California Fool’s Gold — Exploring South Pasadena


Today’s blog entry is about the city of South Pasadena.  

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of South Pasadena, available in art prints and on various types of merchandise

South Pasadena is a small town of roughly 24,000 citizens located at the westernmost edge of the San Gabriel Valley. Situated east of the San Rafael Hills and the Arroyo Seco, its neighbors are Pasadena to the north, San Marino to the east, Alhambra to the southeast, Montecito Heights and El Sereno to the southwest, and Highland Park and Hermon to the west. Within its borders are the neighborhoods of Bean Tract, Downtown South Pasadena, Mission Street-East, Mission Street-West, Olga, Ostrich Farm, and Raymond Hill, as well as the historic residential districts of El Centro/Indiana/Palm, Oak/Laurel, and Ramona Street. The demographics are roughly 50% white, 26% Asian (mostly Chinese and Korean), and 16% Latino (mostly Mexican).


Prior to the Spanish Conquest, South Pasadena and surrounding areas were members of the Hahamog’na band of Tongva. There were at least two Hahamong’na settlements in the area. Their leader, Hahamog’na, met Gaspar de Portolà on the overland Portolá expedition of 1770. Upon converting to Christianity, Hahamog’na took the name “Pascual.” After the missions were secularized in 1834, Rancho el Rincón de San Pascual was granted to retired Spanish soldier Juan Mariné. After Mexico surrendered the land to the US in 1848, the Manuel Garfias Adobe was erected on what’s now Arroyo Drive in 1853. The adobe was the setting of the first non-aboriginal birth in what’s now South Pasadena. In 1875, the then-landowners in San Pascual voted to rename their association, the Indiana Colony, “Pasadena.” On March 2 1888, the City of South Pasadena was incorporated, in part to resist their absorption into insatiable Pasadena. The population at the time was around 500.


The original symbol of the city was an orange tree. Andrew O. Porter, chairman of San Gabriel Orange Grove Association and G. Harold Powell, head of the California Fruit Growers Exchange (now Sunkist), both lived in South Pasadena, at Orange Grove and Marengo, respectively. Both houses still stand. In 1910, Ahn Chang Ho organized fellow Korean American laborers to lobby for better conditions from Alta Cresta GrovesC.E. Rumsey in Riverside. In 1974, the wooden Orangery Shopping Center was proposed and although ground was broken, the project was aborted. With all the orange groves removed, the city’s symbol was changed to a generic tree. In 2002, the city council voted to change the city’s flower from orange blossom to tiger lily.


In 1886, travel agent Walter Raymond opened the 200 room Royal Raymond resort hotel on Bacon Hill (now Raymond Hill) for orange-picking tourists. Surrounded by the vast Raymond Flower Fields, it was the first major South Pasadena attraction. Although it burned down on Easter, 1895, it was rebuilt in 1901. Closed during the Depression, after Walter’s death at 82, the bank again burned it to the ground in 1934.


South Pasadena’s second big attraction was the Cawston Ostrich Farm. Englishman Edwin Cawston established his first Ostrich Farm in Norwalk, then opened a farm in South Pasadena in 1886. The Ostrich Farm was quite the tourist destination and guests could ride the birds, feed them oranges, and purchase products made from their tanned flesh and feathers produced at the adjacent factory.


In 1904, the South Pasadena Realty and Improvement Co. contracted with Greene & Greene to design a pair of entrance-gate portals and an accompanying fence for the Oaklawn residential development. The bridge came in 1906, connecting Oaklawn and Fair Oaks and it has waiting stations at the ends. My travelling companion, Maryam, said it was closed to cars because it’s structurally unsound. However, we were assured that it was safe for pedestrians.


The Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain opened in 1915 as The South Pasadena Pharmacy. In the process of its restoration in the 1990s, many fixtures were brought from Joplin, Missouri’s Me Gee Pharmacy, just down the road on Route 66. It’s my go-to place for Crabtree & Evelyn and Caswell-Massey products and if you ever hanker for a malt or some old-fashioned candy like a Mary Janes, Blackjack gum or a Charleston Chew, they’ve got that too.


South Pasadena has produced a few musicians including Che Zuro, Dead Ball Era, Erin Alden, LA Font, Sculpted Static and Ricky Parish & The Blues Gypsys. In November, bands battle it out at the South Pasadena Music Center & Conservatory for the Battle of the Bands. Less bellicose is the Eclectic Music Festival & Art Walk in May. The city is also represented musically by the South Pasadena Community Band and the South Pasadena Adult Concert Band.

There’s a pretty new store which features live music too, The Battery Books and Music.


South Pasadena is very green for Southern California, with shady streets lined with large, mature native California trees including ash, redwood, sequoia, sycamore and walnuts. There are also non-natives including sweetgum, and refreshingly few palms. There are also 92.2 acres of parks in the city: Arroyo Seco Park, Eddie Park (and House), Garfield Park, Orange Grove ParkLibrary ParkSan Pasqual Park and War Memorial Park.


It’s partly because of South Pasadena’s relative lack of obvious California identifiers and small town feel that it’s such a popular place to film movies and TV. American Pie, Back to the Future, Beethoven 1 and 2, Beverly Hills 90210, Big Love, Bones, Boston Public, Brothers and Sisters, Bruce Almighty, CSI, Cold Case, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Death at a Funeral, Desperate Housewives, Dog Whisperer, Flags of Our Fathers, Freaky Friday, Gone with the Wind, Indiana Colony, Jack & Bobby, Judging Amy, Landscaper’s Challenge, Legally Blonde 1 and 2, License to Wed, Mad Men, Modern Family, Mr. Deeds, National Treasure 1 and 2, Nip/Tuck, Old School, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Stepbrothers, The Girl Next Door, The Terminator, The Ugly Truth, 13 Going on 30, Windfall and XXX have all been filmed in part or in whole in the city.

Some of the noteworthy homes from films are the Myers home from Halloween (1000 Mission Street)…

George McFly’s House from Back to the Future

George McFly’s house (1711 Bushnell Ave), the Beethoven house (1405 Milan Avenue), The OC‘s Berkely house (1617 Marengo Avenue) and Step By Step’s Lambert-Foster house (2011 Fletcher Ave). Oh, and Pee-Wee Herman‘s house from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is located at 1848 Oxley Street.

Two popular actors are South Pasadena natives. Joel McCrea, star of the amazing Tales of the Texas Rangers (as well as numerous films), was born there in 1905. Meredith Baxter of Family Ties and many made-for-television movies fame, was also born there. In the 1970s she acted on the series Family, the exteriors of which were shot in South Pasadena too.

The Rialto Theatre

The 1,200-seat Rialto Theatre opened on 17 October 1925. The opening program included trapeze artists, vaudeville acts and the world premier of Reginald Denny’s What Happened to Jones. The theater, which has Egyptian, Moorish and Spanish elements, was one of the last designed by noted theater architect Lewis A. Smith, who died the following year. In 1978 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1992 it was featured in Missourian director Robert Altman’s The Player. In 1997 it was featured in Scream 2. In 2001 I saw Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain with Christine Castro, Seth G., and Stella Tran. It went out of business on 19 August 2007.

South Pasadena supports one DVD rental store, Vidéothèque. Although their movie selection has fewer than half as many film titles as Amoeba, their focus on classics, cult, foreign, independent and rare cinema is impressive as is the sheer number of director and other subsections.

In a sad bit of South Pasadena film news, on December 30th, 1996, actor Jack Nance died of a subdural hematoma. The actor, a favorite of David Lynch‘s, claimed to have been involved in a fight at the Winchell‘s across the street and died the next morning. He was the subject of the 2002 documentary I Don’t Know Jack.


The Michael Hollis Fine Art Gallery features work by contemporary artists, California Impressionists, Soviet artists and often features California-centric exhibitions. For theater enthusiasts or fans of British spelling, there‘s the Fremont Centre Theatre. The artistic directors are a wife and husband team, Lisa Layng Reynolds, and James ReynoldsDays of Our Lives‘ “Abe Carver.”


Every Thursday in the Mission-West District, South Pasadenans enjoy the South Pasadena Farmer’s Market. For athletes, the first Saturday of December every year brings the annual Tiger Run. On the other end of the health spectrum is the annual Parti Gras, which got its start in the Bristol Farms parking lot.


There aren’t too many restaurants in South Pasadena, just Ai Japanese Resaurant, The Barkley, Bistro de la Gare, Cake Sensations, The Cookshack, Carmine’s Italian, Firefly Bistro, Golden China, Gus’s Barbecue, Hi-Life Burgers, La Fiesta Grande, Mamma’s Brick Oven, Mike & Anne’s, Munch, Nicole’s Gourmet Foods, Nonna’s Pizzeria, Patakan Thai, The Raymond, Senor Fish, Shakers, Shiro, Tokoro Japanese, and Wild Thyme as far as I can tell. As far as I know, alcohol is legal in South Pasadena but all the bars seem to be of the coffee variety. There’s the Burke Triolo Studio, but it’s only used for filming. There’s Buster’s Ice Cream & Coffee Stop, Heirloom Cafe, House of Coffee, and Kaldi. Boozehounds may want to follow their nose to surrounding communities (or sit at The Barkley’s bar). On the day of our adventure, we ate at Shakers. I thought the omelet-style potato pancakes were amazing although know beforehand that the service is very “relaxed.” I haven’t been to Mike & Anne’s in a while but I remember it fondly, too.

Update: I completely missed Mission Wines and my friend Susie rectified that. They’re primarily a retail space but do have a bar. The regulars were friendly and afterward we went to Mike & Annes which was delicious!

Until next time!

South Pasadena Public Library

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, the StoryGraph, and Twitter.

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