Friday, May 8, 2020

Not Your Average Joe: Joseph Blackstock, Billboards and a Passion for L.A. History

Joseph Blackstock, Ambassador for the Billboard
He was researcher and archivist for Foster and Kleiser,
later known as Patrick Media/Eller Media/Clear Channel
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

Joe and I never met.  He was always years ahead of me:  observing the surroundings of L.A. with a historical lens; archiving documents and photographs; and uncovering little known histories, say of, local business women like Mary See and Laura Scudder.  He was onto compiling the origins of the city street names at least 20 years before me.  Yet that is how we "met"...through our mutual interest in city street names.

The Soto Street Mystery 

You see in 1980 Joseph Blackstock wrote to the Historical Society of Southern California and explained that in his line of work he came across historical information on how certain streets got their names.  When the Society donated a major chunk of their collections to the Natural History Museum in 2018, I took notice of his four-page letter - an item out of the 6,000 plus items in the inventory.

A fragment shown of page one of the letter
Historical Society of Southern California Collection
Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research,
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Historical Society of Southern California Collection
Courtesy of the Seaver Center

While quarantined in my house, I recently came across a photocopy of the letter.  The most intriguing street name on Joe's list was Soto Street - named for Lozaro R. Soto.  While I researched this information upon initially seeing his letter, I got to work again, trying to substantiate this attribution, but once more I was stumped.  Hmmm...Joe did not appear to be sloppy in his street names work, so for now it remains a mystery.  In 2017 I had already blogged my own theory of how Soto Street got its name.

Alameda Street Versus Melrose Avenue 

I was now very curious, who was Joe??  Was he still living?  I learned he was no longer with us.  But from reading a human interest piece about Joe in a 1988 Los Angeles Times newspaper article, I got to know him.  Wow, he was into "street furniture," and he favored Alameda Street over Melrose!  My kind of guy.

(Click on image to enlarge)
Courtesy of ProQuest Los Angeles Times Historical Archives

One Person’s Trash Is Everyone’s Treasure 

I emailed his son, also named Joseph, and discovered the apple did not fall far from the tree.  Son Joe retired from the Inland Empire's Daily Bulletin after a 48-year run as a news journalist.  He continues to write a weekly history column for which he has chalked up over 750 stories in 21 years with most of the pieces centered geographically around western San Bernardino County.  His column has also been picked up by another paper, San Bernardino Sun.

Joe revealed to me how his father strove to preserve historical matter:  

My dad died in 1998. In the previous 15 or 20 years he was very active in donating historic documents to their appropriate places. Dad left work one day at Foster & Kleiser and noticed a bunch of boxes sitting in the trash. It turned out to be thousands of negatives and prints of F&K billboards of the past. What someone didn't realize that the billboards were in historic locations all over the area. Dad was shocked and grabbed all of them for safety. These were donated all over the area, the most going to the Los Angeles Public Library.

A well-known landscape photographer was a friend of Dad's and when he died, Dad got all of his photos. They also were distributed to their appropriate school or historical society. Thousands of LA area photos were saved because of his interest. And, of course, he would never think of taking a cent for them, even if they were offered.

I recall he told me some of the outfield ads used in the motion picture "The Natural" were taken from old-time billboard ads he provided the studio. 

Joe’s son dropped the next clue about his dad!

The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Database has 262 images from the Blackstock Negative Collection.  These are scenes of bygone cityscapes and outlying areas, including one photo of Wilshire Boulevard in 1920 with the focus on a roadside billboard for tires.  The rest of the images saved from the trash heap by Joe - and now in the care of the Central Library - were taken between 1930 and 1969.  Often they include Foster & Kleiser billboards in the camera's viewpoint of the latest automobiles; brandy, scotch and whisky; and more tires.  There is one night shot of the Wiltern Theatre, and there are aerials from the late 1960s including Disneyland.  Today these important photographs are often used and cited by historians and the public-at-large.  Are there more negatives yet to be processed by the Library?  

Wilshire Boulevard, 1920
Blackstock Negative Collection
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Joe, Jr. Gets the Exclusive

Joe’s son took up my offer to be a guest blogger.  Here is what he wrote about his father:

He was born in New York in 1921, the son of Scottish immigrants. His father -- Joseph, like Dad and myself -- was a veteran of WWI in the British Army. He also spent time working as a steward and other jobs on British cruise ships and other vessels. My grandfather crossed the Atlantic 132 times, including their 1919 immigration from Scotland to America.

They moved briefly to snowy Wyoming and arrived in Claremont about 1922, later moving to Compton and then Montebello. He graduated from Montebello High in 1938.

Dad really wanted to be a writer, I am sure of it. He studied it for a while at Pasadena Junior College. But he was hired in 1940 for a job as an office boy at Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising and never left. He was still working part-time doing research for the company (which had changed hands a couple of times) in 1998 when he passed away. It’s not often that anyone works for the same firm for 58 years.

But he never regretted how his life turned out -- he had a remarkable optimistic outlook on life. Never look back or worry about what might have been. I never saw him angry -- a little upset at times maybe -- and he never spoke negatively about anybody. He would have little signs at his desk reminding him of the need to do good and be better. I remember one of them was about never putting off things -- it said, “Do it Now.” As a boy I really didn’t appreciate what it meant -- but as an adult it found myself subscribing to the value of such advice.

Later on, as my brother and I came along, he would do things on the weekend that the whole family thought of as fun. Mom and my brother and I each had our own clipboards. We would log survey information down the length of a street, detailing locations of billboards, gas stations, markets and such -- all details which he would compile for salesmen. Fortunately, most of these streets headed south, so we often spent at least one day each weekend at the beach or a nearby park.

On our weekend trips we might also go to Point Fermin or Watts Towers or Mount Wilson or White Point. I never realized that most families never even knew of these places. He made it fun learning about things -- to recognize street names like Figueroa or Sepulveda or Rowland and know who they were, or to understand about Drum Barracks or the Queen Anne Cottage at the Arboretum. The past can always be fun and interesting if it isn’t just names and dates crammed down your throat like it is in some classrooms.

My dad couldn’t do math to save his life. When I was in 6th grade, he would bring population figures to me one or twice a year and I would calculate percentage changes for him. I didn’t realize how odd this was for somebody my age until years later. I have always loved maps, so he would bring maps home with addresses and I would plot them on large maps which would be photographed and used in sales presentations. At a time before Xerox machines, he would occasionally ask me to copy information from a publication for his history files, work that encouraged my interest in the past. Honestly, it was a big deal for me to be asked to help him in his work.

Dad seemed to have an interest in women of the past -- Mary See of See’s Candies or Laura Scudder or Aimee Semple McPherson. He would read about them and recognized their uniqueness in a world dominated by men. He wrote what I believe is the only real biography of Laura Scudder and her first potato chip business in Monterey Park. It’s rubbed off on me as well -- I am always looking for a column subject about women, mostly because it is just so hard finding out about them.

Because of his interest in the past, thousands of old photos of Los Angeles are today available in various collections. He rescued discarded boxes of old Foster & Kleiser photos taken of LA street scenes -- most of which today are in the Los Angeles Public Library. Other collections he acquired went to the appropriate locations for future benefit. While living in Alhambra, he became president of the Monterey Park Historical Society.

He was an outstanding public speaker and often traveled across the country to make key speeches about outdoor advertising to major advertisers. When there was a big convention, the billboard industry called Dad and had him give an always-interesting sales talk about outdoor advertising. When he stopped working full-time in 1993, he was inducted into the Outdoor Advertising National Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, I worked for newspapers in Monterey Park, East LA, West Covina, Pasadena, Riverside and Ontario, doing probably just what he had initially planned to do with his life. I spent 48 years as a reporter and editor before retiring not long ago.

Spurred on by Dad’s writings and interest, I began writing a local history column for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario in October 1998. It started twice a month, moved to weekly, and today -- more than 21 years later -- I am still writing it, though back to twice-monthly. The column now also appears in the Sun in San Bernardino.

Ironically, my first column appeared only 4 or 5 weeks before Dad’s sudden death. But I really do think there’s a little bit of Dad in each of the more than 750 local history pieces that I have written. It’s all about the desire he felt to tell Southern Californians about the many fascinating people, places and events that explain how and why we do things today.

It’s directed to all those people who never had a Dad who would take them to all the cool places in Southern California. 

-- Joe Blackstock Jr. 

Joe, Jr.'s favorite photo of his dad in front of F&K logo
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

Joe’s Journal

Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

Pictured above is Joe on New Year's day of 1946 while he and his wife, Doris, waited for the Rose Parade.  Joe, Jr. says his dad was a big reader, especially newspapers.  "He'd read the Times in the morning and then buy the Herald-Express on his way home from work.

In 1958, columnist Gene Sherman appreciated Joe's writing skills.

(Click on image to enlarge)
Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1958
Courtesy of ProQuest Los Angeles Times Historical Archives

Joe Remembers Laura Scudder 

From 1996 to 1997 I lasted about seven months at the public library in Monterey Park. During my time there I picked up on the fact that a celebrated local resident, Laura Scudder, successful operated a potato chip factory in the vicinity. Years later I included Laura in a 2011 blog post on historic food products.

Once again, Joe was there in Monterey Park, more than 20 years ahead of me.  His involvement with the local historical society and his passion for stories on contributions by women led to the 1974 publication of a volume on Laura Scudder, released the summer I graduated from high school.

Cover to Report on Laura Scudder
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

There is a strong chance that Joe was the brainchild behind a sidewalk plaque near Laura's former potato chip operation at Atlantic and Garvey Boulevards.  But during my visit to the same spot a couple of years ago, the plaque was gone.

Courtesy of Blogger

More Photos of Joe

L to R:  Unidentified man, Doris, Joe, and Joe, Jr., ca. 1970 in Los Angeles
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

Joe, Jr. and his Dad
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

Joe and Joe, ca. 1985 or 1990
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

At the office, ca. 1990s
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

Joe conducting a sales presentation. 
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.

He also gave tours of the F& K plant and was a popular speaker about outdoor advertising, Los Angeles, and local history.  Joe, said his son, not only told the story of the value of billboards, but also their value given the unique circumstances in Los Angeles with the automobile the main source of travel.

Joe in front of a paint board at F&K
Courtesy of Joe Blackstock, Jr.
According to Joe, Jr., skilled muralists would paint the large boards at the plant, and then they would be installed throughout the area.  Since then, painting of boards has long been abandoned for printing on sheets of plastic.

Aerial photo of the Foster and Kleiser plant, 1967
at 1550 W.  Washington Blvd. now demolished
Blackstock Negative Collection
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


The Natural History Museum updated their California History Hall in the 1980s.  The Hall has since been closed.  Several years ago in the exhibit work files I discovered a miniature Foster and Kleiser billboard.

Since I have come to know the ad man Joseph Blackstock, I would like to think that this historian had a hand in providing the mini-bill - as a salesman's model.  Once again I trailed behind Joe by about 20 years.