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The Curse of Rancho Los Feliz

October 10, 2008

Plague, Holocaust, and Homicide in Griffith Park

They say it’s cursed. Griffith Park — all of it. But if there is a pox on the park that Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith set aside, then City Councilman Tom LaBonge ought to heed the warnings of the past. The city is in the midst of redesigning some of the park right about now, and LaBonge is neck-deep in it, perhaps to manifest the latest iteration of a scourge and hex that first appeared around the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yes, in 1863, according to legend (and a bit of recorded history), local rancher Don Antonio Feliz, who owned the 8,000-acre rancho, succumbed to smallpox. In his wake, a legacy dispute ensued over the signing of his will. While his niece, Dona Petranilla, was sent away to protect her from the pox, it seems one of Don Feliz’s associates, Don Antonio Coronel, bamboozled her out of the estate that would someday become Griffith Park itself.

Dona Petranilla did not, however, go quietly. Upon her receipt of doodley-squat from the estate, Petranilla went medieval on the interlopers, and declared a curse on the land, its future owners and inhabitants. In perpetuity, it seems … . Which may have worked a little too well, as – again, according to legend – she was the first casualty, exiting this mortal coil promptly and post-haste.

Her bamboozler, Don Coronel, sold the ranch not much later, as many of those close to him bit it in grisly fashion. Coronel’s will was contested through the courts, and reached the Supreme Court, whereupon the justices ruled in favor of Coronel. Eventually, Coronel bequeathed the huge property to his lawyer, who was subsequently shot.

Enter Griffith J. Griffith.

Imagine O.J. Simpson as a humanitarian and Fatty Arbuckle as philanthropist: Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith – a man with a military moniker as phony baloney as a drug store cowboy – made his fortune in mining and bought the former Rancho Los Feliz as an ostrich farm cum tax dodge. And he had his own demons to tame.

During a hotel stay in nearby Santa Monica, the Colonel botched an apparent homicide attempt on his dear wife, missing her brain but putting a bullet in the eye of his flinching missus. “It was deliberate,” testified Mrs. Griffith at her husband’s attempted murder-slash-divorce trial. “He made me get down on my knees,” she deposed. “I asked to pray.”

Quick as you can say, “divorce granted,” the Colonel was whisked off to San Quentin, where he could meditate upon his aim and penance, which included an offer to build an observatory at his eponymous park.

Before and after the planetarium, there has been sundry circumstantial evidence of Dona Petranilla’s hex manifesting itself into the local ecology of fear: among them bubonic plague, floods, and fires, the most salient disaster being a bellowing 1933 blaze that trapped scores of greenhorn firefighters and ultimately consumed 29 of the hapless men.

Bring Out Your Dead/Plague-Carrying Squirrels

In April 2006 – yes, in this brand new century! – Griffith Park got a shout-out in the New Scientist when L.A. County’s Acute Communicable Disease Control Unit issued a bubonic plague alert there after a park visitor was found to have contracted – and survived – a bout with the Black Death. Officials remain uncertain about whether she contracted the disease in an urban location or in a park and admitted, “We may never know where she got it.”

Regardless of the point of Yersinia pestis contamination, as her turgid purple and black boils deflated and the fever broke, the recovering victim may or may not have been heard to utter, “Boy, I’d hate to catch that shit again…”

Boy In ThePlanetarium, Come Out!

Arbiters and monitors of the so-called Rancho Los Feliz Curse argue that another manifestation of the hex came in the wake of the Nicholas Ray teen-angst tearjerker, Rebel Without A Cause, with the premature deaths of three of its stars, James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood.

In that film, Dennis Hopper and a gang of teenage hoodlums take over the observatory, and police are dispatched to talk down that misunderstood-yet-cinematic juvenile delinquent, James Dean. Indeed, L.A.’s boys in blue summon Dean with the following warning: “Boy in the Planetarium! Armed police are outside. Whoever you are, drop your weapon and come out!” (Which was advice that Dean may have heard in his previous line of work, that of a male hustler in New York; likewise, Mineo heeded those words in real life, as both his lifestyle and artistic choices became increasingly more homoerotic…)

After his star had risen on the heels of Rebel and the earlier East of Eden, Dean purchased “the Little Bastard,” an exotic Porsche 550 Spyder, and began sports car racing, with reasonable success and prowess. En route to a race in Salinas, Dean and a passenger motored west towards the intersection of California Routes 41 and 466, when Donald Turnupseed pulled his ’50 Ford onto 41 and crossed into Dean’s lane. According to the surviving passenger, Dean’s last words, voiced right before contact, were, “That guy’s got to stop … . He’ll see us.”

At 37, Mineo took a gig portraying a gay burglar in the stage comedy, P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, and after a rehearsal in 1976, he was stabbed to death in the alley behind a West Hollywood apartment building.

A couple years hence in Catalina, Natalie Wood was partying on her yacht, The Splendor, with hubby Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken. Details are murky, but coroner-to-the-stars Thomas Noguchi revealed that Wood was loaded when she died and the bruises on her body might of have been from the fall off of the boat.

Trash Truck Road And Metaphysical Mumbo-Jumbo

Okay, if it is a given that the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz apparently rides at night and that hapless firefighters died en masse and that petting the squirrels can bring back the Black Death and that a tertiary cast of prime actors died years before their prime (or at least expectancy), giving credence to the Curse of Griffith Park is to prove nothing except that life happens, of course. To buy into the myth and the vaguely metaphysical mumbo-jumbo is to conceal the wonder of the place… . The beauty there is far more rational and much less New-Age-y than all that, yet still transcendental…

To wit: Not long ago, while on a bicycle, I rode up the observatory, and soaked up the transcendental reflection of the sun on the Pacific Ocean – a vista that drops the drawers on any painting in a European museum.

Metaphysically sated, I crested the ridge that holds the HOLLYWOOD sign, and began my descent down “Trash Truck Road,” the back way to Travel Town in Burbank, in a rather pell-mell fashion. There, in the middle of some rather smug bliss, I rounded a corner at a brisk pace and saw an animated form in my path. For a second, I thought it was a mountain lion and my mind began going through various primeval and instinctual responses, all of which have been mutated through the human animal’s ability to travel on wheels faster than he or she can run.

The form came into focus and I realized it was a coyote … it looked at me with indifference and I kind of did the same.

The faces of progress should not be so cavalier, however. Which is to say: if Tom LaBonge’s reported dream of aerial trams, paid parking structures, and sundry developments comes to bear, he should ignore the coyotes trotting along Trash Truck Road at his own peril, for they could be the shape-shifting lupine manifestations of Dona Petranilla’s Curse. — Cole Coonce

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