Treasures of the Valley: The Opera Star from La Crescenta

Posted by on Jan 31st, 2013 and filed under Viewpoints. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry


The Montrose Japanese Gardens The hype surrounding Montrose was pretty brazen in 1913 as lots were first going up for sale, and I’ve outlined several broken promises in my last two columns. Here’s another plan promoted by the developers at the beginning of Montrose: a beautiful Japanese garden was to be built. A Los Angeles Times article from January 1913, a month before lots were to go on sale, reported that construction of the gardens would begin that week, and offered a detailed description of the project. The gardens were to be six acres in size and would be built around the “water works plant.” (I have no idea what or where the water works plant would have been. I can only assume that it existed only in the imaginations of the developers.) The gardens were to be designed and overseen by a real Japanese landscape artist, and a great amount of money was to be spent on it. Shrines, stone lamps, bamboo furniture, fences and gates were being imported from Japan, along with many exotic plants. A brook, spanned by several Japanese bridges, would flow through the property, at the center of which would be a lake. The lake was to have several islands, each big enough to accommodate a bamboo tea house. The grand entrance to the gardens was to be through a massive gate that was being donated by J. Frank Walters, one of the developers of Montrose. He had purchased this gate when traveling in the Orient two years previous. It was 12 feet high, 20 feet wide and four feet thick, constructed of Japanese bamboo and wood. Also written in the article was that Robert Walton, the other partner in the development of Montrose, was having his home constructed in Japanese style on a hill overlooking the gardens. The Montrose sales brochure featured a diagram of the Japanese gardens. It showed half the gardens on a hillside with a wide flowing stream running down the hill. The other half is relatively flat, with a couple of small hills that would provide the stream the chance to form a small waterfall before dumping into the lake at the center of the property. Winding paths circled the gardens, with pagodas situated here and there. The trees on the site appeared to be some sort of redwood or spruce. It sounded really nice, but sadly, it never happened. Here are a few more tidbits of promises for the future of Montrose that didn’t stick. These are the building restrictions for the new town laid out in the sales brochure: Builders are restricted to one house per lot, except for a few lots the developers have reserved for schools, churches and a high-class hotel. Temporary shacks or tents are a no-no. No fences on property lines. Absolutely no billboards or “For Sale” signs will be permitted. All the telephone and utility poles would be situated only in alleys and at the rear of properties – never on the street. In the business sections, the buildings will be stone, cement or brick, with all street-facing surfaces to be constructed of pressed brick (bricks with sharp edges and no imperfections). No saloons – this is a family community! And of course the ubiquitous “racial covenant” that was a standard feature of many communities of the era: “No part of Montrose shall be sold to, leased, assigned or occupied (excepting as a servant) by any person not of the white or Caucasian race.” Sounds pretty harsh! We can assume that applies to the Japanese landscape artist too. Perhaps these half-truths and fabrications caught up to the developers in the end. I would have liked to have been there when prospective property owners viewing Montrose for the first time asked to see the Japanese gardens, the water works, the Montrose Country Club, or Aquadena Park. Despite a good turnout to the opening sales-day picnic on Feb. 22, 1913, only a handful of lots were sold and Montrose didn’t really “boom” until the early ’20s, when the developers – J. Frank Walters and Robert Walton – were long gone.

By Mike Lawler

Lawrence Tibbett was, in the ’30s through the ’50s, the biggest name in opera, as big a name as Placido Domingo is today, and surprisingly he had roots right here in CV.
My mom was a fan of Tibbett when she was a young girl growing up in Wisconsin. Each Saturday she and her sister would tune the living room radio to a regular weekly opera performance, often featuring Lawrence Tibbett. Pretty cultured stuff for a small town girl! She has a vivid memory of her grandmother, who loved country music, coming into the room and huffing indignantly, “They call this music?” She remained a fan of Tibbett throughout his career, and in 2003 she wrote an article about Lawrence Tibbett’s life for the CV Sun, the predecessor to the CV Weekly. I’m using her article to write this column today.
Lawrence Tibbett was born in Bakersfield. When he was just 7, his father, a sheriff, was killed in a wild-west style shootout. Lawrence’s mom took her only son to Los Angeles where, as he matured, his naturally beautiful deep voice began to blossom. He served in the Merchant Marine in WWI and when he returned he married a young woman and the two moved to La Crescenta.
Tibbett found work and lodging on the Onandarka Ranch, now the housing development of Oakmont Woods at the bottom of La Crescenta Avenue. He worked in the vineyards and orchards owned by Col. Baldridge, and it’s said that he practiced his arias and perfected his rich baritone while pruning the grape vines and harvesting fruit in the lush canyon off the Verdugo Mountains, where now run the paved streets of Shirleyjean Street and Eilinita Avenue.
He and his young wife lived on the hillside overlooking the ranch in a beautiful little cottage covered with honeysuckle vines and shaded by tall pines. The site of their house is still visible. As you turn onto Shirleyjean to cross the bridge over Verdugo Creek, just off La Crescenta Avenue, look up to your left, and the first house on the descending ridgeline is said to be where the Tibbett house was.
Young Tibbett, despite his agricultural job, was then on the cusp of a great career. On Saturday nights, Tibbett walked the mile up La Crescenta Avenue to the big hotel at Rosemont and Foothill where he entertained the guests with operatic performances. It should be remembered that at that time in the late teens, the grand hotel was still attracting wealthy and cultured guests from all over the world, many of them in music. Local lore has it that it was here in the parlor of the La Crescenta Hotel that Tibbett gained the reputation and connections he needed for his career to take off.
Much travel is demanded of performers, and the beginning of Tibbett’s career coincided with the birth of twin boys to his wife. Tibbett was opening in an opera in another city the day they were born in La Crescenta. By the early ’20s, Tibbett was a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His family was left behind, and divorce followed. Tibbett’s career was meteoric. He had great success in opera, becoming world famous, and radio shows and a career in movies followed. Sadly, age and hard drinking began to take a toll on his once beautiful voice. By the 1950s, his singing career was over and he
died at only 64 years of age in 1960.
Lawrence Tibbett is largely forgotten today but his name still looms large in operatic circles and in the memories of old-timers. It’s wonderful to think that La Crescenta had a portion of his legacy.
A week after my mom’s article on Tibbett was published, she received an email from Lawrence Tibbett’s grandson, son of one of the twin boys fathered and abandoned. He still lived in the valley and still appreciated his grandfather’s fame. He wrote: “It’s been some time since I’ve seen his name in print, and I am thankful to those who attempt to keep his name/talent alive for new generations.”

Mike Lawler is the former president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

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