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Convention Center Site, Unconventional Newspaper

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Convention Center opened in 1971 -- almost 200 years after Los Angeles was founded.

But that doesn’t mean that conventions and galas bypassed the city before then. Downtown’s Biltmore Hotel was the site of the Academy Awards for a time; the Coliseum, which could seat more than 100,000, was where California welcomed home its World War II native sons, Gens. George S. Patton and Jimmy Doolittle.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 1, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 142 words Type of Material: Correction
Convention Center site -- The Then and Now column in Sunday’s California section about the newspaper on the site of the Los Angeles Convention Center said Will Fowler, who claimed to be the first reporter on the scene of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder, worked for the Herald-Express. At the time, Fowler worked for the Los Angeles Examiner, and he said he called its city editor, Jim Richardson, not the Herald-Express’ Agness “Aggie” Underwood, after the body of Elizabeth Short was discovered. Also, the Herald-Express was a full-size newspaper, not a tabloid. In addition, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst did not buy the Los Angeles Examiner in 1903; he founded it. Also, the claim for the first use of Short’s nickname, the Black Dahlia, is widely disputed, but it originated in a Long Beach drugstore and was not coined by any newspaper.

Even grander was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, an Art Deco delight on Beverly Boulevard, built in 1935 to host a Depression-era housing show. The Ice Capades, the Harlem Globetrotters, Leopold Stokowski and Elvis Presley appeared there before it closed in 1972. The building was destroyed by arson in 1989.

All of these gatherings were grist for a newspaper that once stood where the present-day Convention Center draws political rallies and auto shows. In its day, the Los Angeles Herald-Express was its own kind of crowd-pleaser, heralding the daily comings and goings of a burgeoning Los Angeles.

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The tabloid was perhaps the most progressive as well as the most lurid of the city’s six papers and a star in the vast Hearst newspaper chain. It served up a brew of sex, crime and wrongdoing, boasted the city’s first female city editor and was credited with giving sensational names to murder cases, such as the notorious Black Dahlia.

The Chief -- as America’s most flamboyant press lord, William Randolph Hearst, was known to all -- started wars and built castles, wooed and won San Francisco, then set his sights on Los Angeles. He had already bought the city’s conservative Examiner newspaper in 1903 and built his landmark Examiner building at 11th and Broadway a decade later.

In 1922, Hearst also bought the Evening Herald, a daily newspaper founded in 1873, and employed its news columns to promote the careers of Hearst’s longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies, and her Hollywood friends. Three years later, in 1925, the Evening Herald’s new home rose near Pico Boulevard and Trenton Street, a modified Spanish Renaissance design with much limestone decoration. In 1931, Hearst bought the Evening Express newspaper, founded in 1871, and merged the two papers at his new Trenton Street building, calling it the Herald-Express.

The newspaper business was highly charged and very competitive. The city’s six dailies cranked out fresh editions all day long.

And the Herald-Express, with screaming headlines and eye-catching photographs, was the loudest of them all. It was a launching pad for the careers of a number of fascinating reporters and editors, including one of America’s most colorful and remarkable journalists, the grande dame of Los Angeles newspapering and the first female city editor of a major paper.

Agness Underwood -- “Aggie” to her colleagues and the whole city -- was a crusty woman who ruled the city’s news appetite with a combination of toughness, professional know-how and sentimentality. She was a mother of two who cooked her special spaghetti not only for her kids but also for actor Errol Flynn and gangster Mickey Cohen.

She demanded “absolute loyalty and a reverent devotion to the job,” wrote Times columnist Jack Smith, who worked for her in the early 1950s.

As city editor she rarely drank, but she sometimes would reward the labors of her “boys” with bottles of beer. And like a good beer, the journalism Underwood served up to Los Angeles until 1968 was brewed for working-class tastes.

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The Herald-Express produced up to eight editions a day, trying to make each one newsier and more entertaining than the last. When Doolittle led the famous raid over Tokyo, the front page headline screamed “DOOLITTLE DOOD IT!”

“In 1930,” once recalled editor Herb Krauch, who began at the Herald as a copyboy in 1912, “we had a house of ill fame across from the Herald-Express on Trenton Street, where one city editor occasionally spent his lunchtime.

“If you wanted a drink at the office, you could go into the photographic department and Frank Bentley, head photographer, would sell you a shot of gin for 10 cents. In 1928, the city editor was drinking two fifths a day and eventually, in delirium tremens, was carried out of the office on a stretcher.”

Everyone worked in a sort of constant delirium. Reporter Will Fowler always had a bottle of booze in his desk drawer and took it out to shock visitors touring the city room.

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In 1947, Fowler was the first reporter on the scene after a young woman’s body, naked and cut in half, was discovered in a vacant lot. Fowler called Underwood, who came out for a look. The newspaper dominated the coverage from the first day, making the Black Dahlia story into a Los Angeles legend, subject of novels, films and a still-open case file.

While Herald-Express journalists seemed to have more fun than those at the more staid rivals, the paper’s ethics and accuracy sometimes fell short. It was a time when reporters sometimes made up quotes and were known to pose others -- including their own relatives -- for news photographs.

That local tabloid style faded when Hearst merged the splashy Herald-Express with the conservative Examiner in 1962 and called it the Herald Examiner. The somewhat tamer newspaper, the city’s last remaining afternoon paper, folded in 1989 after 118 years of publishing.

In 1963, Mayor Sam Yorty said that Los Angeles was “the only great American city without a real convention center.”

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He finally got one, after tearing down the old Herald-Express building and others nearby.

The 1971 grand opening of the Los Angeles Convention Center was lavishly choreographed with dancing girls and a fake smoke-belching volcano that perfectly reflected Yorty’s tastes.


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