Signal 100 | When your neighbor might be famous

“People are strange, when you’re a stranger….”
— Jim Morrison of The Doors

It’s funny, if not completely strange, how often we know so little about our friends and neighbors. One night, years ago, I was driving with a pal. The mountain road was dark and curvy and while he droned on — I confess, I wasn’t really paying attention — I had driven about 2 miles when I slowly stopped the truck and looked at him.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you just say a while back that you climbed the outside of the Union Oil Building in downtown L.A.?”

My pal Rex nodded, as if to imply: “Doesn’t everybody?”

I had known Rex for years. I did NOT know he was an infamous builderingist, a term for someone who climbs, usually illegally, the outside of skyscrapers. Off-handedly, he confessed that in his youth, he combatted a fear of heights by climbing giant office buildings, and, sometimes mountains. Like, the Matterhorn. For his 21st birthday.

You think you know somebody.

The Mighty Signal has written so much this past century about Santa Clarita Valley neighbors who sometimes are a little bit more than interesting.

Gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel lived on Arcadia Street for a while in the 1940s. Bugsy lived there with his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, for a while. The handsome hitman, born Benjamin was friends with Al Capone, and was one of the foundres of Murder Inc.

Newhall’s Rene Bond was the most famous porn star in the world. She was a sweet girl growing up here, and lost her way in drugs and alcohol, dying at 45.

Bugsy was also one of America’s most infamous mobsters and largely responsible for the development of Las Vegas as a gambling and crime mecca. Bugsy’s death in June 1947 in Beverly Hills sort of put an end to his visits to our friendly climes.

Heavens. I went to high school with Rene Bond. Same class, 1968. Rene was the most famous porn actress in the world. I still remember the fire-engine red dress she wore to our 10-year reunion.

Over the years, your community newspaper wrote about rancher Henry Krieg. He owned the iconic and world-famous Vasquez Rocks.

Notorious mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel secretly lived on Arcadia Street in Newhall during the 1940s.

All of them.

The Signal noted in 1937 that Krieg confessed he never once noticed anything strange or beautiful about the landscape.

Years later, they would film “The Flintstones” at Vasquez Rocks, little knowing that a real-life caveman family actually lived there. In a 1920 edition of this paper, we recalled the appropriately labeled Stonehatchet family. The family of five lived in a cave.

Many old-timers will remember the bartender from the world-famous bar and restaurant on Pico Canyon, just past the I-5 freeway overpass. It’s IHOP today. Bobby Batugo served thousands of customers over the years and won many national and international competitions as the absolute best mixologist. I was going to do a big Signal feature spread on Bobby years back. I had known him for almost 20 years and thought we had enjoyed some great conversations together. About five minutes into the questioning, I realized something:

Bobby didn’t speak English.

Bobby Batugo was one of the top bartenders on Earth and served thousands at the old Tip’s restaurant and bar. People thought they were having conversations with him. They weren’t. He didn’t speak English.

For decades, he memorized maybe five dozen clichés and bumper sticker responses. Like: “How about those Dodgers?” or “Hot (cold, rainy, windy) enough for you today?” I thought about it. You really DON’T need to speak English working in a crowded bar. You nod. You smile. You get the order right.

The Signal noted in January 1950 that Sand Canyon rancher Landalen Bluste (great name!) was retiring from cowboying. He was the first heliographer in America.

That’s the lost art of using mirrors to send messages. Sgt. Major Landalen fought in World War I, the Spanish-American War and the Indian Wars. He was stationed in Company K of the 4th Regiment in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where he fought Geronimo (although not all by himself).

World-famous comedian W.C. Fields lived on 8th Street in Newhall. The Signal reported how Fields used to play a game called “hobo golf” with his neighbor, William S. Hart. That’s where they’d hit tin cans instead of golf balls and try to hit things like cactus, busted wagon wheels and dogs when they were available.

The Signal noted the passing of Pablo Araujo in December 1947. Who’s Pablo? Forget 20-mule teams. The famed driver piloted teams of up to 50 mules pulling giant ore wagons through the Mojave desert. Pablo started in 1900 and continued to drive mules up until his death in 1947.

In early 1978, we started out to honor Mary Lou Neale. The reporter found out that besides being a great mom and Henry “Hold The” Mayo Hospital volunteer, Mary Lou was one of America’s first military’s women pilots. She flew supply planes through combat in World War II. Mary Lou remembered that her first flight instructor was “…the worst I’ve ever met.” That teacher would be her future husband, Ray Neale.

You ever have a scary neighbor?

The Signal tattled, right before Halloween in 1955, that one of the scariest men on Earth lived right here in Saugus. Fred Hagemann invented the modern rubber latex Halloween mask and held dozens of patents.

A little trivia? Prior to the mid-1940s, most trick-or-treat masks were made of paper.

Speaking of inventions, there’s the SCV’s very own Ralph Meeker. A 1948 interview with the Saugus resident noted that Mr. Meeker invented the first waterproof diaper — a two-piece ensemble consisting of cotton underwear with a plastic outer shell. The guy made a fortune.

Pretty much everyone’s heard of LARC Ranch up Bouquet Canyon, the center for special needs people. Back in 1931, it was owned by Lyle Puckett. Lyle used the water from Bouquet Creek to build a series of polo fields where a who’s who of Hollywood stars would come to play and let loose.

Speaking of fun with flora, we had our very own Johnny Appleseed living here in the mid-1800s. You see, prior to the early 19th century, the SCV was a heavily wooded area, filled with hundreds of thousands of oaks and other trees. When the Spanish and later Americans came in, they knocked down most of the forests to make way for flat farmland. John Sanders was commissioned by Henry Mayo Newhall to turn the now-barren landscape to look more like his Massachusetts home. Sanders planted tens of thousands of trees in his lifetime.

And while Sanders planted trees, Albert Swall built homes and businesses. Funny how we don’t have a Swall Avenue or Boulevard. Albert Swall came to Newhall in 1902 when he was 19 and started buying up real estate.

In 1914, he built the Swall Hotel, where the Work Boot Warehouse sits today on Main Street and Market Street.

People would come from miles around just to see a newfangled invention — electric lights.

Three of the most famous cowboy stars in the world — Bill Hart, Tom Mix and Harry Carey — all lived here when there were only about 1,000 in the entire valley. Famous musicians, cowboys, inventors, scientists, actors, athletes and gangsters have called — and do call today — the SCV home.

But I’ve often said that history is more than the birthdays of bloated politicians and the noting of explosions.

Ever wonder why the oak-shaded section of Happy Valley in Newhall got its name?

At the turn of the 20th century, there used to be a Pennywitt family here filled with girls. One of the sisters had such an omni-cheerful disposition, everyone called her “Happy.” When her brother-in-law, Fred Lamkin, started developing that area into residential area, they named it Happy Valley after the Pennywitt girl. The name sort of stuck.

I just recalled one of my favorite small Signal stories. It happened more than years ago and involved a runaway boy named Bobby Dunham Jr.

He escaped his home in Los Angeles and just headed north — on his little homemade scooter. Bobby just kept scooting up the Grapevine and was almost 80 miles from home when sheriff’s deputy Anderson pulled him over for questioning. He had made it from L.A. to San Fernando the first night and slept in an abandoned house. The next day, he used his dime to buy milk and cookies and continued north. Why the trek? He wanted to see San Francisco. Bobby was 7. As a grown man after World War II, he later returned to live in Santa Clarita.

Here’s an ongoing bit of a lifetime homework assignment. The next time you look up at the moon, remember that there’s a little bit of Santa Clarita up there, smiling down on us.

Back in the 1920s, John Irwin used to sit with his children and share that he always wanted to be the first man to walk on the moon. John Irwin died in 1956 at the age of 77. When the United States sent their second lunar lander to the orb on Aug. 2, 1971, one of the astronauts was James Irwin — NO RELATION to John. Prior to that moon walk, John’s daughter sent a touching letter to astronaut James Irwin along with her father’s photograph and his ashes. She asked if the astronaut could leave them on the moon. He did. James Irwin even mentioned the SCV’s immortal resident in his autobiography, “To Rule the Night.”

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 41 out of 52 in our 100th anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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