For most people, the city in which they live eventually becomes a blur, as daily commutes and the basic grind of life take nearly all the joy out of their surroundings. But for Chris Nichols, the Los Angeles area is a never-ending source of wonderment and discovery, as magical a place to him as Oz was for Dorothy.
The colorful and eccentric associate editor of Los Angeles magazine has built a formidable reputation for fun throughout his 16 years at that publication. As the writer of its monthly “Ask Chris” column, he answers questions about the area’s most unique people, locations and moments in history.
He also specializes in creating offbeat bus tours, such as the Spookstour he’s hosted for the past eight years by packing a bus with dozens of friends and vans for an exploration of the most goofily frightening places the area has to offer. As he lights up the room at cultural events across the city, this spiritual heir to the legacy of Huell Howser is the kind of guy who inspires all around him to see their hometown in a whole new light.
That’s an experience this reporter had while spending a recent Saturday afternoon with Nichols, cruising through both downtown LA and his hometown Pasadena. Perhaps no other person in Los Angeles could dream up an afternoon that included exploring the secretive back corridors of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, dine at restaurants that seem stuck in a wonderful time warp, and literally making chickens cross the road in the space of four hours.
“I was born in West Covina and grew up throughout the east end of San Gabriel Valley, where time moved a lot slower than the rest of LA,” recalls Nichols. “We still had a lot of ’50s and ’60s stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. I could go to the same bowling alleys and coffee shops that my parents and grandparents went to, and I fell in love with those by going with them.”
Nichols, 46, is a former chairman of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation group that has managed to save hundreds of classic structures from demolition across the city over the past three decades. Using a combination of city council lobbying, owner and developer outreach and special events to draw public attention, the conservancy — of which his wife of 25 years, Charlene, is also a member — has racked up some notable successes.
He was particularly inspired by the book “Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture,” written by architectural historian Alan Hess. Nichols’ father gave him the book during high school, and the budding writer and ’50s aficionado found dozens of places he soon opted to explore.
“Hess used the name ‘Googie’ to describe a 1950s-era exuberant style of effervescent, lightweight, dynamic buildings that defy gravity,” explains Nichols. “The name came from a coffee shop on Sunset called Googie’s, built in 1949.
“There are Googie coffee shops, bowling alleys, medical buildings, churches and cemeteries, but mostly restaurants. The idea is to catch your eye and make you pull in and pay a visit. There’s lots of glass to see the activity inside, and eye-catching roofs. Hess described a place called Ships as ‘a place where George Jetson and Fred Flintstone could meet over a cup of coffee.’ How could I resist finding places like that?”
Indeed, Nichols’ enthusiasm is infectious, as he’s built a loyal and growing following that has made his Spooks Tour an instant annual sellout. This year’s edition, held in mid-October, took attendees to the massive Garner Holt animatronics plant in San Bernardino that creates the robotic figures for just about every major amusement park on the planet.
That stop featured an incredible sneak preview of the new talking Abe Lincoln figure that will appear in Disneyland with 45 facial expressions instead of the mere eight the robot has displayed for decades in the park’s Hall of Presidents. Other stops included a skeleton museum and display of embryonic deformities at Loma Linda University, the historic and quite possibly haunted Phillips Mansion in Pomona and the historic La Laguna de San Gabriel playground.
After reading Hess’ book, Nichols snuck onto the grounds of a Googie-style McDonalds that had just been demolished on Foothill Boulevard in Azusa. Something about the fact that the once-thriving business now being “abandoned and decrepit” appealed to him, an allure that was hard to qualify but which he attributes to being tied to his passion for the gloomy rock band The Cure. He soon joined a newly forming 1950s-focused preservation group at the conservancy, and the rest is history.
“We were real boots on the grounds advocates, and we were going all over LA County trying to save these places,” he recalls. “We got calls all over the county that someone had a hot tip that something was coming down in some far-flung community. We’d race out to see it, photograph it and document it and find a solution for it.
“We’re matchmakers, trying to hook up a needy building with someone that needs a building,” Nichols continues. “We find experts who can restore things, investors who can put money into stuff, historians who can write stories. I’m a good researcher, so I dig up arcane stories and photos, trying to reach out to as many people as I can to tell the story and get them excited about saving these places.”
Nichols is currently most passionate about saving the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, a beloved institution which has been entertaining children of all ages since 1963. Despite being designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 2009, it has been sold to a local developer and required Nichols’ attentive mediation to stay open despite still playing to packed houses.
On a recent Saturday afternoon tour through some of Nichols’ favorite spots in Los Angeles and the Pasadena area, he swung by the theater in the hopes of sharing his excitement for the space and its devoted staff. But before he could even find a parking space outside, the day’s first moment of magic occurred: Nichols nearly slammed into a stop sign, and when he paused to collect himself, he noticed three wild roosters wandering on the sidewalk before his vehicle.
“Get out of the car! Get out of the car and chase them!” Nichols shrieked with excitement, as this stunned reporter hopped out and ran toward the soon-confused birds. Within seconds, and egged on by his utterly manic enthusiasm, I found myself gleefully laughing as I brought one of the world’s oldest jokes to unexpected life.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” howled Nichols, snapping pictures of the frantic pursuit. “To escape the 250 pound guy chasing them!”
It was but one of many magical moments that afternoon, as Nichols soon traversed the route from downtown LA to Pasadena in randomly haphazard fashion, all the while pointing out cultural landmarks and quirky joints that he just happened to love.
Among them was an extensive backstage tour of the Baker complex during a packed show, a spin through Angeleno Heights to witness the house that became famous in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, a visit to the Old Mill in San Marino, and the fountain outside Pasadena’s Department of Water and Power building. But the last spot proved to be nearest and dearest to his heart: a mealtime respite at the Colonial Kitchen restaurant on Huntington Drive in San Marino.
Nichols enjoyed a stack of pancakes covered in bananas, a choice that nearly matched the bright yellow shirt he wore that day with his trademark suspenders. He suggested a children’s plate called Tiny Tiddlers to this reporter, a selection that provoked giggles from this enthusiast of eccentricity but also drew praise for its comfort-food combination of mac and cheese and fish sticks, all for the time-warp price of just $6.95.
“The Colonial Kitchen exists in its own weird little time warp, unaffected by the 21st century, and I am extremely grateful they’ve found an ecosystem to hang onto,” says Nichols. “It’s just an incredible little window into something that doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s just so soothing because of the comfort food, and the Muzak and the colors and the shapes of everything there.
“I love these restaurants so much, but the food is only a small part of it,” he concludes. “It’s character, neon, art, almost everything but the food, and that’s funny coming from a large person. Going into one is transformative. I haven’t been as moved by an art show in years as I was going to that.”