yet reached them. They saw Burns a few times at the one nearby restaurant, but if he recognized them, he didn't show it.
Several people did recognize her, however, from newspaper photographs. "They would come to me and ask me to write a contest essay for them," she said. "This was the heyday of that kind of contest.
"When I would say no, they would sometimes get upset and say, 'Well, you got yours. You should help me get mine.' "
The Georges felt like strangers in their new suburb.
"A woman came to the front door one day when I was here alone and said she wanted to sell me a patio," George recalled. "I was from Oregon, where it rains all the time. We didn't have patios. I told her, 'I think we already have one.' "
George took her to the back of the house and innocently pointed to a small overhang that shielded the dining room window.
"The woman said, 'That's not a patio,' and she left."
Isolated and practically friendless, the Georges didn't hesitate when a man named Jack Badger offered to buy the house, as is, only seven months after they moved in.
"He wanted it furniture and all," George recalled. "He didn't tell us why and we didn't ask. He just paid us and we ran."
Badger was a salesman for Burns, but also had his own broker's license. "Jack Badger was smarter than the rest of us," Lightfoot said. "He realized early the money that could be made in reselling the houses."
Records show that Badger and his wife, Cleo, owned the home for 10 months. Lightfoot was not sure if they ever lived in the house.
On Feb. 14, 1950, the Badgers sold it to John and Lillian Hansen, a carpenter and schoolteacher with a 6-year-old son, Marshall. Existing records do not show the price, but similar houses were selling for about $11,000.
"It was still pretty rural," said Marshall Hansen, who now lives in Northern California. "Kids everywhere else had rock fights. We had walnut fights."
His parents, who moved often during his childhood, came to Panorama City from Denver. They
had met at an astrology convention sponsored by the Church of Light, a sect that included astrology among its guiding principles.
The Hansens lived in the contest house for 16 months--time enough for Marshall's sister to be born--and then moved on. "My mother was always looking for bigger and better houses," he said.
Next came Douglas and Iris Jones, who both worked at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica.
"They were quiet people, worked very hard," said Iris Jones' niece, Helen Remsen of Encinitas, who used to visit the couple as a girl. "They would get up at 6 a.m. to drive to Santa Monica and come home late at night. That was their day."
When the Joneses moved into the house in 1951, Iris' mother moved in with them. The three of them would stay 27 years.
These were prosperous years for Panorama City. The planned suburb was considered such a success that it was featured in numerous national publications, including Life magazine, which ran a picture of Burns gazing down on the area from his seat in a helicopter.
Although much of Panorama City was still a construction site, it was already developing a lifestyle that could have come out of a Norman Rockwell painting--or a Fritz Burns ad. "We would just ride our bikes all day, and nobody would worry about us," Marshall Hansen recalled.
On land across Van Nuys Boulevard, Burns developed the Panorama City Shopping Center. In 1953, he installed a massive Christmas display that included 96 giant white fir trees and live reindeer bought from Hearst Castle. For thousands of Valley families, a visit to the reindeer became an annual rite.
The shopping center blossomed, with Broadway, Robinson's, Montgomery Ward, Ohrbach's and nearly 60 other stores opening their doors by 1958. Burns set aside acreage for 8,000 parking spaces.
"Cars are what make this area," he explained.
Nearby was the popular Phil Ahn's Moongate, a Chinese restaurant named for a Korean American character actor who began working in films in 1935. (His best-known role was Master Kan on TV's "Kung Fu" in the 1970s.)
In 1954, Ahn's siblings leased a building from Burns and started the restaurant, using the actor's name for publicity. "There was only one other restaurant there then, and they were doing a land-market business," Ralph Ahn said. "It was just a fabulous time of growth."
Phil Ahn, who lived elsewhere in the Valley, was even named honorary mayor of Panorama City, although racial restrictions were still written into the deeds.
"That dirty rat," Ralph Ahn said quietly, having known nothing of the racial covenants. "Fritz Burns was a friend of mine, too."
With the arrival of the '60s, there were signs that "the American way of life" in suburbs like Panorama City was changing.
"The birth rate began to dwindle as the first baby boomers reached childbearing age," May wrote in "Homeward Bound." "Within a decade, it was at an all-time low."
The marriage rate declined, the divorce rate rose, and the focus on home and community was no longer as fervent or viewed as a necessary component of patriotism.
Panorama City, once the sparkling suburb that caught the attention of a generation, was aging.
"People think that if you build something new, the problems of society won't ever get to it," said William Morrish, director of the Design Center for American Urban Landscape at the University of Minnesota. "In this country, when a building gets to be 50 years old, we either tear it down or put a plaque on it."
By the 1980s, many original Panorama City residents had moved on, seeking bigger, grander or simply newer houses than the 1,000-square-foot starter models.
Panorama City census figures from 1990 show a population of 52,000, 47% of which was Latino. The area includes Burns' original 2,000 homes, plus thousands of apartment units built later.
In the 1980s, many of the area stores that once catered primarily to white, middle-class consumers moved or closed, including all the major department stores.
Some of the formerly vibrant stores remained empty shells for years. The primary reason for the economic decline, according to Hise of USC, was the disappearance of high-paying jobs. Much of the aerospace industry was gone from nearby Burbank, and in 1992, after a years-long decline, the GM plant shut down.
"When GM closed, a lot of the good-paying union jobs--the kind of job a person needs to buy a house, fix it up--went with it," Hise said.
The Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis and Women's Club were also gone. Panorama City had evolved from homogeneous suburb to anonymous patch of urban sprawl, beset in some parts by gang shootings and an active drug trade.
Seeing It Again After 50 Years
"This is not a pleasant thing to remember."
Vivienne George sits in the passenger seat of a car on her way to visit the house for the first time in 50 years.
She doesn't remember how much she and her husband were paid for it in 1949, but they used the money to buy a house on a large lot in the west San Fernando Valley. They had a garden and raised chickens, ducks and turkeys.
In contrast to Panorama City, they also had friends and a telephone, and she found work she loved, writing for a twice-weekly shopper in Chatsworth. "I finally had a job in journalism," she said.
A succession of newspaper jobs took her back to Oregon and then to New Jersey before she returned to California, where she headed the public relations departments at Humboldt and Chico State universities. Her husband died the day after Christmas, 1976.
After retiring, she moved back to Southern California, but not out of any sense of nostalgia. "I hate cold weather," she says. "I didn't want any more of it."
Of the home's first five owners, only George survives.
The Joneses moved to a Kern County retirement community in 1978, selling the Panorama City home at a time when comparable houses were going for about $73,000. The couple died in the mid-1980s.
The new owners were retirees Lee and Vera Clifton, who had owned five-and-10-cent stores in Oklahoma. Lee Clifton died in the house in 1982 after collapsing in the bathroom. Vera Clifton died in 1984.
The creators of the development are gone, too. Burns died in 1979, leaving behind a large charitable foundation. Kaiser died in 1967.
The car pulls up the driveway of the house. George looks puzzled.
Does she recognize it?
The exterior of the house looks much the same. Plain even by Panorama City standards, it has shuttered windows on either side of a small porch. Also visible from the front is the chimney and an attached, two-car garage. The house, lawn and shrubbery out front are all in pristine shape.
Leaning on her walker, George makes her way toward the front door. Sheila Shanahan, 46, walks out and gives her a big smile.
"Welcome to your house," Shanahan says.
Shanahan, a Postal Service employee, bought the house 15 years ago for $80,000. (It's probably worth about $150,000 today.) She helps George up the front steps and into the house, now furnished with antiques.
"Do you remember any of it?" Shanahan asks.
"What I want to see is the patio," George says, recounting the story of the huffy saleswoman from a half-century earlier. Both women laugh, and Shanahan gives her guest a tour. She is obviously proud of her work on the house--she laid down new carpet, painted, landscaped, put in new bathroom fixtures and renovated the kitchen.
George recalls a Degas ballerina print that hung in the living room, a Kaiser-brand dishwasher that never worked right.
"We were all alone out here," she tells Shanahan.
Shanahan moved to Panorama City during its decline. In her first several months there, the house was burglarized three times. "I was ready to put the house up for sale."
But she stuck with it, putting in security doors and fencing off both the front and back yards. The burglaries stopped. Even so, she asked that her address not be published.
And the neighborhood changed. Panorama City cannot be said to be booming again, but it is in the midst of an economic comeback. After several years of vacancy, the former Broadway is now a Wal-Mart. The shopping center's other anchor is the La Curacao department store.
Many of the businesses along Van Nuys Boulevard are aimed at lower-income clientele: a 99 Only Store, a medical-dental clinic with "no appointment necessary" and a one-stop storefront offering tax preparation, auto insurance and a wedding chapel. But almost every shop is leased.
A few blocks away, on the "curvilinear," tree-lined streets of the original development, the vast majority of Burns-Kaiser houses still stand, most in good shape with well-kept lawns.
The comeback, Morrish said, is part of a community's natural cycle.
"Panorama City did the job it was supposed to do," he said. "It was affordable, starter housing. And it's still doing that job--just the faces have changed."
The visit is short; George tires easily. The women begin their goodbyes, then a bird suddenly swoops down close to the picture window and flies up into the overhang. Shanahan points out a partly hidden nest.
"That's where the birds built a nest when I lived here, too!" George says. "The same spot."
Times research librarian Ron Weaver contributed to this story.
THE CHANGING SUBURBS
The series will explore new aspects of the Southern California suburban experience on occasion throughout the year. Earlier articles can be viewed on The Times' Web site at: http://www.latimes.com/suburbs
* The evolution from orchard to subdivision in Ventura County.
* Fear of gangs disrupts an Orange County community.
* The city of Walnut has become a national model of ethnic mixing that works.