Games People Play: A Press Photo of El Caballero Country Club, Tarzana, ca. 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A previous post on this blog discussed the origins of the Los Angeles community of Tarzana, located in the southern San Fernando Valley between Encino and Woodland Hills. It was noted there that the neighborhood was named by author Edgar Rice Burroughs after his famous fictional character Tarzan, the Ape Man, but that, prior to his 1919 acquisition of the 550 acres that was the origins of Tarzana, the property was the Mil Flores (A Thousand Flowers) ranch of Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, who’d owned the ranch for just a half-dozen years and died two years prior to Burroughs’ purchase from the Otis estate.

Although the area was rural when the author settled on his princely domain, the onset of the Roaring Twenties brought yet another in the series of booms that marked the spectacular growth of greater Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and it was just a few years later that Burroughs formed a namesake company to develop portions of his ranch. One of the early projects specifically concerned his homesite, which became El Caballero Country Club.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 3 June 1924.

Tonight’s historic object from the Homestead’s collection is a great press photo from Underwood and Underwood comprising an aerial view of the Burroughs estate before the country club was established. The photo, which has a date stamp of 3 January 1927, was probably taken at least a few years before when El Caballero was not yet established as, while the beautiful hilltop domain dominates the pastoral scene with lots of undeveloped land around it and southward into the Santa Monica Mountains, there is no sign of a golf course yet.

A pasted-down caption on the reverse of the photo noted that El Caballero was, on 7-9 January, the site of the second annual Los Angeles Open golf tournament, with $10,000 in prize money to be fought for by “the nation’s greatest golfing aces, numbering more than 300.” There were actually parallel tracks for the tourney, with the pros seeking the purse money, “while the amateur participants will be awarded specially designed silver trophies.”

Los Angeles Times, 28 September 1924.

The formation of the club dated to about March 1924 when former San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge and Internal Revenue Service Collector Reginald “Rex” Goodcell signed on to be the organization’s president. Goodcell, who resigned his federal sinecure to mount an unsuccessful run for California’s governor two years later, was new to the golf game, but was an enthusiastic equestrian, which is what drew him to the project.

The vice-president was Merritt Adamson, a graduate of the University of Southern California, from which he also earned a law degree, but whose interest in ranching led him to become superintendent of the Rancho Malibu, owned by the Rindge family. He married Rhoda, the youngest child of the ranch’s proprietors Frederick and May, and the couple went on to established Adohr (Rhoda spelled backwards) Farms on land just east of El Caballero and the dairy became a regional institution for many years.

Illustrated Daily News, 6 October 1924.

Burroughs, also known to be passionate about polo as well as a golfer, was elected secretary and the Times of 18 March reported that he “plans to spend the best part of the year in supervising the construction and development work on the property. Leslie W. Craig, assistant to the vice-president of Security Trust and Savings Bank, was elected treasurer, while lawyer G. Robert Dexter, secretary of the Hollywood Country Club, recently established southeast of where Ventura Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon Avenue meet in Studio City, was counsel.

These officers and four others comprised a Board of Governors, while an Advisory Board was to meet once a month with the governors on progress of the club and advisors included prominent oil and real estate developer Alphonzo Bell (Bel-Air) and who was also a key figure at the Bel-Air and Riviera country clubs and Hollywood developer Charles E. Toberman.

Times, 30 November 1924.

While the Mission Revival mansion was renovated into the clubhouse, the eighteen hole-course (it was originally slated to be twenty-seven holes) was designed by William P. Bell (no relation to Alphonzo) who was assisted by his partner George C. Thomas, Jr. Bell, whose work would include such local courses as Bel-Air, Brookside (Pasadena), Fullerton, Girard (Woodland Hills), and Rancho Park (Los Angeles), told the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News,

Cabaellero’s layout will attract the attention of golfers throughout the nation and southern Californians need not be afraid to invite crack players from anywhere to try these links.

The designer added that at least a trio of the shorter holes, the 17th, for example, was just 125 yards while the 8th was 142 and the 5th was 165, “are the last word in the game of golf trickery , and designed to rejuvenate the most jaded golfer.” He concluded that “this galaxy of California stars will find something to interest them when they try these three holes.”

Van Nuys News, 5 May 1925.

While the course was being constructed, the completed clubhouse was formally opened on the 4th of July weekend with the Times reporting that it “was the scene of many beautifully planned dinner parties” with Goodcell and Burroughs welcoming guests and other officers and directors hosting gatherings.

As the year continued on, press attention was drawn with such moves as bestowing President Calvin Coolidge with an honorary membership and the idea of a “golf bowl” was developed, with 40 acres added to the site for lodges on the hillsides overlooking the links “which lie in a hollow.” Goodcell, Burroughs, Craig, Dexter, Bell, and Toberman were said to have selected their 10,000 square foot sites, while Burroughs and Adamson “will build country residences on the hills surrounding the club grounds.”

Los Angeles Express, 3 September 1925.

While the club, as these were wont to be, was largely the province of wealthy, white men, there were events for women, including a post-Thanksgiving fashion show organized by the well-known fashion designer and editor of the Times’ photogravure Fashion pages, Peggy Hamilton. The paper’s edition of Sunday the 30th featured a full-page of models at El Caballero, of which the clubhouse and some equestrian elements were shown.

There were hopes, as there usually are, of a grand opening of the course much sooner than actually was realized, with a winter 1924 date pushed back nearly another year, but publicity continued with talk of increased memberships, regular social events, including on holidays, and reports of occasional film shoots on the grounds.

Illustrated Daily News, 6 January 1927.

The Van Nuys News of 5 May 1925, for example, reported that two pictures featuring Western cowboy star “Hoot” Gibson were partially shot at El Caballero, while the late Thomas Ince’s studio used the facility in the production of White Fang, the first film adaptation of the famed Jack London novel.

Not surprisingly, the building of country clubs often went in tandem with real estate development, whether by promoters of the facilities or by adjacent owners and developers. One such example was the Runnymede colony for raising poultry, field crops, berries and rabbits and other items and the promoters of which specifically touted the proximity of the enterprise to El Caballero in its advertising for its one-acre plots, tough the scheme proved, as so many of these were, largely impracticable and usually unprofitable (not to mention problems with stock fraud!)

Los Angeles Record, 7 January 1927.

The golf course finally opened on the weekend of 5-6 September 1925, with photos showing Dexter and Adamson in action teeing off on the new greens and eight of the club’s leaders, including Adamson, Craig and Dexter proudly posing in advance of the big day. The Los Angeles Express golf columnist D. Scott Chisholm wrote, on the 4th, that “one of the truly great courses of Southern California will be thrown open for play tomorrow morning” as some 200 entrants were registered for the inaugural invitational. He added that the tourney “gives promise of being one of the most delightful events of our summer season,” while those unable to make it would miss “a barrel of fun and a great golfing surprise,” this latter likely being those tricky trio of short holes.

As for the early January 1927 Los Angeles Open, which was sponsored by the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, a group of young business figures in their 20s and 30s who organized in 1924, there were 97 local and outside golfers who qualified in rounds played at such clubs as Los Angeles, Wilshire, Midwick, California, and Hillcrest, while nearly three dozen more were automatic qualifiers.

Times, 9 January 1927.

Among the favorites was defending Open champion Harry Cooper, but seven other of the top ten golfers in the nation were competing, with only the legendary duo of Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen skipping the tourney. The others included Macdonald Smith, Joe Turnesa, Johnny Farrell, Leo Diegel, Bill Mehlhorn, Al Watrous, and Bobby Cruickshank.

Eighteen holes were played on the first day with the same number on the next and then 36 holes to finish up on the third day of competition. After the first day, an amateur from the Annandale club in Pasadena was ahead in that division by one stroke after shooting a 72, while four pros, including Cruickshank, tallied scores of 70. The highest score of the day was an 89.

Record, 10 January 1927.

It was reported by the Illustrated Daily News that some 2,000 persons watched even as recent rains made the course “a little heavy” and the greens “rather slow during the morning.” With the afternoon and warmer temperatures, though, “better putting came in vogue.” In all, eight men shot par or under, though 28 more were at 75 or better and were in contention as the day came to an end.

On the second day, the Times’ Paul Lowry wrote that

today’s the day when the boys begin to crack, but you wouldn’t have guessed that the drums of jeopardy were sounding for some of them by the brilliant scores hung up on the second lap of the $10,000 open golf gallop at El Caballero yesterday.

Two golfers, Watrous and dark horse Johnny Jones, shot 69, while Cruickshank stayed in the hunt with a solid 71 and a few others were right in with the leaders with rounds of 70 or 71, including Watrous and Harry Cooper, and the quartet of Watrous (from Michigan) and Cruickshank (a Scotsman living in New York) along with Cooper and Charley Guest, both locals, were tied and headed the leader board going into the final day of competition.

Record, 10 January 1927.

On the last day, however, it was Criuckshank, who stood just 5’4″, but who was a solid 155 pounds and was known for his powerful drives, who emerged victorious by shooting a brilliant 67 in the last eighteen holes to finish with a score of 282 and picking up the first prize check of $3,500 (by contrast, the average PGA Tour player racked up just under $1.5 million during the 2021 season.) The top finisher among the amateurs was national champion George Von Elm, a native of of Utah but a resident of Los Angeles, who struggled with his tee shots, but performed well on the greens at came away with a tournament tally of 297.

Harry Grayson of the Los Angeles Record noted that Cruickshank wielded a 46-inch driver, which gave him “extraordinary length off the tee” while his strong sense of direction kept him in the hunt as he passed English native Cooper in that last eighteen holes. This, Grayson claimed, was such a stellar performance that “no golfer even turned in a better round in a major tournament than Cruickshank’s final.”

The columnist added that the well-liked winner, who practiced law after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, was wounded five times during the First World War and was a solid all-around athlete with good results in sprints and the high-jump, while also being a top-notch football (scocer) player. In 1923, he lost to renowned amateur Bobby Jones in a U.S. Open playoff, though still pocketed $100,000 while Jones, who was living on family money, of course received no payout.

With respect to El Caballero, it struggled and, in 1928, admitted the public to try and stay afloat. Financial reveres, however, continued, and Burroughs took a bath economically and the club was sold in 1930. A quarter century later, though, El Caballero was reborn and, unusually, it had no barriers with respect to gender, race or religion, with founder Bernie Shapiro only asking that a member “be of good moral chracter and charitably inclined” and the club continues in operation today.

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