Row of residences housed several interesting families throughout the 1930s and ’40s
by Pablo Capra
Part of a series on overlooked Malibu history
Just past the Malibu Feed Bin, on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, was Weber’s Tow Yard. In 1941, Louis Franklin (1904-1979) went there to buy a junk car for The Globe Auto Wrecking Co. in downtown LA.
Bob Weber (1888-1957), who lived in an adjoining house with his wife Katherine (1886-1972) and nephew Frank Weaver (b. 1910), mentioned a beach house that was for sale. Louis jumped at the opportunity, and made this his family’s vacation home for the next 13 years.
Weber’s Tow Yard resembles a fictional place in the detective-book series “The Three Investigators,” first published in 1964 by Robert Arthur Jr. (1909-1969), about three boys who solve crimes in Rocky Beach, a town based on Topanga Beach and Pacific Palisades. Many of the stories start in Titus Jones’s junkyard, where his nephew Jupiter has turned a travel trailer into the boys’ secret headquarters. The series remains popular in Germany, where it’s called “Die Drei ???,” and new writers continue to produce stories.
In real life, Weber’s Tow Yard wasn’t kid friendly, according to neighbor girl Thais Sykes (1925-2021), who remembered, “Everybody was really nice, except for Bob Weber, the tow-truck driver. He was just OK.”
In 1943, Weber leased Weber’s Malibu Service Station at Malibu Colony. He gave it up in 1946 after a string of problems, including two robberies and an explosion that killed employee Harvey Whelan, 16, of Pacific Palisades. Weber was found partially responsible for the unsafe conditions, and fined for failing to provide insurance. Around 1950, he leased the gas station at Las Flores Canyon; and in 1952, he leased one where Boardriders Malibu is today.
The beach house that Weber tipped Louis to happened to be the former Topanga Yacht Clubhouse of the 1930s, one of the only houses that survived the swell of 1926. Louis and his wife Eva “Evelyn” (1906-1982) had known each other since they were 2 and 4, and remained together until they died. They lived in Pico-Robertson, and spent weekends at the beach with their children Lawrence “Larry” (b. 1930), Samuel “Sam” (b. 1936), and Elizabeth “Beth” (b. 1940), nicknamed “Booky” because she used to say, “Mommy, read me a booky.” At mealtimes, Evelyn amused herself by ringing a little bell to call the children to the glassed-in deck on the second floor.
The first floor was rented to Charles Pritchard (1887-1947), director of sales for the Pioneer Paper Company. Pritchard’s main residence was at the Jonathan Club, where he was on the board. Under the house, he kept a folding kayak, and built a gymnastics bar for the kids. He was estranged from his upper-class family, and told the Franklins that he’d written them into his will, so they’d never have to worry about money. When he died after a brief illness in 1947, his will couldn’t be found. The Franklins suspected that his family destroyed it when they came to get his things.
Next, the Berkeley family moved in. Randall Edward “Ted” Berkeley (1912-1997) worked as a greensman, providing plants to film sets. His wife Sylvia (1919-2000) was a seamstress and taught dancing. They had two daughters, Bonnie (b. 1938) and Wendy (b. 1943). Ted was a great improviser on his upright piano, and could be heard making up crazy songs to popular tunes. He also played the trumpet, and taught it to Sam. In the 1970s, Ted shared many memories in The Malibu Times.
After the Berkeleys left, around 1948, Evelyn’s brother George Berger (1899-1962) and his wife Rose (1901-1967) rented the first floor for vacations. George had a men’s clothing store in Pasadena called Berger’s. At the beach, he enjoyed surf fishing with Sam, who sold sand crabs to Wylie’s Bait Shop across the street. Wylie’s was built in 1949, according to a permit published in The Malibu Times. However, Larry remembers it being at Sunset Blvd. before that, and Sam says it was up a flight of steps on a hillside. An offshoot of Wylie’s Sporting Goods in Redondo Beach, the shop was run by Bill and his wife Ruth Wylie, with help from Bob Varnum (1928-2000), who later took over.
To the east of the Franklins lived two musical families. On the second floor were Joseph Lilley (1913-1971), a music director at Paramount Studios, and his wife Dorothy (1915-2004). From their deck, the Franklins could see Joseph composing at the dinner table at night, using only a pencil and paper … no piano. On the first floor were Ray Miller, manager of musicians Gordon Jenkins and Dick Haymes, and his wife Thelma, the owners of the house. It burned in 1946 when Ziegfeld Follies star Tommy Mack (1898-1982) and his wife Emily moved their house to the beach and knocked a telephone-pole wire loose.
Part of the Franklins’ kitchen also burned in the fire. Afterwards, the lot remained empty, and Louis turned it into a horseshoe court, which became a popular gathering place. He used heavy axles from his wrecking yard as stakes so the horseshoes would really clank.
The Lilleys moved to a nearby house, where they had a daughter named Mary Susan (b. 1948).
The Millers divorced. Thelma moved to Ratner Beach and built a house around a double-decker bus from a discontinued line on Wilshire Boulevard. Ray moved across PCH to Old Malibu Road, and married Esther, who started a “Malibu Beautification Club” that envisioned tree-bordered streets and flower-covered hills. This house burned too from faulty wiring in 1948.
The Macks’ house, maybe the only stucco house on the beach, survived the fire it had caused. In 1948, Mack released a comedy song he cowrote with “Mr and Mrs. Harmonica” Jimmy and Mildred Mulcay called “When Veronica Plays the Harmonica (Down on the Pier at Santa Monica).” Performers Johnny Mercer, Gloria Wood, and Kay Kyser’s Campus Cowboys helped make it a hit, with The Malibu Times writing, “You are hearing it every time you turn the radio on, the kids are singing it on the buses. The supply of records in the record shops is bought up as soon as they are obtained….”
The Macks lived on the ground floor, and rented their second floor to actor Allen Jenkins (1900-1974), who also made people laugh in 1948. After being arrested with his Malibu drinking buddy James Davis, 30, for nearly hitting a police car on PCH near Sunset Blvd. at 4 a.m., he joked that his calico cat Smiley had been driving. At the police station, he continued the silliness, asking the booking officer to take Smiley’s paw prints, and insisting that his “inseparable companion” join him in jail. Upon his release, he complained, “This is a fine jail. Everything for the lousy drunks and nothing for the cat. We want some milk.”
He pleaded not guilty at his DUI trial, and requested a jury, whom he entertained with more funny lines like, “I’m going to take the rap for Smiley.” He also won over the press, getting them to “take the part of the undercat” who was “catnipped to the whiskers,” and to “hope he don’t take it to heart, having a police record.” The joke overshadowed the trial, as journalists posed questions like, “When the cops saw it was a cat driving, why didn’t they look out?”
Allen even made his bad reviews turn funny, e.g., “His lawyer can wrangle a quick acquittal by bringing into the court the actor’s latest movie, ‘The Case of the Baby Sitter,’ which is enough to drive anyone to drink.”
His inevitable acquittal hardly reflected his innocence. “It was a tight squeeze, but my personality finally prevailed,” Smiley “wrote” in an open letter. Soon after, Allen included Smiley in a vaudeville act called “Musical Comedy Hilarities” that he tested out at The Seacomber restaurant (across from Nobu Malibu today), then toured around the country.
The Malibu Times would continue publishing stories about Smiley until 1950, when the cat died crossing PCH. “Smiley became a legendary figure up and down the Malibu,” his obituary read.
Allen later did voice acting for the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon “Top Cat” (1961-62), playing Officer Charlie Dibble, who tries to police a gang of alley cats.
In 1989, 15 years after Allen’s death, “Saturday Night Live” introduced a recurring character, “Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car” … just not very well. Although two “SNL” writers were Topanga Beach alumni Tom Schiller (b. 1949) and Gary Weis (b. 1943), and the skits recalled Allen’s joke, the writer, Jack Handey, couldn’t say how he’d come up with the premise.
After Allen, the Macks rented to two other Hollywood friends: producer Robert Cohn, son of Columbia Pictures co-founder Jack Cohn; and actor Jackie Coogan, star of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” (1921), and Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family” TV show (1964-1966).
At the Topanga intersection, a space between the beach houses allowed public access to a small strip of sand, but residents resented when the crowd spread out onto their “yards.” In 1943, fences, gates, and “No Trespassing” signs went up. One Topangan complained, “A person, posing as a watchman and displaying some kind of badge, forbade entrance to the water … Is there a state law, or do they simply take the law in their own hands?”
Whether or not the beach could remain private became a major issue. The LA Athletic Club (LAAC), the property owners, wanted to develop it further, and State Parks wanted to bulldoze the houses, which they finally did in the 1970s.
In 1953, the LAAC tried to clear out the homeowners, who were living on five-year ground leases, by tripling their renewals. The Franklins decided they’d had enough, and sold their beach house in 1954, while others sued and won the right to stay on the beach for 15 more years as monthly renters.
Larry went on to serve in the Navy in Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. He built a company called Franklin Truck Parts with his dad, which today has nine stores. Sam got a Ph.D in Psychology and became head of the department at Fresno State. He wrote a book called “The Psychology of Happiness” (2009). Beth studied yoga at the Self-Realization Fellowship and became a teacher and healer. She still practices twice a day. They all say the beach left a joy that has lasted a lifetime.
Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.