A magical mystery maypole rises in Brentwood

Times Staff Writer

The pole rises 20 feet in the air, and with its colored ribbons tapering to the ground in a circle looks like an enormous spinning top that somehow has alighted on a leafy stretch of Sunset Boulevard.

The maypole -- a Celtic symbol of renewal that is celebrated with a dance around its base -- has appeared like magic each spring for nearly 30 years on the grounds of a historic Spanish Colonial Revival estate that once was a women’s convalescent home and is now the Archer School for Girls.

It was a bit of whimsy that for the elderly residents of the Eastern Star Home brought a smile and perhaps remembrance of childhoods past. For the girls of Archer it is a harbinger of summer and its more carefree pleasures.

For the wider Brentwood community, the annual rising of the maypole on a lawn near Barrington Avenue is a cherished, if mysterious, tradition, a testament that in Los Angeles some customs can endure even as the old gives way to the new.


“It’s nothing that costs money, nothing that needed raising funds for, or needed to be mitigated against -- it’s just something nice,” said Jay Handal, owner of the neighboring San Gennaro restaurant, who has provided pizza for its builders for years. “The school, by allowing it to continue, keeps a great community tradition, which is something you don’t see enough of these days.”

The rising of the maypole is one of the longest continuous events of its kind locally, Archer officials said. Archer, which moved into the building in 1999, has added a few touches of its own, with seniors and their fathers helping to erect the pole and tie down the streamers. On the last day of class -- June 8 this year -- the school’s sixth-graders perform the traditional maypole dance, scampering in a circle and plaiting the ribbons on the pole.

It can look like a giant traffic jam, school director Arlene Hogan said.

“It’s not to be believed to see these tiny girls trying to get their steps together,” she said. “It always looks like a knotted glob at the end, but we cheer.”

Although the maypole dance is associated in some instances with paganism or fertility rituals, the school focuses on the pole’s symbolic celebration of life’s seasons. More important for the girls, Hogan said, is valuing a link with the past through the example of the charitable activities of the Eastern Star women.

“It’s a historic building, and equally important to the preservation of the building was the preservation of the tradition of the home’s Eastern Star service and the maypole,” Hogan said. “It’s promoting that sense of goodwill.”

The Eastern Star Home was designed by William Mooser and Co. in 1931 and housed mostly masons’ wives. The estate is a Los Angeles historical-cultural monument and is listed on the California Register of historic places. It gained perhaps its widest familiarity as the set of a nefarious rest home that Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes visited in the film “Chinatown.”

The first maypole appeared in 1981, apparently erected in the dead of the night, to the surprise of the Eastern Star residents, who were never told the identity of their benefactor.

Who exactly puts up the pole has remained a mystery to most neighbors to this day, part of the tradition’s lore, although school officials were finally let in on the secret after they enlisted help in putting up their first pole.

“Honestly, you drive by and suddenly it’s there. You don’t see anyone the day before -- it just appears,” said neighbor Ann Hollister, who lives on Westgate Avenue and whose four young children delight in the yearly visit. “I’m particularly attuned to noticing it through the eyes of a child. Driving my three oldest to school the other day, they all said in unison, ‘Mommy, look, it’s back.’ ”

In fact, the man behind the maypole -- who wants to remain anonymous to maintain its mystery -- is a former neighbor who, in collaboration with an actress friend, began the tradition as a way to cheer the Eastern Star residents. They started out with hastily erected Christmas trees and greetings that would appear overnight on the home’s back wall. A Dec. 25, 1981, account in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook describes the women of the Eastern Star Home awakening one morning to find a surprise Christmas tree in their backyard, “but the identity of the giver remains a mystery.”

The group decided to include a maypole as a midyear treat, and each April erected it with friends late at night, wearing dark clothes and carrying flashlights, sometimes barely avoiding security guards and nurses changing shifts.

The first crude maypole was a 100-foot piece of PVC pipe that flopped like a wet noodle until it was cut down to manageable size. Initially, it took the group hours to put the pole up. Then a technique was mastered that uses a 300-pound, 23-foot steel pipe that slides into a concrete foundation. Heavy-duty 37-foot ribbons are attached to a steel rim at the top and secured to pins hammered into the earth.

When the school moved in, the maypole ringleader came back each year to supervise the students and their fathers.

Kristina Goldenberg, 17, an Archer junior, remembers practicing the ribbon dance as a sixth-grader.

“It’s definitely a routine, because you want it to look nice and woven,” said Goldenberg, who was standing in a school courtyard during Grandparents Day last week. “During the dance the cars will stop on Sunset and parents will come with their video cameras. It’s a nice culmination to the year and nice that it’s not only a private celebration but a connection to the community.”

A group of Eastern Star ladies, who are invited each year to attend, sat at picnic tables in the shade, enjoying the day.

Two of them, Minnie Mahlock, 94, and Ethel Hansen, 91, who lived on the estate when it was a retirement home, remember the maypole fondly.

“We had no idea who put it up,” said Hansen, who lives at an Eastern Star facility in Yorba Linda. “We knew they would come at night with flashlights. But we just loved it. Sometimes they would leave flowers at the bottom for us to plant.

“We looked forward to it every year and really enjoyed it being there,” Hansen said.