Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

1939 Grocery Store Opening Extravaganza

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

When a new supermarket opens today, they usually put out some balloons, give away some free items to entice new customers, and offer some bargains. But in 1939, the opening of a new grocery store in Montrose had elaborate circus entertainment, stage shows, and a dance in the parking lot.

In 1939, a new full-service market, Fitzsimmons, opened on the northeast corner of Verdugo and Broadview, today the site of that very large, very modern office/retail building that looks like it just landed from outer space. Fitzsimmons was modern looking for its time as well, constructed with a touch of art deco styling, quite tall, with a monument sign rising well above the roof of the store. It was the old style open-front type market where the entire front facade of the building was open to the street. No glass, no supports, just a 80-foot by 10-foot opening to the sidewalk. That’s how most of the stores were then, including the competing Shopping Bag market on Honolulu Avenue (now Three Drunken Goats restaurant).

The Ledger, the local paper at that time, was an unabashed booster for local businesses, and dedicated an entire front page of its June 15 edition to Fitzsimmons. On that front page we read column after column about the up-to-date display stands of white enamel and chrome, the separate room for the liquor department, and the patented “floating air” ventilation system (whatever that was) in the deli cases.

But the big attraction to the opening of Fitzsimmons for most valley residents would have been the two days of entertainment. An elaborate trapeze apparatus was set up on the roof of the building, high above Verdugo Road, and a trapeze artist performed his tricks 50 feet in the air above the roof. The act was done at night with a floodlight following the trapeze performer.

A famous clown of that era, Penny Parker, entertained the kids. Penny Parker was a classic white-faced clown who gained fame with the then prominent Al G. Barnes Circus (later bought by Ringling Bros.) Parker was also a contortionist (a touch of the side show here) and was, according to the press, the only man on earth able to perform a “fourple dislocation” (again, whatever that was!).

A stage was set up and ace magician Carl Sten, famed for his multiplying cigars trick, performed three acts a day. Jitterbuggers were invited to dance to the foot-tingling music of Harve Le Roy and his five-piece swing band. The master of ceremonies for the stage was Howard Hudson who, according to all I could find, was a minor film and music celebrity of that time. He was in several films – “Hollywood Hotel,” “Hit Parade of 1941,” Abbott and Costello’s “Keep ’Em Flying” and appropriately “The Big Store” with the Marx Bros. Hudson officiated the crowd’s favorite event, the pie-eating contest. Boys from 8 to 12 years old were picked from the crowd for this classic competition to see who would wear the pie-eating crown of the valley. Did any of my readers compete in this event?

At night, floodlights illuminated the building and the events, and two giant 325 million candlepower arc lights swept the skies in front of the store. Everyone was invited to come, and there were free gifts for the kids.

I don’t know what happened to Fitzsimmons Market, but by the ’60s the building had been torn down and a gas station was at that corner. As I said before, it’s now a large medical office/retail building. Odd that it was demolished because other supermarkets buildings from that era still survive, some still as markets. Cordon’s Market still occupies the old Rebal’s Market building in Verdugo City, and the new Sprouts in La Cañada is a former Shopping Bag Market. The former Shopping Bag on Honolulu is now split between a restaurant and a clothing store, and OSH on Foothill Boulevard is also a former Shopping Bag of that era.

It’s a good thing when buildings can be creatively recycled.