Friday, August 27, 2010

Evergreen Tunnel

We’ve all passed beneath the drooping, feathery branches along Beaumont Avenue. Since the Great Depression, the deodar trees that overhang the grand country lane have filled us with a sense of wonder, peace and beauty. But in our hometown where many things are changing, how often do we pause and consider these silent witnesses to history?

Living landmarks

The deodars have been part of our heritage since Fred Hirsch, owner of the Highland Springs Resort, planted them in 1930. Back then, people dreamed of an evergreen parkway that would also serve as a windbreak. Around the world, the pyramid-shaped trees—with their bluish-green needles—generate awe and deep respect. In Sanskrit, the word “deodar” means “tree of the gods.”

Stretching more than a mile and half toward Cherry Valley and Oak Glen, the deodars rise like sentries, visible to airline passengers flying over the Pass and to hikers climbing peaks in the San Bernardino Mountains. Rising up to 70 feet high, these living landmarks are part of the fabric of Beaumont and as such, are fiercely protected.

Revered icons

At their own peril, politicians, developers and pranksters find they must tread lightly around the trees. Over the years, some nature lovers in town have threatened to chain themselves to the deodar trees’ massive trunks to keep chainsaws at bay. A few years ago, planning commissioners heard such a threat and promptly spared two of the stately trees. A developer even changed the entrance for a new subdivision along Beaumont Avenue because of the deodars. And beware any prankster who would tamper with the beloved trees. In the early years, thieves sneaked out and under the cover of night, plucked themselves a Christmas tree, only to find themselves caught by sharp-eyed officers patrolling the parkway. The thieves had to plant a new deodar and water it for a year.

So, next time you’re cruising Beaumont Avenue, take a moment and contemplate the evergreen tunnel that has withstood the test of time and inspired us all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Marquis Moments

If the old building could talk….what tales it would tell.

Today, the Beaumont Antique Mall, with its big fa├žade and rounded, Quonset-shaped roof, sells the treasures of the past. But way back in the late 1930s, the homey building started out life as a movie house where the likes of Gary Cooper (“High Noon”) and Gene Autry (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,”) showed up and signed autographs at hometown movie premieres in the Pass.

Glitz and glamour

It’s part of Beaumont’s “silver screen” past, a time when Hollywood came calling. Ida Mae James and C.L. “Jimmie” James arrived in town in 1937 and built a movie theater along old Highway 99. Today, the main drag through Beaumont is called Sixth Street. Their son, Brion James, who used to spend every night at his parent’s movie theater, dreamed of the day when he too would appear on the big screen. James went on to become a well-known Hollywood character actor. He appeared in more than 125 films during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with the likes of Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, most famously playing the character Leon Kowalski in “Blade Runner.”

“I play out negative fantasies for people,” he used to say about character acting and playing bad guys. “I’m the guy people love to hate. And they always remember the bad guy.”
Brion James, who also appeared in more than 100 television episodes ranging from the “Dukes of Hazzard” to “Dynasty,” died on August 11th, 1999.

Curtain call

Beaumont’s comfortable little movie theater eventually fell on hard times. Audiences loved paying a dime or a quarter to see 1940s hits like “Casablanca,” “Mrs. Miniver” and the wartime favorite, “Sergeant York.” For decades, when the house lights dimmed, Beaumont’s youngsters ducked down into their seats, munched popcorn and thrilled to the exploits of John Wayne in “Red River” (1948), and then a few years later to a new rebelliousness that swept America, as vividly portrayed in rock ‘n’ roll classics like “Rebel Without a Cause” starring James Dean (1955).

Coming attraction

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Beaumont’s cinema days had passed. The building at 450 E. 6th St. became a roller rink, a motorcycle shop and finally an antique gallery. Today, only a few remnants survive of this town’s “picture palace” and its storied past. If you look up, you can see the carved, wooden door that once led to the projection room. On the second floor, right next to that door, a big hole still remains in the wall. It’s the spot where many a projectionist kept a nightly vigil to make sure those film reels kept spinning.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A long heritage

“A great library contains the diary of the human race.”— Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901)

How would you like to slip back in time and peek into the origins of the Beaumont Library? Well, you can do just that. At the library, hand-written letters dating to 1908 are now on display. With fountain pens, members of the local Woman’s Club wrote in a neat, precise slant and praised the Bank of Beaumont for setting aside a room for their books. But what they really longed for was a fitting library filled with the knowledge of the ages.

For a few years, the dream of these women would remain elusive. But in 1911, they successfully galvanized public support for an election that created the Beaumont Library District. In those days, only men could vote and final tally was 59 to 27.

In August, the Beaumont Library will officially begin a year-long centennial celebration that heralds the founding of the Beaumont Library District in 1911, said Library Director Clara DiFelice. The Woman’s Club had achieved what an early headline in the Gateway Gazette boldly predicted: “And that settles it! Beaumont women have started out for a library and they always get what they go after.”

Little things

The road to building Beaumont’s library would be long and winding. But the Beaumont Woman’s Club forged ahead and rallied townsfolk. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s foundation also awarded a $10,000 grant for the library. In 1914, Beaumont built the library with its graceful Neo-classical architectural style at Eighth Street and California Avenue.

Beaumont had its own library building only two years after becoming a city. Just like libraries built by the steel magnate across the country, there was close attention to details. For example, original plans still on file for the Beaumont Library called for an umbrella rack with a copper drip pan. Those plans required a shelf for the Webster’s dictionary and a newspaper rack with room for 20 editions. The children’s round reading table was to be 51 inches in diameter and 22 inches high. And the librarian was to have a comfortable swivel desk chair.

Looking ahead

Carnegie might do a double take if he could see changes at the library—especially a very ambitious one in the making. Over the decades, the main library building has been expanded to make room for more books and a community room. A library once heated by chunks of burning coal now has the latest high speed Internet access. A few years ago, an elevator was installed to the second floor. And looking ahead four or five years, a big, new addition to the Beaumont Library will be built on a lot next door. It’s an eloquent tribute to a group of dedicated women who treasured books and a self-made tycoon, who steadfastly believed in the power of learning to change lives.