Posted by: acooksca | 12/30/2009

Migrants and The Movies, growing up in The Valley

Joan (on the left) and sister Heather

 Joan Symonds meets me for coffee and I have the thought “I will never have that much positive energy when I am her age… in fact I don’t have it now!” She offers me a vibrant laugh and a hug before sweeping to the counter to order a latte. Joan exudes enthusiasm for life and appears ready to tackle any challenge.

Joan raised four children by herself, learned to rebuild car parts and construct furniture when she couldn’t afford to buy them and endured years of student boarders to pay the mortgage on her Berkeley home. Joan credits her unique childhood for the creative pragmatism that has guided her life.

The 1930’s was the era of the Great Depression. People moved west to the Golden State for the promise of work in the fields or the glittery life of Hollywood. For Joan growing up the child of motion picture people in the San Fernando Valley meant living both of ends of that social-economic scale.
Joan’s parents came to California in the 1920’s to live the bohemian life of the emerging Hollywood scene. Her father, Henry Roberts Symonds, was the son of the vise president of the First National Bank of Chicago. Her mother Helyn, from an upper middle class family also in Chicago, hopped a train with 2 other young women to seek fortune and fun in Hollywood. One friend, Francis, had a goal of marrying rich and she did.

Their nights in the 1920’s were spent at parties that stretched to dawn. During the evening a plot would be worked out for a movie and details roughly discussed. The party goers would spill out into the morning light and use that sketch to write and shoot a movie. It was very creative and spontaneous, alive with possibilities in the new medium of motion pictures.

The lovely Helyn appeared in silent films and Henry, a screen writer, worked with stars such as Charlie Chaplin. In 1927 the first Academy Awards gave several Oscars to the movie Street Angel, a film Henry wrote and Helyn typed the screen play for. Henry went on to write 65 movies. Joan still has her father’s membership card to the Screen Writers Guild, member number 13.

By the late 1920’s Jewish film makers from New York moved to Hollywood. They established the studio system, re-making the movie industry into a structured business. The free-wheeling spontaneity dried up about the same time the depression hit. Henry and Helyn decided to leave Beverly Hills for the country where they could afford to raise their three children and Henry could continue as an independent screen writer.

Foreclosures on homes during The Great Depression were so common that banks became swamped with properties. Houses were offered rent free to those who could just pay the taxes. It was this arrangement which brought the Symonds to Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley. They rented a large home with five acres of alfalfa on the edge of town. Henry contracted out the growing and harvesting of the alfalfa and that revenue paid the tax bill.

Joan arrived at Canoga Park in a dress that Shirley Temple had worn in a movie. Life in The Valley, however, was outdoors. Citrus and walnut grooves thrived in Canoga Park. Migrant workers and their families lived just down a dirt road, in trailers parked under a pepper tree. Theirs was a bustling compound with extended family and friends always coming and going. Folks would gather around someone’s trailer on the weekend and spend the day, inviting the little girl from the big house to hang out with them. Joan found their way of life exciting and lively.

“The migrant’s kitchen was an open fire outdoors. There were pots of beans and the smell of grease. It was the first time I had fried potatoes. I loved them but when I asked my mother for fried potatoes she said ‘oh… we don’t eat that food’. Our family ate avocado salads and beef tongue… even my schoolmates thought that we were strange.”

Joan’s childhood was rich with free time to explore, having few household chores. Before the Symonds left Beverly Hills for The Valley they had a governess for the children. Jane had a college degree but when the family made the move to rural life there were no jobs to be found. She stayed on without pay, working for room and board, acting as the maid and serving dinner in the manner that Henry had grown up with.

 “My Mother was a princess. She used cooking as her creative outlet because there was Jane to do all the kitchen clean-up” says Joan. Helyn did a lot of baking to have cakes to decorate. Joan also recalls brown bread baked in a 2 pound coffee can. I remember my own mother doing this recipe in the 1960’s.

Helyn cooked her version of depression-era food for her children. She often made elbow macaroni, stewed tomatoes and weenies. “My mother was adamant about combining the ingredients just before eating and not cooking the tomatoes. They were canned, stewed tomatoes. But she used to say ‘don’t put the tomatoes in until the last minute so they will have a fresh cooked taste.’ She would drain the cooked pasta then toss in the tomatoes letting the heat of the pasta warm them. The weenies would be boiled and set in whole. She wanted you to taste each flavor separately with no seasoning except salt on the pasta.”

In the 1930’s everyone was living from their gardens and selling what extra they grew. Many in Canoga Park had chickens and sold the extra eggs. In 1941, Henry moved the family to another home that came with a string of chicken coops. He crossbred chickens to develop better laying hens. “Dad built wooden nests. A chicken would go into a nest and the trap door would shut. I would come to collect the eggs and take them to a hatchery. The newly hatched chicks would be sold by the box full” recalls Joan.

Joan was unfettered as a child in the country, free to explore and at one point living for weeks in an old Army tent. But the Symonds were also a part of the movie culture. She recalls going to Christmas parties given for the children of motion picture people. The Motion Picture Relief Fund paid for an extravagant gift for every child, presented to them by stars such as Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy. The relief fund helped families survive during lean times. It had aided her parents in their move to The Valley. And, when she needed a fancy dress for a formal affair, the fund bought it for her.

As Joan walks into the coffee shop she radiates the essence of that young girl, carefree and self-confident. “My father never said no.” Henry addressed his children without raised voice or reprimand. Once when Joan used her thumb to guide the last bit of food onto a fork he gently said “use the thumb for hitch hiking. A small piece of bread works well as a food pusher.”

On another occasion, while eating soup at the dinner table, he instructed “when dining at The Biltmore, always draw your soup spoon away from you”. Many years later, Joan and a childhood friend stayed over night at Los Angeles’ posh Biltmore Hotel. While properly using their soup spoons, she sent a silent thanks to Henry.


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