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Making a Connection to Burbank Airport’s Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Business travelers run toward their boarding gates, pulling rolling suitcases on their leashes. Locals in shorts pace for errant arrivals. A mother chases her toddler as she bolts down a corridor.

As passengers blow past the gift shops and ticket counters, and on to places such as Phoenix and Salt Lake City, 78-year-old Charles August Bausback sits and watches.

He has come to the old terminal to make a connection--not with a flight, but with the past.

From late 1930 to 1940, Bausback’s father owned the Burbank Airport coffee shop, banquet hall and the swank Sky Room, a Depression-era hot spot for politicos, celebrities and aviation luminaries, with a commanding view of the airfield.

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With them all came unforgettable encounters.

During the ‘30s, Govs. Frank F. Merriam and James Rolph Jr. threw venison banquets for legislators at the airport, flying in to Burbank with freshly bagged game, Bausback recalls.

Then there was the time World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, demonstrating a Stinson aircraft to a Beverly Hills matriarch, took Bausback along--giving the youth his first plane ride.

He also remembers the antics of Jacqueline Cochran, a salty aviatrix who won air racing trophies but raised eyebrows for “swearing like a trooper and constantly using the men’s restroom.”

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Sadly, says Bausback, people’s recollections of the airport’s vivid history have faded. These days, Burbank Airport is known more for the never-ending feud over noise and a new terminal than it is for its colorful past.

“It had class and a real warmth to it,” Bausback said of the airport’s early days.

Hangout for the Stars

The Burbank Airport of old opened for business Memorial Day 1930. Christened the United Air terminal, he says it had the quality of a movie set--and often doubled as one.

Movie directors would film at the airport amid its old-style California architecture and a grand entrance filled with brass chandeliers, a red carpet and etched glass doors.

Outside, gleaming metal planes stood ready to soar above the neighborhood bean fields and over the San Gabriel Mountains. Smoke from a smudge pot in the middle of the airfield served as the wind indicator.

It was a place where people would dress up in their Sunday best to watch planes shimmering in the California sun or to catch the comings and goings of Hollywood celebrities.

In fact, Bausback said, it wasn’t unusual to see a who’s who of old Hollywood, including Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ann Harding, Barbara Stanwyck, Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. Often, they were just hanging out.

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“There was always somebody famous at the airport,” Bausback said. “The stars wanted to be seen where the action was and it was a happy hunting ground for news photographers, who came out here on a regular basis.”

Bausback said he came West with his family from New Jersey in 1928. His father opened the airport concessions in 1930, partly with proceeds from the sale of another restaurant in Glendale. Charles Bausback was 8 at the time.

He has fond memories of riding the dumbwaiter, and rising at 4 a.m. on weekends and during summer vacation to prepare the coffee urns for the breakfast crowd. But it was the famous fliers who stirred his imagination.

Shoptalk in the Coffee Shop

Howard Hughes, Wiley Post and movie stunt flier Paul Mantz were among the aviators who could be seen hanging out in their leather helmets and flying jackets, said Bausback. “They would go up and do loop-the-loops and fly upside down. You would see them skimming over the airport because they knew they could draw a crowd. There were no regulations. Aviation was so new, they hadn’t thought to pass any laws yet.”

Back on the ground, fliers would spend off-hours at the coffee shop. More than a place to grab a bite, it was the meal of last resort for those about to spend hours in the air without the luxury, or in some cases mixed blessing, of consuming an on-board meal.

There, the pilots huddled around tables trading gossip, new flight routes and news on weather.

The golden age of the airport drew to a close in 1940 when Lockheed Air Corp. bought the terminal and surrounding property.

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Bausback’s father sold his restaurants, including the Sky Room, which was later remodeled into a corporate dining room. It now houses a conference room where the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority holds its meetings.

The elder Bausback went on to open a factory that produced expensive tiles.

A Place for the Memories

Bausback, an adult by the time his father sold the holdings, went to work in Vernon as a research chemist for an oil company, where he helped make camouflage paint for the military.

Burbank remained a commercial airport under Lockheed’s ownership, though the surrounding buildings were used for top-secret research and development of aircraft during the Cold War, such as the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Stealth fighter.

A father of three, Bausback stayed with the oil company for 43 years and retired in 1984.

Today, he lives with his wife in La Crescenta, in the same house he has lived in since 1946.

As Burbank Airport celebrates its 70th anniversary, Bausback says there is some unfinished business for those involved in planning the next terminal.

“I would like to see them have a little museum so people can see what the airport was like through the years,” Bausback said. “People are in such a rush. But everybody should have an interest in the history of the area they live in.”


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