Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Touching and Tragic Story of the Zwick Family

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

As shoppers walk along the 2300 block of Honolulu Avenue in Montrose, they pass many businesses whose names carry a history – the City Hall Coffee Shop, the Montrose Bowl, Al’s Italian Deli – all have a story worth telling. But perhaps the most engaging story of all is that of Zwick’s Plaza, a cozy Spanish style retail/office complex just across the street from the bowling alley.

The Zwicks built a house for their little family – Mom, Dad, and their two toddler boys Charles and Leland – in the early ’20s on Honolulu Avenue, near the bustling block-long business district of Montrose. In the early ’30s the family moved briefly to Hollywood to run a grocery store. While there, little Charles Zwick took a shot at fame by knocking on the door of Hal Roach’s home and asking to be cast in the “Our Gang” comedies. He was successful and there is a famous production photo of Charles Zwick with his face half-black from the open end of a stovepipe while his brother Leland Zwick, Spanky McFarland, Farina Hoskins and the rest of the gang look on.

The Zwicks came back to their home in Montrose, and Charles and Leland continued in the CV schools. Both boys were interested in aviation and took flying lessons. When WWII broke out, both boys, already pilots, joined the Army Air Corps and were assigned to teach flying to pilot-trainees.

Right after they joined up, Charles married a girl from La Crescenta and she followed him to Lomita Flight Strip (now Torrance Airport). She tells the story that he secretly took her up in his P-38, once over the Crescenta Valley, and another time when they flew south along the coast. On that flight, the P-38 they were in had just been repaired and had no radio equipment. They were “unidentified” and the searchlights stabbed through the dark trying to find them. They’re lucky they didn’t get shot at.

The Lomita Flight Strip was a training base and Charles and Leland were tasked with teaching recruits the basics of flying and the art of handling the sometimes treacherous twin-engine Lockheed Lightening fighter (P-38).

One Saturday morning in October of 1943, Charles and Leland were to lead two formations of P-38 trainees, Charles in the first group and Leland leading the second. As they walked out to the strip, Leland asked Charles how he liked the plane assigned to him. Charles answered that he didn’t like it, and so Leland laughingly traded planes with him. As they took off, Leland now in the lead plane and Charles leading the second flight, one engine on Leland’s plane cut out, and he rolled over and crashed before his brother’s horrified eyes. He was killed instantly. Just one month later, in November, Charles was instructing a student in aerobatics in a two-seat Vultee Trainer when they lost control and crashed in Palos Verdes. Both Zwick boys were now dead.

After making the biggest sacrifice parents can make, the Zwicks lived on in quiet dignity in their little house in Montrose. When Mrs. Zwick finally died in the 1970s she left the house to Charles’s widow, who in turn sold it to local builder John Bluff, who had often aided the aged Mrs. Zwick in her waning years. He developed the very tasteful little office/retail building where the Zwick house had been and dedicated it to them, naming it Zwick’s Plaza. As a beautiful tribute to the Zwick brothers, Bluff carefully lifted a section of concrete from the Zwick’s old house that had the boy’s handprints in it, and lovingly placed in front of the fountain in the courtyard of Zwick’s Plaza.

Next time you’re in Montrose, please stop by Zwick’s Plaza. As you enter the courtyard read the plaque on the left side that describes some of the story I’ve told you here. Then walk to the fountain, and find the little chunk of cement, nearly 90 years old now. Touch the two small fading handprints, and feel the power of this tragic story.