This article is adapted from The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb.
“In the evenings our neighbors would come over—the Bill Holdens, Jack Oakies, Gordon MacRaes, Francis Lederers, Richard Carlsons and Charlie Ruggleses. We’d play poker or gin rummy, run home movies or just sit there, feet up, and talk—mostly ranch talk.”
Lucille Ball on life with Desi at 19700 Devonshire Street.
“I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the Valley.”
Lee Marvin, accepting the Best Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou in 1966.
“It seemed like a step down. Back then, the Valley was a big oven with nothing in it, a great sea of nothing, an ocean with no ships on it, and at night if you went out there were very few lights.”
Robert Redford on moving to Van Nuys as a teenager, in a 1998 New Yorkerinterview.
Even many longtime inhabitants never grasp just how well known the San Fernando Valley is beyond the Los Angeles metropolis. Natural disasters, heinous crimes, films, TV episodes, novels, magazine write-ups and popular songs — even acceptance speeches at the Oscars — have made The Valley familiar to millions.
The image enjoyed by the Valley has undergone several shifts. In the early 1900s the Valley was typically described as a rural haven where a hard-working man could bring his family and raise peaches or white leghorns, yet still enjoy some of the perks of being close to the city. By World War II, the Valley was known as a refuge of movie stars. It was where Clark Gable wooed Carole Lombard, where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz lived down Devonshire Street from the thoroughbred ranch of Barbara Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx, not far from the spreads of James Cagney and William Holden. Then in 1943, Republic Pictures in Studio City released a B-western called San Fernando Valley. The film starred Roy Rogers, the hugely popular singing cowboy, and his future wife Dale Evans. Set on a working ranch somewhere unspecified, the movie didn’t contain even an allusion to the real Valley.
But when Rogers and later Bing Crosby tantalized a nation weary of war with the picture’s dreamy theme song…
“I’m gonna settle down
and never more roam,
and make the San Fernando Valley
…the Valley’s secret was out.
The song was a hit in 1944. At war’s end, the Valley began to explode in popularity. Plenty of new suburbs sprouted across the nation after the war, but the lure of the Valley was different. Nobody sang songs about Lakewood or Westchester or Levittown. No other place had film stars as the “honorary governor” (Edward Everett Horton) and “honorary sheriff” (cowboy rider Montie Montana). The Valley also had orange groves, plenty of open space and the optimistic aura of a place where a soldier and his sweetheart could make up for lost time.
CBS and NBC praised the new suburb to their nationwide radio listeners, saying GIs liked the San Fernando Valley because, as NBC’s Sam Hayes gushed, “it reminds them of their own hometown.” Magazines joined in hyping the image. In the Valley one could ride horses, mingle with stars at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery and enjoy the good life that a Coronet writer called “the dizzy, ubiquitous mixture of Fifth Avenue and Main Street.” On Ventura Boulevard, “one may find a glamour starlet in imported gabardine chatting earnestly with a chicken farmer in jeans.”
The Valley became a defining American suburb, duly analyzed and commented upon by the national media — and eventually made the butt of jokes. The popular late `60s comedy hour “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” laughed at the dubious qualities of “beautiful downtown Burbank.” “The Brady Bunch” made fun, perhaps unintentionally, of the idealized family life in a split-level, ranch-style, obviously Valley home.
The first TV series set in the Valley was “The Adventures of the Real McCoys,” about a West Virginia hillbilly family that inherits money and drives a rickety truck across country to their new home in the ‘burbs. Sponsors hated the concept, but after the show aired in 1957 — as Americans by the thousands were making the same migration across Route 66 — it became a hit. Viewers loved the domestic predicaments that Grandpa Amos McCoy — played by Oscar-winning actor and real-life Valley rancher Walter Brennan — found himself in each week. The show ran for seven years and spawned an imitator in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Later came Valley Girls, the teenagers who shared a grating lingo and a compulsive need to shop. They were the invention of musician Frank Zappa and his daughter, Moon Unit. Their song “Valley Girl” was satire, inspired by Moon’s dinner table mocking of schoolmates’ syntax and incessant shopping at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. On the record she portrays Ondrya, a girl whose ultimate goal is to be popular (“otherwise people might not like you”). She whines about her mother (“like a total space cadet”), her braces (“like a total bummer”) and her English teacher’s homosexuality (“It’s like, barf me out.”). The song popularized phrases like “gag me with a spoon” and “grody to the max.”
The song zoomed to popularity in the summer of 1982 and sold more records than any of Frank Zappa’s work as a solo artist or as a the leader of the avant-garde ’60s band, the Mothers of Invention. Time reported that from Tarzana to Tarrytown, every parent with a teenaged daughter spent that summer fretting: Is she one? The answer was yes for millions of girls who aspired to the style and sensibility of a few San Fernando Valley teenagers. The image remains a durable frame of reference. In the Oval Office sex scandal that engulfed President Bill Clinton, the Valley Girl label was applied often to paramour Monica Lewinsky, even though she was actually a product of Beverly Hills.
The Valley even takes a ribbing in a novel satirizing New York media culture, Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen. The narrator drives to a television studio built on the site of a failed pornographic video company in Burbank: “Because the Valley is inherently dispiriting, the drizzle and the gray improve it in some relativistic way — the lousy weather and the Valley are in synch on a day such as this. Burbank seems less like a failed paradise manque, and more like Cleveland.”
Today the Valley’s image is shaped as much by real-life events. In the years since a squad of Los Angeles police stopped black motorist Rodney King on Foothill Boulevard and stomped him to a bloody mess — the opening skirmish in the events that led to the 1992 Los Angeles (and Valley) riots — the world has frequently seen the Valley in a bad light.
There were collapsed buildings and frightened survivors after the 1994 earthquake. Hooded bank robbers in black body armor fired hundreds of automatic rifle rounds at the cops on live TV, then bled to death on a North Hollywood street. A hateful maniac opened fire on Jewish children in a Granada Hills day care center, then slaughtered a postal carrier in Chatsworth. It was even in the Valley, from a friend’s hilltop home in Encino, where O.J. Simpson sped off in a white Ford Bronco and became — for a few sensational hours in June, 1994 — the nation’s most famous fugitive from justice.
Other Angelenos can be the Valley’s harshest critics. “Like, the Valley’s Not a Joke Anymore!” a 1990 headline screamed in Los Angeles Magazine. The article was mostly laudatory, yet characterized the Valley as “the strange land over the hill” and quoted a longtime resident as believing “it still lacks a real personality. It’s like a giant bowl of oatmeal.” Even the locals can be tough on themselves. When the L.A. Times’ Valley Edition invited readers to suggest clever ideas for a new name, should the Valley ever become a city, nominations included Minimallia, McValley, Beige-Air, Valle de Nada and Ranchos de los Ranchos. The winner: Twentynine Malls. “L.A. is surrounded by valleys, but there’s only one Valley, and to everybody who lives on the other side of the hill from it, it’s a standing joke,” novelist Peter Israel wrote in Hush Money.
The Valley may be home to more major studios than Hollywood and more celebrity residents — and screenwriters and directors — than Malibu, but it is just not a very hip address. So what else is new: “When we moved to the Valley, I felt like I was being tossed into quicksand,” Robert Redford, recalling his teenage days in Van Nuys in the ’50s, once told the Times. “There was no culture. It was very oppressive.”
Perhaps the best-known commentator on the Valley’s image is Sandra Tsing Loh, writer, humorist, performance artist and mostly proud inhabitant of Van Nuys, by way of Winnetka. She once explained the nub of the problem in her monthly column about the Valley in the late Buzz magazine: “There are some L.A. addresses so unfashionable that people actually recoil in horror when you admit you live there. And of course, no basin puts people off as much as the San Fernando Valley. The feeling is absolute. The same people who’ll drive from Santa Monica to Pasadena (25 miles) without blinking find lunch in Reseda (16 miles) much too far.” She has also noted the Valley’s evolution from a white refuge of neatly mown lawns and matching haircuts to a polyglot bazaar of world tongues and styles. In her collection of columns, Depth Takes a Holiday, Loh calls the Valley the “home of a hundred King Bear Auto Centers, a thousand Yoshinoya Beef Bowls, and ten thousand yard sales.”
As for the blossoming of tiny ethnic restaurants run by newly arrived immigrants, she has her favorites but wonders how some of them survive: “What inspires some folks to relocate halfway around the world to the San Fernando Valley in order to feed bad food on paper plates to their own people?”