Op-Ed: How Angelenos invented the L.A. summer — in the beginning was the barbecue

A surfer heads to the water in Venice on September 26, 2016.
(Los Angeles Times)

Summer wasn’t handed to Los Angeles, all its parts in place. The season’s icons — from barbecue to baseball — seem permanent, but they were never a given. Angelenos rescued some from the past and devised others; we imported, co-opted and sometimes revolutionized hot weather culture. Our perpetual summer, L.A.’s critics say, is the city’s character flaw. But that’s not true. It’s the source of our sunny liberation.


In the beginning was the barbecue. Outdoor roasting and baking were the only ways meals were prepared in colonial Los Angeles. Adobe houses were too small to have a kitchen space; cooking was outside. Add music, flirtatious display and the local wine distilled into aguardiente, and the daily meal became a days-long fandango of dancing and grilling. But the Anglo possessors of the city after 1850 thought fandangos were improper (perhaps they couldn’t dance the intricate steps). They ignored the climate and brought dinner inside, where it could be consumed in puritanical privacy.

The climate finally won. Sunset Magazine began urging middle-class Southern Californians to entertain casually around brick-and-mortar grills in the 1930s. The May Company’s downtown store — which already had a Barbecue Corner on the fourth floor — advertised portable grills in 1940. The cheapest cost just under $13 (equivalent to about $220 today). It took post-war prosperity — and the proliferation of small, unairconditioned L.A. tract houses in the 1950s — to send working-class dads to the grill and make outdoor dinner and drinking a summertime habit again.



Angelenos at the end of the 19th century went to the beach, but they went mostly to look at it. Perhaps it was out of modesty. Photographs show beach strollers beneath hats and umbrellas, dressed as if they were attending church. If anyone dared a bathing suit, it was cut from flannel or thick, cotton “mummy cloth.” The suits were hardly revealing, but women on the beach were unrestrained by corsets and men went uncovered below the knee. “Promiscuous lolling” on the sand, prudes complained in The Times, inevitably followed.

Relentless marketing of surf music and fashion made the beaches of Los Angeles an image of endless summer for America.

Nearly every city along the coast at first had a bathing-suit ordinance that required full coverage for men as well as women. The Long Beach City Council determined the legal distance between swimsuit and knee in 1916. Santa Monica police still were arresting topless (male) sun bathers as late as 1929. Laguna Beach didn’t repeal its modesty law until 1940.


To make the beach one of the city’s great amenities took a new notion of beauty and an L.A.-led revolution in public morals. Typically for Los Angeles, the revolution was sold as a health benefit. Belief in the revitalizing power of sunlight shrank the swimsuit in the 1920s, and the resulting tan, the Times reassured readers, was a sign of “stored-up sun energy and vitality.” Hollywood by then had shown the world a well-tanned Douglas Fairbanks, followed by a glowing Joan Crawford and pinup girls who never seemed to get out of a swimsuit. The beach is where coconut oil, the itsy-bitsy bikini and the bare chest produced a bronzed ideal of summer in L.A.


Pomona had a Surf Board Club as early as 1889 using locally made boards, but surfing’s real popularity began in 1907 when George Freeth demonstrated stand-up wave riding at Venice and Redondo beaches, and in 1912, when Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Olympic swimming gold medalist, gave lessons at Corona del Mar and Santa Monica.

Within a generation, lighter, shorter surfboards — some manufactured by a Los Angeles ladder company — democratized surfing. More board improvements, using wartime materials produced in L.A. spread the sport further in the 1950s, as did cheap gas and surfing’s “mother road” — the Pacific Coast Highway.


True surfers resisted commercialization — and became a branch of 1960s counter-culture — but relentless marketing of surf music, lingo and fashion made the beaches of Los Angeles an image of endless summer for America.


In 1902, a workshop in Los Angeles rolled out one of the most successful of early automobiles. It was called the Tourist, and with it came the daring idea of automobile touring. The first destination was scenic Eagle Rock. A mechanic came along to help with breakdowns. In 1906, the Southern California Automobile Club gave motorized tourists the single sheet “strip map” reliably charting destinations up and down the coast. Club members put up some of the earliest highway signs to show the way.

The signs initially pointed to destinations in the romanticized landscape of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona. Boosters in every town along El Camino Real, using the book as a source, concocted a mythic Old California as a reason for tourists to stop, buy souvenirs and stay the night. The restored or recreated missions attracted millions, guided by the commemorative bells that marked the route of the Franciscans along the Royal Road.


In the 1960s, the expanding freeway system sped up the road trip that is Los Angeles itself, until the freeways gridlocked. Despite the traffic, in the summer we savor the freedom of L.A.’s cruising streets.


In 1873, the Los Angeles Herald complained that no local team played the kind of serious baseball they did in San Francisco. The Times in 1881, appearing uncertain if its readers knew the sport, reported that “an outdoor game” of “base ball” had been played in Anaheim. But by 1882, the Times was publishing the box scores of the Acme nine of Los Angeles.


Professional baseball began in 1892 with the Los Angeles Angels of the short-lived California League. A more durable Angels team, in the Pacific Coast League, began play in 1903 and kept up a winning minor league franchise until 1957.

All of the city’s diverse communities played the summer game. South L.A.’s White Sox Park, best known as a stadium for Negro League teams, also was home to Mexican American teams like Los Zapateros, sponsored by a San Gabriel shoe store. The Los Angeles Nippons, a Nisei team, lost to Mexico-El Paso, a cross-border team, in a Monday night game before 10,000 fans at downtown’s Wrigley Field in 1930.

But it was with the arrival of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958 that baseball and summer were connected for boys like me, the game and the season woven perfectly together by one voice. It was Vin Scully’s voice. On August evenings when it was still light, I lay in bed, radio on, trying not to fall asleep before the last out. Scully’s mellow tenor could deliver shivers of suspense on the hottest night. Now that voice is gone, and summer in L.A. seems less.

D. J. Waldie is the author of “Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles,” among other books. He is contributing writer to Opinion.


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