Louis Diaz, 79, the resident glass sculptor at Placita Olvera, has a closetful of clothes peppered with small, BB-sized holes. It's one of the hazards of a life spent shaping glass over a flame that burns at nearly 3,000 degrees, with sprays of liquid glass occasionally leaving their marks. At the tiny Olvera Street booth that serves as workshop and store, he nowadays chats up the foot traffic and tends the counter while his son Albert, 50, handles much of the workload. A colorful array of exotic carousels, carriages, hummingbirds, swans, roses, pianos, unicorns and winged horses lines the display. The small figurines are shaped by hand from clear glass rods that the Diazes purchase by the pound. The glass is liquefied with a blowtorch, using a mixture of propane and oxygen to achieve the required temperatures.
Born and raised on the Eastside, the senior Diaz took up glassmaking under Jose Saldivar, a Pico Rivera neighbor who worked out of his home. With younger brothers Raymond, Tony and Alex, Diaz, at 12, was one of several youngsters mentored by the master craftsman. "He was short and kind of temperamental," Louis says. "He was already an artist [who] used to make little animals out of clay." Louis' sister Lupe, 81, learned to melt and sculpt glass herself by watching their brother Tony, while Alex had his own shop in Torrance.
Drafted during WWII, Louis took his craft overseas, where he served on both the European and Asian fronts. "I made gifts and souvenirs for my commanding officers and friends. But there wasn't a lot of glass," he says. "We used whatever we could find." Upon his return from the war, Diaz drifted through several jobs before acquiring the Olvera Street business. A widower, he now lives in Santa Fe Springs and hitches a ride into the city center each day with a neighbor. Son Albert commutes from El Monte.
Another son, Armando, works from home in Ontario and produces glass pendants that are also sold at the booth. And, according to Albert, their uncle Raymond did very well with a glassblower stand at Universal Studios several years ago.
In a camera-ready town, a glassblower is a project scout's dream, and Louis has garnered his share of credits. He blew glass from a jail cell in an episode of "It Takes a Thief," the TV series starring Robert Wagner, and one of his figurines became a treasured keepsake of the Charles Bronson character in the film "Death Wish II."
Louis and his son lament the drop in downtown tourism during the past decade, but have no plans to close. Louis says he'd like to retire, but according to Albert, it's just talk. "He might do it--one of these years."