by Susie Hodgson
Imagine. You’re a hard-working, hard-playing, stock-trading, fast-talking gentleman of the day. Life has never been so exciting, but week after long week, you long for a bit of a respite. Luckily there is a very special mountain resort just 35 minutes from your office, not far from downtown Los Angeles, but another world away.
As the ads testified, it’s a “refuge from the fast-paced and hectic noise of the city." Spread out over 2,500 acres in the Verdugo Mountains which lined the east side of the San Fernando Valley sat The Sunset Canyon Country Club, featuring springs, waterfalls, sycamore trees all around and scenic views, including spectacular sunsets. There was a large clubhouse buried deep in the hills, plus nearly 100 cabins in those hills, an Olympic-sized pool, as well as tennis courts, horseback riding, hiking trails and a 9-hole golf course. Some say there was even a speakeasy. For this was the Roaring '20s, and the beautiful Sunset Canyon Country Club was located right here in Burbank. It looked like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and it was THE place to be!
The Country Club was a big success and in 1927 it had more than 2,400 members. In 1927 it also experienced a terrible fire. But since this was the Roaring '20s, there was plenty of money to throw around and so they built a second Country Club. (The first became a home.) They also moved it out of the depth of the mountains and settled down in the foothills, closer to “civilization.”
But the Country Club couldn’t survive after the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression hit. The City took over and, in 1931, tried to encourage people to golf there, but over four years’ time, the City only made a profit of $5! In addition, there had been vandalism and squatting, causing the City to split the land up, subdivide it and sell it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints bought the second country club and converted it into a church. Although renovated in the 1980s, that church still stands there today. Originally, the second country club cost the church $14,500. For another $2,000 they could have purchased the pool and tennis courts, but the church turned it down.
Someone else grabbed the pool as well as the first country club, now a house. They say he lived there and swam there every day. And it was someone you may have heard of. In 1904, an Austro-Hungarian baby boy was born. (That part of the world is now in Romania.) The baby was named Janos Weissmuller and he was a swimming prodigy. Renamed Johnny, he was one of the world’s fastest swimmers, winning 5 Olympic gold medals, plus 52 U.S. National Championships. Weissmuller also set more than 50 world records and was reportedly undefeated throughout his swimming career. With all those swimming feats came fame, which is when Hollywood came calling. And Johnny Weissmuller, swimmer extraordinaire, became doubly famous as film’s Tarzan. He is still considered the most famous Tarzan. Do you remember the iconic yell of Tarzan? You can thank Johnny Weissmuller for creating that sound.
Weissmuller married five times. The most famous one was his second wife, actress Lupe Velez, who had been branded “The Mexican Spitfire.” The couple physically and verbally fought throughout their torrid relationship. Divorced, she later died of a suicide that became legendary. People claimed she had dressed herself up beautifully, left two precise suicide notes and proceeded to ingest more than 70 pills. This caused the allegedly perfectly-coiffed Lupe to get very sick and drown in her own toilet. Many gossip columnists’ tongues wagged wildly claiming that she killed herself over Gary Cooper whose mother wouldn’t let him see Lupe. This legend has been told for decades, but it is not supposed to be completely true. The “truth” is that she got pregnant by someone who was not well known. She was not in love, was very unhappy and refused to terminate the pregnancy. She saw no way out and intentionally overdosed.
Another interesting tidbit about Tarzan is that the actress paired with Weissmuller to play Jane was Maureen O’Sullivan, who later married Hollywood exec John Farrow. They had 7 children, including Mia Farrow.
In his later days, Johnny Weissmuller worked as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace. He died at age 79, suffering from heart problems, strokes and, finally, a pulmonary edema.
So, have you ever been? To the old site of the Sunset Country Club and home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? It really is beautiful country and the perfect spot for a resort, once upon a time. Just take Olive Avenue up into the Verdugo Hills until it ends at Sunset Canyon and turn left to see the church. Imagine. Oh look – here comes Mr. Gatsby!
Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!
The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
OPEN SATURDAYS & SUNDAYS, 1 TO 4 pm - FREE Admission!
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site: www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org