Happy Birthday, Mr. Charles Lummis

Each year Charles Lummis rubbed elbows with intellectuals and socialites during his annual "Meeting of the Order of Mad March Hares" party, a signature "noise" at his home in Highland Park, celebrating all those - like himself - born in March. Prominent thinkers, writers, entertainers, politicians, scientists and bohemians of early 20th century L.A. all gathered to celebrate. Lummis would serve German stew to as many as sixty people, who then joined in singing the "March Hare Hymn," among other shenanigans planned for the evening.

Lummis liked to play but he also was a workaholic, constantly laboring to enrich the preservation of history and cultural heritage in Los Angeles. He was city librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library and the first city editor of the L.A. Times. He founded the Southwest Museum - L.A.'s first museum.

With this in mind, we invited local scholars, historians, and business owners to help us celebrate Lummis' 153rd birthday today. We asked them:

How would Lummis celebrate his birthday today in contemporary Highland Park?

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  • David Judson, Owner & President of Judson Studios:
    After breakfast at Antigua Bread and devouring the days news in the LA Times, Charles would take a walk up the Arroyo to see the construction being done on the Rose Bowl. He would shake his head and wander back down to his home, cursing the concrete 'river' the whole way, to work on his garden through the afternoon. The evening would entail a party at his house where all the local artists and musicians, and his friends from near and far would eat tacos with tortillas made on the spot and mariachis would play until the wee hours of the morning.

  • Timothy Brick, Managing Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation:
    Charles Lummis built his wonderful home, El Alisal, on the banks of the Arroyo Seco to share in the beauty and power of that great stream that links the San Gabriel Mountains to downtown LA. He dragged rocks up the banks from the stream to shape his abode. Today I'm sure he would be shocked and saddened to see how that frolicking river has been cemented over and forgotten by most local residents.

    On his birthday, I suspect he would amble down to the stream near his home at Avenue 43, poke a hole in the rotting concrete, and plant a cottonwood seedling there, knowing that the tree he planted would outlast the concrete straitjacket that now contains his beloved stream.

  • Ryan Ballinger, Owner of The York:
    Good ol' Chuck would've walked over (of course) and had a 1903 lager from Craftsman [brewery].

    Living room of Lummis' house El Alisal, where he most likely would have partied on his birthday. Photo courtesy of The Autry National Center
  • Josef Bray-Ali, Co-owner of the Flying Pigeon LA:
    If he were alive today, he would definitely be a part of the bike scene in some way - either leading rides on his ordinary, or teaching us how to ride a bike in accordance with Native American traditions. On his birthday, I think he'd invite us over after whatever ride he had planned for the day, and let the dub step and silly string flow like the Arroyo Seco after a spring rain. We'd all collapse in tents in the yard after the party and have some 'Lummis Babies' nine months later.

  • William Deverell, Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California & the West:
    If we could tell him we're marking his 153rd birthday, Charles Fletcher Lummis would probably respond with 'I knew you would. And I'll host the party.' Because he cut a swath through Southern California culture, because he was so eccentric - and knew it - and because he teetered so precariously with his own caricature when he was alive, we've tended towards not taking Lummis all that seriously. Or at least not seriously enough. But - foibles (and there were many) aside, this was a figure of great regional influence and importance, and we'd do well to remind ourselves that we just don't yet know enough about the man. We ought to throw parties in his honor, and we ought to talk about him a lot more than we do.

  • Charles Fisher, Historian & Preservation Activist:
    It had been such a long time since Charlie edited "The Land of Sunshine" and later "Out West" magazines. He always made his point with his "In the Lion's Den" column, where he talked about the news of the day and his own take on it.

    Now blogging on the internet, he reflected on 153 years since his birth. So much had happened since 1928 when he had last taken up a pen. Wars, earthquakes and talking movies had affected him a great deal, yet his humor persisted. He announced a new NOISE for his birthday and he wrote about the Southwest he loves. Noting that in 1900, he had observed that the vast majority of Americans preferred to live in the East, he had written that 'Seventy million Americans do not believe the West is a good place to live in; four million American's do...a vote of 17 to 1 ought to convince any modest person that two and two make three. Any man that will love a girl whom fifty men do not love (mostly because they never chanced to met her) is evidently opinionated. Yet you never knew a lover converted by that majority or by that taunt.'
    Ah, times have changed with most Americans wanting to live in the West, but can't afford to. The lion roared that the "West is still the Best! Let's order a large pizza from Folliero's!"

    Lummis in New Mexico, 1927. Courtesy of the Autry National Center

  • Christopher Nyerges, Urban Survivalist and Teacher:
    Welcome back home, though it's now 2012 and a lot has changed. To celebrate your birthday, I'd like to take you down to the tranquil Arroyo Seco, sit under the tall alders, and listen to the river. However, the Arroyo through Highland Park is only a cement ditch now. If we went there, we'd have to close our eyes and pretend that the noise of the cars speeding by on the freeway was actually the noise of the water...Well, at least your home is still there. I'd love to walk through the oak and grass fields up to the Southwest Museum and talk about the knowledge of the Native Americans whose land this was. But the grassy fields are all gone, and it's all housing now, and we'd have to run across busy Figueroa Street to get to the museum. And there'd be no point in that, since that grand museum has been legally looted, and the doors would be locked when we got there. I'm not trying to depress you, but your old world here has disappeared.

    Possibly we could just walk over to the Audubon Center and enjoy its ambiance. At least from that vantage point, you'd have some glimpse of the old days, and a great vision of what it's all become.
    Charles, I really want to help you celebrate, but so much is gone... Perhaps we'd walk over to Franklin High School and look at their grand mural in the entryway where you'd see a panoramic view of the Tongva in the old days. Then we might as well walk over to Antigua on Figueroa, the sort of coffee shop that every town wants and needs. I'll buy the coffee!

  • Nicole Possert, Historian & Preservation Activist:
    Lummis wrote in 1895 'Ten years from now - unless our intelligence shall awaken at once - there will remain of these noble piles nothing but a few indeterminable heaps of adobe. We shall deserve and shall have the contempt of all thoughtful people if we suffer our noble missions to fall.'

    [Today] he would spend his birthday writing a tirade to the President and to Los Angeles civic leaders and an op-ed for the LA Times to reopen the Southwest Museum. Most people don't know that Lummis' Landmarks Club of Southern California, founded in 1895, was one of the earliest historic preservation organizations in the entire nation. It was established to save California's Missions and the early history and culture that was quickly disappearing with the influx of arriving Easterners (like himself).

    You too can say happy birthday to Lummis in the comment box below with your own description or "mad hare" tales of contemporary threads in history.

  • About the Author

    Kelly is a proud member of the KCET Departures team!
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