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‘Hidden Huntington Beach’ TV show explores Surf City’s eccentric history

Chris Epting pedals his bike right by the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center almost every morning. Yet until last week, he had never noticed the four pelican sculptures perched atop poles in the parking lot off Pacific Coast Highway.

“They were hiding in plain view,” Epting said. “Now that my radar is more tuned in, I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before. Once you start exploring the history of your community, the way you look at it is forever altered.”

That was the impetus for his new program, “Hidden Huntington Beach.” Produced for the city’s cable television channel, the show takes viewers back in time, revealing whimsical clues that paint a picture of the distant and not-so-distant past.

The steel pelicans once roosted with two dozen others like them at Seacliff Shopping Center. Built in the 1970s around a bird theme, the mall featured enchanting tile murals, egg-shaped lighting fixtures, educational dioramas and crosswalks marked with the tracks of webbed feet.

Two decades later, when the developer decided to remodel, many of the mosaics and sculptures ended up at the then-new Civic Center. However, a few pelicans alighted at other locations around town, quietly waiting for passersby to glance up.

They represent just some of the gems “hiding in plain view” around Surf City.

A hometown enthusiast through and through, Epting likes to say he was “born in New York and reborn in Huntington Beach.”

Old-timer though he may seem, Epting moved to Huntington Beach from Sherman Oaks with his wife and two children a mere 20 years ago.

“People used to tell me, ‘There’s no history here,’” he said. “Sometimes it takes an outsider with a fresh set of eyes to hunt down things and tell good stories.”

The former ad writer has penned 30 history and travel books, largely set in Southern California, as well as memoirs for rock musicians.

“I feel a responsibility to explore my own backyard,” Epting said.



He pitched “Hidden Huntington Beach” to the city in February, weeks before the coronavirus shutdowns. The first aired in June.

“People have more time to go on scavenger hunts looking for this stuff right now,” Epting said. “It gets them out of their houses.”

His four episodes so far have only scratched the surface: “At first I was concerned about running out of material, but there’s always more,” he said.

Previously aired episodes cover the bird artwork, a strip mall fashioned by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., the “secret silo” tucked away in an office park and the old jailhouse cells that serve as storage space for a pub on Main Street.

Son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the younger Wright won his own acclaim with his role in designing the Hollywood Bowl in 1927.

Four decades later, in a rather quirky change of pace, 80-year-old Wright lent his talents to a shopping center and gas station on the corner of Warner Avenue and Springdale Street. The mall’s art deco touches set it apart.

But more intriguing is the battle Wright encountered with residents when he sketched into his blueprint a 94-foot tower – where the sign for Beef Palace Butcher Shop now looms.

“It was going to be his crowning achievement, but the no-nonsense citizenry hated the idea,” Epting said.

Residents rose up at city council meetings to crush the space-agey spire.

“Today it might have been viewed differently,” Epting said, “but at the time people probably viewed Wright as an interloper.”

When the dust settled, the shopping center’s owner planted a wry tombstone on the property declaring the tower’s defeat “symbolic of the democratic process.”

“He was fed up with the theatrics,” Epting said. “It was his way of having the last word.”

Mayor Lyn Semeta said that, as the daughter of an architect, “The Tower That Wasn’t” episode has been her favorite.

“Seeing the original sketch of the futuristic tower was an exciting surprise for me,” Semeta said. “‘Hidden Huntington Beach’ tells fascinating tales often unknown to most.”

In another installment, a century-old grain silo incongruously sits between modern buildings in a small circular park reachable via a staircase near Main Street. The “garden of Eden,” as Epting describes it, was once a sliver of 1,400-acre Northam Ranch.

Pieces of the ranch gradually were developed for other uses, but the elegant Northam Ranch House held on – until mysteriously burning down in 2000.

Today, all that’s left is the 50-foot-high silo.

“It serves as a reference marker,” Epting said. “If you have just that one visual image as an anchor, it allows you to use your imagination and fill in the blanks.”

Next up for “Hidden Huntington Beach” is an episode about the Meadowlark Airport, which operated from the 1940s until 1989.

“I always wondered what had happened to the iconic blue metal sign,” Epting said. “Where did it go? Nobody knew.”

Then in 2013, he visited the former airport’s owner, Art Nerio, at his house.

“He leads me outside and, lo and behold, there’s the sign – underneath a tarp, leaning against a wall,” Epting said.

And so many more anecdotes stand in line – perhaps too many to ever make it onto a “Hidden Huntington Beach.”

Spillover tidbits and teasers appear on his Facebook page.

Like, did you know that two steel arches connected the four corners of Main Street and PCH in the 1930s? Did you know about the mushroom farm on Goldenwest Street in the 1950s? Or about the concrete squares outside King Neptune’s Restaurant engraved with signatures of mid-century Miss Americas?

Everybody who was anybody in Southern California hobnobbed at the aristocratic Bolsa Chica Gun Club, founded in 1899. Then the military borrowed the site for a lookout after the Pearl Harbor attack.

“By the end of World War II, gun clubs had gone out of fashion,” Epting said. Only pieces of driveway and a few imported palm trees remain as proof that the handsome lodge once existed.

Ever expanding his fodder, “Hidden Huntington Beach” Facebook followers weigh in with their own historical morsels.

When Epting posted about “Tin Can Beach,” history buffs eloquently offered their personal knowledge. What is now Bolsa Chica State Beach once attracted drifters and migrant workers, who pitched tents and cardboard shelters there.

“Tin Can Beach was home for many poor white families who followed the crops,” one writer recalled. “There were several students at Huntington Beach (High) who would attend for a couple months then disappear only to show up the next picking year. Right out of Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”

Such firsthand memories, Epting noted, “bring history to life.”

“Every town has its forgotten treasures,” he said. “It’s just a matter of playing detective.”



















Source: Orange County Register

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