Although I never met Mrs. Burnett (the owner of the Albatross) nor have I ever visited her Malibu establishment during its heyday, I do have an indirect connection to its heritage. During the 1960s and into the ’70s, initially as a high school student and subsequently as a physics major at UCLA and Caltech, I worked as a searchlight operator for her son, James Parker. Jim Parker, probably in his mid-30s to 40s at the time, managed Film Ad Corporation, a searchlight company located in West Los Angeles (remember the big, white lights?). As a teen-ager, this was one of my more memorable experiences — operating, maintaining and repairing these powerful 60-inch diameter, carbon arc intense searchlights, which were initially used during World War II for anti-aircraft detection, but now, as a means for appealing to the curiosity of the general public.
This after-school job took me from Hollywood movie and night club premiers to parade, holiday and political events; and from nighttime surf festivals along our coastline to Universal Studios, Disneyland, nighttime football games at the Coliseum, private parties and, yes, even to grand openings of Laundromats (the operators would always compete for this latter “treat!”). My social life as a teen did not take a back seat during this adventure, since I would sometimes take my “dates” to a Hollywood event, as an assistant searchlight operator (usually my first and last encounter with these patient gals!).
Jim would always talk about and praise his mother, who he told us owned and operated the Albatross Restaurant in Malibu. He was very proud of her and often described how she was able to manage and operate her establishment so efficiently by herself (I do not have any recollection of Jim’s father in our conversations). Jim would always drive to work in a recent model Cadillac — a gift which he annually received from his mother, presumably as a Parker family “tradition” (as it seemed). Being that my childhood roots stem from a lower-middle class upbringing in L.A. proper (I would ride my bike or take a bus to work), this surrealistic scene was always difficult for me to fathom; to see this proud and hardworking man drive up in a sparkling luxury automobile to his business establishment — a large greasy field, filled with dozens of 25-year-old war surplus relics (the searchlights), old engine blocks, generators, searchlight mechanisms, crates of carbon rods and old one-ton trucks (used to tow the Klieg lights to their evening’s destination.)
All this mechanical carnage, sprawled in the company’s oil-saturated dirt lot, looked more like a salvage yard than the cornerstones of a thriving business. Yet, thrive it did (at least to this teen at the time), for come New Year’s eve, as well as the annual new “car showings” every September, Film Ad would rent out most of its fleet of 100 searchlights, which would make the skies over Los Angeles look more like a scene from the nighttime Blitz over London than Sparkletown, USA.
Jim and Film Ad are, unfortunately, long gone, and much smaller spotlights are now used for the grand openings. Yet, the fond memories of my youth with this novel profession remain, and I thank Jim Parker for the wonderful opportunity to be part of this nostalgic experience. As for me, I have since “graduated” from operating searchlights to researching laser technologies. Yes, the Albatross may have flown the coop, but its history will remain an integral part of Malibu, along with its brilliantly lit heavens above.
Name withheld upon request