It is easy to become another hyperbole-wielding booster for Southern California on those exquisite days in mid-winter when the temperature turns summer-like and balmy, the sky is crystalline, the views go on forever, and flower blossoms perfume the air. January 15th was such a day: It was paradise in a former citrus-growing corner of the San Gabriel Valley that is now another suburb of Los Angeles. Inside a beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival style house, below the towering San Gabriel Mountains, Connie Rothstein gave this documentary project an outstanding interview that opened up the past of Los Angeles and its satellite communities.
Topics covered a wide range: The discrimination she discovered still persisted against minority Native American, Mexican American, and Asian students in public schools when she came down from Seattle, Washington to teach elementary school in the early 1960s; the history of the oldest town in Southern California – San Gabriel; The Mission Play, one of the landmark cultural events that in the early to mid-20th Century gave Southern Californians a dazzling theatrical spectacle that portrayed a glorious and stirring (and mostly false and sanitized) pre-American saga of the conquest of California by Spaniards, the converting of Native Americans into Christianity by Franciscan friars and their establishment of 22 missions… The abundant opportunities for Jewish immigrant families in Los Angeles, but also the blatant and painful anti-Semitism and discrimination against them. Connie, a self described “lapsed Catholic shiksa” upon arriving in Los Angeles found the man of her dreams in Michael Rothstein, the handsome, dashing, athletic son of a Jewish family with long roots in Los Angeles. Michael’s grandmother Rebecca Rouse regaled Connie with countless stories about early Los Angeles life and times, about the businesses and charities that Los Angeles’ Jewish families created, about how Grandpa Rouse loved to work as an extra in Hollywood’s silent movie industry and bring home to dinner all sorts of friends still dressed in their costumes. Grandmother Rouse also vividly recalled the physical and social geography and boundaries of the expanding city that restricted Jews and other minorities to certain districts and regions.
A dedicated and talented educator for over 40 years in the San Gabriel School District, Connie brought California history to life for her classes by using antique items that students could touch, feel and examine closely: vintage postcards, photographs, stereoscope views, posters… things emanating the past that she collected for decades by combing swap meets, flea markets, and thrift stores. In the end, she amassed a huge collection of important historical material that includes over 500 stereographic views of 19th and early 20th century Los Angeles and its surrounding areas and towns; original paintings, etchings and drawings of Los Angeles area historical sites; and much more. Already, before our crew arrived to set up the lights and cameras for the interview, Connie had a truck cart off most of her collection to be housed in perpetuity in the most important repository of historical material in the American West: the world-renowned Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in nearby San Marino. The rest of her lovingly assembled collection was waiting in stacks and boxes to be given to other local historical organizations, like the San Gabriel Historical Society, and to various life-long friends who share her passion for history. Connie is leaving for New England after a long love affair with Southern California. We were fortunate to interview this energetic and busy lady before she made the journey back east to live with her daughter. A very positive-minded person, Connie is looking forward to all the history that awaits to immerse herself in in New England. And she promises to be back here to visit friends in winter months. After the interview session, we strolled through her amazing cactus garden under towering palm trees, and it was clear from the way she inhaled in the beauty of the exotic plants and the glorious weather that she was savoring every sweet moment left of her wonderful years here in Southern California.
Keep an eye out for video clips from Connie’s interview to be posted in coming weeks.