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.
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!