Many have marveled at the romantic old pictures of Malibu-past on the walls of local restaurants. Many Malibu residents know so little about the fascinating history of this diverse beach town. Luckily, a few true locals still have stories to tell that enliven the ever-evolving lore of Malibu life.
The photo at right depicts a time when East Malibu was passing a turning point. The road (now Pacific Coast Highway) once stopped at Las Flores Canyon, which explains why this area surrounding the La Costa Hills became one of Malibu’s centers. The war was over (best guesses place this photo post-World War II, possibly 1946) and Angelinos were beginning to enjoy the luxuries of life, including their “beach cabins,” as they were called.
The early owners of most of Malibu’s land, the Rindge family, had been unable to stop the public highway from continuing through their land, and now, dramatic new canyon roads like Rambla Pacifico (B) and Rambla Vista (C) were a marvel for post-war explorers. A close-knit group made Malibu their home and the rest of the big city often came to visit.
As with any historical discovery, facts and fiction coalesce with some intriguing twists. The following identifications and anecdotes are as told to The Malibu Times by several helpful sources. Thank you to all who contributed to keeping Malibu’s legends alive, particularly Bob Storm, Louis Busch, Elizabeth Gunn, Jane Hemenez, Peter McKellar and John Merrick.
Las Flores beachside business
The Sea Lion restaurant (e)-now Dukes-was built by Chris “Poppy” Polis, circa 1945. In the parking lot on the east side were seawater tanks built for the restaurant. They were intended to store live seafood, but a seal name Josie became the main attraction. Josie did some damage when she bit local Tony Altamari’s nose. (Altamari owned a restaurant across the road.)
Housing and a warehouse (g) built by Polis for family and employees who worked next door still exists on the east side of the creek.
Next door stood the Las Flores Inn (f), a restaurant dating back to the ’20s and originally the last stop for public visitors. Elizabeth Gunn, 79, says children used to wait here for the school bus to Santa Monica. Their parents played the slot machines at the restaurant and a big win meant soda pops for all. It is said the inn refused to pay “protection fees” and lost their slots, but the Malibu Inn up the road kept theirs.
Gunn’s family came from Huntington Park, near Long Beach, to spend the summer in Malibu. Her father, Walter “Pop” Gunn, was a builder, and decided the family would stay and build a house on Rambla Vista. It was the depth of the Depression, but he managed to afford the $2,000 for building materials. The house remained with the family until the 1993 fires. Gunn’s mother, Jeanette, lived to be 105 and couldn’t negotiate the stairs at the hillside home, so the two moved down to La Costa Beach in 1959. Elizabeth’s father was the first president of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, first known as the “Businessmen’s Association.”
On the west side of Las Flores Creek is the former site of The Albatross (h), a restaurant and motel where, it is rumored, call girls were for hire. Cards on the bar advertised “Rooms Available Upstairs.” Owner Mrs. Burnett made the rest of her fortune renting klieg lights. The Albatross burned down in the early ’40s, leaving Malibu without a “red light” district.
Next door stands the “new” Union 76 station (i), which was built in 1946. Former owner Peter McKellar tore down and rebuilt the station in 1968. That structure still stands at that location.
McKellar came to Malibu in 1959 “courtesy of Uncle Sam and the U.S. Army,” as he says. He was stationed during the Cold War era at the Nike Missile site-now the fire station at the top of Las Flores Canyon. This was the first of eight offensive sites intended to protect Los Angeles. The site was maintained from 1955 until 1974, when the army deemed the technology obsolete.
Sgt. McKellar retired from service and bought the Union 76 station in 1964. He chose an easier business located just across the street when he bought the Country Liquor Store in 1975. He’s still at the helm.
The Las Flores Canyon “cabin” community
On the inland side of the highway, Angelinos built weekend getaway beach cabins (j) of various sizes on leased land. The Malibu Times (k) is located here, about a quarter mile up Las Flores Canyon Road. The building that currently houses the newspaper’s offices was the Associated Telephone switching station, which was built here after heavy rains in 1936 washed out the original station across the street.
Just above this community the hillside collapsed around the early ’80s, eradicating the cliffs of most of its environmentally sensitive habitat, and causing the permanent closure of Rambla Pacifico.
Malibu’s first courthouse (m) was built on the highway in the early ’30s. Judge Bill Webster was Malibu’s first justice of the peace. He had no law degree but was known as a first-rate magistrate. He lived in the house behind the one-room court.
La Costa Plaza evolves
The last building to join the La Costa complex built by “Pop” Gunn stands at the corner of Rambla Pacifico (n). The post office structure was moved here from its original location, near the La Costa Beach Club, where it was a saloon and caf called Olas Grande Inn.
In the complex, The Malibu Times operated from an office upstairs with a printing press located in a warehouse in the back. Founding publisher Reeves Templeton lived upstairs next to his office. The first Los Angeles Times delivery boy, Dean McCloud, headquartered here as well. Downstairs, Jim Elliot owned the “Little Store” (now Malibu Divers), where a little booth served as the post office that brought regular business to his shop. The population grew and the alphabetical mail cubbies became the La Costa Post Office Station with a full-time postmaster.
The west building that now houses Country Liquor and Country Kitchen was built in 1939 and was home to Altamari’s restaurant. The A&B Hardware building was the first grocery store in Malibu: Sales Market, named after the Sales family. After World War II, Alice Faye’s parents, Phil Harris and his wife, ran the store for a few years until it became A&B. Apartments were upstairs.
The Courthouse upscales
Malibu’s sheriff, Eugene Biscailuz, along with longtime resident Bob Storm and Judge Webster, petitioned the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to allow Malibu to build a new “civic center.” Malibu’s new courthouse and sheriff’s station, with a jail (one small cell), was built in 1933 (s). A local investment banker, Maurice Hirschfield, built the facility and rented it to the county for $150 per month. Hirschfield’s daughters, Ella and Ruth, are still very active in Malibu.
Sheriff’s deputies needed fuel for their patrol cars and reportedly got a good deal next-door at the Associated Gas station, which was conveniently adjacent to the new civic center.
Storm’s real estate office (u) was just west of the courthouse. His family moved here from Minnesota in 1922, when he was just 11 years old. He held various local jobs, including washing dishes at the Las Flores Inn and flipping the burgers when it first started as the hamburger joint at the end of the highway.
“We would get 11 burgers out of a pound,” Storm reminisced. “We hit them with a No. 10 can to prepare them.”
Storm’s brother, Allan, shoveled concrete when the courthouse was built and his wife, Lucy Storm, was formerly Lucy Sales of the Sales Market family. Bob, now 83, and Lucy are still dedicated Malibu residents.
Along the coast
The La Costa Beach Club (w), with its 300-foot shoreline, was opened in 1927. Dues were $25 per year-a relative fortune compared to the bargain $400 per year charged currently. Longtime Realtor Louis Busch says unbuildable lots in the La Costa track have sold for $25,000 and $30,000 just to provide the owners with the coveted beach club rights.
Louis Busch, Sr., born in 1900, came from Mexico and worked as a Santa Monica lifeguard in 1918. A nearby Realtor asked him to fill in at the phones for an hour and he made his first sale. Son Louis caught the real estate bug after returning from the Navy in 1946. Fifty-five years later, he still maintains his local office where he updated his father’s slogan, “We know the mountains” to “We know the Malibu.”
Across the highway is the site of the former Olas Grandes Inn (x). School children came here via a district-owned Woody station wagon to meet the two Santa Monica-bound school buses that parked here.
On the mesa above is the home of Bill Hubert who bought the Malibu Pier from the Marblehead Land Co. His son later sold the pier to the state. The pier’s saga continues to unfold.
Lastly, notice the hillside grading (z) that made way for water tanks, homes and highways. Back in those days, residents didn’t need a plan or a permit to grade those “environmentally sensitive” mountains. A bulldozer was hot property.
A special thank you to the following who contributed what they know of this area: Derek Avila; Kristine Clark; Vivian Richman; Velin M. Panoff; Dr. Birute Anne Vileisis.