Burbank City Hall | lokeswari/Flickr/Creative Commons

On Location: Burbank

Thanks to Johnny Carson, millions of Americans have heard the phrase, "Beautiful Downtown Burbank." Whether or not Carson was being sarcastic does not matter because all jokes aside, Burbank is a very charming city that has managed to remain a close knit community even though it brags about being a media capital. Moreover, even though Burbank is known for NBC, Disney, and Warner Brothers Studios, there's a quaint downtown district, large historic museum, and Woodbury University, a school with over a century of history. This week L.A. Letters celebrates Burbank, one of the Southland's media capitals with a small town feel.

Located in the shadow of the Verdugo Mountains in the eastern part of the San Fernando Valley, Burbank was named after the 19th Century dentist Dr. David Burbank. The area that is now Burbank was a part of two Ranchos during California's Spanish and Mexican era: Rancho San Rafael and Rancho La Providencia on the southwestern border. Dr. Burbank bought land from both of these ranchos in the late 1860s, but it was not until a few decades later that the land that had been Burbank's ranch was developed into the settlement of Burbank by a development company. Early residents came in droves during the Boom of the 1880s because of the fare wars between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads. In spite of the early growth, the actual city was not established officially until 1911 and the development slowed down for a few decades after the initial boom.

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One of the best sources for history on early Burbank is the 2001 book, "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," by award-winning journalist Kevin Roderick. Roderick recounts how much of the San Fernando Valley, and what is now Burbank, were within the vast landholdings of the Lankershim Family and their Wheat Empire in the late 19th Century. Burbank remained a farming community for longer than people realize. The city grew fairly slowly until the Roaring 20s, and it really was not until World War Two and the aerospace boom when the development started to take the shape it has today. Roderick covers not only the transformation of Burbank, but the industrialization and changes that transformed the whole Valley into a giant bedroom community.

One specific passage in Roderick's book, titled "Sorting out the Streets," tells the history behind the original naming of several well-known Valley streets. Roderick taps a popular chord with this piece because Southland citizens have always been very attached to street names and the background history. Roderick writes, "Victory Boulevard was christened in honor of World War I veterans. When Burbank would not pay for a boulevard connecting his subdivision of Magnolia Park with Cahuenga Pass, developer Earl L. White paid to grade and pave Hollywood Way."

Aerial view of Burbank, ca. 1992 | Los Angeles Public Library

Another anecdote Roderick shares is how UCLA was almost built in Burbank in the early 20th century. He writes, "Burbank made a bid to sweeten its future and offered 209 hillside acres of the former Stough Ranch for a southern branch of the University of California, but UCLA was placed in Westwood instead."

Roderick's narrative examines the Valley's geographical and social history, with fascinating stories about Encino, Calabasas, Van Nuys, and other neighborhoods. The chapter "Hooray For Valleywood," covers the rise of the movie studios in the area. As most know, Warner Brothers came to Burbank in the late 1920s and Disney followed a decade later. Check Roderick's book and other sources for more on the city's industry past.

Located in the middle of Burbank on Olive, Burbank's Historical Society is known for the Gordon R. Howard Museum. The museum holds classic cars, vintage clothing from a century ago, artifacts from the aerospace industry, maps of the Spanish ranchos, and a blueprint for Disneyland to be built in Burbank. All of these items are spread over two floors and almost 20,000 square feet of exhibits. The museum site also includes the Mentzer House, one of the six original houses built by the Providencia Land and Water Company in 1887 when the city was first developed. There is also a display dedicated to Bob's Big Boy, whose location in Burbank on Riverside Drive is the last remaining original structure, which dates from 1949, and is considered an architectural landmark for its Technicolor neon sign and midcentury Coffee Shop aesthetic.

Longtime member of Burbank's Historical Society, Craig Bullock, is a local historian that spent five years writing a column for the Burbank Leader, called "Burbank: Then and Now." Bullock writes, "The organization and its mission will never be finished as long as there are stories to be told, artifacts to be saved and people passionate enough to save it." Bullock is right -- there's enough memorabilia on site that it could take several hours to digest it all.

The film and television history of Burbank is well known, but the influence of the aerospace industry has been equally important in the city's growth. Lockheed built thousands of airplanes in Burbank, beginning during the World War II and continuing on through much of the 20th Century. As the rest of the Valley developed in the postwar period, Burbank grew especially fast.

Downtown Burbank centers on San Fernando Road near Olive. The downtown district has a small town feel, and Burbank's exquisite art deco City Hall, built in 1943, remains an architectural gem. The downtown Post Office, built in 1937, is a Spanish Colonial treasure and looks as well kept up as City Hall. Over the last few decades, redevelopment on San Fernando Road disrupted some of the streetscape in favor of new condos. Places like Backside Records remain in the area, even as more chains are starting to come in. There is also Story Brewery which was once Story Hardware, a longtime neighborhood institution founded by an early mayor.

Bob's Big Boy on Riverside Drive | Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons


Twenty-five year old graduate student Natalia Von Sonn grew up passing the Warner Brothers water tower on a daily basis. She's been through the entire Burbank public school system, having attended Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, John Muir Middle School and Burbank High. "I'm not sure if it was the city or the teachers, but things really started to look up for me here," she recalls. After a transformational year in the fourth grade when she "went from the reading level of a second grader to that of sixth grader by the end of the fourth grade," other doors began to open for her. In high school she was selected as one of twelve students to represent Burbank in their Sister City program, which allowed her to visit Ota, Japan, as part of the exchange program. Some of her favorite Burbank memories include Apollo's for breakfast burritos and eating at Barragan's restaurant. "My family has been going there since before I was born," she says. The close-knit community is something she remains thankful for.

Woodbury University is another one of Burbank's best kept secrets. A school that started out as a for-profit business college in downtown L.A. in 1884 has now become a fully accredited university of 1,600 students in Burbank. The campus, which moved to Burbank in 1987, is located on Glen Oaks in the northern part of the city. Woodbury has added several new buildings in the last decade, and a satellite campus in San Diego for architecture students.

Dr. Elisabeth Sandberg is a longtime Woodbury professor of English and Urban Studies. She has witnessed firsthand the school's growth. She says, "I have taught at Woodbury for twenty-two years and watched it grow from a barren space into a lushly landscaped campus in the foothills of the Verdugo Hills. We had approximately a dozen full-time faculty members then, and have grown to having more than eighty now, with another two hundred or so adjunct instructors who teach in the professional fields."

Woodbury's campus serves a diverse population, with not only a large Hispanic population but a sizable Armenian cohort from nearby Glendale. Several of the Woodbury programs have been recently lauded, including the architecture and graphic design departments. They now have majors in animation, film, and other areas that suit the entertainment business in Burbank.

Sandberg not only mentors students writing skills, she believes in teaching civic engagement by sending students out into the community. For example, Sandberg says, "architecture students are building some lathe structures at Taking the Reins in Atwater Village, where girls between twelve and eighteen are empowered through horsepower, and my students interview the girls as well as the architecture students for narratives about their journeys in life." Recently Sandberg began a new course called "L.A. Stories," which she teaches along with urbanists or specialists in architectural history. "We read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about the areas that we visit throughout the city," she says. Sandberg's love for her students, literature, and the city make for a very successful partnership.

Burbank Lockheed Plant, ca. 1940 | Photo: Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

For 30 year-old Jocelyn Blanco, after growing up in South Gate, her undergraduate years at Woodbury and Burbank was "a beautiful culture shock," she says. "I was quickly exposed to different food, music, art, and culture by friends and faculty. Little did I know then that this transition would start my journey as an educator, engaged community member, traveler, and true lover of L.A.'s diversity."

Blanco went on to complete her Masters also at Woodbury, and now remains as the Coordinator of Student Life and a professor of several courses. She says, "I find gratification and inspiration working with students eager to explore, discover, and embrace our unique environment." Blanco's enthusiasm has made her an important part of Woodbury and the local community.

There are obviously countless more stories about Burbank. The city's airport not only played a major role in the aerospace industry during World War II, but at one time had much more passenger traffic. The Los Angeles Equestrian Center, located in Burbank's Rancho Equestrian District, is also a longstanding institution. One of the newest developments on the south side of the city is the renovation of Johnny Carson Park along the Los Angeles River.

There are many narratives about Burbank's entertainment industry history, but much less is known about the city's overall past. The small town charm remains an important part of the city's social fabric. Charming districts in the city, like Magnolia Park, are popular with young homeowners. Though longtime Burbank denizens mourn the loss of old storied eateries like Chadneys, which closed in 1998, the original Bob's Big Boy remains open on Riverside Drive, and the Warner Brothers water tower is an iconic structure that will not be going anywhere anytime soon.

While the city's past is being preserved thanks to organizations like Burbank Historical Society, new legacies are being created in Burbank now because of institutions like Woodbury University. Salute to Burbank, Woodbury and longtime denizens like Craig Bullock, Natalia Von Sonn, and Elisabeth Sandberg for being transformative figures in the topography of L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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