Our Laguna: Richard Challis marks his 90th birthday

Forty years ago Sunday, Richard Challis led a march of about 200 dog owners and their pets at Main Beach to protest a City Council ban on dogs on Laguna's beaches and parks.

The council didn't really stand a chance when Challis and Arnold Hano showed up at a meeting with a crowd of supporters and petitions against the ban, with signatures gathered at the demonstration.

"People were lined up outside of City Hall," Challis said. "The crowd was so big the meeting was moved to Laguna Beach High School."

Artist Roger Kuntz was among the protestors, hoisting a sign that read "Dog is God spelled backwards."

Challis' son, David, and daughter, Diane Challis Davy, also participated.

"My brother and I both marched in the parade with posters we had made," Challis Davy said. "We had this little Scottish terrier that we really loved."

The protest was not Challis' only foray into community affairs. Challis was active in Motivated Museum Members, which fought against the merger of the Newport Harbor and Laguna Beach museums and eventually annulled what locals considered a marriage made in hell.

He also raised money as an auctioneer at fundraisers for victims of Laguna's periodic disasters, including the first Bluebird Canyon landslide. The auction raised $20,000, which the Rev. Colin Henderson dispersed, Challis said.

"But the thing biggest thing my father did was the promotion of the arts in Laguna Beach and his honorable treatment of artists," said Challis Davy, director of the Pageant of the Masters and Grand Marshal of the 2010 Patriots Day Parade. "Some of those artists are famous now, like Phil Dike [her father's favorite] and George Post, but not so widely known then."

Challis, who celebrated his 90th birthday Aug. 12, is one of the city's cultural icons for his pioneering contributions to the arts — listed in the marquis edition of "Who's Who in American Art."

Today, Laguna Beach boasts of a loosely estimated 80 art galleries representing a broad array of artists. In 1950, when Challis opened Laguna Studio Gallery on the corner of Mountain Street and South Coast Highway, it was the first commercial fine arts gallery in town that was not owned or operated by an artist or the Laguna Beach Art Assn. — which evolved into the Laguna Art Museum.

Challis still lives on the property, in back of the gallery, now called the Esther Wells Collection.

Besides offering a venue to artists to exhibit and sell their art, Challis juried the Festival of Art entries and served with the late Andy Wing on a Censorship Committee appointed to review Festival of Art prospective exhibits for prurient subject matter. Challis said he was proud to report they didn't censor anything.

"The idea of those two going around to censor art is hysterical," Challis Davy said.

Richard Challis came to Laguna Beach in 1946 after six years in the British Army to stay with his aunt, South Laguna resident Ethel Owens.

He paid $1,000, "quite a sum in those days" to learn the craft of picture framing from Harold Reed, developer of Temple Hills, which got its name from his intention to build a cemetery there that the city kiboshed, Challis said.

Reed was also a city councilman and owner of a vegetable stand and ice house where Ralph's Market is today and where Challis set up his framing shop.

"Before I finished my first frame artists were stopping by asking me to show their work," Challis said.

His first venture into exhibiting art was a show of works by plein air painter Virginia Woolley.

In 1954 Challis married ceramist Carleen Clark, the mother of his two children.

While Challis Davy, not the least of Challis' contributions to Laguna's culture, continued the family heritage in art, her brother is described as a computer genius, owner of his own company.

Clark and Challis divorced and in 1963 he married Laguna Beach artist Patricia Turnier, whose parents, Van and Isabel Childs, were the original owners of the Pottery Shack.

Among Turnier's best memories of their marriage, which ended in 1969, were their travels to Europe and England and the parties they hosted.

"We used to give really great costume parties," said Turnier.

Turnier and Challis were introduced by artist Paul Blaine Henry, whose works were shown in what Turnier called "Richard's stable."

"Some people might remember Paul for his Raggedy Ann and Ragged Andy series," Turnier said. "He also has a painting at the museum called 'Five Friends,' of a coffin and pall bearers."

The stable also included Gerald Brommer, Miriam Shelton, Ralph Tarzian, Steven DeLair, Jack Dudley and Shirley Murray, as well as Kuntz, Post and Dike. The gallery will celebrate the 40th anniversary of representing Brommer from Oct. 2 to 31.

Turnier and Challis have remained friends, often celebrating their mutual birthday together, last year at a dinner for two.

This year 11 members of Challis' far-flung family and friends came to Laguna in July to celebrate his 90th birthday.

The visitors included his niece Val Leggate from England; her son, Jim, and his wife, Gayle, from Dubai; Val's daughter, Sophie Hill, and her husband, Simon, and their two children, Jasmine and Josh, from Australia; and family friends Ian and Desiree Macleod and their two children from Bermuda.

"We had 18 for a dinner," Challis said.

In 1966, Laguna Studio Gallery was renamed The Challis Galleries, the name it bore until Challis retired in 1984.

He advertised the gallery in the Los Angeles Times for sale or lease. Esther Wells was one of two respondents and he leased the gallery to her.

Wells kept some of the Challis "stable" and added some newcomers, including Jacobus Baas, Jan Magdaleno, Frank Dalton and Russell Albright.

But she dropped the Challis name, which still rankles a bit.

In 2000, M. "Charlie" Ferrazzi took over the directorship of the gallery, bringing an enthusiasm and dedication developed over 15 years in the art world.

"It is so cool working here," Ferrazzi said. "I can pick Richard's brain — he has so much history."

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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