Connecting with the Past
Pasadena’s love affair with the Olympics began a century ago, during a time of great civic and social change
By Kevin Uhrich 06/21/2012
Around this time last year, the Pasadena Museum of History and the Pasadena Weekly went into a temporary partnership to publish a fairly comprehensive history of Pasadena on the 125th anniversary of its incorporation as a city.
It was decided to cut the Weekly in two vertically, then we took over the top half of the book, publishing stories on the five separate eras staff members believed defined the community: the rugged pioneering period; the years of scientific exploration; the decades of great architectural design; the years of freeways and mass mobility and the fight for civil rights; and recent years of municipal involvement and civic achievement. The museum took the bottom half, highlighting the city’s history chronologically through the use of photographs from the time of the town’s beginnings.
This year, the museum is planning a free community party set for noon Saturday on the grounds of the facility at 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. The festivities will include enough cakes for 3,000 guests in an event that will feature appearances by Mayor Bill Bogaard, Olympic swimming great John Naber and other Olympic athletes of years past.
The cakes, courtesy of Vons/Pavilions, are meant to reflect the six themes being highlighted in the museum’s event: Art, Neighborhoods, Sports, Technology, Transportation and Water. They will showcase Vons/Pavilions’ “edible photo” technology, with reproductions of vintage images from the museum’s archives.
While every anniversary is deserving of celebration, what more, we thought, could we say as a newspaper about the city’s rich and colorful history this year that hadn’t been written about last year?
In search of a theme, we decided to follow a few different threads, as opposed to focusing on a specific year, an approach that would allow us to examine several significant portions of the city’s past through a more inclusive framework.
For this, we needed to look no further than our TV sets: The Summer Olympic Games — XXX Olympiad — being held next month in London, that city’s third Olympiad since 1908.
In the past century, Pasadena and Altadena have sent more than 60 athletes to the Games, all beginning in 1912, at V Olympiad in Stockholm with the first appearance on the world stage of George S. Patton, who would go on to become a US Army general and help Allied Forces win World War II. But at the Games during his youth, he competed in the newly created pentathlon: pistol shooting, fencing, freestyle swimming, show horse jumping and cross-country running.
Competitions in Patton’s sport, along with the decathlon, were ultimately won by Jim Thorpe, voted by sportswriters as the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century in the early 1950s, and by some organizations the best athlete of the last century, posthumously. Although Thorpe was stripped of his medals later that year for taking money to play semi-professional baseball, his medals were restored to him in 1982, again, after death.
For his part, Patton came in fifth. But he started a local involvement with the Olympics that has thrived from that time to this day, with a number of local athletes once again competing in the international event in London from July 27 to Aug. 12.
Looking a little more deeply at the Games of 1912, we came to realize that just as important was the year itself; a formative time in world history, this year saw the “unsinkable” Titanic go down in the Atlantic Ocean, killing some 1,500 people, Carl Laemmle incorporate Universal Pictures and venerable Cracker Jacks ensure corporate immortality by including prizes in boxes of their caramelized corn.
At the time, wages averaged about $1,033 a year, cars cost an average $941 and a new home was roughly $2,750. Civic leaders, wanting to imprint their mark on the Southern California landscape, began construction of the iconic Colorado Street Bridge. That same year, 1 out of 5 of the city’s roughly 35,000 residents owned automobiles — the highest number per capita in the United States. The Rose Bowl was still two years away from being little more than an architect’s fantasy, but the city had its own water company, something which progressive cities strove for in those days.
It was also a year of significant births. Artist Jackson Pollack as was born in 1912, as were golfers Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, folk musician Woody Guthrie and former first ladies Lady Bird Johnson and her successor Pat Nixon.
Also born that year were writer Studs Terkel, former TV personality, frequent Pasadena visitor and onetime Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal Art Linkletter (2003) and Archibald Cox. The last was the arch-nemesis of Pat Nixon’s beleaguered husband, former President Richard Nixon, a two-time Tournament of Roses grand marshal (1953, 1960) who was hounded out of office partly by Cox, a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate Affair in the early 1970s. Ironically, this year marks a milestone in the history of that event — the 40th anniversary of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s breaking news stories on the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
1912 was also the year one of Pasadena’s best-known celebrities, Julia Child, was born. Child died at age 91 in 2004, but 100 years after her birth, her legacy of infusing passion into her culinary creations has been carried on in America’s top cooking schools, some of them located right here in Pasadena.
What can we say that hasn’t already been said about Pasadena’s past? Plenty, as you’ll see in the collection of stories we present in this week’s special edition of the Pasadena Weekly.
The free Happy Birthday Pasadena community party is from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Free parking is available on Walnut Street and at Avery Dennison next door to the museum. For additional information, visit pasadenahistory.org or call (626) 577-1660, ext. 10.