A New Book – ‘Growing Up In Sunland’
I feel privileged to introduce you to a new local history book by local boy Tom Gilfoy. It’s a truly joyful rendition of what life was like in Sunland-Tujunga in the 1940s.
Tom is the consummate storyteller. I liken him to Mark Twain in his ability to engage the reader with both humor and poignancy, and a healthy dose of adventure. Indeed, this book is a good match to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer stories.
The Gilfoy family moved to Sunland in 1937, settling in a rock house in a walnut grove on Oro Vista. Tom and the other Gilfoy kids attended all the local schools, including Verdugo Hills High School where a few of Tom’s stories take place. In his late teens he headed north to work in logging camps, participating in the last years of steam-powered logging, which he also writes about in the book. He then became a lawyer, raised a family in Lake View Terrace, and today lives comfortably in La Cañada.
Many of Tom’s stories center around Sunland Park. Today Sunland Park is a rather quiet spot, but in the 1940s it was a hive of recreational opportunities for kids and adults. The park featured two small amusement parks, five restaurants and cafés, pony rides and an outdoor theater, along with the baseball fields that are still there.
An outdoor dance pavilion blasted big-band music from a jukebox, and teens danced there day and night. Next door to the park was Lancaster Lake where one could swim, rent a rowboat, or fish for catfish. There was a nearby swim stadium as well (if you preferred to swim in clean water). Heading out into Big Tujunga Canyon, one had the choice of Pop’s Willow Lake or Wildwood Lake, along with the hundreds of miles of trails, shady campgrounds and picnic spots. It was truly a wonderland of fun for young people, and Tom seems to have a funny story attached to each of these spots, most of which are no longer there.
Tom writes quite a bit about the many Hollywood films that were shot around Sunland Park and out in the canyon. Johnny Weissmuller’s “Tarzan” series was shot at Lancaster Lake, and Tom relates that his hero-worship of Weissmuller was destroyed when, while watching the filming, he saw that the vicious crocodile Tarzan wrestled in the lake was simply an old dead alligator. Tom also relates how the feature John Wayne movie “The Spoilers,” including the spectacular train crash, was filmed almost entirely in Big Tujunga Canyon.
On the other end of film production was the Tujunga Theater. Tom tells us that old movie house’s story with personal details of how he snuck out of his house to watch a special Lone Ranger movie about how the Lone Ranger came to wear a mask, use silver bullets and ride a horse named Silver.
But not all of Tom’s stories are light-hearted. There is a heart-rending tale of the first black student at Verdugo Hills High School, how she was bullied and taunted, and how one brave student (and Tom admits it was not him) stood up for her. Also told is how the Japanese-American kids adjusted to returning to school from the internment camps at the end of WWII, how some harbored resentment while others excelled.
“Growing Up In Sunland” is a professionally done hardcover book with tons of old photos from Tom’s personal collection. Coming up to Christmas, it would make a great gift for someone with Sunland-Tujunga roots, or just a good read for yourself while we’re shut in for the holidays. It’s available only through our two local historical societies at cvhistory.org and boltonhall.org.
Tom opens his book with an old quote that I think sums up the flavor of the book nicely: “If you don’t do anything stupid when you’re young, you won’t remember something funny when you’re old.” We’re very lucky that Tom did some goofy stuff in his younger years because he has some great stories to tell.