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A ranch gives up the ghost

Times Staff Writer

TIME stands still at Oakridge.

The stone house on the Northridge hilltop is locked. Through its darkened windows can be glimpsed empty rooms that for nearly a half-century echoed with the laughter of comic actor Jack Oakie and a nonstop flow of Hollywood buddies.

Its curving driveway, circling an ancient oak, is cracked. The back lawn, where Oakie and his celebrity friends lazed away summer days by the pool, is overgrown and brown.

Oakridge is a monument to a long-vanished lifestyle in the San Fernando Valley, perhaps the last of the multi-acre ranches that stars from Hollywood’s golden era bought in what then was the outskirts of town.

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Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had one down the street from Oakridge. Zeppo Marx, the brother of Groucho, Harpo and Chico, owned one in Northridge. So did actor William Holden and actress Janet Gaynor. Studio mogul Harry Warner had a working ranch in Woodland Hills that is now Warner Center.

As development spread across the Valley floor, the Hollywood ranchos disappeared one by one.

Oakie and his family were determined that Oakridge would not meet the same fate.

Until he died in 1978 at the age of 74, the radio and movie comedian battled to preserve low-density agricultural zoning around the home.

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His wife, Victoria, continued his fight, persuading Los Angeles officials to designate Oakridge a historic-cultural monument in 1990. Two years before her death in 2003 at the age of 91, she bequeathed the estate to the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “I feel it is too beautiful to be torn down when I’m gone,” she told city officials.

But time is ticking at Oakridge.

USC has decided to sell the house and land, and use the money for its film school.

A developer is weeks away from buying the nine-acre estate near Devonshire Street and Reseda Boulevard for a 28-home subdivision. City officials, meantime, are scrambling to preserve Oakie’s English manor-style house. They would like to buy it and turn it into a cultural center that would salute pioneering Hollywood figures who had their own ranchettes in the Valley.

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“The Oakie house is one of the last vestiges of the San Fernando Valley’s personal connection to the movie industry,” said City Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Chatsworth and Northridge areas. “James Cagney’s ranch is gone. Lucy and Desi’s is gone. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ is gone.”

THE 6,400-square-foot home was designed by architect Paul R. Williams and built in 1937 for actress Barbara Stanwyck. She sold it to Oakie in 1940 when she married another Northridge resident, actor Robert Taylor.

In his biography, “Jack Oakies’ Double Takes,” the actor recounted the idyllic early days in Northridge:

“When we bought our little ranch, very few people lived out our way. The mailman, who whiled away his time at our house, told me that of the 40 or so names and addresses that comprised the town, there were days when not even one of them had a letter for him to deliver.”

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In those days, groceries had to be brought in from Hollywood and Beverly Hills, he recalled in Victoria Oakie’s 1980 memoir, “Jack Oakie’s Oakridge.”

“For an ice cream, we used to have to bicycle five miles down to Topanga Canyon and Devonshire Street to the old two-story brick complex called the Chrysler Building. It had the only drugstore and ice cream fountain in all of the far northwest Valley. On those bicycle trips we could take off our sweaters and hang them on a branch of a grapefruit tree in an orchard along Devonshire Street and

two or three hours later come by and pick them up on the way home.”

Oakie planted orange, lemon, apricot, plum, peach, lime and fig trees. Friends such as boxing champion Jack Dempsey helped water them when they dropped in to visit. And there was a steady stream of friends of the former vaudeville performer turned radio and TV personality.

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Former Los Angeles TV weatherman George Fischbeck visited Oakridge to “play cards and drink whiskey” with Oakie and his friends.

“It’s not a Hollywood-type mansion. It was a good house. And that’s the way he was, a good man,” said Fischbeck, of Woodland Hills. “We played around a table that wasn’t that fancy. Vickie would bring in sandwiches. She took good care of Jack -- she put up his pictures on the wall of his den, a side room off the kitchen.”

In another of her books, “Life With Jack Oakie,” Victoria Oakie explained why she and her husband never moved from the Valley to Palm Springs, like other Hollywood figures did in the 1960s.

“My husband was very proud of the eight bathrooms that we had at Oakridge. Jack always believed that we had the best and that it was best to hold on to it,” she wrote.

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For a time, the couple felt secure that zoning restrictions would protect them. Not so.

In 1962, Jack Oakie organized Northridge neighbors to protest the use of a home near him as a Delta Upsilon fraternity house for students at San Fernando Valley State College, (now Cal State Northridge). The students made noise until 3 and 4 a.m. and jammed narrow streets in the area, Oakie complained.

OAKIE chafed at the widening of Devonshire Street, which took away Oakridge’s original stone gateway. He watched unhappily as shopping centers were built nearby at Reseda and Devonshire and the hill next to his house was flattened to make room for a Chevrolet dealership.

The meadow just south of the pool and the Oakridge estate was the site of Northridge Farms, a thoroughbred ranch. Its last 98 acres were sold for development in 1961 over the Oakies’ objections. In 1966, the City Council voted to allow 7,500-square-foot lots on the Northridge Farms site instead of estate-sized 15,000-square-foot lots.

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“The vultures began to descend,” Victoria Oakie recalled later.

After Oakie died in 1978, Victoria Oakie devoted her life to keeping his name alive.

She gave 47 boxes of Oakie’s papers and memorabilia to the University of Wyoming, which promised to build a replica of Oakie’s den in which to display them.

In 1989, she asked the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission to declare Oakridge a historic-cultural monument.

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The city designation provides a layer of protection from removal or remodeling, said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city planning department’s office of historic resources.

“Monument status means that if one was to propose demolition, which they are not, the Cultural Heritage Commission could file a 180-day objection with an additional 180-day extension,” Bernstein said.

At USC, where Oakie had been friends with a succession of university presidents since the 1930s when he filmed collegiate-themed comedies there, Victoria Oakie endowed a Jack Oakie Chair faculty position and a Jack Oakie Comedy Scholarship program for students. Last year it awarded a $12,000 scholarship for excellence in writing or directing comedy as well as $4,000 awards for screenwriting, animation, directing and cinema excellence.

But now the university is poised to sell Oakie’s beloved home. University officials said the school cannot find a proper use for the property, which needs to be occupied and maintained if it is to survive. Under the provisions of Victoria Oakie’s bequest, proceeds from any sale of the property go to the USC cinema school.

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Smith said the city negotiated a complex deal last year involving a developer with plans to acquire Oakridge from USC.

Under the deal, the city would drop its landmark status for the open land behind the Oakie house, allowing Greystone/Lennar Homes to build 28 homes on the south and west sides of the property. In exchange, the developer would sell the Oakie home to the city for $1 million.

But that developer’s plans fell through.

A new builder, Westlake Village-based Trimark Pacific Homes, expects to complete its acquisition of the Oakie property by the end of the summer -- but the fate of the historic home remains uncertain.

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ACCORDING to Smith, Trimark was unaware of the previous agreement to sell the Oakie residence to the city. The firm now plans to have a professional appraisal done before announcing the structure’s selling price.

Trimark executive Steve Kessler agreed that renovating the 70-year-old structure would be costly.

“Whoever buys it has to have a passionate desire and spend a lot of money,” Kessler said.

Kristina E. Raspe, USC’s senior vice president for real estate and asset management, said escrow is expected to close in September. She said the university supports the city’s effort to preserve the Oakie home.

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Commercial real estate agent Mark Perry, who represents USC in the pending sale, said unexpected visitors show up each time he unlocks the Devonshire Street gate leading to Oakridge’s driveway. As if on cue, up walked Brett Garman.

“What a beautiful place! Wow!” exclaimed Garman, a nurseryman who lives in Granada Hills. “I’ve driven by this place a billion times and always wondered what’s back here.”

Garman, who was raised in Chatsworth, said he remembers some of the other celebrities who had ranches in the northwest Valley.

“Lucille Ball’s place was at Oso and Devonshire. Chatsworth used to be all orange groves,” he said.

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Perry gave him permission to walk around the outside of the house and Garman was impressed when he returned.

Jack Oakie wasn’t joking about the place being special, he said, agreeing with the actor that Oakridge deserves to be preserved.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Back story

Comedian Jack Oakie started his career in 1924 as a Broadway chorus boy, and he performed in movies and on radio and television. He usually played second fiddle to larger stars but was famous for stealing scenes from them with breezy wisecracks and comedic double takes.

He appeared in 87 films, including the 1940 Charlie Chaplin film “The Great Dictator,” which brought him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

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Described as being as witty off-screen as on, Oakie remained a popular Hollywood figure even after he went into semiretirement in the 1960s. Oakridge was the frequent setting of parties that drew sports figures, celebrities and noncelebrities.

Oakie was born Lewis Delaney Offield in Missouri but grew up in Oklahoma, which inspired his stage name.

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Source: Times research

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