Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mr. Capra Comes to Sierra Madre


Pictured above is part of the orchard on the E. Waldo Ward Ranch.  This is the last of the many large ranches that once filled the slopes of the town of Sierra Madre.  One of these ranches was once inhabited by the famous film-maker, Frank Capra, of "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" fame.

Not too long ago, I received a comment on one of my posts, from one of my BlogVille friends, Pasadena Adjacent.  Here is what P.A. said, as a part of that comment:

"Maybe you can get some information on the director
Frank Capra whose parents had a citrus farm somewhere." 


Whoa Baby - That grabbed my attention!!  I had never heard anything about this.  So, I set out to see what I could see, and as it turns out, there was a lot to see on this topic. 

First, I found a book called Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride, which mentioned that Frank Capra's father had rented out the Churchill Ranch in Sierra Madre, and had died there. 

Upon further Internet searching, I found a very extensive article, written for the Sierra Madre Patch by one of my favorite local authors, Matt Hormann.  Thanks to Mr. Hormann, I learned that the Churchill Ranch was located in the area we now call Marlborough Terrace, or the Upper Canyon, at the top of Mountain Trail Avenue, not far from Mount Wilson Trail Park.  Churchill Road is still there, and the ranch was along the street that is now Canyon Crest Drive. 

The story of the Capra family in Sierra Madre is very interesting, very sad, and like no movie plot you could ever make up.  The twenty-acre Churchill ranch was rented to the Capras in the year 1915 by the property's owner, Henry Churchill, and the large family lived there together, growing lemons and other fruit to support themselves. 

Frank Capra spent his first year of college living at the ranch, and commuting to Throop Institute, which later became CalTech.  Capra first acquired his thirst for knowledge at the age of five when, while living in Sicily, he learned that his parents were illiterate.  Always a hard worker, he had many jobs throughout his school years, including checking boilers and polishing machinery at the Pasadena Light and Power Plant, and stuffing newspapers at the Los Angeles Times. 

In the fall of 1916, after living with his parents in Sierra Madre for a year, Capra had earned enough money to allow him to move into the dorms at Throop.  Sadly, this same year, his father met with a tragic death on the Churchill Ranch while he was in the pumphouse checking on the machinery.  His long overcoat got caught in the gears and pulled him in, and he was cut in half at the waist.  Following the tragedy, the family moved away from Sierra Madre.  Frank was, of course, distraught over the incident and his grades suffered; however he was ultimately able to graduate from Throop Institute in 1918.

After spending two months in the army, then being discharged due to contracting the Spanish flu, Capra moved to Lincoln Heights to live with his mother and sister.  He worked for awhile, but got the flu again, and ended up depressed and jobless.  At that time, he moved in with his brother and answered an ad for a tutor for Anita Baldwin's son.  Anita Baldwin, whom Capra had met prior to this time, was the daughter of E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin.  His prior acquaintance with Mrs. Baldwin helped him to secure the job, and things seemed to begin to look up after this time.  Capra went on to become one of the most famous film-makers of all time. 

Mr. Capra filmed scenes from some of his movies in the area, including at the Santa Anita Depot, and in the city of La Canada.  Some locals have said that Sierra Madre may have been the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the fictional, all-American town in Capra's most famous film, "It's a Wonderful Life."  Perhaps this is true.  I guess he's the only one who will ever know for sure.

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Speaking of movies, my friend Petrea, at Pasadena Daily Photo has written a book called Camelot & Vine, that I know will be a movie some day.  She's having a photo contest called "Camelot Where You Are," and my entry is on her blog today.  Take a look, and when it comes out next month, buy her book!  I've read the first bit, and I can't wait!

20 comments:

  1. I loved this! I am such a Capra fan and I had no idea of his local roots. I have to mention Petrea's contest on my site too. I keep forgetting!

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    1. Thanks, Margaret! Thanks to PA for giving me the first clue. I hope you enter Petrea's contest too - it's fun!

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  2. Well that was a very interesting read, Adele. You are certainly educating me! Love your Camelot & Vine entry too :).

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    1. Thanks, LOL!! It was such a fascinating story. What a life he led... You know, I was nervous to put up my little truck, as a follow-up to your beautiful Real Castle! :)

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  3. hence, BAILEY savings and loan (bailey canyon) all kinds of things from sierra madruh......maybe a ghost or 2,,,,,,,

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    1. Holy Cow! I didn't think of that. Anony, you are very observant! :)

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  4. Oh, cool! Wonderful post, Adele, just wonderful. And Anon, what a great observation, I think you must be right! At least I hope so.

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    1. Thanks, PB! Such an interesting story - can't believe I've never heard anything about it before now. I hope Anon's observation is true, too. Probably is - she's a SMad Local!

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  5. New addition to my walking list. (I saw Anita's place before it was bulldozed. Gosh, what a beautiful estate it was. All that's left is the little tower at the southeast corner.)

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    1. I haven't walked up there since I read all this stuff - going to try to get there very soon! I went to Anoakia once, too, when it was a school. My friend had a classroom in the "birdcage room." (I think that's what it was called.) She took me around the classrooms, and some kid had written "Anita Come Home" on one of the chalkboards... :) I love that little tower - makes me sad.

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  6. Very interesting. I had no idea, though when I mentioned it to my husband, he said, "oh yeah. Frank Capra and Sandra Tsing Loh."

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    1. Well, how about that! Will have to research her, now!

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  7. Wow, you did your homework. This is when blogging is the most fun. Uncovering little did bits you hear about. Wonder if his father is buried at the Sierra Madre cemetery? The local artist Virginia Hoge whose great grandfather was connected to Throop Institute as well as a early photo documenter of Mount Wilson observatory, once told me she had a photo of her great grandfather skinny-dipping (or swimming) with Frank Capra up in the local mountains.

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    1. Oh, I had such an interesting time! Thanks for the great tip!!! Now, I'll have to check the cemetery. Fascinating!! I wonder if that swimming event was in the Canyone Pool? You'll have to ask her.

      I've read that Gutzom Borglund (of Mount Rushmore) also lived here for a time, and built a fireplace (a la Lummis House) in a house. I know where the house is, and am dying to see the fireplace. Maybe some day...

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  8. cool! don't you just love all the stuff you learn from blogging?!!

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    1. I do love it! Exactly what I signed up for. :)

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  9. Leave it to PA to plant the seed that you nurtured into this wonderful post. She knows all the hidden gems of local history, doesn't she? Thanks for following through on it. It makes perfect sense that there's a connection between Bedford Falls and Sierra Madre!

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    1. Yes, she is awesome! I got so excited when she mentioned it in that comment, and had such a good time figuring it out. The connection seems like such an interesting idea, huh?

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  10. Gutzom Borglund - that sounds familiar to me. Go knock on the door. They might let you in. Or leave a note in their mail box. People love showing off their homes and they might have insider info you could use. So much of these pioneers and their history intersect.

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    1. You know, a lot of people have told me to knock on the door, but I am too chicken. But No One has suggested putting a note in the mailbox!! You are brilliant. I am going to try it. At least if I am rejected, it won't be in person. I can take that. :) I do have a way now, to talk about his time in Sierra Madre, because I took a photo of a memorial he made in Gettysburg. Didn't even know it was done by him - I just happened to like it, so I snapped it. Very talented guy!

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