New museum will bring San Fernando Valley’s history to life
For decades it has struggled along as the Rodney Dangerfield of Los Angeles.
Dismissed as urbanized sprawl and best known to some for its porn shoots and failed secession efforts, the San Fernando Valley never seems to get any respect when it’s compared to the rest of Los Angeles.
“In the past it’s gotten the short end of the stick as far as its history is concerned. Things just disappear,” said Tommy Gelinas, who owns a T-shirt printing plant in North Hollywood and has a lifelong fascination with the Valley.
“People forget that we’ve produced cars, rockets and movies here.”
Now, the Valley may finally be getting a little respect. It’s getting its own museum.
Valley Relics, a still-growing collection of 15,000 artifacts and curiosities gathered over the years by Gelinas, is a salute to the not-long-ago history of the San Fernando Valley.
The museum’s walls are filled with vintage signs that once drew customers to the Valley Ranch Barbecue in Lake Balboa, Northridge’s White Horse Inn, Chez Nous in Toluca Lake and the Palomino country bar in North Hollywood. Gelinas even retrieved the original Henry’s Tacos sign and menu when the Studio City food stand faced closure earlier this year.
There’s a sign reminding shoppers that S & H Green Stamps are available, and another from an Army recruiting station that once did business on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. There’s a Shell gas station sign from when regular was going for 29.9 cents a gallon.
The collection includes Western wear mogul Nudie Cohn’s 1975 Cadillac convertible, still festooned with silver dollars and Texas Longhorns on its hood. There’s even a still-working 1952 phone booth from the Smoke House in Toluca Lake. Gelinas claims that both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used the phone.
A handwritten letter signed by Isaac Newton Van Nuys and a 1924 Owensmouth High School “Utopian” yearbook also are on display.
And, of course, there are the trailblazing BMX bicycles manufactured during the 1970s by Gary Littlejohn, Mongoose and Redline — the three big firms in the Valley.
“My collection just keeps growing. I have tons and tons of Valley history that people ought to be able to see,” said Gelinas, who has spent the last decade and a half collecting Valley memorabilia.
Born in Burbank, the 49-year-old Porter Ranch resident has financed his $300,000 collection using profits from his T-shirt business.
Gelinas said he recalls being pulled into the Valley’s history during a car ride with his dad to pay the family’s bill at the Department of Water and Power building in Van Nuys. He remembers being intrigued by the sepia-toned murals that depicted earlier days in the Valley.
“As we were driving back home, I started trying to connect what I’d seen with what we were driving past. I thought, ‘Wow, we live in a cowboy Western town!’”
As the years went by, Gelinas started noticing that nothing seemed very permanent — the old came down, the new went up. “My history, the only history I have, was disappearing,” he said.
So he began collecting vintage photos and curios such as old RTD bus stop markers, an 1880s chair from a barber shop in what is now North Hollywood and glass bottles from the Canoga Park Dairy, the Corbin Dairy and an early-1900s Sylmar olive oil producer.
He persuaded property owners to let him take business signs from shops and restaurants that were closed and about to be demolished.
“I knew that he and my sister would always be going out taking picture of things in the Valley. But never did I imagine this guy had boxes of stuff hidden away,” said Shane Stewart, Gelinas’ brother-in-law, who helped move the collection from storage to the Marilla Street museum in Chatsworth, where it will all go on display Saturday.
“In the Valley, they knock things down and it’s gone,” said Stewart, who said there’s little left of the Arleta neighborhood where he grew up.
The Valley Relics collection has won praise from Gerald Fecht, a founder of The Museum of the San Fernando Valley. That group, created in 2005, briefly had exhibits featuring its 7,000 historic Valley artifacts on display in a donated storefront at a Sherman Oaks shopping center. It is looking for a permanent home.
“History is like working on a jigsaw puzzle,” Fecht said. “You put the little pieces together and suddenly you have a picture of what this amazing Valley was like in the past.”
City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents a swath of the Valley, said many assume that “the heart of culture in Los Angeles lies in the Westside” and popular tourist areas.
“But the reality,” he said, “is that for many of its residents, the heart of Los Angeles culture lies in the San Fernando Valley.”
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