Busch's long-brewing presence

Times Staff Writer

Long before the Anheuser-Busch brewery was built in the San Fernando Valley in 1954, Southern California had close ties with the brewing company that today is in the middle of an international takeover battle.

Like many other wealthy industrialists of his time, co-founder Adolphus Busch adopted Pasadena as his winter home more than a century ago. There he built the first Busch Gardens, a vast outdoor attraction next to his mansion that he opened to the public.

The gardens served as a location for many movies in Hollywood's early decades. They were used in parts of "Frankenstein," "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Gone With the Wind," all filmed in the 1930s.

Busch also built an elegant restaurant called Sunset Inn that overlooked the sea at Ocean and Colorado avenues in Santa Monica. It was a popular destination for wealthy Angelenos and a high-profile target of prohibitionists.

The attractions are long gone, but in the 1960s the company brought back a more modern version of Busch Gardens at its Van Nuys brewery. It had boat rides for visitors, a monorail and a key attraction fondly remembered by many -- free beer.

"It was amazing," recalled Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who visited as a teenager. "It was a big treat to sit on the monorail and tour that big brewing plant."

Anheuser-Busch's reputation as America's top suds purveyor traces directly to Busch, a German immigrant in the brewery supply business who married the daughter of Eberhard Anheuser in 1861 in St. Louis.

Busch went to work in his father-in-law's struggling local brewery and helped turn it around. By the time Anheuser died in 1880, Budweiser had been introduced and the company was known as Anheuser-Busch Brewing Assn.

Under Busch's guidance, the brewery pioneered national distribution. By introducing pasteurization and artificial refrigeration it was able to put beer bottled in St. Louis on cooled rail cars destined for other cities across America.

Like other great capitalists of the Gilded Age, Busch enjoyed his wealth and fame. His moves were tracked by the press as he traveled in his plush private rail car. According to a biographer, Busch's grandson once recalled, "I was a big man when I was with him, and everything he touched turned to gold."

"Adolphus lived on a huge scale that stretched from Pasadena to New York to Germany, where he had his hunting estate," said Terry Ganey, coauthor of the 1992 book "Under the Influence: The Unauthorized Story of the Anheuser-Busch Dynasty."

"He was a prince in his lifestyle," Ganey said.

Busch was smitten with the California resort town of Pasadena, and in 1904 he bought a mansion on Orange Grove Avenue that he called Ivy Wall, where he came to escape the biting winters of St. Louis.

The palatial home draped in ivy overlooked a ravine choked with scrub brush and oak, Pasadena researcher Gary Cowles said. "The knoll on the other side was a complete eyesore."

Landscapers were hired to create a garden and Busch bought more land to make it bigger. He opened Busch Gardens to the public in 1906, and at their peak they covered 36 acres.

Exquisitely planned and maintained, the rolling gardens had miles of pathways, thousands of plants and shrubs, ponds, rare birds and fanciful sculptures imported from Germany, including images of Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel.

Busch died in 1913, but the gardens remained a major tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors came by car or stepped off at a special stop on the Pacific Electric Railway. Admission was free at first, Cowles said, but during World War I the Busch family started charging admission fees that were used to help wounded veterans.

For many years, the gardens were one of the region's greatest attractions and the site of numerous cultural events, including concerts, speeches, boxing matches, carnivals and an annual Easter egg hunt for orphans.

"They were very philanthropic," Cowles said of the Busches. "They did nothing but good here."

The gardens were also a convenient backdrop for Hollywood, and as many as 250 movies may have been at least partially filmed there, Cowles said, including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1931 and "Citizen Kane" in 1941.

The family offered to contribute the gardens to Pasadena, but city fathers were reluctant to take on the cost of maintaining them, and the land began to be subdivided in the late 1930s. Few traces remain, although some former structures can still be found on private land.

Also lost to the ages is the Sunset Inn, the luxurious restaurant that Adolphus Busch completed in 1912. It was full of marble, with a grand double staircase leading up to a garden on the roof overlooking the sea, said Charles Perry, president of Culinary Historians of Southern California.

"It was part of the strategy of Anheuser-Busch to have attractions like that," Perry said. "In a way, they were pioneering the German idea of beer as a way of life."

The glamorous drinking establishment -- so nice it was used for weddings -- was also a thorn in the side of local prohibitionists, who tried hard to put it out of business. The Busch family sold it to Baron Long, a swashbuckler who catered to the vices of some of L.A.'s wealthy elite and later helped found the Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, where Angelenos could play without interference from American law enforcement.

After World War II, Perry said, Anheuser-Busch decided it had to get bigger to remain competitive in the growing beer market and began building breweries outside of St. Louis for the first time. One of them opened in 1954 in Van Nuys.

In 1966, Anheuser-Busch added a new Busch Gardens, a $4-million theme park and tropical oasis, to the Van Nuys brewery. The 17-acre spread included a monorail that snaked around the facility and passed windows that gave passengers a look at the brewing process.

"A 25-cent fee is charged for parking and 50 cents for a 20-minute boat ride along a lagoon and through part of the gardens," The Times reported. "Lagoon banks are populated by flamingos, toucans, macaws, storks, swans, herons, egrets -- more than 1,000 birds in all."

The park, which gave out beer samples and in later years included numerous rides, was closed in 1979 to make room for a brewery expansion. Today the Van Nuys plant employs 800 people and produces 12 million barrels of beer a year, including Budweiser, Michelob and Kirin Ichiban.

On Thursday, giant Belgium-based brewer InBev, which owns the Beck's and Stella Artois labels, defended its unsolicited all-cash bid of $46 billion for Anheuser-Busch. InBev Chief Executive Carlos Brito said the combined company, which would reach across multiple continents, would transform Budweiser into a global brand, with a standing similar to what Coca-Cola enjoys internationally.

Anheuser-Busch Cos. shares rose $3.05, or 5.2%, to $61.40 on Thursday. The gap between the closing stock price and the $65-a-share bid by InBev reflected investor concern over whether the deal would get done. Anheuser-Busch reportedly is also in talks with Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo, and a merger between the two could block InBev's takeover bid.

On his desk, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky keeps a dented can of Budweiser that he picked up at the Van Nuys plant after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. "About 2 1/2 million cans were toppled and strewn all over the floor," he said. "I've never seen anything quite like it."

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Southland ties

1906: Adolphus Busch, president of St. Louis' Anheuser-Busch brewery, opens Busch Gardens behind his winter home in Pasadena.

1937: Busch Gardens in Pasadena closes.

1954: Anheuser-Busch opens a brewery in Van Nuys.

1966: A new Busch Gardens, a 17-acre amusement park, opens in Van Nuys.

1977: The Van Nuys park is renamed Busch Bird Sanctuary.

1979: Busch Bird Sanctuary closes.

1994: Anheuser-Busch announces a $175-million expansion of its Van Nuys brewery.

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Source: Times research by Scott J. Wilson

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