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He Turned a Dream Into Reality: ‘If You Build It, They Will Come’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The legendary sleigh-pullers and jolly old St. Nick get better billing in the magic of Christmastime, but it was a maverick developer who became the king of low-cost housing who sparked a beloved holiday ritual for thousands of Angeleno families.

Fritz Burns was no Santa; he was thinking of ways to make money when, in 1953, he began a local yuletide tradition that enchanted children for decades: visiting Santa’s live reindeer.

In late 1953, looking for a way to hype his sparkling new Panorama City shopping center in the San Fernando Valley, Burns added a mountain of fake snow, thousands of blinking lights and free candy canes, 96 giant white fir trees, Santa and six or seven (but not eight) tiny, white fallow deer, a small breed of reindeer, one of them wearing a fake red nose for Rudolph.

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As Burns’ reindeer multiplied with the same fervor with which they pulled Santa’s sleigh, he began sending his growing flock of prancing little deer out to shopping centers throughout Los Angeles, not forgetting to put some on top of his one-story office building at the busy corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

The Christmas-reindeer stunt was the icing on the cake of a boom-and-bust career that took Burns from a seaside mansion to a tent, and back to prosperity again.

No developer saw the housing boom coming more clearly than Burns. He was a developer of near-mythic talent, a combination of optimism, patriotism and hype. In 1921, he arrived in Los Angeles to head the Minneapolis-based real estate firm of Dickinson & Gillespie. Immediately, he recognized Los Angeles as a developer’s promised land and quickly began buying up acreage.

Luring crowds with a promise of a free ride in the company’s biplane, at a time when flying in a plane was as exotic as riding a camel, Burns and his team of a hundred salesmen sold out 36 subdivisions within three years. His developments--from the San Gabriel Valley to the Westside--bore names like Hollydale Gardens, Alta Manor, Orange Blossom Manor, Poppyfields, Highway Highlands and Hollywood Laurelgrove.

In 1924, as wildcat oil wells began to spring up in Playa del Rey, Burns bought a large expanse of bluffs he called Palisades Del Rey, and there he built his own Italianate mansion on Waterview Street.

To entice buyers, he donated land for a university--now Loyola Marymount--persuaded city officials to build a municipal airport that eventually became Los Angeles International, and, at the base of the bluff, built the Del Rey Beach Club.

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His company also set up picnic grounds in a shaded eucalyptus grove and sponsored a treasure hunt on the beach for prospective buyers. Big lots with underground utilities such as sewer lines sold for $200 to $500.

By the 1960s, jet-engine noise from LAX would render about 900 of the clifftop dwellings--within three subdivisions--unlivable. The homes were torn down in the 1970s, leaving behind ghostly vacant streets and foundations.

Burns was not only a believer in the promised land of Los Angeles, he also embraced some of its health crazes. Each morning, his crew of salesmen huffed and puffed as Burns put them through a challenging series of mandatory calisthenics.

In 1929, Burns bought out the company he had once worked for. A few weeks later, the stock market crashed and the 30-year-old self-made millionaire was almost instantly broke. His wife divorced him and he lived for the next five years in a tent on what was then known as Moonstone Beach--now Dockweiler State Beach--because of the stones that beachcombers found there. From there, he could look up and see his former mansion, and from there, too, he fought off creditors and wrote poems about his loneliness.

Despite his losses during the Depression, he hung onto most of his property. After the 1932 Olympics here, Burns scraped together enough money to buy, at $140 each, the prefabricated houses built to house the athletes. Mules dragged the two-room, rickety shacks from Baldwin Hills to Playa del Rey, where he rented them out as summer cottages along Trolley Way.

Burns began to recoup his fortune in earnest in 1934 when he hit oil at the corner of Manchester and Delgany avenues. With his hard-won wisdom, a new fortune and a new wife, he developed Windsor Hills, Westside Village and Toluca Woods, enterprises that marked his entry into home construction.

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From Maine to California, he recruited private builders under the umbrella of the group he formed in 1942, the National Assn. of Home Builders (NAHB). Two years later, foreseeing that a fortune could be made when GIs came home from World War II to start families, he pushed a federal program that offered mortgages to veterans, and in 1945 teamed up with Henry J. Kaiser to form Kaiser Community Homes.

New ideas about the American house were evolving, and technology was figuring into the evolution: how to produce houses using less material and labor. With this in mind, in 1946 Burns promoted the model “Home of Tomorrow,” designed by architect Welton David Becket and located at Wilshire Boulevard and Highland Avenue. The postwar house featured many firsts, including an electric garbage disposal, intercoms, a touch-activated electrical system, “washable walls” and room-length closets.

A million visitors, handing over a buck a head, passed through the U-shaped house that Burns would soon use as his office. Starting in the Westchester area, he centered new housing projects on the aerospace industry, launching the “American Way of Life,” which he billed as 1,000-plus square feet of hope for Depression-reared, war-weary GIs. The houses transformed the home-building business by using prefabricated parts and teams working in assembly-line fashion to cut costs.

In 1948, he turned 800 acres of dairy barns and alfalfa fields into a community of identical homes on winding streets, each for $10,000 to $15,000, not far from where General Motors was building its biggest West Coast plant. It was named Panorama City.

Promoting the suburb, Burns persuaded his friend Art Linkletter to put Burns’ radio stunt on his national radio show: Solve a riddle and win the grand prize, a fully furnished house with a car in the garage--and a job at Lockheed’s nearby plant. Linkletter told listeners: “It’s not just a house, it’s a future.”

Every week for 30 weeks, Linkletter read the riddle-poem and gave the only clue: The answer was a place name.

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“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.”

Listeners were held in thrall until Vivienne George, a 31-year-old office worker from Oregon, guessed the maddening riddle. The last line tipped her off. As a college journalism major, she learned to end her stories with “30,” a notation to signify the end. “That’s all, that’s all,” she reasoned, could mean 30 degrees longitude and latitude, which pinpointed the location in Cairo, Egypt, a city at a low elevation built on ruins--decay. As for “Windbag,” Cairo contains the letters “a-i-r.”

That same year, 1948, Burns and his wife, Gladys, bought silent-movie pioneering director David Wark Griffith’s 300-acre ranch in Sylmar. Griffith Ranch, which Burns used as a weekend retreat, had been a location for early Western thrillers, such as “Custer’s Last Stand” and Griffith’s epic “Birth of a Nation.” Burns perpetuated the Griffith name and soon opened the ranch gates to a herd bred from his own fallow deer.

By 1964, when his wife was named a delegate to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, the reindeer had multiplied to 400. The couple organized a rally and picnic at the ranch for Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president, offering supporters the chance to “put in a good word for Christmas with Rudolph.” (Goldwater lost in a landslide.)

When the 1971 Sylmar earthquake collapsed a wall at the ranch, many reindeer escaped. The animals were becoming increasingly burdensome, and Burns advertised throughout the nation for charities and zoos to take them off his hands. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos took some, and Mayor Tom Bradley presented some to the mayor of Nagoya, Japan.

The man who virtually built Subdivision Southern California--nearly 40,000 homes--died in 1979, leaving behind a large charitable foundation that still operates.

“Those who did not recognize him by his accomplishments,” said Burns biographer James Thomas Keane, in his book “Fritz B. Burns and the Development of Los Angeles,” “remembered him for the reindeer prancing atop his office and at shopping centers every Christmas.”

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