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