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Catching the Wave: Malibu in the 1950s
The great post-war boom in the United States was shared by California and Malibu. Much of California's oceanfront development took place from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, and Malibu was no exception, starting with the Hollywood migration to the Malibu Colony, as described in Malibu Development: War Years to Late 1940s, and continuing with many other beach-seekers through the 1950s and beyond. A sign of Malibu growing up was the first Post Office in 1950, in the commercial building at the foot of Rambla Pacifico. Before that, Malibu mail was sent to Pacific Palisades and you had to go there to pick it up.
Malibu Canyon Road was constructed in 1953, linking Malibu to the San Fernando Valley, although a 1956 plan to expand this modest road to a freeway was thankfully thwarted. The road originally came down to PCH at Webb Way, where Malibu got its first traffic signal in February 1955. One of the other early signals was at the pier, installed in August 1959.
Business opened to serve the expanding population: the Wayne Wilcox photography studio, 1950; Trancas Market, 1953; Malibu Shores Motel across from the pier, 1953; the Feed Bin at Topanga, 1954; Spic N Span Cleaners, 1956; the Colony Coffee shop, 1958; Mayfair Market, the first major supermarket chain in Malibu, September 1958; and Tonga Lei restaurant on the beach, 1961. The Malibu Beach Sports Club, once one of Malibu's most popular hangouts, opened on the pier in 1955, and the nearby Malibu Rendezvous (later Windsail and now closed) opened in the 1950s. At the intersection of Malibu Road and PCH, the Chevron station opened in 1956 (closed in 2008).
Crowding at the John Webster School motivated the creation of Malibu's second school, Juan Cabrillo Elementary, built on Morning View Drive, above PCH and Zuma Beach. The same property was divided in 1963 for Malibu Park Junior High, the facility that is now Malibu High School. [Thanks to Bonnie Lais for help with this section.]
Malibu's reputation, once local to Southern California, expanded and the name became emblematic of sun, fun, and the in-crowd. Surfers migrated to Malibu, now open and not requiring sneaking past any locked gates. In the early 1950s they established a new culture on the beach, based on youth and athletic ability with the barely hidden elements of sex, drugs, and music that would explode in the 1960s youth rebellion. For a while this was a semi-private society, but then came the 1957 novel Gidget by Malibu resident Frederick Kohner, a fictionalized version of the beach life of his daughter, Kathy Kohner, who spent romantic summers learning how to surf at Malibu. It was Malibu Kahuna Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy who, because of her diminutive size, thought "Girl plus Midget = Gidget" and created the name. In 1959 the movie version of Gidget opened and the Surf Craze was on. Popular beach movies and surfing music hits rolled out one after another, featuring Malibu, irrevocably appointed as the pop culture "Surf City USA".
The connection of Malibu with music was especially strong with the explosion of Surf Music. The beach life was glorified as perfection, dovetailing nicely with the hippie youth culture of the decade. In 1965, guitar maker Fender introduced the "Malibu" guitar as the perfect instrument if you want to emulate the Beach Boys, the group who had an astounding string of surf/beach hit songs in the early to mid-1960s. Malibu was not often mentioned by name in lyrics, but everyone knew. The movies did use the Malibu name -- one database lists 39 movies with Malibu in the title.
It was exaggerated, but it was true. On the beach at Malibu, at the Pit, you might find actors Peter Lawford and his pal Cliff Robertson (who played Kahuna in Gidget) or other stars who enjoyed the surfing and the casual atmosphere. Surfer girls in bikinis by day and tight sweaters at night hung out with the boys. Ultra-cool beach bums lived in shacks and studied eastern religion. Bikers swarmed on PCH. It was the beginning of something big, very big, that swept the USA and the world. One result: by the summer of 1961 up to 150 surfers at a time were colliding with one another in the Malibu surf. Malibu Point became Surfrider Beach and was no longer an unspoiled paradise.
The beginning of awareness that open spaces would disappear unless specifically protected came to Malibu in 1953 when Leo Carrillo State Park was established along PCH at Mulholland Highway in the then remote and almost uninhabited western end of the Malibu area.
Malibu Fire in 1956
Ironically, one of the elements of the development of the Malibu beach community was fire. The Newton-Hume-Sherwood brush fires of December 1956 in the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu destroyed 35,000 acres and 250 structures, despite the best efforts of thousands of fire fighters. The 1956 disaster was followed by two more in 1958-59 that severely burned eight fire fighters and destroyed another 100 homes. At the same time, the nation was going through the Cold War jitters and gearing up for a massive effort in Civil Defense which claimed to be able to cope with the effects of a nuclear war. The Cold War defense came directly into Malibu in 1954 in the form of a Nike missile base commanding a view of the ocean at Rambla Pacifico and Las Flores Canyon. The Malibu site was the first in the LA area. The base was later upgraded to house Nike-Hercules missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The fires made Malibu an object lesson in how ineffective firefighting was against truly monstrous fires, so something had to be done to rescue the credibility of Civil Defense. The result was an outpouring of tax benefits, low interest loans, and changes in land use regulations that favored larger homes on larger property, the end of the beach-bum shacks in Malibu. Renters and modest homeowners were displaced from areas like Broad Beach, Paradise Cove and Point Dume by relatively wealthy residents who relied on cheap fire insurance and the government commitment to "defend Malibu" along with generous post-fire rebuilding grants or loans. Homes in the canyons were abandoned in favor of the relatively fire resistant beach zones during this movement, further increasing prices and upscale pressures on coast property. [See Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis for his controversial views on the role of fire in Malibu.]
In total, 239 homes were built on Pt. Dume in the 1950s, one of the fastest growing areas. You could buy a small house on a flat acre there for less than $35,000. Other parts of Malibu saw strong growth and steady infrastructure improvements.
Continued Growth and Expansion in the 1960s
By the time "California Dreaming" was written during a dismal NYC winter in 1963, and the Chevy Malibu was introduced in 1964, Malibu was the world famous focus of a population boom. The Hollywood stars continued to flock here while developers used the reflected glory of the beach and the celebrities to sell standard homes to regular people. Malibu's only real industrial site, Hughes Research Laboratories (now called HRL, currently co-owned by Raytheon, Boeing, and General Motors) opened in 1960 on a Malibu Canyon hillside with a world class view (photo, left, at top). Shortly thereafter, on May 16, 1960, Hughes scientist Theodore Maiman demonstrated the world's first laser at the Malibu lab.
A trunk water line was completed September 1, 1962, serving Malibu as far as Malibu Canyon, ensuring a good supply of public water needed to support the growth. The line was extended, by 1965, to Zuma, Trancas, and Malibu West. From 2,328 in 1950, the Malibu population reached 6,486 in 1960 and grew to 12,376 by 1969.
Building in Malibu included the Outrigger condominiums on Carbon Beach, 1961; a new home for Bank of America on Malibu Road, opened March 16, 1963; Malibu Park Junior High began classes in September 1963 with 300 students; Malibu West was built in a treeless neighborhood, 1964; and the 48 unit Maison DeVille condominiums, 1965. Further east, Sunset Mesa homes were built during 1962-1965, a neighborhood above and west of the site of the Getty Villa, and the most easterly neighborhood with a Malibu address and schools. Numerous businesses opened along PCH including real estate, banking, gas stations, and more restaurants and lodging. Carden School was opened in 1965, when the Adamson Company allowed them to use the old Fire Station #70 in Las Flores Canyon. In 1968, a fire station was opened in the County Line area, Station 56, set high on the bluff behind the current site of Neptune's Net restaurant, on land leased from Camp Joan Mier summer camp.
The whole Civic Center area was empty in the 1960s, with the west side of the flats (below today's Malibu Canyon Village townhouses) referred to as Crummer Field where horse shows were staged with grandstands and tents, with hundreds of people attending.
On November 16, 1964 a fire destroyed the venerable Malibu Sea Lion restaurant. Owner Chris Polos immediately vowed to rebuild and did. The Albatross Restaurant and gas station just to the west were untouched by the blaze.
Other notable Malibu openings in the 1960s, compiled by Rick Wallace:
First Attempt at Malibu Cityhood
The first recorded action regarding Malibu cityhood was not to be more independent, but less so. In 1948, the Malibu Businessmen's Association discussed a recommendation that Malibu Township become part of the City of Los Angeles, seeking a way to obtain city services like sewers, water supply and police and fire protection. That proposal went nowhere.
By the 1960s, the problems of growth were already apparent and many residents felt that there should be local control. The original deed restrictions on Malibu land sold by Marblehead were about to expire, removing some brakes on development. Outside agencies were seriously proposing freeways along the coast and a nuclear reactor complex in Corral Canyon (both eventually blocked). With no local government, Malibu was vulnerable. An election was scheduled for January 7, 1964 after a petition drive showed enough local support. The vote failed narrowly and the ferment continued, with more controversy and votes until the City of Malibu was finally incorporated in 1991.
Continue with Malibu History: 1970 to Cityhood in 1991 ...
Sources and Recommended Books about Malibu's Development
These books offer a wonderful introduction to Malibu and its history, with many specifics and details not generally available. Highly recommended.
In addition to the above publications, the archives of the Malibu Times -- articles by Rick Wallace in particular -- are invaluable, providing fine-grained details to illuminate the rich texture of Malibu's past and present. Other periodicals from Malibu, the Los Angeles area, and beyond have written about Malibu and its inhabitants. The Los Angeles Public Library, Malibu Branch, houses many unique items of Malibu history which can be uncovered there.
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