the good old days
By Ryan O’Quinn/ Special to The Malibu Times
To say Malibu has changed in the last 50 years is an understatement. Fifty years ago, horses wandered around Point Dume, Santa Monica was considered “town” and the closest neighbor, other than wild animals, was a mile or more away. There are still some folks around the city who can be considered pioneers and were among the first to discover the miles of scenic beauty that Malibu holds.
One of the original Malibu homebuilders was Alex Newton Sr., who celebrated his 90th birthday on Father’s Day. A group of family and friends gathered at Saddle Peak Lodge several weekends ago to reminisce about days gone by and recount legendary tales of the transformation of Malibu.
Newton and his family lived in a Chicago suburb and following World War II decided there was a better life and better weather to be found in Southern California.
“I lived out in Highland Park and the snow got so deep I had to shovel my car out of the garage,” Newton said. “I said, ‘I’ve had enough’ and I came to California.”
Newton bought a small house from his cousin and moved the family from the Midwest to El Segundo. Their first California house was too small for a mom, dad and two babies and a “fortunate” life raft accident led them to Malibu.
Newton loved to fish, and he and a friend, Bobby Schillinger, would often take a small yellow World War II life raft to Paradise Cove and launch it into the water. Newton said during a fishing outing, the wind kicked up and blew the raft onshore and they washed up on Little Dume.
“We landed on the beach and I looked up there and said, ‘This is the spot,'” Newton said. “It was beautiful. There was nobody at all.”
Newton walked up a path from the beach (what is now Wildlife Road and Whitesands Place) and decided he must move the family to the secluded beach oasis away from the hustle of the city. The next day, Newton went to a real estate agent to inquire about the property. Following a brief negotiation, Newton purchased an acre and a half of beachfront property for $200 less than the $3,300 asking price.
“I brought my wife out to look at [the property] and she was a little skeptical,’ Newton said. “Now you can see it’s built up all over. There’s not a place to even build a house there now.”
“In 1948 there were no trees, houses, nothing,” said daughter Vicki Newton. “Mom and Dad built two houses on the property. Dad always liked horses. We had dogs, animals and a circle area for the horses.”
The horse arena and property adjacent to the house that Newton owned was later acquired by Johnny Carson.
In the early days, the closest neighbor was about a half mile away and when the horse occasionally escaped and roamed around Point Dume, the neighbors knew who to call.
“The horse would run away and we would get a call from the neighbor,” Vicki Newton said. “We had a three party line in those days and the neighbor would say ‘your horse is over here.'”
Another family friend who kept his horses on the property is John Sheffield, best known as Tarzan’s son in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films.
“Alex and I were very good friends,” Sheffield said. “We liked the same things, riding horses and hunting and fishing. We had luaus on the beach, and in those days it was very different.”
Sheffield said Point Dume was a shooting range for the Army during World War II and when the red flags were raised, one could not scuba dive or swim in the area because the military was target practicing in the water.
“The big change is the density [in population],” Sheffield said of Malibu then and now. “Once the density increases you sacrifice certain things.”
In the early 1950s, Alex Newton Sr. went to the local fire department and got eucalyptus trees to plant on the property to alleviate the wind from the ocean. Newton often made the children come out of the ocean to go up the hill and irrigate the trees. The same trees are still in place to this day and were the first to be planted in the area.
Because Malibu was an isolated area, the Newton family would travel once a week to Pacific Palisades to the Mayfair Market and occasionally on Saturday saw a movie at The Bay Theater.
Vicki Newton remembered going to Trancas Market, a small convenience store that sits in the same lot where Starbuck’s Coffee is today.
Alex Newton Jr. said there were no neighbors in the area and no other children when they first moved to the area. They would swim out to the reef and gather lobster for dinner or catch fish with the greatest of ease because of the sparse population.
“My sister and I had no one to play with on the beach,” Alex Newton Jr. said. “We all had horses and we rode all over the mountains where the housing developments are now.”
Along with development and population growth came another big change the Newtons said.
“One of the big changes is the outrageous home prices,” Newton Jr. said. “There’s only so much coast though. It’s the simple economics of supply and demand.”
Newton Sr. said several years ago a film and television producer asked him and his neighbor, David Anawalt, how much money it would take to allow the producer to use their property to have beach access. They finally agreed to the sum of $250,000 to allow him to cross 50 yards of private property to reach the sand.
Newton Sr. described himself as an entrepreneur and has been involved in a variety of businesses including property development and a mail order business. Among other things, Newton and friend Paul Cornell knew the inventor of the garage door opener and they secured the exclusive distributorship rights to sell the product in Los Angeles.
Another local, Bill McHenry, who moved to Malibu in 1949, credits Newton with teaching him how to make money and save money.
“I used to surf down there at Little Dume and one day I came out of the water and Alex Newton called me over and said he wanted to give me some advice,” McHenry said. “I was able to retire in 1981 as a result of some tax advice and entrepreneurial advice Alex and a couple other Malibu folks gave me.”
McHenry said he now enjoys returning the favor that Newton offered him by teaching young business men and women how to invest wisely.
As for the image of Malibu being a hideaway for celebrities, Vicki Newton said that they were not that much aware of their glamorous neighbors.
“More people started to move to Malibu in the early ’60s,” Vicki Newton said. “Maybe in about ninth grade I became conscious of movie stars. I think the fame or infamy of Malibu started in the late ’70s.”
Vicki Newton said the Malibu Movie Colony was there when the family moved to the area and it was known as the place where Mary Pickford and others vacationed. Once she and a friend tried to sneak in to the Colony and were turned away by security.
Following an influx of neighbors Newton decided it was time to relocate the family again. He and his wife, Harriet, took a trip down the west coast of Mexico and then up the east coast. Their favorite spot was a relatively uninhabited area known as Puerto Vallarta that at the time was only reachable by air or 4-wheel drive. Newton enjoyed the relative isolation and spent winters there for about 25 years.
Newton’s wife of 62 years died last year in May.
Now, Newton still spends the majority of his time in the same house he built on Little Dume in the late 1940s.