by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It happens, as has been stated on this blog before, not infrequently: an artifact from the Homestead’s collection has an obvious, immediate value of some kind, but then, a little searching into an element of the object leads to a tangent of note. Tonight’s post is yet another example.
It is a photograph taken on this date 90 years ago and is a cute image of Santa Claus with a woman, her two-year old daughter (whose birthday was on that day) and two playmates of the toddler at a Shell gas station in Los Angeles. There is an elaborate backdrop of balloons and tall wooden figures of a toy soldier, a cat, and other elements.
Santa has his long white hair and beard and wears his standard red suit with white trim and black shiny boots and stands next to the mother, who has sports a fashionable cloche hat and what might be a fur coat with some kind of corsage on it. The birthday girl has on white clothing and a white hat and is held in her mother’s arms. Her friends have on warm winter coats and head gear, as well.
The image also is interesting as a reflection of the growing and diversifying forms of the commercialization of Christmas that were in motion for some time by the late 1920s. The idea of Santa appearing at a gas station, however, was probably a relatively new innovation and something that we just wouldn’t see today, unless he was there to fill up his car (in lieu of his reindeer and sleigh, of course.) Santa at the department store was quite common, but at a Shell station?
In any case, the unidentified mother wrote in pencil some information on the reverse, saying “This was Laurel’s 2nd birthday” and “This is Laurel’s two little playmates in front and I am holding Laurel with Santa.” But, there is also a stamp from the photographer, Frank A. Fernekes, with his Hollywood address and telephone number, and a neatly-penned inscription, reading, “Santa Claus at the Shell Oil & Gas Station at Wilshire Blvd. and Harvard St., Los Angeles, California, Taken Dec. 17, 1928.”
The corner of Wilshire and Harvard includes a large commercial building for the Bank of Hope; an older two-story commercial building with a distinctive steeply pitched roof and a generalized European feel to it; and two religious edifices. One is St. Basil’s Catholic Church, moved to the site from downtown in the 1920s and which has a 1969 structure, with landscaping from Emmet Wemple and Associates, the architects who designed the landscape for the Homestead’s restoration. The other is the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the origins of which go back to an 1873 temple in downtown, and which was completed in 1929 after the site was acquired eight years before. Apparently, the gas station was either where the bank or the two-story commercial building are on the southeast and southwest corners, respectively.
Having tried to identify the site of the station, the next step was to take a look at the photographer and, initially, there wasn’t a great deal to unearth. He was born Frank Adolf Fernekes in New York City in 1873 to German immigrants, whose home on Orchard Street was in the midst of a famed immigrant neighborhood where the Tenement Museum interprets many of those stories now.
Fernekes became a die sinker, someone who basically creates dies for use in silver and gold smithing and it was said that he worked for the well-known Tiffany firm. He married Nellie Fallon in 1893 and they had a son, Frank D. Fernekes, born five years later. The Fernekes later moved to New Jersey, residing briefly in West Hoboken and then in Newark for many years.
In 1918, Nellie Fernekes died and both her son and widow enlisted as the United States was embroiled in the First World War. Frank A. Fernekes, though nearly 40, was in an engineering corps when he joined up in July and was discharged as a sergeant at the end of May 1919. Frank D. Fernekes was a private in a medical corps stateside until October 1919 when he was mustered out.
The elder Fernekes returned to Newark and was there as late as 1923, though his whereabouts are not known for a few years. In late 1928, he resided with his elder sister Bertha and her husband in the Mount Olive Apartments near what is now the Barnsdall Art Park and the site is a parking lot for a Kaiser Permanente medical center. In the federal census in 1930, he was listed as being an “independent silverware designer,” following his craft of decades, but, obviously, dabbling in photography. In fact, there are other samples of his photographs posted online, though it doesn’t appear he did much of it professionally.
Fernekes remained in Los Angeles for another quarter-century after he took the Santa photo, living in the same East Hollywood area until the early 1950s. Because of his military service during World War One, he was eligible to live at the Soldiers’ Home in Westwood (formerly Sawtelle) and which was established in the late 19th century. Fernekes died at age 80 at the home in February 1953 and was buried at the veterans’ cemetery that remains at the site, though the home closed long ago.
Then, there is the tangential twist offered here as a bit of a bonus. The younger Frank Fernekes left home as a mid-teen, having worked as a shipping clerk for a time. When he registered for the draft in the first of two mass processes in June 1917, he claimed to be 22, but was actually four years younger. He was married with a young son and working for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey near Newark, when he entered the service.
After his discharge, the younger Fernekes went back to Standard Oil, at least according to the 1920 census, though he claimed in a Social Security application years later that his last employment was in 1918 before he joined the Army. For the next decade, he lived something of a wandering life, including work as a seaman (despite his later claims of permanent unemployment), and he also abandoned his wife and son (she remarried and her second husband legally adopted young Francis.)
Frank D. Fernekes, while still in New Jersey in the mid-1920s met a teenager named Helen (Ella) Baranowsky, who was born to Polish parents in New York. They apparently drifted through several Eastern and Midwestern cities as well as Los Angeles, with Frank becoming skilled at passing bad checks at hotels and at other locales, while also occasionally pursuing work on ship crews. He was convicted of forgery and served about seven months in jail in New Jersey and then, upon his release, headed to Los Angeles not long before his father took the photo. There, in spring 1930, the younger Fernekes forged about $100,000, a very large sum, of checks from an unnamed motion picture studio (of course, his father and aunt lived near many of them.)
The forger was in El Paso when he was captured once a warrant for his arrest was issued and news sent from Los Angeles. Claiming high blood pressure, he refused to be extradited back west by plane, which seemed to have been an innovation at the time. An LAPD detective booked passage by train and the two, with young Ella in tow, took the leisurely rail trip towards the City of Angels. Near Phoenix, however, as Fernekes was being transferred from one sleeping quarter to another, he managed to break free (with Ella accused of holding a door against the detective) and leapt through a window as the train rolled through the desert.
For weeks, Fernekes eluded capture and it was known that he sought medical treatment in Phoenix for hand and facial injuries. While rumor suggested he was heading to Los Angeles, where Ella was taken, tried and convicted for forgery for her role in the bad check scams, he was captured in New Orleans.
Ella was given three months in county jail and was released early for good behavior with five years’ probation. Fernekes, though, with a prior record and his escape, which garnered headlines across the nation, was handed a sentence of one to fourteen years at San Quentin. He and Ella were married at the county jail while both were incarcerated and served five years and was released in 1935. He and Ella reunited, moved to Newark, had a daughter, and evidently lived a quiet and uneventful life until his death in 1965. She survived him by over thirty-five years, married again after he died, and passed away in 2001 at age 89.
So, as today’s post vividly demonstrates, the stories associated with an artifact are not always obvious at first glance, but a little probing can take you off on unanticipated tangents leading to tales with strange twists and remarkable side trips.