California Comes Alive

Posted on March 25, 2020 by Lorraine Perrotta | Comments (1)

"We must first possess the region that we live in, first in our minds, to say, 'I'm from here.'" So states Luis Valdez, author of the play Zoot Suit, during an hour-long interview captured 31 years ago on three U-matic videotapes and now available for viewing on the Internet Archive. Donated to The Huntington by KCET, this fascinating collection of interviews was produced from 1988 to 1990 and aired as a series called "The Los Angeles History Project." Valdez is animated as he describes his beginnings with El Teatro Campesino, the farm workers' theater work group he founded in 1965. He beautifully captures the idea of Los Angeles as place, keenly aware of his responsibility as a filmmaker, playwright, and storyteller, exploring issues critical to the Chicano and multicultural community in California.

Luiz Valdez, raw footage from an interview for the KCET series “Los Angeles History Project,” recorded on February 8, 1988. The son of Mexican farm workers, Valdez is one of the most well-known and influential directors and writers to emerge from the Chicano culture in California. He was first recognized for his play Zoot Suit.

Other interview subjects in the series include Bella Lewitzy, an influential figure in the development of modern dance in California; Mary Shon, a Korean-American social worker who assisted Chinese, Korean, and Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles; and Cliff May, the prolific architect best known as the creator of the modern California ranch house.

The collection of You Chung (Y.C.) Hong—one of the first Chinese to pass the California State Bar in 1923 and the preeminent Chinese immigration attorney in Los Angeles during the Chinese Exclusion era—has been available to researchers for many years. Now researchers and the general public are offered a rare glimpse into the strong family ties that come to life in the home movies Y.C. took of his children, Nowland and Roger. After viewing birthday party footage taken in 1938, curator Li Wei Yang was delighted to point out Y.C. himself at timestamp 7:40, a proud father smiling while his son Nowland gets ready to blow out the candles on his cake. Y.C., an avid photographer, was usually behind the camera, not in front of it. Other events discovered among the Hong films include 16 minutes of footage documenting the visit of Soong May-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-Shek), first lady of the Republic of China, to San Francisco in 1952, complete with title cards in Chinese.

Birthday party in 1938 of Nowland C. Hong, son of Y.C. Hong, one of the first Chinese to pass the California State Bar in 1923 and the preeminent Chinese immigration attorney in Los Angeles during the Chinese Exclusion era.

Motion pictures from the corporate archive of Southern California Edison Company are well-represented in the collection. “Into the Future,” produced for The Board of Public Service Commissioners around 1922, tells the story of the Los Angeles aqueduct and the rise of hydroelectric power to fuel the growth of the city. Old “Stan Still” stands in the way of progress and must be convinced that the ambitious project is needed. Viewers are offered an enticing glimpse into a vibrant and bustling downtown Los Angeles. William Mulholland is seen surveying in the field, and views of the aqueduct landscape and infrastructure abound. As in most of the films in the SCE archive, the promotion of various forms of energy in a positive light is at the heart of the narrative.

The Southern California Edison Company's "Into the Future" is a fictionalized account of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the rise of hydroelectric power to fuel the growth of the city of Los Angeles. It includes scenes of downtown Los Angeles, ca. 1922.

The “here” Luiz Valdez so eloquently explores during his interview is California. How did this online cornucopia of California history, much of it unique and not seen since its creation decades ago, become digitized and freely available? The answer:  an ambitious California State Library initiative and partnership dedicated to preserving and sharing hidden collections called California Revealed. Each year, libraries are invited to nominate collections that help tell the story of the Golden State. In 2016, former curator of photography and visual culture Jenny Watts and I teamed up to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity. We began by scouring inventories of audiovisual materials for suitable candidates sprinkled throughout the vast Huntington collections and came up with many delightful surprises. Colleagues from across the Library, including curators Clay Stalls and Li Wei Yang, contributed their time and expertise as we solicited nominations. “The digitization of this previously inaccessible material has been a professional milestone for me,” Watts said. “I never imagined the breadth and depth of our audiovisual holdings when we began this project. It has made portions of our collections such as the Kenneth Hahn Papers and the Southern California Edison Collection come alive in new ways.”

Support from the California Revealed initiative could not have come at a better time. To celebrate 100 years of Huntington history as part of the Centennial, we chose more than 10 historical Huntington moments, captured on endangered and obsolete 16 mm film and magnetic tape, to be digitized. Much to our surprise, a 16 mm film labelled “Huntington Estate 1927” turned out to contain footage taken on the day of Henry E. Huntington’s funeral. I was particularly touched when I noticed Alfonso Gomez—a dedicated, long-time employee of Mr. Huntington—appear to wipe a tear from his eye after walking down the steps of the Huntington home (now the Huntington Art Gallery). Included in this footage is what we believe to be the railroad car that transported the deceased Henry Huntington from Philadelphia back to his beloved home in San Marino.

Another Huntington employee, recorded on audio tape in 1967, is Miss Emma Quigley, who served as Henry Huntington’s secretary and assistant. Quigley celebrates Mr. Huntington’s achievements, such as the Big Creek hydroelectric project, while at the same time describing some of his more mundane habits, such as regular lunches of "cheese sandwiches” that they shared in his office after the death of his friend and legal advisor William E. Dunn.

A film labelled "Huntington Estate" contains footage taken on the day of Henry E. Huntington's funeral in 1927.

More than 300 events gleaned from 15 collections have been digitized and preserved for the ages as part of the California Revealed initiative. More gems will be revealed as the project rolls along, so stay tuned for more tales from the Golden State.

Lorraine Perrotta is head of Acquisitions, Cataloging, and Metadata Services at The Huntington.

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I appreciate the information you provided. Art and History. I love the Huntington Library.

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