Verdugo Views: A Tom Sawyer life in the foothills

Bryan Ortega spent his early years on Walnut Drive in a house that is no longer there. His family’s home gave way to the Glendale (2) Freeway in the early 1960s, but before they moved, he and his older siblings made the surrounding hills their playground.

“The hills were our backyard. We had a blast growing up in the canyon,” Ortega wrote in a recent series of emails.

“My father had his own business and one time brought home long poles and canvas tarps. My brother, Robert, took them up into the fire road above Lilac Road. At the very top of the hill cresting Glenoaks Canyon and Chevy Chase Drive, he built a huge tepee. He would sleep in it on weekends with a buddy.”

His brother, who is 10 years older than Bryan Ortega, became friends with a man who lived on Chevy Chase Drive where a large church now stands. 

“There used to be a barn and corrals and a few horses,” Ortega remembers.

There were several caves in that area, also. “The owner dug out one and mined it for what I believe was copper,” Ortega wrote.

Later, Ortega’s brother and his sisters played in that cave, pretending it was a “Tom Sawyer” island. “They even placed candles on the ledges,’’ he said.

Another cave had a huge pond stretching from Chevy Chase toward Glenoaks. “My brother told me a little girl climbed in it and drowned so they cemented the opening. There are two or three more caves a short distance up the canyon,” he added.

His older siblings went to Glendale High School. When the family moved, Bryan Ortega, who was the youngest, went to Hoover High, graduating in 1979.

His brother used to hitchhike to the stables on Riverside Drive. 

“He would clean the horse stalls, do odd jobs and hang around just for fun,” he recalled.

Eventually, Robert Ortega got into bull riding and team roping. 

“He would rope and I, as a kid, would work the chutes. I remember one time he got his hand caught up in a rope and tore his thumb off. What a mess. But my big brother was tough; it was sewed back on,” Bryan Ortega said.

The two brothers made friends with a retired stuntman and horse trainer who taught actors how to ride. 

“We would exercise his horses — 18 in all — for free, just to ride, and he trusted us so we did it every day,” he added

As an adult, Bryan Ortega went to work for the City of Glendale. He has been a waste-water crew supervisor for the public works department for 33 years. When he started, there were four people caring for 400 miles of sewers, he wrote. Now, there are 16 employees.

A few years ago, he had to go to the church on Chevy Chase to check on a clogged drain so he took the opportunity to walk to the back of the property. Sure enough, the “Tom Sawyer” cave that was such a big part of their family’s memories was hidden by bushes, but it was still there.


To the Readers:

At a recent event in Fresno, I spoke with Roy Klassen, a long-time acquaintance. He was the choral music director at Glendale High from 1974 to 1977 and started its UnConcerts.

They were based on a pop music show called “I Believe in Music,” which he had developed at John Muir Junior High in Burbank. When he moved to Glendale High, he created a similar event, the UnConcert. 

“The 7-Up corporation had just launched an advertising campaign to go head-to-head with the cola world and called their product the Un-Cola. It seemed natural to follow through with this theme,” Klassen recalled.

“In fact, the door prizes for the years I was at GHS were 7-Up glasses and bottles/cases of 7-Up. The show featured both individual ‘acts’ and full choir performances with choreography and live band/combo. The show was immediately popular with fellow students and parents and supporters,” he added.

After Glendale High, Klassen taught at a private college in Fresno. 

“I took the UnConcert idea with me and it was done yearly for at least 25 years,” he said. 


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