Sam McManis

Discoveries: Oft-maligned San Fernando Valley gets its due with relics museum

It’s a long day livin’ in Reseda

There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard …

Tom Petty

Tommy Gelinas likes that song, “Free Fallin’.” Truly, he does. Nice hook. Killer guitar riffs. Sure, it sort of slags on his beloved San Fernando Valley but, then, doesn’t everybody? Gelinas accepts it. Doesn’t like it. Calls it a worn-out stereotype, certainly not the Valley he knows. But he abides, mostly.

Not to say Gelinas condones what he calls Valley bashing – “the L.A. haters hating on the 818ers,” 818 being the Valley’s area code – but he understands the impulse by snooty types from “over the hill,” those in the Los Angeles basin who wouldn’t think of careening down the Sepulveda Pass into the hazy scrum of the Valley, unless they wanted a better deal on, say, bathroom tile than they could get in Santa Monica or Brentwood. Think of the Valley as New Jersey to L.A.’s New York, a reliable punching bag and punch line.

Gelinas adjusts his horned-rim glasses and nods vigorously when a visitor to his Valley Relics Museum, situated next to Tile Clearance Inc. in a Chatsworth light-industrial complex, reels off a litany of Valley slights from over the decades: Johnny Carson and “Laugh-In” putting down “beautiful downtown Burbank”; the up-speak vacuity of Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl” (“It’s, like, fer sure, gag me with a spoon”); TV weathermen references to smog so thick it’s like “inhaling iron fillings”; the ennui-inducing movies of native son Paul Thomas Anderson, including “Boogie Nights,” detailing what in recent decades has become a major Valley industry, porn.

Taking a long pull from a can of Rock Star Energy Drink to gird himself for what, knowing Gelinas, promises to be a lengthy response, the voluble curator of 60 years of Valley memorabilia instead is brisk, clipped and to the point.

“The Valley has endured enough bashing,” he says. “It’s been stripped, and it’s been pillaged. I’m like, you’re not gonna do it here anymore, not on my time. Look, we’ve always been underrated, got a bad rap from the L.A. haters. But they never had an understanding of what the Valley was. But part of it is our fault. When people talk doo-doo about the Valley, it can be hard to defend it when there’s nothing left in terms of history. This was – I mean, is – the world’s most famous valley.”

Gelanis makes this bold proclamation while sitting in a booth salvaged from the erstwhile Sherman Room, a once-swanky steak-and-lobster-and-high-ball Van Nuys restaurant, lovingly restored in the museum to all its midcentury modern splendor, right down to the green Naugahyde upholstery.

 

A sweeping look at the artifacts attests to Gelinas’ deep affection for Valley. You spy everything from the neon sign that once graced the original Henry’s Tacos (an early ’60s “gringo Mexican” forerunner to Taco Bell on Tujunga Avenue in Studio City), to uniforms from the 1976 movie “Bad News Bears,” shot at Chatsworth’s Mason Park, to bric-a-brac from the old Palomino country-and-western bar in North Hollywood.

Impressive and nostalgia-laden as it is, it doesn’t seem to bolster Gelinas’ bold contention that the San Fernando Valley reigns over all the other valleys in the world. There is no official designation, after all. One would not normally rank the San Fernando Valley up there with Yosemite Valley and the Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland. But Gelinas swears it’s no hyperbole – “You take the San Fernando Valley and compare it to anywhere in the world,” he says, “Switzerland, New York, Chicago, San Diego. Wherever. I mean it. Anywhere in the world.”

Another slug of Rock Star, and Gelinas starts ticking off reasons until he runs out of fingers, making a pretty darn good case for his Valley to be the top, at least among urban/suburban places. Be prepared for a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare – or, at least, a rapid-fire TV pitchman:

“Why do I call it the World’s Famous Famous Valley? Well, first, like you said, it was mentioned in that Tom Petty song. Open up (high school) yearbooks from the Valley. Oh, John Elway, Granada Hills High. Robert Redford went to Van Nuys High. Marilyn Monroe went to Van Nuys, too. James Cagney’s ranch was at O’Melveny (Granada Hills). Huge ranch for Cagney. Lucy and Desi were married in Canoga Park. Their ranch was in the Chatsworth area. The Valley: home to the stars. Even right up until Ronnie James Dio died, he was living in Encino. Johnny Cash lived in Encino – and Liberace, too. Clark Gable, Gene Autry, Roy (Rogers) and Dale (Evans). I can go on and on. Mr. Hertz, the rental car guy, he had a ranch. Zeppo Marx and Barbara Stanwyck had the Marwyck Ranch right up here.

“Why? It was rural and safe. A lot of dirt roads and ranch homes. We were one of first to legalize horse racing. Devonshire Downs, man. People would get out of glitz of Hollywood and mid-Wilshire and escape over the hill. That racetrack, it was beautiful. Devonshire Downs also had Newport ’69 concert festival, where Janis (Joplin) and Jimi (Hendrix) played prior to Woodstock. I’m just giving you the pop-culture info. I could go back to the 1800s, if you want.

“And trees. Man, we had trees. Land. Still dirt roads into the ’60s. Good prices for homes. Raise a family. Have horses. We had jobs. Produced 62 million Firebirds and Camaros. We produced Marantz stereos, JBL speakers, Fischer components, Infinti stereos. Rocket engines and some of the best war planes that defended the USA. We also invented the sport of BMX. Did you know that? Made the best BMX bikes in the world.

“Of course you know about cruising Van Nuys Boulevard. Thousands of spectators and hundreds and hundreds of the most amazing hot rods, Harleys, choppers, dune buggies every Wednesday night. The air was filled with that ’60s glitter. You had air-brushed Ford and Chevy vans with wood paneling and shag carpeting. Van Nuys Boulevard on a Wednesday was like going to the Vegas strip. Young girls everywhere. Good-looking guys everywhere. Hell’s Angels, too. People used to hang out from 7 o’clock to 2 in the morning …”

Note how Gelinas slipped into the past tense during his reverie. Much of the manufacturing is gone, others seeing their glory days in the rearview mirror. But it all still lives on in Gelinas’ mind. And he seeks to keep memories alive for other longtime Valleyites.

“My tagline is: Cherish what we had and preserve what’s left,” he says. “You need to be proud of where you come from.”

Gelinas, 52, is so proud that he has accumulated more than 15,000 pieces of Valley lore over the past 18 years. A native son – “I was conceived in Sherman Oaks and popped out in Burbank” – Gelinas says he never felt the urge to leave the Valley. His father was an actor (and later inventor) who met his future wife at Republic Studios in Encino, where she was a switchboard operator. They found a home in the Valley, like so many young couples in the early 1960s, and had nine children. When Tommy came of age, he didn’t think about leaving the Valley. And why should he? He could more easily start his T-shirt business (“We produced 150,000 T-shirts a week, all licensed to, like, SpongeBob Square Pants or Britney Spears and Iron Maiden”) here as over the hill, where leases were outrageous.

He has kids of his own now, and likes the family values evident in the Valley. Too, he’s a sucker for nostalgia and hopelessly smitten with the Valley of his youth. In fact, even in middle age, Gelinas still looks boyish. Wearing a black baseball cap on backward and slightly askew, and a gray hoodie that covers his arm sleeve of tattoos, he looks like he’s ready to hit the trails on a dirt bike.

“I’ve been called ‘The Unlikely Curator,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to call myself cutting edge, but … Look, I have a home and $3,000 suits in my closet. People look at the tattoos and my hat and make assumptions. But don’t judge a book by its cover. Just like the Valley, you know.”

It always comes back to the Valley. If you called Gelinas obsessed with it, you wouldn’t be too far off. He relishes showing off his “finds,” which range from vintage signs such as the scoreboard from the old North Valley Little League to a 1975 Cadillac convertible, with longhorns and silver dollars on the chassis, belonging to Western wear entrepreneur Nudie Cohn.

There’s a story behind each item. One Gelinas likes to recount is his acquisition of the sign outside the erstwhile White Horse Inn that, in Gelinas’ words, “used to light up Northridge where there was nothing else going on.” The restaurant closed in 1997, and Gelinas spoke to the owner about salvaging the sign. The owner remained noncommittal.

“People celebrated bar mitzvahs, graduations, proms, anniversaries there,” he says. “The building stayed abandoned. I circled it almost every day for more than a decade. I watched the sign wither away. Someone threw a stone and put a little hole in it. Then, one day, I’m driving by with my wife, who was pregnant, and they’re tearing down the building. I slammed on the brakes. My wife says, ‘What re you doing?’ I had to stop it. I told the workers it was a sacred Indian burial ground. Then I called up the owner and said, ‘I’ll stop this construction if you don’t give me that sign.’ He said, ‘OK, Tommy. OK.’ 

In the early days of collecting, Gelinas relied on his own wiles to salvage Valley stuff. These days, people contact him via Facebook or the Valley Relics’ website. Gelinas has acquired so much memorabilia that he has to store the excess in another building in North Hollywood. He opens the Chatsworth museum for five hours every Saturday, and he strolls the aisles reminiscing with fellow Valleyites.

On a recent Saturday, two men reveling in past lore, Jaime Gallegos and Bill Garza of Canoga Park, said they felt transported.

“The Palomino!” Garza, 70, said. “That sign! People probably figured all this stuff went to the dump. It’s surprising to see it again.”

Younger Valleyites, who weren’t even born when the signs were torn down, appreciate the pop-culture history lesson.

“My dad, he told me everything about the Valley,” says Patricia Siegel, 26, of Mission Hills. “We’d be driving around and he’d say, ‘I remember there used to be a restaurant there,’ and I’d say, ‘OK.’ He’d recognize a lot of the stuff here. It’s nice to see the Valley represented. I think people get the wrong impression. For one thing, not all of us use that ‘fer sure’ crap voice. We don’t talk like that.”

That’s just so, so Valley. The real Valley. Proud of its heritage and still carrying a small chip on its shoulder.

Valley Relics Museum

21630 Marilla St., Chatsworth

Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays

Cost: Free (donations accepted)

More info: valleyrelicsmuseum.org

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