Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Westwood Tropical Ice Gardens

Hey-yo! Today, Steve "Nanook" Stuart is sharing a group of vintage postcards featuring a bit of old Los Angeles that was completely unfamiliar to me. So cool! And, not only did Steve scan his postcards, but he did a comprehensive writeup to help set the scene. Here's Steve!


In November 1938, Los Angeles was introduced to one of the more outlandish ideas for outdoor entertainment:  The Westwood Tropical Ice Gardens.  Not merely an ice skating rink erected for seasonal enjoyment, no-siree.  This one would be year-round.  (Well, after all – this was in Los Angeles, I needn’t point out), and at the time [and one assumes to this day], was the only all-year, outdoor ice rink in the world.  To quote from the description provided on one of the postcards…  “Year around outdoor Ice Skating, morning, afternoon and evening, on 22,000 square feet of ice, in a beautiful setting with the landscape and architecture reminiscent of St. Moritz in Old Switzerland”.  Well, perhaps if you’re wearing blinders...  I’ll let the following images help you decide for yourself.  Clearly, if one were to barely gaze skyward, the trappings of a large American city seem to be encroaching from all sides.  (Quickly – someone call for Walt Disney and a much-needed berm-!)

From a February 21, 2009 article in the LAistory comes the following amusing quotes:
…In fact, not long after the Tropical Ice Gardens opened in November 1938, LA Times columnist Lee Shippey wrote in his witty "Lee Side O' L.A." offering for December 13th, about ice skating's status as "a world-wide fad." He did not miss a beat, remarking how "amusing" and anachronistic it was to take to the ice at a time when "the thermometer climbed to the all-time December high of 92°," in recent days as onlookers–many of whom had never seen ice skating in person before–watched in awe from the stands. He called the ice shows that were touring the country and headed to Westwood's new showplace "poetry of motion," noting that "a ballet on ice is a thing of supernatural beauty." But when the pro shows end, it's time for the real fun, when the public takes their often-unruly feet to the ice. At a time in LA's history when the "beaches have been crowded by day" and the "ice-skating rinks by night." 

“… many of whom had never seen ice skating in person before…”  Really-?  I realize if referring to So. Cal., ice skating is not exactly native to its climate, but it was 1938, not 1838, after all.

In this “Natural Color” view, the spires of both the Fox Village Theatre (on our left) and that of Chadwick’s Drug Store, later to be Westwood Drug (center) are poking their heads above the ‘St. Moritz theming’ of the Gardens.  Evidently while basking in the Southern California sunshine, happy skaters can enjoy a turn or two on the ice – outdoors – in the direct sun – no matter the temperature – even 92°.  (Apparently energy was *free* back in those days).

In this more elevated view, what little theming there is to begin with, is totally smashed by the inclusion of partial views showing the community of Westwood Village – which, if you’re unacquainted with its architecture – is decidedly Mediterranean and Art Deco-!!  [So much for St. Moritz-!]  In this view, we can see all of the Fox Village Theatre tower and sign, and the exterior of the auditorium as well – in its Spanish Revival design.  Moving to the right we again can see the Chadwick’s Drug Store tower.  The scene feels so ‘chilly’, I’ve got a hankerin’ for some hot chocolate.

This next view, the postcard mailed on July 13, 1940, shows the Gardens all decked-out for some sort of themed performance, perhaps it was The St. Moritz Express-?  Off in the “wings”, on stage right, there seems to be a train hiding behind that stand of trees, and then the lovely proscenium with its dreamy, star-spotted curtain, where evidently, the skating excitement begins.  Apparently, the orchestra [maybe it’s Ted Fio Rito & his Orchestra-?], is relegated to stage left, and based on the fact the grandstands are bereft of onlookers, there may be some sort of rehearsal in progress.  

On-view in “the countryside of St. Moritz”, and looking approx. SE, the ‘invisible’ buildings in the immediate background are on Gayley Avenue.  The taller of the two towers to the left of the Redman Moving & Storage building is the sign for the Sears store that once populated Westwood Village.  And just to the right of the Redman Moving & Storage building is a tower sign for a Standard Oil gas station and to its right and standing a bit higher, is a more elegant tower sign for the former A&P grocery store.  [That store was later razed to make way for one of the last, single screen movie theatres to be built in L.A.:  The National – March 1970 - January 2008].  And the farthest-right tower sign should be for a Union 76 gas station – at least it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In this similar view, but angled more SW, folks who not only have seen ice skating before, but have actually done so, have taken to the ice in this ‘All Skate’ moment.  It would appear the ‘stage’ is empty, so folks can just do edge jumps or camel spins right there, center stage.

Here’s a shot from a similar angle, but obviously with the stage paraphernalia removed, the rink seems fairly busy.  (I wonder just how typical this number of skaters was on, say, a weekend day-?)  I’d like to take this time to point out the lovely “St. Moritz” scenery…

With the ‘stage’ removed, we can clearly see more of that ‘authentic St. Moritz theming’ – such as it is – and get a sense for all 22,000 sq. feet of ice.  I presume the area underneath the ‘stage’ area had a separate ice sheet that could come and go.

And finally, a day (or evening) on the ice wouldn’t be complete without seeing “Fernanda the Cow” & “Katinka”.  Evidently these folks were part of many professional ice skaters performing in ice shows around the country – including “Frick and Frack”, “Jimmy Cesar and Red Bennett”, “Maribel Vinson and Guy Owen”, to name but a few.  In the case of “Fernanda the Cow”, I wonder who was responsible for ‘being in the rear’, so to speak.  Undoubtedly their antics were hi-larious-!! 

But all good things must come to an end, and this ‘oddity’ in outdoor entertainment was no exception.  As early as May 1939, and a mere six months after opening, a fire broke out – evidently not a rare occurrence at ice skating rinks back then – although the rink quickly re-opened.  And although the rink was already closed and scheduled for demolition, it was the fire on May 5, 1950, causing the structures of the Gardens to collapse, which sealed its fate.  So, after about 11-½ years, the Westwood Tropical Ice Gardens was no more.  And the timing may have been prescient, as UCLA was growing and was in need of more space.  And what could be more appropriate for Los Angeles than a parking lot, along with some buildings – occupying the Ice Gardens property – although the lot extended all the way down to Wilshire Blvd.  Lovingly known as Lot 32 to those who were in need of a place to stash their ‘wheels’, only to discover it was really, really far away from the campus, proper.  

Automobiles in place of ice skates – sounds endemic for America somehow.

Thank you, Steve! I love L.A. history, especially when it is odd or obscure. An outdoor skating rink in the middle of Westwood falls into both categories! I am very appreciative of the time and effort that Steve put into producing today's excellent post. Just thinking about it makes me tired!


TokyoMagic! said...

I had never heard of this place before! And yes, that is very "L.A." for it to have been turned into a parking lot....but didn't the cars slide around a lot on the ice? Thanks for sharing with us, Steve!

Scott Lane said...

I can't help but wonder at the quality of the ice surface on those 92 degree days. Thanks for sharing, Steve

K. Martinez said...

I wonder if Sonja Henie ever skated there. I'd assume the outside world wasn't as intrusive when down in the skating rink itself.

I was immediately familiar with the Fox Village Theater as I've seen many a movie there with my sister when she was living in Westwood while attending UCLA back in early 1970's.

Nice detailed write up and some great postcards here. Thanks for sharing them with us, Steve.

Chuck said...

Count me in amongst those who'd never heard of the Westwood Tropical Ice Gardens before. I'll never think of Lot 32 in the same way again. Of course, since I'd never thought of - or even heard of - Lot 32 before, the overall impact of such thoughts may be somewhat diminished.

Great work, Steve! Thanks for your hard work and willingness to share.

Nanook said...

@ TM!-
Oh, don't be silly - it was mandatory for all vehicles to be equipped with snow tires-!

@ Scott Lane-
The "quality of the ice surface" would seem to be up for grabs in this venue - even with temps in the 'more comfortable' 70° range.

@ Ken-
The Sonja Henie connection is there, but it was hard to verify with any certainty. I stumbled-across some references calling it the "Sonja Henie Ice Palace" in the late 1940's - but whether she used the rink for her ice shows, or actually had any ownership in it - I was not able to verify.

@ Chuck-
You're welcome.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve and Major. I've parked in that lot several times and had no idea.


Melissa said...

The next time I have to come up with a fictitious name for any reason, "Knearl McCusker" is right at the top of the list.