George C. Page; Philanthropist Founded La Brea Museum

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George C. Page, who hitchhiked to Los Angeles as a teenager with $2.30 in his pocket, made a fortune with his Mission Pak holiday fruit gift boxes and land development and then donated millions to house treasures of the La Brea Tar Pits, which fascinated him, has died. He was 99.

The founder of the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Hancock Park, he was also a major benefactor of Childrens Hospital, Pepperdine University and other institutions that aid young people. He died Tuesday night in Carpinteria, Pepperdine spokesman Jerry Derloshon said Wednesday.

An eighth-grade dropout whose two children died as infants, Page, along with his late wife, Julliete, vowed to use what he earned to help children, first to survive and then to get an education.

He gave his money and name to the $9-million George C. Page Building at Childrens Hospital; the George C. Page Youth Center in Hawthorne; the George C. Page Stadium at Loyola Marymount University; numerous buildings at Pepperdine, including two residence halls and a conference room; and programs at the USC School of Fine Arts, as well as the $4-million La Brea museum.

But it was the museum, which opened April 15, 1977, that captured Page's passion and became his permanent monument.

"This is so living, so immediate," he told The Times in 1981, stretching his arms wide to indicate the distinctive burial-mound structure. "It's like giving flowers that I can smell while I'm still here."

The saga of George C. Page, how he wound up in Los Angeles and how he made the money to put his name on those donations, all started with an orange.

The piece of fruit was given to him by his teacher when he was a 12-year-old schoolboy in his native Fremont, Neb.

"I was so awed by the beauty of that piece of fruit that I said, 'I hope someday I can live where that came from,' " he recalled.

So at 16, he headed west. He lived in a $3-a-month attic room in downtown Los Angeles, ate Hershey bars and 10-cent bowls of bean soup fortified with crackers and ketchup. He paid for all that--and saved $1,000 in his first year--working days as a busboy (which he first thought meant driving a bus) and nights as a soda jerk.

Come Christmas, the youth decided to send some of California's beautiful fruit to his mother and brothers in Nebraska. Innately adept at packaging, he lined the box with red paper and decorated it with tinsel. Thirty-seven other roomers in his boardinghouse offered to pay him if he would fashion similar packages to send to their Midwestern relatives.

He was in business.

Page launched Mission Pak in 1917, pioneering the now-ubiquitous marketing of California fruit in holiday gift packages in an era when fresh fruit was rarely seen during the frozen winters back East.

Working alone, he bought the fruit, wrote the advertising copy and found new ways to "appeal to the eye to open the purse." One marketing tool was the jingle that became a part of Southern California history: "A gift so bright, so gay, so light. Give the Mission Pak magic way."

On an occasional day off, Page played tourist--going to ostrich races in Pasadena or marveling over the oozing pools of asphalt known around the world as La Brea Tar Pits. Why, he mused, must a person travel seven miles to see the bones removed from those pits, poorly displayed as they were, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park?

It was more than half a century before Page could realize his vision of properly showcasing the 40,000-year-old fossils. In that time, he learned a great deal about packaging, business and getting things done.

Visiting France when he was 21, Page encountered newly invented cellophane and began importing it to enhance his gift boxes. During World War II, he became an expert in dehydration, distributing dried fruit and other foods to the armed forces and then to the public. He started a company to make spiffy auto bodies, salvaging battered but functional cars.

After he sold Mission Pak in 1946, Page delved into developing, building industrial and commercial parks and leasing space to the defense and aerospace industries and the federal government. Packaging was even important in real estate, he decided, in the form of fine landscaping to enhance complexes.

By the time he was ready to create his museum, Page was already retirement age--so old that some county officials feared he wouldn't finish what he started. But even in his later years, Page walked miles each day, saying a person should take care of his body as one does a fine watch.

He bought a motor home and made it his Hancock Park field office, arriving at 7 a.m. daily for three years to supervise the construction of the museum. He studied architectural firms and hired two young men, Willis E. Fagan and Franklin W. Thornton, who proposed a "burial mound," half underground, that would conserve energy and preserve the park's green space.

He hired an expert from Brigham Young University and others who had worked on Disneyland attractions to develop steel-rod and wire methods of presenting the prized fossils so that they would not be just "bones, bones, bones."

And with a promise of free plane fare, rent and a television set, he lured a Pennsylvania couple to Los Angeles to paint murals of La Brea as it had appeared when the skeletons belonged to live animals roaming the area.

He examined the most comfortable materials--carpet to walk on, not marble--and limited the museum to something that could be easily covered in about an hour.

When solving a problem required money, Page gave that as well as his expertise. When his $3-million building threatened to remain empty because of county officials' penury, he donated $1 million more for the exhibits. He even rescued one discarded skeleton of a dire wolf from the trash at the Museum of Natural History.

And he paid for the expensive wrought-iron fence constructed a few years after the museum opened to prevent night-time motorbike riders from scaling the sodded sides of the building, preserving the slopes for children (not to mention adults) to roll down during the day.

Page remained a hands-on patron years after his museum dream was realized. He knew where a photographer could get the best angle for a shot of a giant sloth and could tell at a glance if a plant in the atrium was sickly. An avid benefit-goer himself, Page opened his museum to charities for fund-raisers and found that the well-heeled loved dancing around the imperial mammoth and the 9,000-year-old woman and among the dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and condors.

Although experts initially questioned the self-described museum buff's credentials for creating the facility, they eventually had to admit that Page knew--or at least was willing to learn--what he was doing.

Along with the 5 million visitors to the museum in its first 10 years were scores of museum directors from around the world, eager to inspect what the amateur had wrought.

"The thing that made me feel awfully good," the dapper, slightly built Page told The Times in 1982, "[was that] they said, 'George Page, we have never been in a museum with things displayed so well.' "

The philanthropist is survived by a son, John Haan of Carpinteria, and two grandsons.

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