Burton S. Sperber dies at 82; landscape company founder

Burton Sperber, shown last year in the lobby of ValleyCrest Landscaping headquarters, guided his company through steady growth as it reaped the benefits of the postwar building boom.
Burton Sperber, shown last year in the lobby of ValleyCrest Landscaping headquarters, guided his company through steady growth as it reaped the benefits of the postwar building boom.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

He was the founder and chairman of the board of Calabasas-based ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., the nation’s largest landscape services company, whose projects have included the gardens at the Getty Center and the rooftop community garden at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But Burton S. Sperber preferred being called the “head gardener.”

Sperber, a Malibu resident whose lifelong love of magic rivaled his passion for horticulture, died Friday of complications from surgery at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said company spokesman Dennis Kaiser. He was 82.

A Los Angeles native whose father owned a retail nursery, Sperber learned the landscape business as a teenager working after school at MG Nursery in North Hollywood in the 1940s.


After owner Mossimo Giannulli died, his widow sold the nursery to the 19-year-old Sperber, who bought it with his father for $700 in 1949.

Benefiting from the post-World War II building boom in Southern California, Sperber’s privately held company grew steadily as it did landscaping for residential developments, schools and freeways.

What initially began as a small nursery with three employees has grown to more than 150 locations around the world, with 9,000 employees and nearly $835 million in annual revenue.

ValleyCrest has been involved in countless high-profile landscape projects, including the Grove in Los Angeles, the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida, Fashion Island in Newport Beach and Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“There’s nobody else I would ever go to, and Burt knew that,” said real estate developer Rick Caruso, who used Sperber’s company in landscaping all of his projects since the first one in 1992, including the Grove and the Americana at Brand in Glendale.

“I had great respect for him as a landscaper,” Caruso said Monday. “Burt was literally one of those guys who was a pioneer in this industry, and he was as humble as the plants he planted. He was a true gardener, a true lover of landscaping and plants and the beauty they created.”

Businessman and former Los Angeles parks Commissioner Steve Soboroff was involved with Sperber on more than a dozen projects, including a soccer field at Exposition Park and a safety landscape median on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

“It had been floundering for years and Burt designed it, had it installed, worked with Caltrans and the county and the city and personally made financial contributions so it could happen,” Soboroff said.

ValleyCrest has been a family affair.

Sperber’s late brother Stuart co-founded the Valley Crest Tree Co., one of the company’s eight divisions, in 1961.

Sperber’s son Richard, who joined the company in 1980, was named president and chief operating officer in 2001 and became co-chief executive officer with his father in 2008.

Although Sperber stepped down earlier this year, he remained actively involved with the company and continued to go to the office every day — not that he considered it work.

“Work is something you don’t want to do,” he told The Times earlier this year. “I love doing what I do, and there’s nothing else in this life that I’d rather do.”

An exception may have been magic.

Introduced to magic when he was 10 by his uncle, a magician at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, Sperber became an accomplished magician. He later became a member of the elite Inner Magic Circle of the Magic Circle, the London society formed to promote and advance the art of magic.

Sperber also had one of the nation’s largest collections of magic books, dating to the 1500s, and wrote many magic books.

“Believe it or not, I am actually better known in the world of magic than I am in the landscape world,” he said in a 2008 interview with C-Suite Quarterly business magazine.

Born in Los Angeles on May 14, 1929, he graduated from North Hollywood High School and served as an Army master sergeant in the Korean War. He met his wife, Charlene, when he was 16, and they were married in 1949.

A longtime supporter of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, Sperber helped build Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, where he was made a lifetime member. He also was instrumental in building what is now known as American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

In addition to his wife and son, Sperber is survived by his daughters, Ellice and Michelle; his sister, Deanna Colton; and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Wendie Jo.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.