2003-04-10 / Community

Author tells rich and colorful history of Malibou Lake

By John Loesing
Acorn Staff Writer

By John Loesing Acorn Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures  MONSTER OF MALIBOU LAKE?--A young Marilyn Harris enjoys some quality time with Boris Karloff on the shores of Malibou Lake in the 1931 Universal classic, "Frankenstein." The cinematic and additional history of the lake is documented in Brian Rooney's new book, "Three Magical Miles."Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures MONSTER OF MALIBOU LAKE?--A young Marilyn Harris enjoys some quality time with Boris Karloff on the shores of Malibou Lake in the 1931 Universal classic, "Frankenstein." The cinematic and additional history of the lake is documented in Brian Rooney's new book, "Three Magical Miles."

History is to a people what memory is to an individual. But while memory is automatic, history needs to be written down, recorded for posterity.

For residents of Malibou Lake and the surrounding vicinity, their story finally is being told.

Brian Rooney, a resident of Malibou Lake for seven years until moving to Orange County, recently completed and self-published a definitive history of the three-mile region that covers the lake, historic Cornell and Seminole Springs.

In fact, Rooney named his 100-page softcover book "Three Magical Miles: An Appreciation of the Past & Present of Malibou Lake and Vicinity."

From the construction of the lake and the early clubhouse in the 1920s, to the many famous movies filmed at Paramount Ranch, the area is steeped in rich California history, Rooney says. He compiled most of his information while taking long walks by the lake and visiting with several old-timers who lived in the area for decades. Rooney credits Gordon Thomas, Earl Bennett and Leon Levinson, who are now in their 70s and 80s, for inspiring the book.

"With their 120-plus years of history and stories, and hearing these great stories, I realized that none of the stuff was written down," Rooney said.

"If these stories aren’t written down they were just going to go away at some point," he said. "When they told the stories, it really opened the floodgates and the more I looked, the better it got."

Working on nights and weekends, Rooney took almost three years to complete his work. Proceeds from the book will go to the Cornell Preservation Organization (CPO), a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the land, the history and the quality of life inside the "Three Magical Miles."

"It really for the first time has sort of given an insight to this area and why it’s so much of a jewel," said Colleen Holmes, CPO president. "There’s so much history here and so many people who have lived here for so long."

Early Years

Bertram Lackey and George Wilson built the dam that created the lake in 1922, but the basin remained dry until a huge 1926 storm brought millions of gallons of water from Medea Creek and Triunfo Creek into the lake and filled it for the first time.

"The founding members threw a party that lasted for days," Rooney writes.

Since then, the lake has been dry only once, in 1969, when the dam underwent repairs.

The original Malibou Lake Clubhouse, which was actually a lodge with 24 rooms, was built in 1924, but was lost in 1935 to fire and replaced by the smaller facility that stands by the lake today.

Developer H.I Averill, meanwhile, had begun to offer lots for sale.

"In the 1920s, Lakeside lots sold for $600 to $700," Gordon Thomas recalls in the book, "and during the Depression, they went for as little as $50."

Thomas said by the mid-1950s, a graded view lot with a pre-installed septic system sold for the "hefty" sum of $5,000.

By hook or crook, the homes were finally built.

"One of the great old stories is how many of the original cabins at Malibou Lake were built with stolen lumber from Paramount Ranch back when they were shooting movies there actively," Rooney said. "They would walk over to the ranch from the lake … and pick up a few two-by-fours and sheets of plywood and come back."

The charm of Rooney’s book is the photography that it uses. He obtained hundreds of old pictures from a variety of sources, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Ronald Reagan Library, the Calabasas Historical Society and Malibu Creek State Park Docents.

The liberal use of before-and-after shots gives the reader a good perspective on how the area has changed.

"It’s beautifully documented and has a lot of unusual photos," said Nicolas Noxon, CPO vice president and official distributor of the book. "It’s really amazing," Noxon said.

Rooney said sales of the $20 book are by "word of mouth" only and that the first 100 copies sold out immediately. More are being printed.

Rooney also provides the history of several buildings that no longer exist, such as Crags Country Club, said by the Los Angeles Times in 1910 to be "one of the exclusive social organizations of the country with the wildest and most picturesque surroundings."

Located next to the "Rock Pool" in Malibu Creek State Park, the 7,500 square-foot lodge required $1,000 in annual memberships dues, equivalent to $50,000 today. Only the foundation is left.

One building, the 1926 Cornell School, still stands as a private residence.

Also dating back to the mid-1920s: the legendary Rock Store—and from Steve McQueen to Jay Leno—Ed and Vern’s little store continues to attract motorcycle riders of all stripes.

The oldest building in the area is the Sepulveda Adobe, built in 1863 by California pioneer homesteader Don Pedro Alcantra Sepulveda.

Other landmarks include the Lake Enchanto resort, which is now part of Peter Strauss Ranch, and Seminole Hot Springs, discovered in 1912 by a resident who was looking for oil.

If you enjoy whipping your car or motorcycle through the mountains, you’ll be pleased to know the Paramount Ranch Raceway was home to sports car and stock car races. Sports car historian and guest contributor Michael Lynch said the track immediately established a reputation for crashes and controversy and was closed in 1957.

Holmes said she never realized the area carried so many secrets.

"One of the things that stood out ... there used to be a Maypole down by Malibou Lake that was near the country club they had there, which is now gone, but that Maypole is still standing and they used to have the kids come every year and do their thing and I would have never known that’s what it was for.

"[The author] got a before shot and what it looks like now, and to me, it’s very striking," Holmes said.

Celluloid Heroes

Clearly, much of the magic in the "Three Magical Miles" comes from the movie industry and its colorful personnel, who spent almost the entire the 20th Century gallivanting through the area.

Rooney says of the many films shot at the lake over the years, the most famous by far was the horror classic "Frankenstein," a1931 RKO picture.

"Boris Karloff’s famous makeup job was applied in the backyard of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s home in the San Fernando Valley starting at 4 a.m. followed by a drive out to the lake so that the scene could be shot before the heat of the day hit—which would cause the makeup to smear and the prosthetics to unglue," Rooney writes.

Paramount Ranch, just half a mile from Malibou Lake, included productions such as "Santa Fe Trail" (1930), "Gunsmoke" (1931), "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1938), "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938), "The Virginian" (1946) and, of course, "M*A*S*H" and "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" from modern times.

To make Tom Sawyer feel right at home, studio workers placed a temporary dam on Medea Creek and turned it into the Mississippi River. The star of the movie was a young Jackie Coogan.

In 1966, Elvis Presley shot the motorcycle flick "Spinout," a film that includes scenes from Cornell Country Store, Mulholland Highway and Kanan Road.

And before he was governor and president, actor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, spent weekends at their 250-acre ranch near the corner of Mulholland Highway and Lake Vista Drive. The Ranch is now part of Malibu Creek State Park.

The book also includes an assortment of indexes, topographical maps and photography foldouts. The National Park Service and California State Parks assisted Rooney in preparing his research.

Copies of the book may be obtained by calling CPO at (818) 734-0775 or by sending an e-mail to elroon@earthlink.net.

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