A CHAT WITH NANA
I spent some time with my Nana recently and we got to talking about when she was a young woman. We both grew up in Long Beach, as did my mother, but my nana and I probably had more in common – we were both party girls.
Nana is an only child, born in 1908, and her parents moved out to Long Beach from Marshall, Minnesota sometime just prior to 1920. Her father had been the superintendent of schools for Marshall County, which means all the rural schools, but when they moved to Long Beach, he got involved in real estate. He actually owned a fair amount of lots on what is now known as Signal Hill. Shortly after they sold them oil was discovered. I hate thinking about that. Anyway they lived at 435 Cherry Street – 4th and Cherry. Her best friend in school, Thelma lived at 545 Rose. They both went to Polytechnic High School where they were known at Brickie and Bobbie. Thelma was a red head and that’s how she got her name. Nana was known as Bobbie because she had very long hair until one day she went to the Pike, had all her hair cut off in a fashionable bob, and sold it for 75 cents.
Up on 10th and Cherry there was a soda shop where Nana and her friends hung out and had cokes. There was a real good lookin’ young man named Gene Vadits who would hang out at the shop too and my Nana ran off and married him when she was 18! He was 24. They lived all over the place, at one point moving up to Pt. Arena so he could work in the oil fields. His mother was a dialect coach for actors in Hollywood who lived in Malibu – she had a beach house – with Gene’s little brother. His sister lived in Santa Monica and she and my Nana were good friends even though Nana ultimately left Gene after six years. She said he would make stuff up all the time and brag about things that weren’t true – she couldn’t take it anymore so she split. I kind of wonder if the depression didn’t make it that much harder on the marriage though – as she said, “those were hard times.”
She returned to 435 Cherry to live with her parents and started working at the soda shop. Edith was already working there and she and my Nana became life long friends. The soda shop was owned by a man named Freed Hare who was sweet on my Nana. He was ten years older than she was, but they kept company for a while. He took her out to the wrestling matches and sometimes she would go over to his apartment and fix dinner for him and his sister.
Shortly after her return to Long Beach Nana was working at the soda shop and one night her friend Thelma came in with her boyfriend. They were headed to a party in Southgate and needed to bring along some extra girls. Nana didn’t want to go, but they assured her that they would bring her home. This party was kind of wild, with illegal liquor and lots of basketball players – guys from the Firestone plant across the street who played in a company league. At one point she walked outside and the guys were tossing women over the fence where they were caught by guys standing on the other side. She went to the bathroom to fix her hair and a big redhead came in to try to fix his bandage. The redhead was my granddad, he asked her for help and that was it. They spent that whole evening together and when it was time to go home she realized that Thelma and her boyfriend had left. My granddad arranged for the guys from the opposing basketball team to give her a ride back to Long Beach and upon delivering her home they all got out and demanded a kiss on the cheek for their trouble.
Red and Bobbie went together everywhere and he even got a house with a bunch of guys right down the street on Cherry so that he could be closer to her. Her mother would make a big dinner and send her down to get Red to come and help eat it all – her mom and dad liked him just fine. He got a summer job life guarding at the Pacific Coast Club, a very posh private beach & fitness club that was part of the LAAC. When I was a kid we used to go there and I loved the trampoline that was at sand level over a big pit in the ground. The Pacific Coast Club was about a half mile east of the Pike and right next door to a fabu building called the Villa Riviera.
It was about this time that Nana started working as an extra in Warner Bros. movies. Gene’s sister was connected and introduced Nana to the smarmy casting director who hit on her continuously, but gave her jobs even when she told him that she was taken.
Red had to go back to home to Missouri to take care of some family business and Nana was spending time with Gene’s sister in Santa Monica when she heard on the news that a big earthquake had hit Long Beach. Gene happened to be in town and he drove her down to Long Beach to make sure that her folks were okay. The house on Cherry had been knocked completely off its foundation though so it had to be rebuilt. Red was crazy with worry that something might have happened to her.
He eventually told her that she had to get a divorce because he didn’t want to be keeping company with a married woman. So she did. And then he proposed although it was already a fait accompli – they were crazy about each other. They had a quiet wedding at 435 Cherry and that day a huge bouquet of roses was delivered from Freed Hare wishing Nana all the best in the world and she said that she cried and cried because she didn’t want to hurt him.
She and Gonga (that’s what I called him because I couldn’t say Grandpa) moved to a house up on Lime at South Street and had my mom in 1937 and my aunt in 1940. They briefly rented the house out in 1936 and moved to LA so that Gonga could go to USC. He got a job working at the Coliseum so he could see all the Olympic events. I remember sitting on lap when I was a little kid and the Olympics were on and he would tell me about those games.
I don’t think that my mom or my aunt even knew about Nana’s first marriage until they were adults. And she couldn’t believe all the memories that came back when we were talking about the “good old days”. I was tickled to hear all about it because she’s seen so much in her life but we rarely talk about it. She’s still a beautiful woman, even at 96, but back in the day she was spectacular – it was so much fun imagining the pretty girl from the pictures living her life in the same place that I grew up and did the same thing.