Age of Kitsch and Clutter
Fading Fast in Anaheim

July 21, 2002, The Los Angeles Times
by Kimi Yoshino, Times Staff Writer

 

When wrecking balls demolish the Rip Van Winkle Motel and
circus-tent-styled Melodyland this summer, some will cheer
Anaheim’s continued transformation into a modern resort city
with thousands of hotel rooms, towering palm trees and
manicured medians bursting with lush, yellow flowers.

Others long for the city of old and see only what is
disappearing, bit by kitschy bit.

Since 1995, when Anaheim embarked on its resort makeover,
the neon signs have been vanishing. Themed hotels and just
about everything Googie–that exaggerated, space-age diner
architecture from the 1950s and ’60s–also is gone.

With it, some say, went the city’s personality.

“All that character is gone,” said Daniel Paul, a Googie
architecture fan who grew up near Disneyland. “What is there
now is not an honest assessment of the fun and whimsy that
people associate with Disneyland. It’s something … much
more sterile. It’s the out-churning of a bunch of marketing
studies.”

What city officials liken to a renaissance Paul calls a
“blandification.”

Not so long ago, for every “land” at Disneyland, it seemed
there was a matching motel on the outside. Stovall’s Space
Age Motel or Cosmic Lodge weren’t much of a stretch from
Tomorrowland, and some had pools shaped like space capsules.
Satellites and even a flying saucer were perched on roofs.
Cheesy advertisements beckoned tourists by offering
“moon-level luxury at down-to-earth prices.”

The tiki totem pole outside the Samoa Motel on Katella
Avenue could have been transplanted next to the Enchanted
Tiki Room in Adventureland.

But city officials grimaced at the rusting, deteriorating
signs and bare concrete landscape with no unifying theme.

“The signs were having to compete with each other,” said
Mary McCloskey, Anaheim’s deputy planning director. “They
just got bigger and gaudier and more cluttered…. I don’t
think it felt like a resort. It was feeling old and tired.”

In 1995, the city embarked on a massive overhaul with $6
billion in public and private funds. Telephone lines were
moved underground. Hotels were remodeled and given new
facades. The Santa Ana Freeway was widened. The futuristic
Convention Center, which looks like something out of “The
Jetsons,” still stands, but with a $177-million face lift
and expansion.

Perhaps the most dramatic change grew out of the City
Council’s restrictions on signs. All the neon signs that
loomed high above the ground–cherished as historic
artifacts by Googie lovers–had to be replaced with
eye-level monument signs.

“While there will be people who might miss what was there
historically, if we were going to remain competitive, we had
to reinvent and transform that resort into a very pleasant
garden environment,” McCloskey said.

Across the country, cities were pouring money into their
convention centers, drawing conferences away from Anaheim.
New theme parks and resorts were also vying for tourist
dollars.

Palm trees now line Katella Avenue. Flowering Tipuana Tipu
trees, strung with lights, twinkle at night along Harbor
Boulevard. When mature, they’ll form a canopy like the trees
and lights on Disneyland’s Main Street, McCloskey said.

The city recently gave final approval to GardenWalk, a
$600-million project that will include four new hotels along
with shops and a slate of popular restaurants. It will take
the place of the landmark Melodyland, the musical theater
turned mega-church.

Some preservationists argued that Melodyland and the old
motels were architectural jewels. John English, a board
member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, used to offer Anaheim
tours to Googie aficionados.

At its peak, Anaheim boasted the highest concentration of
Googie in the United States. No more. “I’ve pretty much
written it off,” English said.

So it doesn’t get forgotten, , English, Paul and other
architecture buffs are helping the city document what used
to be. Jane Newell, a city librarian, has filled a box with
photographs and old postcards. A dilapidated neon sign leans
against a wall at the downtown library’s history room, not
far from Disneyland.

When Newell drives through the resort area with her camera,
she notices all the little changes. A missing tiki. A
demolished sign.

“Every time I drive by, I look around and I think, ‘My God,
something else is gone,’ ” Newell said. “It really is sad.”

This summer, when Melodyland gives way to GardenWalk, it
will end up alongside other pieces of Anaheim’s Googie
history as a photograph in Newell’s box.

Sure, there will be the stories of bands such as the
Chambers Brothers and the Classics Four, the second-tier
touring musicals such as “Babes in Toyland” with Connie
Stevens, and children who danced and sang in the circular,
3,000-seat theater.

Others will recall the mega-church, where an Anaheim doctor
rushed a baby’s delivery so it would be born just before a
televised New Year’s Eve service with the Rev. Ralph
Wilkerson.

Church officials have no regrets about leaving. People drawn
to Jesus will keep coming, with or without the iconic
building, church spokeswoman Donna Perotin said. The church
will move next month to a yet-to-be-announced site in
Anaheim.

Preservationists expected this day. Melodyland has been on
their “deathwatch” list for months.

“We’ve known about this for awhile,” said Paul, who once
went to Melodyland as a child. “It’s just another
non-surprise of this whole process that’s uprooted so much.”

Newell will keep taking pictures until there are no more
left to take. City officials plan to continue refining the
resort–keeping it competitive and current–and watch as
GardenWalk, the newest project with its luxury hotels and
waterfalls, rises out of Melodyland’s rubble.

“Beauty,” McCloskey said, “is in the eye of the beholder.”