Shuffling through history
Adam Malovani’s walking tour of Hermosa’s musical heritage exposes challenges of preserving town’s past
by Ryan McDonald
Singer Joni Mitchell has said her hit tune “Big Yellow Taxi” — with its tinging triangle and immortal lament that “They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot” — was inspired by a trip to Hawaii. Mitchell told Robert Hilburn, the former pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, that she arrived at her hotel in a taxi, in the dark of night. When she awoke the next morning, she saw “beautiful green mountains” in the distance, but when she looked down, “there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see.”
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Adam Malovani can relate. Malovani is a Hermosa Beach resident and founder of Experience GPS Tours, an app that offers walking tours designed to be taken with mobile phones. His first project, released last week, documents the musical history of his adopted hometown. Over the course of about 75 minutes, tour-takers hear everything from the ritual chants of the Tongva Indians to the alienated howls of South Bay punk, and learn the stories behind the songs. The tour is part forward-thinking business venture, part quixotic act of civic responsibility. Malovani collected dozens of hours of interviews, almost all of which did not make the project’s final cut. He plans to donate them to the Hermosa Historical Society, and those signing up for membership in the society this month will get a coupon to download the app for free. His attempt to preserve the city’s heritage and spark the interest of generations to come is made all the more urgent by the frequency with which Hermosa’s icons succumb to the bite of the bulldozer.
“One of the problems is that, here in Hermosa, there’s basically nothing left,” Malovani said. “It’s very challenging to create an engaging experience when you’re looking at a parking lot that was something 80 years ago.”
This exact situation comes up early in the tour, but doesn’t prevent it from succeeding. The listener is told to lean against the Strand Seawall in front of the parking at the northwest edge of Pier Plaza. In a stylistic decision repeated throughout the tour, the listener is asked to “imagine” being there in 1938, when the parking lot held a jumping swing music club named Zucca’s. This imagining is made considerably easier by the fact that the narration is broken up by recordings of interviews with people who were around for key moments, and photos from the era that appear on the phone’s screen.
In this case, the sounds of clinking highball glasses and blaring trumpets gives way to Tommy Rice, who recounts leaning against the very same Strand wall. Rice, a surf rat who briefly lived under the pier with legendary shaper Dale Velzy, listened to acts like the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from outside Zucca’s, because he was not old enough to get in.
“We’d get some beer in us and go for the dirty boogie,” a dance that he says involved bending the knees and lowering one’s bottom almost to the ground, Rice said. The story is hilarious and, delivered in the rasp of Rice, now in his 90s, touching. It’s the kind of everyday eloquence Studs Terkel might dig up, and a vivid reminder that teenage rebelliousness was around long before the ‘60s.
Today, the space where Zucca’s once roared serves as the parking lot to burger joint Slater’s 5050. Yet all but the most recent Hermosa arrivals will associate it with the Mermaid, an iconic tavern that stood at the foot of the Pier for decades. With its cheap drinks and the old-fashioned morality of owner Quentin “Boots” Thelen, the Mermaid embodied a Hermosa that was more rough-and-tumble, but also more egalitarian than the city is today. On social media and in letters to this newspaper, the Mermaid’s drawn-out demise — complicated by an estate tax debacle and an ill-fated partnership with the Killer Shrimp chain — became yet another opportunity to mark Hermosa’s passing. This month, an environmental review gets underway for the Strand & Pier project, a proposed hotel-and-retail complex that would displace Slater’s and many other surrounding businesses.
The project is deemed transformational by both its backers and its opponents. Strand & Pier comes up in Malovani’s tour, in a final segment with a retrospective feel. The listener is told once again, to take a look at a parking lot. Renderings of the proposal flash by on screen. Some of the few strained lines of the tour come as Pennywise frontman Jim Lindberg, a Hermosa native, tries to be objective about the proposal. He sounds much more convincing when airing his doubts.
“Once a place is gone, that tangible piece of history is gone forever,” Lindberg says.
Eat the flowers
Malovani, who moved to the South Bay from the San Fernando Valley in the early ‘80s, has the vibe of that rare teacher who is well-liked despite a reputation for being difficult. (In an introduction, Malovani tells the listener to avoid “talking with friends” during the tour.) His enthusiasm is infectious. As the narrator described the syncopated beat of the swing music that streamed out of Zucca’s, Malovani shimmied and twisted without a shred of self consciousness as people streamed by on roller skates.
People who spend a lot of time in Hermosa almost certainly recognize Malovani, even if they do not know him. He has walked the tour route almost every day for the past three years. But the idea for the walking tour goes back even farther. More than 10 years ago, Malovani was driving to Mammoth Lakes in a new Prius. It was the first time he had made the trip in a car equipped with GPS. The voice connected with his inner Clark Griswold, the part of him that feels compelled to pull over for the world’s largest ball of twine.
He had always liked history, but hearing a voice as he sped up and slowed down on Highway 395 made him think about how neat it would be to take a tour where the listener could set the pace. Malovani couldn’t have known it at the time, but another developing technology would help him realize his dream: the smartphone. Putting the internet in people’s pockets would enable them to have the kind of experience that Malovani envisioned: immersive audio and high-quality visuals on a personal, portable device.
Among the first people to make the connection was web entrepreneur Andrew Mason, one of the founders of Groupon, the online discount aggregator. After being ousted from Groupon Mason developed Detour, a service that would provide walking tours intended to be taken with a mobile phone. At the time of its launch in 2014, Mason told Bloomberg News that he was aiming to disrupt the guided tour industry, whose value he pegged at tens of billions of dollars per year.
The first tours Detour rolled out were for parts of San Francisco, and Malovani was among the first to take one. He compared the experience to “being in a Pixar movie.” For one tour, of Golden Gate Park, he marvelled at being told which way to turn his head and hearing detailed descriptions of flowers and butterflies, as if the voice on the phone could see exactly what he was seeing. (Tour participants at one point were told to chew the petals of a particular flower; the narrator accurately described of the taste, then, as a joke, said that the odd-tasting plant was poisonous.)
“In the first five minutes, I decided that I was going to quit my job, and work on this,” Malovani said.
He met with Mason, and was the first company to arrange an agreement with Detour to do a third-party tour that would be hosted on the Detour app. For funding, Malovani plowed money he’d gotten from a legal settlement in a previous business venture the audio tour.
The project did not begin with a music focus, but instead sought to cover all of Hermosa history. He inhaled books like Pat Gazin’s “Footprints in the Sand” and Chris Miller’s “Hermosa Beach.” He hired three people with backgrounds in radio production to do interviews. In the process, he produced a treasure trove of Hermosa lore: over 50 hours of taped interviews with people like shaper Hap Jacobs, surf pioneer Jim Kerwin and Mermaid owner Quentin “Boots” Thelen.
But there was, if anything, too much history. Bikers roared off the transcribed pages next to quirky city councilmembers, houses were built and torn down as culture gave way to counterculture. Then, while attending Thanksgiving Dinner in 2016, Malovani met Stephanie Jenz.
Jenz came from a television background, and had two decades of experience in unscripted and documentary programming. But when she met Malovani, she was fresh from a different sort of project. She had been the executive producer of some of Detour’s first tours outside of San Francisco, helming eight done in Chicago. Malovani convinced Jenz to take the tour he had laid out, and sought her advice. She quickly agreed that Hermosa was an ideal place for a phone-based tour.
“It’s got a feeling in the air that’s different from other beach towns. I’d lived in Santa Monica and Venice, and I’d spent time in Manhattan Beach. But Hermosa had an intimacy, a sense of community, and an artiness that I don’t think other beach towns have,” Jenz said in an interview.
Malovani managed to convince her to quit her job and work full time on the project. She would focus the tour into a coherent narrative.
Jenz recalled her experience in Chicago, and compared the tours she was crafting to some of Chicago’s architectural tours. There were outings arranged around styles, like the beaux arts, but they were just a collection of different buildings. They didn’t answer a question or tell “a story about how the city was shaped and how it changed.”
“For me, in a story, that’s what makes it satisfying. That was the first thing Adam and I talked about: What makes Hermosa unique from any other city that’s out there? I knew the Lighthouse was there, and I knew about the punk scene. And I thought, wow; this town of 15,000 or so people had this huge influence on jazz and punk. How did that happen?”
The story of Hermosa as a center of musical innovation began to take shape. Malovani’s next challenge was to find a voice to put it all together. South Bay native Daniel Inez, who was recently chosen to design the latest entry in the Hermosa Mural Project series, told Malovani he needed someone with “street cred” to do the narration. And unlike swing and surf, punk rock was recent enough to find a grizzled throat still humming.
He sought out Keith Morris, the first singer of Black Flag and a founder of the Circle Jerks. Morris had previously been interviewed by one of the radio producers but, to try to convince him to take on a larger role, Malovani went to Morris’ house and waited on the front porch until the singer showed up. (“He thought I was a stalker,” Malovani said, shaking his head.) Morris declined, but suggested Lindberg, a Hermosa native and founding singer of Pennywise. Lindberg agreed and did some recording, but ultimately declined.
Meanwhile, technological challenges mounted. The day after Lindberg left, Malovani got a call from someone at Detour informing him that he would no longer be able to use the platform, because the company had been sold to audio technology giant Bose. (In a blog post in April, Mason said that Bose was hoping to link the Detour content to an “augmented reality” platform.)
In declining the narrator role, Lindberg suggested Joe Nolte, of Hermosa proto-punks the Last, who ultimately filled the role. Nolte, sometimes called the “Godfather” of South Bay punk, proved a perfect match. He has a present-at-the-creation background for Hermosa music. And, like Malovani, he is a history nerd.
“I’m probably a frustrated teacher. I have this cornball sense of really wanting to tell the story of things in the past that I think are cool, wanting to convey, to paint a picture, to take people back, give people a sense of what it was like. Or at least try to imagine what it must have been like doing the crazy stokaboka dances at the Surf Club,” Nolte said.
The immersive style of history that Nolte describes is key to the tour’s success. Anecdote flows into anecdote, warding off “museum feet.” The best of these comes from Randy Nauert. Nauert was the bass player for The Challengers, who had a hit record with “Surfbeat” in 1963, right around the time they split a bill with another young surf outfit called the Beach Boys at the Hermosa Biltmore Hotel. Nauert, who grew up in Palos Verdes, was familiar with the musical happenings in Hermosa, thanks in part to a Chinese cook at the Lighthouse Cafe. During shows, the cook would open a door at the rear of the building, and let underage kids into the kitchen, where they could hear the music tumbling out of the horns and snares on stage. In the tour, the listener is once again in a parking lot, this time in Parking Lot A right outside the Lighthouse kitchen, which is guarded by a sturdy metal door that looks as though it hasn’t changed since the ‘50s.
In the tour, Nauert recalled taking a date to see Charlie Mingus and the evening going well enough to get a second date. “It was the coolest place. For $1.25 you got a big bowl of fried rice and all the free tea you wanted.”
Nauert marveled that he rarely saw anyone else taking advantage of the cook’s offer. (“Maybe I was an early adopter,” he joked.) But then again, he notes, even the people going through the front door to hear what are now recognized as jazz legends often formed a crowd as small as 20 or 30 people. His story, and the way Malovani’s tour so firmly places the listener inside it, reveal one of the seductive perils of history: the belief that, had you been around for this great music or some other cultural ferment, you would certainly have had the vision to appreciate it. This is, of course, ridiculous. Most people today, sent back to the late ‘70s, would no more have had the stomach to hang out at the Church and thrash to Black Flag than they would have had the foresight to invest in Apple Computer Company.
Nolte brought up the Hermosa Mural Project’s recent decision to honor the city’s place in punk rock history. Nolte found it “hilarious,” because he and the members of groups like Black Flag and the Descendents were considered town pariahs at the time. Even they found the notion that they would wind up in history books absurd.
“We used to sit around and laugh about people giving tours of the place some day,” Nolte said of the Church. “We were a little motley group of unkempt kids that no one thought would ever amount to anything.”
Nolte’s story makes the conservative case for conservation: because we tend to be very bad at predicting what will someday be regarded as significant, we ought to err on the side of caution about where we lay down new pavement. Or, as Joni Mitchell put it, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Crossing a red line
The tour app generated excitement on social media when it launched last week, but Malovani was disappointed when all those likes failed to translate into downloads. “People feel insulted when they’re asked to pay,” he said, to knowing sighs from journalists everywhere.
If Malovani is less than sanguine about the tour’s prospects, it’s not clear whether this is because of concern over his investment of time and money, or because of what the lack of enthusiasm says about his town’s commitment to its own history. He recognizes that the easiest path to viability is likely in marketing to tourists, or even to people who live half a world away and could take the tour remotely. But he appears more interested in getting the approval of the long-time locals, people whose roots here are deep enough to justify worrying about the changes sweeping the community.
This stems from the widely held belief that newer arrivals may have less of a stake in the town’s past. Malovani brought up his experience in Leadership Hermosa last year. His class, like many in the program, was stocked with transplants, and his proposal for a class project devoted to Hermosa’s history proved unpopular.
Bradley Peacock, curator of the Hermosa Beach Historical Society Museum, said this is not necessarily the case. Membership in the historical society, Peacock said, is almost evenly split between new and longtime residents. He said young families moving in are increasingly interested in micro-level history, down to what the block they live on used to look like.
Ultimately, preservation efforts in towns like Hermosa are hamstrung by an unpleasant truth: those who have been around the longest are typically the ones who have most benefited from rising land values — and may be the most resistant to restraints on what they can do with their plot of earth. This became clear last year, when the city was hammering out its General Plan. As part of the process, the city hired a company to conduct a “windshield survey” of the town’s “potential historic resources.” The list identified more than 200 properties, including many single-family homes.
Dozens of people spoke at the initial Planning Commission hearing on historic preservation in the draft of the General Plan, many with generations of history in Hermosa. All of them fumed about how inclusion on the list would mean a hit to the pocketbook. Speakers preached an expansive view of “property rights” and occasionally deployed the grandiose language of victimization. No one in the audience blanched when a property owner compared compiling the windshield survey to “redlining,” the now illegal but once common practice of banks refusing to give mortgages to black people.
City staff countered that the list did not limit a property owner’s rights to remodel a property, but instead provided an opportunity, in the case of “discretionary projects,” to gather more information about a structure’s place in history through the California Environmental Quality Act. This explanation glided over the significant costs CEQA evaluations can impose on developers, but it came with an example that keeps Malovani up at night: the Lighthouse.
At the time, the Lighthouse was fresh from a prominent appearance in “La La Land.” Community Development Director Ken Robertson said that years earlier, the owner of the Lighthouse had come before the city with a plan for a dramatic renovation that would have essentially transformed the legendary jazz venue into an H.T. Grill. But because it had been identified on a “list” of potential historic resources from the previous General Plan, more environmental review was needed.
“The initial evaluation of it was — and I think most people wouldn’t be surprised — that it was an eligible historic resource, because of all the culturally significant things that have happened at that location. At that time, the property owner had the choice to proceed with further evaluation, which would have been a focused [Environmental Impact Report] to proceed with his project. At that point, they chose not to go down that path. In effect, that pause that was caused by this process led the property owner to choose not to modify that building. I was thinking about that when I was watching ‘La La Land.’ Under a different set of circumstances, that would have been gone,” Robertson said.
The lofty argument convinced precisely no one. As the months wore on, the very idea of a list became politically toxic. Commissioners and City Council members excised any mention of it from the final documents.
Though the difficulty of preservation in Hermosa is real, it is not necessarily fatal to conserving the city’s heritage. “It does make it harder, when you don’t have access to the material culture. And I think it tells us that it’s vital to preserve what we can,” Peacock said. But “what we can” needn’t always mean a physical building, Peacock said. He noted that although the Biltmore is long gone, records and artifacts persist. So do memories. “Everyone says they learned to swim at the Biltmore,” Peacock offers.
This kind of sight-lowering has helped Malovani deal with worries the tour has induced. Even if the vast majority of residents never take it, he is cheered by the idea that he has contributed to a place he so treasures. “How often do you have a chance to give a gift to your community?” he asked.
The tour hits a resonant high note as it reaches the Insomniac, a folk-themed cafe that once spanned half a block on the north side of Pier Plaza. Nolte describes the place as a hub of Beatnik nightlife: records and mountains of books for sale, late-night chess games, gospel singers belting from a stage mounted on top of an espresso machine. Hearing this while staring at Tower 12, noise from its televisions competing with Nolte pointing out that rent at the Insomniac was $150 per month, has the power of a Don Draper pitch from “Mad Men.” The feeling it produces is not quite nostalgia, unless one is old enough to have actually been there, but something like sadness that things ever had to change.
The Insomniac closed after the city used eminent domain to acquire the property, Nolte tells the listener. They razed the building, and in its place went a walkway — to a parking lot.
To check out the tour, go to Experiencegpstours.com