Face of Malibu Rebuilds: Chris and Carolyn Carradine

Chris and Carolyn Carradine

Face of Malibu Rebuilds is a series from artist Johanna Spinks, featuring Malibu residents and their experiences before, during and after the Woolsey Fire. If you have a fire story you would like to share with The Malibu Times, a person of note or courage, or a person who just needs some cheer around this difficult rebuild time, to be sketched for this series, please contact Spinks at johanna@johannaspinks.com or The Malibu Times Managing Editor Emily Sawicki at emily@malibutimes.com.

Spinks, a professional portrait artist and longtime Malibu resident, is donating her time to this series for the interviews and sketches. Readers may remember her original Face of Malibu portrait series that ran monthly in The Malibu Times for five years. You can see more examples of her portrait work at johannaspinks.com.

The house was spotless, the crystal shined and the silver polished to perfection in readiness for cross-country visitors attending a special sorority reunion at the home of raven-haired actress/artist Carolyn Carradine, and her architect husband Chris, a Walt Disney head honcho for 28 years and the son of acting legend John Carradine. Woolsey flames brought an abrupt halt to this plan and “ended their life” of 22 years in this home, their pride and joy, full of family heirlooms. This devoted couple, who have been married for almost 40 years, say despite facing some frustrating moments at times in their rebuild process, they are feeling positive for the future. 

What is your back story with Malibu? Tell us a little about your life and old home.

Carolyn: We came to Malibu from Granada Hills and have lived here for 22 years in this house, raising our children here. Everything we owned for four generations was in it, including two grand pianos—one a gift to my great grandmother Ernestine Schumann-Heink (famous opera singer) in 1906 from the Steinway company—hundreds of paintings, all of Chris’s drawings that he made at Disney, of which there are no copies anywhere. It is almost like our life ended on Nov. 9. We have nothing to validate our lives. I have had dreams about going home and not being able to find my home. 

Chris: There is a vacancy. Your work is a testimony of your life. That is 50 years of my creativity. We had four stories packed with heavy furniture, a pool table, pianos, an entire workshop full of my tools, and Carolyn’s art studio, and now it’s down to 12 inches of dust. (Two ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ plaques given to John Carradine and Schumann-Heink were also lost to the fire).

Carolyn: Chris is a problem solver; he has designed this beautiful new house for us to move forward. We love our piece of property and desperately want to rebuild. It was more than a home—it was our whole history there. 

What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?

Carolyn: Twelve women were coming from all over the country for the weekend.  The house was perfect. 

Chris: We detailed it! I cleaned all the crystal on the chandelier, one at a time, including the light bulb (laughs). We hadn’t seen it that way since we bought it in Prague. Carolyn had gone shopping for her reunion. I began to suspect the fire was spreading rapidly. I drove to top of Kanan and Latigo to get a longer-distance view. We had been through three previous fires, which had skipped past us. I made four more “sortees” during the night, watching the fire progress to the 101. What was both eerie and uncanny was that in all of those reconnoiters, I encountered no fire trucks, no sheriff, no other drivers. The roads were completely empty. I made my last “sortee” at about 5:30 a.m. and heard on the news that the fire had jumped the 101. I got Carolyn up and told her to grab a passport. I took both cars and filled the gas tanks. We took the dogs, the parrot and Barbara (a guest who had already arrived for the party). Barbara had a very unique experience. (Laughing)

Carolyn: We were on PCH in separate cars for five-and-a-half hours. We got into Santa Monica and we went to a donut shop to use the bathrooms. Then my friend Patti Hillis called me and said, “You have got to come to my house (in Encino).” We would always go there on evacuations because Patti had animals. My son, Henry, flew in from Vienna. Our daughter Caitlyn came with our grandchild Avalon, too. We stayed there for five days and then we were able to find a rental in Oxnard. (The couple has one other son, Richard).

What will your rebuild look like?

Carolyn:  Everything we have had has always been traditional, Cape Cod style. This one is going to be very modern and very Zen, with a few Disney touches thrown in! 

Chris:  Finally, at 72, I can do a house just for us, at this stage in our lives. It’s been like the cobbler’s shoes in the past.

What has been the hardest aspect of this experience for you?

Chris:  Satisfying the various agencies regulations for “in kind” or “like-for-like” rebuilding. Being, as I am, an architect, I have been able to design an “in kind” replacement home that we are delighted with, and for my 72nd birthday, I obtained City of Malibu planning approval for my design. We are looking forward to a positive outcome. I have never been presented with a problem I couldn’t cleverly solve. That is why I got to be vice president of the Walt Disney Imagineering (the department that designs and builds the theme parks) and I believe I will solve this one, as well. 

Carolyn:  We were underinsured. We have to build a house as big as before, but we have limited funding to do it.

Any shining moments?

Chris:  My brother Keith and his pregnant wife came to visit in Oxnard, along with Bobby, my other brother. It was nice to have a family reunion. After we had collected as much info as we could, we packed up and flew to Vienna for Christmas. 

Carolyn:  My son coming here from his home in Vienna (right after the fire). Also, walking into our Vienna apartment to see the Christmas tree all lit up for us. We had some art supplies kept there, too, and a change of clothes. I have found the kindness of strangers and the love from friends wonderful. There is a lady who owns Malibu Beauty who was handing out bags of designer toiletries; my sorority sisters gave me a gift of $400 for art supplies and a friend sent me a big box of four hand-made sweaters, art supplies and dried cherries. I love my husband so much and am more in love with him now than ever; I almost lost him in July to a blood clot. I can’t imagine going through this and not having him. 

What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?

Chris:  One way or another, we need to find a home. A building is not a home.  

Any suggestions or advice for other displaced fire people?

Carolyn:  Always use the good china and crystal… and we did. Use your stuff. In a flash, it can be gone. That is not what you miss. People should make a list, spend 10 minutes in each room, and make a list of things that are special for you, of emotional value to you, and that you can take easily.  If I had just had one painting that I did… (sighing)