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A Tale of Two Thanksgivings
Statue of Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales in present-day St. Augustine (Photo courtesy Ebyabe, Wikimedia Commons)

A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

By Alana Turingan

Holiday excitement is in the air. As November arrives we of course recall the famous story of the first Thanksgiving: the 1621 feast of good harvest between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. 

But what about the other European explorers who had celebrated their arrival on the Floridian peninsula a century before? 

After all, many feasts were held in the 1500s: by Juan Ponce de León in 1528 and 1531; by Pánfilo de Narváez around Tampa Bay and St. Marks in 1528; by Hernando de Soto in 1539 at Shaw’s Point; by Father Luis Cáncer de Barbastro in 1549 at Tampa Bay; by Tristán de Luna in 1559 at Penascola Bay; and even by René Goulaine de Laudonnière of France, who celebrated with the Timucua Indians near present day Jacksonville on June 30, 1564. 

Two feasts stand out in particular. After sighting land on August 28, 1565, St. Augustine’s feast day, Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales presided over a mass to celebrate safely landing in the new world. Following the service, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles organized a feast and invited the Timucua tribe. St. Augustine was founded here.

Later, Juan de Oñate led a 50-day exploration through the Chihuahuan Dessert. The exploration ended with the discovery of the Rio Grande and a feast of thanks with the Mansos Indians on April 30, 1598 near San Elizario, Texas. They gave thanks not just for surviving the desert. They also had a political motive: staking Spain’s claim on La Toma, the Rio Grande. 

For the Spaniards and French, thanksgiving was more than a harvest celebration. It was an act of gratitude for finding new land and claiming the territory for their European empires. As we sit down with our families it’s important to remember the multiple facets of the first Thanksgiving and appreciate how these narratives weave into the American identity.

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The Other Side of History
Halloween of Yesteryear. Photo courtesy Tess Bernstein.

The Other Side of History

By Tess Bernstein

Have you ever seen those TV shows that investigate hauntings? They always end up at the local historical society to research the history of the house or land. In fact, the West Coast wing of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), the organization behind the hit TV show Ghost Hunters, once contacted the Costa Mesa Historical Society for info. But it’s not just professional ghost hunters we hear from. We get lots of visits from regular Costa Mesans who want to know about the things that go bump in the night. This month we celebrate Halloween by sharing a few of the spooky inquiries we’ve gotten.

The Sisters

One day a call came into the society. Gladys answered the phone, and we overheard her becoming increasingly blunt. “Well, you will just have to come in,” she said until she hung up. Later that day, two young sisters came in very upset wanting to know the history of their house. After we talked for a bit, they finally told me “the real reason” for their visit. Once while home alone they heard footsteps coming from upstairs and listened as the noise descended the stairway. Another day they heard the front door open and close and what sounded like keys thrown on to the counter. When they looked, no one was there, there were no keys, and the door was still locked.

Theater Ghost Lady 

A girl came into the society and wanted to know the history of the _______ movie theater because she believed it to be haunted. When she and her friend walked into theater 9 one day, they saw an older woman wearing 19th-century clothes. She appeared almost translucent, then, just like that, she vanished. For reasons of her own, the friend sat in the same seat the specter had occupied. It wasn’t long before she felt ill and left. The girl stayed to finish the movie but found herself distracted by a bone-chilling cold around her seat, colder than the rest of the theater.

Haunted Apartment

Once we received an email from a woman who didn’t mince words about why she was inquiring. She lived in a fairly new apartment — so what were those strange noises she heard every night? She wondered if it was built on top of… something.

DEA House

A young man came in one day and wanted information on the house he had just rented. We looked up his address and talked for a bit. Then he said, “Let me tell you the real reason I’m here.” He had only lived there a short while when things seemed to fly off the shelves, and he heard strange noises and loud bangs. His wife and three kids were so frightened they didn’t want to stay there alone. So these days what would you do? He Googled his house and found a photo of DEA agents swarming all over it Could this be the source for the strange activity? 

The Costa Mesa Historical Society has old phone books, newspapers, photos, and other databases available to help you answer both your normal and paranormal historical questions. Do you have unusual activity in your house? Knowing the history may shed some light. We’d love to hear your stories. Just tell me “the real reason why.”

More Haunted Places in Costa Mesa

There’s no shortage of places in Costa Mesa that people believe are haunted. The October 27, 2006, Orange County Register lists a few:

Costa Mesa City Hall Some claim to have seen a ghost dressed as a 19th-century police officer at the building’s entrance. Witnesses claim the Victorian is ticketing a “scantily clad” woman.

Estancia High School Many have reported crying babies and faulty light fixtures in the science department, as well as an extreme chill apparently unrelated to the school’s subzero air conditioning. Others claim to hear athletic ghosts taking a dip in the pool or shooting hoops.

South Coast Plaza If it’s 3 a.m. you may want to stay clear of Nordstrom’s… unless you want to get hit by a flying mannequin.

Tess Bernstein is a long-time society volunteer and board member. She first got involved with the society to investigate her own haunted house.

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The Life of Refugio “Ralph” Leon
Refugio (Ralph) Leon and friends

The Life of Refugio “Ralph” Leon

Refugio Leon’s family moved to Costa Mesa’s west side in 1922 when he was just a toddler. He lived in the city for 87 years before passing away in 2009.

His father had been a farmer in Arizona. At first, he worked as a gardener for Fanny Bixby and Carl Spencer. Later, he farmed the mesa, too.

Life wasn’t easy for the Leons, especially during the depression. The large extended family had no indoor plumbing, gas, or electricity. A wood stove provided heat, and they lit their house with coal oil lamps. With no ice box, the only thing that kept the food from spoiling was eating it first.

Leon attended Main School until it was damaged by an earthquake in 1933. He finished his schooling at grade 8.

“You’ve got enough education as long as you can handle a pick and a shovel,” his father said. “You can make a life. You’ve got to quit school and go to work.”

He went to work for Japanese farmers on the west side, including Bob Omori and George Inokuchi, eventually earning enough money to buy a ’26 Chrysler, which he drove to the movie theater in Santa Ana in his scant free time.

In 1936, he met the love of his life, Mary Saragosa. The two married in 1940. Only death could separate them 69 years later.

When the US entered WWII, Leon was working at Harvey Bear’s farm. Leon was the kind of hard worker Bear didn’t want to lose. So, he managed to secure Leon two deferments. But when the third call came, there no postponing any longer. Leon joined the army and immediately found himself under the command of General Patton. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, suffering a grave injury to his leg in the process. He returned a war hero, honored with a purple heart.

Leon convalesced in Long Beach, then returned to Costa Mesa where he began building a family. Life was still hard, but bit by bit things changed. They bought a TV around which neighbors gathered to watch the Sunday Night Movie. In 1952, he built a new house with all the modern conveniences – including, for the first time, indoor plumbing. Even so, his daughter still collected bottles for enough cash to buy movie tickets.

Leon worked with Bear until the farmer moved away. Then he worked at a farm in Huntington Beach, and eventually he got a job at Cla-Val, where he stayed on for 35 years. That was where he earned his nickname, “Ralph.” 

“Haven’t you got a different name besides [Refugio]?” someone asked. “It’s pretty hard for me to pronounce, calling you Refugio.” 

And it was Ralph after that.

In his retirement, “Ralph” was often seen in Lions Park, making friends with everyone he met. And, it’s said, he put his farming skills to good use in his home garden.

His early years might have been hard, but he looked back on them fondly. 

“The life nowadays is hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry and run here and run there and all that,” he said. “Before, when we had hard times as kids, we just took it as it came. That’s it.”

We’d love to hear and preserve more stories like this — yours, too. Give us a call at (949) 631-5918 if you’d like to share, or drop us a line.

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The Theatre in Review with Tom Titus

The Costa Mesa Historical Society is pleased to announce that actor/director/theater reviewer Tom Titus  will be our speaker on Sunday October 20, 2019 .

Tom Titus was born in 1938, in Corry, Pennsylvania, where he was raised as the only child of Warren and Helen Titus and graduated from high school in 1956. Shortly afterward he embarked on a 60+-year career in journalism when he became sports editor of the Corry Evening Journal.    After four years on the Journal, Tom entered the Army and served in Camp Casey, South Korea, on the staff of the 7th Infantry Division newspaper, the Bayonet. He later became managing editor of the paper and worked at the Pacific Stars and Stripes offices in Tokyo.    On his return to the USA, Tom was transferred to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he spent most weekends in New York City, picking up comp tickets to Broadway shows at the Manhattan USO, igniting a lifelong love of theater.     In November, 1963, Tom packed his earthly goods into a 1957 DeSoto and set out for Los Angeles, where searching for work on an LA-area newspaper  resulted in his hiring by the Daily Pilot in December as a city reporter, covering the events in Costa Mesa.    His career with the theater began in February, 1965, when he reviewed a production of “A Thousand Clowns” at the old Laguna Playhouse. Shortly afterward, South Coast Repertory arrived and gave him much more to write about. From 1965 to the present, Tom has seen every SCR production and reviewed all but one – his son Tim pinch-hit in 2006 when Tom was hospitalized with pneumonia.    Reviewing local theater gave Tom the yen to try it himself and in June, 1965, he made his acting debut in the first production of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, “Send Me No Flowers.” He began directing in 1968 with his own play, “Summer Lightning,” at the Westminster Community Theater where he met his first wife, Beth.    In 1970, Tom appeared in the first production of the Irvine Community Theater, “Come Blow Your Horn” and two years later he subsequently became the theater’s artistic director – a position he held for 31 years.    Tom retired from his ICT position in 2003, shortly after meeting the lady he calls the true love of his life, Jurine Landoe – or “Deenie” as his granddaughters Riley and Kaylyn call her. He and Jurine have been a couple since 2002.    In 1983, Tom discovered Scrabble and has played ever since.                So come bring a friend and hear the tales of a true Thespian!

 

Seating is limited, for RESERVATIONS call (949) 631-5918.    Doors open at 2:00, program at 2:30. Free admission and refreshments. We are located at 1870 Anaheim Ave. northwest corner of the Lions Park complex. Visit www.costamesahistory.org   or go to facebook/costa mesa historical society for more information.

Note: Due to construction, entry to parking lot must be made from Anaheim Ave.

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How the Costa Mesa Playhouse Got its Start

It took a long time for the “City of the Arts” to earn its name. When the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse was founded in 1965, community theaters had already sprung up in Huntington Beach, Newport, Laguna, Santa Ana, Tustin, and Westminster. Costa Mesa had some catching up to do.

But the city’s first cultural arts coordinator, the industrious Bette Berg, was the woman to do it. She founded the city’s first Cultural Arts Week, organized a community band, and launched the city’s classes in music, art, bridge, and knitting. The Playhouse grew out of one of these programs.

Bette Berg

The program was created to form a teen drama workshop. At first, the city had a hard time keeping it going. Then one day Berg asked a local theater director whether she had a script the kids could borrow. Yes, the director said. She met with Berg, and soon she agreed to help get the workshop off the ground. The director’s name was Pati Tambellini.

Tambellini had made a name for herself in the world of “little theater,” both as an actor and a director, in Newport, Laguna and Huntington Beach. A year prior she had won best director, best set designer, and best supporting actress for her work with the Newport Harbor Players. By the end of 1964, after 12 years of directing, she was ready to “retire for about the 80th time.” Then fate took over.

She went into the workshop with low expectations. It would be a small group and she would have to take it slow, with just the basics.

But when she arrived that first Saturday morning, she found a large group of “the most enthusiastic batch of kids I have ever met in my life.” Before the day was through, they made her guarantee that they would produce a play.

The theater was then located in an old Air Base building on the OC Fairgrounds. Everything had to be built from scratch. Tambellini liked to refer to the Playhouse as “Pinchpenny Theater.” They had no lights, no flats, and no money. Mothers donated old furniture and brought in patio lights to illuminate the stage. Old bed sheets were repurposed to cover the flats. And the flats were built from — well, it’s possible a nearby housing contractor needed to refill his wood supply.

The kids rehearsed after school and Saturday mornings. On Sundays, Tambellini and her brother-in-law, Jack Murray, a respected theater technician, hammered away at the sets, bringing them to life. Tambellini worked without pay. 

Finally, at the start of 1965, Girl Crazy debuted to the public. It was a hit. It was carried over, and parents of younger children began asking Tambellini for a workshop for them. Later, an original production of the Bedraggled Dragon debuted with a cast of 49 kids.

Adults started paying attention, including two prominent Costa Mesans: councilman and former mayor Alvin Pinkley and his wife, the tireless philanthropist Lucille. 

“This is something that has long been needed,” Pinkley said. “We’ve been behind many other cities in this regard for some time.” Bette Berg, he said, has “done an outstanding job with our cultural program and this new group will have the wholehearted support of the city.” 

Tambellini called the Pinkleys the “guardian angels” of the Playhouse. They brought audience members, publicity, and donations to the burgeoning theater. When Lucille invited a group of wives of city staffers (and a Daily Pilot editor) to a tea party, she said, “You guys are the ones who should support it,” and the Playhouse Patrons’ association was born.

Pati Tambellini

The first adult production of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse opened in June 1965. Pati Tambellini directed a version of the hit Broadway comedy and Rock Hudson movie, Send Me No Flowers. Although the night began, according to one critic, with “awkward staging, opening night jitters, and what might be termed an uncomfortable tempo of communication,” by the time the final curtain fell the cast had delivered “top-notch situation comedy.”

The opening night audience was filled with city officials. Unlike professional theaters such as South Coast Repertory (which arrived in Costa Mesa two years later), community theaters welcome actors with little or no experience. One first-timer remembers being so intimidated on opening night he forgot all of his lines as soon as he stepped on stage. Nevertheless, he would later credit the Playhouse and Pati Tambellini with changing the course of his life. That actor was Tom Titus, theater critic for the Daily Pilot for the past 54 years and director of the Irvine Community Theater for 31.

Another recognizable name associated with the early Playhouse is Barbara Van Holt. Before she became Estancia’s award-winning drama teacher, she directed teen productions and acted in adult productions at the Playhouse. Oh, and another occasional actress? Bette Berg.

The Playhouse staged its second production, Night Must Fall, in September, followed by Enter Laughing and The Women. The blockbuster line-up of the second season featured Arsenic and Old Lace, Mister Roberts, and Come Back, Little Sheba. The teen division continued right along, too.

Pati Tambellini served as the driving force behind the theater until 1988, capping off her career by acting in a production of Harvey. During those 23 years she saw the Playhouse rise to an award-winning company and spearheaded the theater’s move to Rea School, where it remains today.

The Costa Mesa Playhouse’s 55th season is now underway. It’s independent now, no longer sponsored by the city. But its mission remains the same: quality performance at an affordable price, welcoming everyone to the magic of the theater.

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Japanese Costa Mesans, 1920-1942
Detail from a 1938 photo of students and parents at the Japanese school in Costa Mesa. L-to-R: B. Omori, M. Inokuchi, S. Kanno, Kaz Kuirhara, S. Kurihara, K. Shigaki, Unknown.

Japanese Costa Mesans, 1920-1942

You may have heard of the postwar Japanese-Costa Mesans like the Sakiokas and the Iwamotos. But how much do you know about the Japanese families who lived here before World War II – the Hiratas, Yamamis, Omoris, Ikedas, and Kuriharas?

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The World War I Diary of George Vincent Fox
George Vincent Fox's dog tag from World War I.

The World War I Diary of George Vincent Fox

One of the treasures of the historical society’s collection is the daily diary kept by George Vincent Fox, an artilleryman in World War I. Fox documents his journey across the Atlantic, his time on the front lines, and his postwar duty as peacekeeper. Although the prose is sparse and matter-of-fact, it vividly captures both the thrill and the tedium of war and peace.

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The Costa Mesa Songbook
A detail of the sheet music to Joan Hoadley's "Costa Mesa Plateau", the first song written about Costa Mesa.

The Costa Mesa Songbook

Did you know that over two dozen songs have name-dropped Costa Mesa? Over ten of them have appeared in the past five years alone. And in a variety of genres, too: rock, reggae, alternative, Christian, electronica, you name it. Everyone loves to sing about our town.

We’ve selected a few notable tracks below. Find a full list of songs at the bottom of the page. Let us know if there’s anything we missed!

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Protecting Costa Mesa’s Native American Heritage

The Costa Mesa Historical Society preserves several documents written by Dr. Keith Dixon, a leader in the effort to protect the Native American site in Fairview Park (4-ORA-58). Taken together, Dixon’s 1971 draft of the site’s National Register of Historic Places nomination and his proposal to turn the archeological site into an open-air museum present a compelling case both for the preservation of the site’s past as well as a bold, if unrealized, vision for its future.

Background

In 1959 the state of California designated as surplus a swath of land it had previously acquired for the Fairview State Hospital. The 350-acres stretched west from the hospital to the Santa Ana River. Had the land been released immediately, the history of Fairview Park might have been very different. But, as it happened, an ownership dispute tied up the land in court throughout the 1960s, and the title wasn’t cleared until 1970.

By then the ecological movement had taken root. Many in Costa Mesa felt squeezed by two decades of rapid suburbanization that had displaced the town’s rural character. Moreover, many felt a need to preserve the area’s disappearing history, as evidenced by, among other things, the formation of the Costa Mesa Historical Society.

By 1972 nearly everyone believed the land ought to be purchased from the state for the purpose of a park. Early champions of the idea include the city’s Project 80 committee, Estancia High School’s Ecology Committee, and Cal State Long Beach’s professor of anthropology, Keith Dixon.

Dixon, who had directed excavations at the site from 1959-1966, was an ideal advocate for the site. He combined scientific credibility, hands-on experience, and passion. Leveraging this background, he nominated the site for the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 to help protect it from urban development.

The National Register, in his words, serves as “the official list of the nation’s cultural property that has been evaluated by experts as worth saving. It is a protective inventory of those irreplaceable resources which are of more than local significance.”

National Register Nomination

In his nomination Dixon argues that the Fairview site is a unique example of what was once typical of the region. “It represents the last well-preserved remnant of an important part of the Indian heritage.” The site is of more than local significance, he says, for the following reasons:

  • It is one of the largest known Indian sites in the region, with up to 750,000 cubic yards of deposit.
  • It was intensely occupied for at least 3,000 years, giving anthropologists centuries of data from which to reconstruct cultural patterns.
  • It contains a large number of human burials, instructive on the diseases, pathology, and nutrition of native peoples.
  • It is the most securely dated prehistoric site in the region, providing clear markers between successive civilizations.
  • Its uniquely clear stratification further illuminates the relationships between the major cultures in the area.
  • It contains a number of cogged stones in their original position rather than scattered on the surface, giving better insight into the mysterious artifacts.
  • Finally, it offers an extensive record of past ecology, through which scientists may reconstruct millennia of ecological history.

Archeological Park

Dixon also argued that, given the proximity to major population centers, the site could attract both locals and tourists with its unique educational opportunities. To that end, he proposed an ambitious five-phase project partly modeled on Hancock Park’s La Brea Tarpits to bring people to what he would call the single most important Native American site south of Ventura. Here are the five stages the envisioned:

  1. Archeologists would conduct a surface survey by “disking” the upper 12 inches of the deposit to identify differences in human activity across the site, reinforce earlier tests, and guide future studies.
  2. A landscaped park would be developed over the site, allowing full public use of the recreational area while at the same time preserving the archeological material below.
  3. Archeological research would be conducted in view of the public, much like the tourist-attracting excavations at Hancock Park.
  4. Permanent exhibits would “recreate the Indian way of life, to make Orange County’s prehistory ‘visible’ for the first time.” Exhibits would include reconstructions of Indian homes, a native plant botanical garden, and an exposed cross-section of the bluff illustrating the archeological deposit and geological strata.
  5. A Museum of Local Ecology would not only house collected artifacts but would also demonstrate how all aspects of the environment — physical characteristics, animal life, plant life, climate, and man — interoperate upon one other as a single system. This kind of interdisciplinary, systematic museum would be, to Dixon’s knowledge, unique in the world.

Dixon believed the park could both memorialize past cultures and increase public understanding of the nation’s Native American heritage. Early planners seemed to agree, giving pride of place to the cultural zone. By 1978, however, the ambitious project was apparently dropped in favor of a less intensive park. Finally, in 1994, after the city performed one last archeological survey, Dixon recommended that the site be “capped.” Archeologists had done all they could to study it, at least for now, he said.

Although Dixon’s vision for an archeological park was never realized, his tireless efforts nevertheless played a vital role in preserving the site for future generations.

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