Burb's Eye View: A docent day at the museum

The conversation with my barber suddenly veered from the cats living at Warner Bros. and into a more historical context.

“I’m thinking I might visit the Burbank Historical Society’s museum next,” I said underneath the black smock that showed more expelled gray hairs than I’d like.

“There’s a museum in Burbank?” the stylist said between snips.

“Absolutely. It’s over off of West Clark Avenue; one of those streets you don’t normally drive unless you live there.”

People do find their way to the Gordon R. Howard Museum, though many times visitors only find the 1800s-era Mentzer House that sits in front. That building has better street exposure on Olive Avenue, and I’m told some visitors are surprised to learn that behind it sits a unique memorabilia collection of the more notable people and events of the last century.

When I showed up Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t prepared for the history lessons I was to receive that aren’t even part of the tour.

Upon entering the main gallery space with the museum’s collection of vintage vehicles, I was mesmerized by the green truck built at the Moreland Truck Factory in 1920s Burbank. There’s something to look at everywhere — Burbank’s history of trucks and drag racing cover just about every surface of the main room.

To my left was the docent on duty, Ann Frescura, who at age 94 could recall stories not because she was trained by museum staff to share them with visitors, but because she lived them.

Ann’s father owned many vineyards “on the hillside” — and still lives in the house she grew up in. She told me what it was like in the mid- to late-1940s when farmers like her father sold their lands to developers. Their business was booming thanks to a big rush of GIs who wanted to relocate to Burbank after they were stationed in the area during World War II.

She remembers the family land selling for $2,000 an acre — and they had 70 acres. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1.25 million in 2011 dollars for the land that eventually became entire Burbank neighborhoods.

“Who was to know the price of land was so cheap then?” she said. “It was unbelievable.”

Ann and anyone else working at the museum is a volunteer, which is why it’s only open on the weekends (and is always looking for more help). It takes dedication to run an operation like this, especially on an all-volunteer crew, but luckily there are people like museum board member Michael Dennis moving it forward.

He recently began digitizing the museum’s whole archive, as both a resource for researchers and for the museum’s own inventory needs. And that inventory can come from anywhere. Sometimes, Michael told me, neighbors will just drop off a box of things they might find in an old attic.

“We get way too many typewriters and cameras,” he joked.

The pieces on display come from a variety of high-profile names as well. In one room, I found a jacket worn by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and some Yosemite Sam drawings that looked like he’d pop off the paper at any moment, guns blazing.

Lockheed’s artifacts are some of the most popular draws, said museum executive board member Barbara Bartman. She said Lockheed employees are amazed at the collection, as it outdoes even the company’s archives.

I only began to delve into the displays when I was told it was nearing 4 p.m., and the museum was about to close. Another patron left shortly before I did, thanking Ann as she exited.

“Did you find everything you need?” Ann said.

“I got all the information, but I could spend another two hours here,” the woman replied.

I stuck around a few minutes while Barbara closed the Mentzer House — another exhibit for another day. Ann and I chatted about the gypsies that used to ask for — then steal — chickens from her family’s farm.

“Those were interesting days, believe me,” she concluded.

Barbara came back and got ready to take Ann home. She comes down twice a month to help Barbara and greet folks at the door, and to spend some quality mother-daughter time.

“I bring my mom and she likes to sit there and talk to people,” Barbara said. “She knows all about Burbank, and that’s the purpose of this museum.”

To inquire about volunteering at the museum or for information on upcoming programs, visit www.burbankhistoricalsoc.com or call (818) 841-6333.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant to Burbank. When he’s not getting a haircut, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.
 
 

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