Big noise from Winnetka

Treasures of the Valley

–Mike Lawler

This Saturday, March 13 at 1 p.m. there will be a free screening of John Newcombe’s latest film, “Winnetka Story,” the history of Chicago’s North Shore, at the La Crescenta Library.  John’s previous film, the award-winning “Rancho La Cañada”, is about the history of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley. I’d like to give you some background on this “treasure of our valley” that we have inherited from the “windy city”.

Chicago has contributed two important things to our local history in the form of the Newcombe brothers, Robert and John. The Newcombe boys were both attracted here several years ago by the entertainment industry, specifically screenwriting and the creative end of film and television production, but once they settled into family life in the Crescenta Valley, they both have heartily embraced the history and charm of our little slice of heaven.

Robert Newcombe has been my collaborator on several local history projects. He’s been the writer behind the La Crescenta history books, one already on the shelves and several upcoming, and has provided the wording and vision on a few of the Historical Society’s plaque projects.

John Newcombe produced the award winning documentary “Rancho La Cañada: Then and Now” two years ago in a kind of “hole-in-one on his first tee-off” phenomenon. He had no filmmaking background other than his screenwriting and some acting, but was intrigued with the idea of producing film shorts on local history using the film production tools available on his home computer. He created a series of “then and now” vignettes using his own collection of turn of the century photographic postcards. As he created these short films he got caught up in the compelling stories that caused the changes seen in his past and present comparison shots. The film evolved into a bigger and bigger project as he connected with other local historians, and he soon found himself on the completion end of a landmark documentary. If you haven’t experienced this amazing retelling of our history, please treat yourself to a copy. It has a decidedly “Ken Burns” feel to it, and is charming and entertaining.

The resounding success of this film launched a cottage industry for John – literally, as he creates these films at home in his “cottage.” He has just completed another film with a couple more in the works.

The film he just finished “The Winnetka Story” is another history epic, this one a collection of the wild tales of this Chicago suburb, and the development of the North Shore where the Newcombe boys grew up. John is a master storyteller, taking the very best and the very worst of man’s enterprise, and weaving it into crazy stories that alternately horrify and amuse. He hired professional actors to provide a rich texture of accents and emotions that bring the movie’s old photos and film clips to life.

The film is divided into short chapters following fascinating bits of Winnetka’s history. Some of the subjects are “The Mail Runners” about the men that delivered mail and messages through the impenetrable forest between Chicago and Green Bay, “The Lady Elgin” a horrific shipwreck that drowned hundreds of Irish and washed the dead and the survivors onshore at Winnetka, “Henry Demarest Lloyd” America’s first muckraker, “Progressive Education” which made Winnetka the home of the progressive education movement, and “Murder Town” when a high profile crime spree gave the area this sad nickname,

The film, like John himself, is charming and engaging. He will introduce the film, show select scenes, and answer any questions afterward. The show is free and it’s a good chance to check out the new library if you haven’t done so already. DVDs of both “The Winnetka Story” and “Rancho La Cañada: Then and Now” will be available at the showing.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley.  He can be reached at