May 20, 2011
Valley and Proud: Ventura Boulevard
Breakfast at Noah’s or Western Bagel?
Plush seats and ushers at ArcLight Sherman Oaks or art-house fare at Encino’s Laemmle Town Center 5?
Jerry’s Famous Deli or Fromin’s … er, make that Uncle Bernie’s Deli?
No, Art’s. Followed by 90 minutes of improvised laughs at the L.A. Connection and delectable desserts at Aroma Bakery and Café.
Whether you’re seeking food, culture, retail or sights, the number and breadth of choices along Ventura Boulevard is positively obscene. Beginning at Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood and concluding nearly 17 miles later in Woodland Hills, Ventura, the main thoroughfare that defines the San Fernando Valley, offers history, nightlife, businesses, services and even pockets of homes.
It was not always so. Originally a lengthy dirt path that was part of El Camino Real (The King’s Highway) connecting the Franciscan missions, the area we now know as the Boulevard was part of a north-south connector between Los Angeles and Ventura. An L.A. ordinance unified the 17 miles in 1916, with the 13th century Franciscan priest St. Buenaventura giving Ventura Boulevard its new — and permanent — name.
In 1960, the opening of U.S. 101, aptly named the Ventura Freeway, took a large portion of traffic off the Boulevard. Now, when people drive the Boulevard, ironically, they often do so to avoid congestion on the 101.
But the Valley’s main artery is also a central destination and an L.A. cultural icon. The Boulevard is mentioned in Tom Petty’s song “Free Fallin’,” and Michael Jackson is rumored to have composed “Billie Jean” while driving his car down Ventura. Numerous films have been shot there, and not just at the studios in Studio City.
One can do it all on Ventura Boulevard. I know, because I have.
I grew up just south of the Boulevard near Sepulveda, in the Sherman Oaks home where my parents still live, within walking distance of the Sherman Oaks Galleria. My pediatricians, dentists and tailors were all on the Boulevard, as were all my favorite bookstores, eateries, shops and entertainment venues. I even shared a middle-school music class with Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of “Valley Girl” musician Frank Zappa.
Twenty-two years after I celebrated my bar mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, my 4-year-old son attended preschool six miles to the west at Temple Kol Tikvah. The street has been at the center of my life for more than three decades, and I have driven, jogged and biked every inch of it countless times.
Over two days this spring, I walked it, end to end, beginning at Lankershim Boulevard and ending at Valley Circle, both to revisit my past and to explore the Ventura Boulevard of 2011. Needless to say, the picture looks a bit different than it did in the 1970s and ’80s. Between the gentrification of Studio City and Sherman Oaks, the flourishing of Encino’s Jewish neighborhoods, the rebirth of trendy Tarzana, and the dizzying rate at which businesses move in and out of storefronts, my walk unearthed more memories than childhood landmarks. Sherman Oaks’ La Reina Theatre, where I once queued up for the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” still has its original marquee, but now houses Blue Medi Spa, where you can get Juvederm for $500 per syringe.
Here’s a selection of mostly Jewish highlights from my wanderings, organized by neighborhood, west to east.
Blame land baron Victor Girard Kleinberger for Woodland Hills’ curiously arboreal name. Kleinberger originally named the Valley’s western border town Girard — after himself — following his acquisition of nearly 3,000 acres. In an attempt to beautify the parcels of land for sales purposes, Kleinberger brought in more than 120,000 trees. Through the years, as the trees sprouted along the hills, the town of Girard became known as Woodland Hills.
Along the Boulevard, trees may not be quite as abundant as they were when Kleinberger envisioned his “dream city,” but you can still find some in the shaded and tucked away Woodland Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, a great place for a quiet retreat from traffic, noise and urban life.
Just down the street, the bagel wars are waged daily between Noah’s and Western Bagel, which have somehow found a way to coexist in the same plaza at Ventura and Topanga Canyon, a center that also houses Jerry’s Famous Deli.
Temple Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation, offered a sensitive and caring community at a time when my family particularly needed it. Eight years after my son, Jeremy, learned his alphabet and the Jewish traditions there, the Kol Tikvah staff still remember him, and he them.
An otherwise nondescript plaza comes to life on the weekends with activities at the Chabad-Lubavitch of Woodland Hills. Nearby, the Cooperman family is on its second generation (third if you count David and Stacy’s five daughters) and 40th year running the fine Judaica store Shalom House, in full swing amid the construction dust that will ultimately bring a Pavilions to the shopping center at Ventura and Corbin.
Literature’s most celebrated ape man was not conceived in the city that now bears his name, but rather, the success of those fables allowed author Edgar Rice Burroughs to acquire 500 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley, a parcel that would eventually be named Tarzana. The history of the area and the author can be found at the ever bustling Tarzana Community & Cultural Center, site of concerts, book clubs and art shows.
Another lively Boulevard mainstay in Tarzana is the Hummus Bar & Grill, which correctly bills itself as offering “the experience of a Tel Aviv outing,” with Mediterranean fare, Israeli waitresses and a warm, boisterous atmosphere. Music stores are, regrettably, a dying breed, but the CD Trader has a veritable ton of CDs, DVDs and vinyl. I browsed for a while before emerging with a copy of “Chariots of Fire” for easily half the price of what it would have cost me at Barnes & Noble. That’s assuming you can even find a chain bookstore on the Boulevard (the last existing Barnes & Noble, at Hayvenhurst in Encino, closed earlier this year, and rival Borders Sherman Oaks quickly followed suit).
Thousands of years before the area became synonymous with wealthy estates, the region known as Encino was rich in another way. A natural spring provided an abundant source of water for the Gabrielino (Tongva) Indians, and the giant oak trees (los encinos) gave the area its name. The completion of Mission San Fernando Rey de España — the San Fernando Mission — in 1797 forced the evacuation of most of the Indians. The land was eventually sold to ranchero Vincente de la Osa; cattle and, later, sheep were raised in abundance in the area. You can visit the adobe built by de la Osa, along with other historical buildings, at the visitors center at the Los Encinos State Historic Park, accessible from Ventura Boulevard.
If you became a bar mitzvah in Encino, or anywhere in the Valley, for that matter, odds are that Marty Rudnick took your measurements and tailored your suit, although the owner of Rudnick’s — serving its customers since 1946 — can practically tell your dimensions just by looking at you. When you outgrow the youth sizes at Rudnick’s, Marty will send you back up the Boulevard to the elegant men’s store Mel Fox Clothiers.
It was called the Town and Country during my youth, but the Laemmle Town Center 5 in the Encino Town Center is still a bastion of culture and variety, whether it’s hosting the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival or showing the latest art house or foreign film. A grateful nod also to Valley Beth Shalom, which, a long time ago, put me through a very rigorous four years of Hebrew school and prepared me for a most memorable bar mitzvah.
Real estate developer Moses Hazeltine Sherman certainly left his mark on Southern California. One of his syndicates erected the Hollywood sign, originally intended to attract buyers to the “Hollywoodland” subdivision. Another Sherman real estate syndicate scooped up a whopping 47,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley, 1,000 of which Sherman bought for himself. Hazeltine Avenue and Sherman Oaks are both named in his honor, as is another prominent Valley east-west thoroughfare, Sherman Way.
For me, Sherman Oaks will always be home, and perhaps I wear my pride on my sleeve because people tend to treat me well there. The first time I set foot in the Chabad of Sherman Oaks earlier this spring — without an appointment — Rebbetzin Shterna Lipskier not only took the time to give me the lay of the land, she invited me to join the evening’s minyan. Unfortunately, I had a dinner engagement, but I plan to return.
I no longer recognize the Sherman Oaks Galleria from its 1980s mall days, and I have to be especially flush to patronize the ArcLight Cinema. Given the choice, I’ll go indie (and less costly) at Encino Town Center.
Roman’s Fresh Bakery & Grill does great entrees and salads as well as pastries and is an easy walk to Shalom Gifts, the Judaica and gift store. As for cultural offerings, a live performance corridor between Dixie Canyon and Sunnyslope avenues encompasses both the Whitefire Theatre and L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre, where a couple of my high school drama teachers regularly performed improvisation back in the day.
It was Keystone Kops creator Mack Sennett whose cinematic activities would brand the east San Fernando Valley region as movieville. The first phase of the $20 million “Studio City” film center was the 200-acre Mack Sennett Studio, which later became Republic Pictures and, finally, CBS Studio Center.
The area does not lack in entertainment options. I dropped many a quarter in the video games at Pinz Bowling Center back when it was Kirkwood Bowl and have consumed many a slice of pie at Du-par’s. By the Radford intersection — which also includes CBS Radford Studios — sits Chabad of Studio City and Samuel French Theatre & Film Bookshop.
No visit to Studio City is complete, however, without a nosh at Art’s Delicatessen, now in its 54th year on the Boulevard. Restaurant founder — and Valley pioneer — Art Ginsburg probably summed up Ventura Boulevard most aptly.
“It has changed like any neighborhood has changed,” said Ginsburg. “But it’s still Ventura Boulevard.”