Untimely Deaths in the ’34 Flood

I recently had the chance to be a Principal for the Day at Monte Vista Elementary School. The school is beautiful, well run and high achieving, but that’s a story for a future column. While I was there, I was put to work telling the kids in three different third grade classes about local history. I’m extremely uncomfortable with off-the-cuff public speaking, so this was a stretch for me.

In the first class, I gave the usual spiel about Indians, missions, health-seekers and farmers, and bored them to tears. In the second class, I wandered up the same tired road, until I stumbled over the New Year’s Eve Flood of ’34. As I described the death and devastation, the class perked up. By my third talk, I knew right where to go, and I centered my talk on flood stories of anguish, loss, and destruction. The kids loved it! Any resulting nightmares are my fault.

This fascination goes back to our local flood expert Art Cobery’s mantra, “Everyone loves a good disaster!” In fact, many communities have a sort of morbid rivalry of “Our disaster was worse than yours.” Let’s see if I can up the value of our disaster, the ’34 Flood, with some hitherto untold tales of woe.

This story concerns the death of the, at that time, well-known Doty Twins on that nightmarish night nearly 80 years ago. Weston and Winston Doty were born into an acting family, and so naturally, as cute and charming identical twin boys, they were drafted into filmmaking at a young age. They made several Hal Roach “Our Gang” shorts, the most successful being 1922’s “One Terrible Day” in which the twins spoke and moved in unison. They played twin Lost Boys in a 1924 production of “Peter Pan” starring Betty Bronson. They also had successful radio careers, but their biggest fame came later in life as twin cheerleaders for the USC Trojans in 1931 and ’32. It was said people attended the games as much to see the handsome, vivacious young performers as to watch the actual football game.

These two celebrities and their dates had driven up from Venice to be the guests of honor at a New Year’s Eve Party at the home of Henry Hesse at 2631 Manhattan Ave. in Montrose. The main topic of conversation that Dec. 31 night was the Rose Bowl game the following day between Stanford and Columbia, but a background topic was the weather. A Pacific storm series had been hitting the Crescenta Valley hard for the previous two weeks and the burned-off San Gabriel Mountains had been shedding water and mud all that day, flooding some homes. A Red Cross evacuation center had been set up at the America Legion Hall just a couple of blocks away, and displaced residents were already gathering there. At midnight at the Hesse house, the Doty twins made a call to their mother to wish her a happy new year, the last she would ever hear from them. As soon as they hung up the phone, Mr. Hesse heard rumbling and water noise outside. Looking out the back door, he saw the back porch ripped from the house. He shouted “Everyone get out!” grabbed his wife, and ran for the front door. The guests poured out onto the front porch as the house collapsed behind them, and jumped into several feet of swirling water and mud. Hesse and his wife grabbed a tree trunk floating by and rode it several blocks until it lodged against a wall, where they spent the night astride the log. The majority of the guests at the party were killed, including the twins. The bodies of the 19-year-old boys were later found close to each other amongst the debris in Verdugo Canyon.

They were interred together at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica. The following year, their father died alone in a Chicago hotel room of a heart attack.

A drive by 2631 Manhattan today is telling. There is no 2631. The Pickens Flood Control Channel occupies that address.