Charles Phoenix’s Slide of the Week: Modern Shopping Center, Ventura, CA , 1961

A cool watercolor sky highlights a picture perfect space age suburban shopping center. The spirited sea breeze has blue and yellow plastic pennants swagging and snapping in the wind and a Blue Chip Stamp banner clinging for life on a two-headed lamppost. Red clay brick glows with warmth beside sunshine yellow and snow-white stucco. Flat facades labeled with store names spelled out in fun fonts hover over impressive floor to ceiling plate glass doors and deep-dish display windows. Abandoned shopping carts share the spacious parking lot where colorful, chrome tipped cars parked are on the bias. There is one foreign car in the lot, a British roadster. It doesn’t take up much room. A raised bed of tropical plantings, up front, looks like a feeding trough for vegetarian dinosaurs.

The pure form-follows-function post-and-beam style of this safe harbor of smart shops is as utopian as it is utilitarian. If this isn’t classic mid-century modern I don’t know what is. It looks like countless other neighborhood shopping centers built in the 50s.

Newberry’s was among the most successful five and dime store chains of the twentieth Century. Mr. J.J. Newberry opened his first namesake store in Pennsylvania in 1911. By the late 90s the chain had evaporated. Hundreds of American towns had a Newberry’s store for decades. My hometown, Ontario, California, did. I remember eating grilled cheese sandwiches served with tangy wavy cut pickle chips at the counter there and buying goldfish that always died too soon.

Slides of shopping centers are rare. This one came to me from a fellow slide collector. Immediately I knew it would be this week’s slide. It was marked Los Angeles, 1961. But I wanted to know exactly where in LA. Soon I found out its wasn’t LA at all.

Yesterday I was in Ventura, hanging out with a friend who happens to be the city’s leading architectural historian. Proud of this rare shopping center slide I showed it to him telling him it was taken in LA but I didn’t know exactly where. He said it looked to him just like the Newberry’s that was in Ventura. Doubtful, I thought since many of them looked similar. But he persisted until he had a vintage postcard in his hand of this shopping center with this exact Newberry’s, Ardens, and Gallen Kamp Shoes proving that this was indeed taken in Ventura, CA.

Next thing you know we were standing right there at the same shopping center nearly fifty years later. Only the parking lot looked the same. The stores and their facades were several generations removed. I stood right in front of the store that now occupies Newberry’s and for the life of me I can’t , one day later, remember what it was now. That either means I’m forgetful or it just wasn’t that memorable. I do, however, remember Newberry’s very well.

Here’s to space age shopping centers, Newberry’s, Ventura and YOU!

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Fri & Sat – Feb 6 & 7, 2009 – 8:30pm
A Colorful Tribute the Worlds Greatest Puppeteer!

  • Featuring a special performance of “Something to Crow About,” Bob Baker’s classic 1957 barnyard-themed musical starring dozens of vintage marionettes
  • Your host for the evening, Charles Phoenix, tells the story of Bob’s life and career with slides and film clips
  • The final act – a very special performance by the master himself
    followed by birthday cake and ice cream in the festive party room.

Bob Baker Marionette Theater, downtown Los Angeles
Tix and info here