“One of the Most Famous Private Pleasure Places in Southern California”: The Homestead and the Elks Fraternal Order, 1920-1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today, I conducted a tour of the Homestead for a group of San Gabriel Valley officials of the Elks fraternal order, officially known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE), which was visited by the California-Hawaii Elks Association President Brad Smith and other officers from elsewhere in the Golden State.

One of the direct tied the history of the site has to the order is that Walter P. Temple was a member of Alhambra Lodge 1328, established in 1915 (the first local lodge, #99, was launched in Los Angeles during the boom year of 1888) and, after he realized a fortune following the discovery of oil, made by his young son Thomas, on his ranch near Montebello, he became quite a patron of the Elks. Between 1920-1922, he hosted events at the Homestead for the Alhambra lodge and Elks throughout greater Los Angeles and up to 2,000 people attended some of these gatherings, as well as inaugurated a prize for regional lodges.

Pasadena Post, 9 July 1920.

The 9 July 1920 edition of the Pasadena Post reported that, on the last day of the month, that the Elks’ Field Day for the Alhambra lodge and that “the finest place that could possibly be secured has been given to the committee in charge through the generosity of Walter P. Temple, who has donated the use of the old Workman ranch near El Monte, now owned by him.” Moreover, the account continued,

There is a pool as large as the pool at Brookside park [in Pasadena] already located on the ranch, and other features, such as a tennis court, handball court, and roasting pits for the old-fashioned barbecue.

In fact, though Temple purchased the 75-acre Homestead (to which another 17 acres were soon added) in late 1917, a lease with a Japanese farmer known only as “K. Yatsuda” was in effect until the end of the following year, so work was undertaken on many areas of the ranch, including with the desecrated and largely destroyed El Campo Santo Cemetery; the remodeling and modernizing of the Workman House; the renovation of the 1860s brick wineries into an auditorium, dining hall and garage; the building of the reservoir, for irrigating walnut trees and other crops, but also used for swimming, and which had dressing rooms and a grandstand; and the erecting of the adjacent basketball, tennis and handball court.

Los Angeles Times, 1 August 1921.

It appears that, by the time the Elks event was held, with about 1,000 people attending, most of these endeavors were recently completed and this might have been one of the earliest large-scale gatherings conducted at the Homestead by the Temples. On 31 July 1921, the second Elks barbecue was held, but, this time, it was in conjunction with another significant event, this being the dedication ceremony that morning of a plaque commissioned by Temple to mark the original location (well, roughly) of the Mission San Gabriel, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary, including a pageant featuring Temple family members.

In advance of the Homestead happening, the 28 July edition of the Post observed that “more than 2000 Elks are expected to take part” and that “in a building that has been specially built for the occasion,” though we’re not sure what this structure was, “a large class is to be initiated” into the order. Mentioned were sports and games, with prizes to be issued, as well as for fun at what was said to be “the largest private swimming pool in Southern California.”

Post, 29 August 1921.

In its brief summary, the Los Angeles Times of 1 August noted that the barbecue began at 4:30 p.m. with swimming and that, an hour-and-a-half later, “the guests were seated at a genuine Spanish barbecue prepared under the eyes of Chef Joe Romero,” who was renowned for his feasts that sometimes served tens of thousands of people over many years in greater Los Angeles, with Romero crowned as “The Barbecue King.”

Beyond this there were fireworks and music from a thirty-piece band from Alhambra. At 8 p.m., the initiation ceremony was conducted and was “followed by a vaudeville program in the private theater of Mr. Temple,” this being the auditorium created in one of the former winery buildings (more recently used as slaughterhouses and canning by owners in the Teens.) The piece ended by noting that “the money derived from this barbecue will be used by the Alhambra Elks for charitable purposes.”

Post, 31 January 1922.

Just a month later, the Alhambra Elks were back at the Homestead for “another grand picnic” and the Post of 26 August stated,

Mr. Temple has been host to many such gatherings of Elks on his big, fine ranch, and the place has become known as a favorite retreat for lodgemen and their wives. It is one of the most historic and famous ranches in Southern California, having been the center of activities in the early pioneer days of the Golden State.

A summary of the event in the same paper a few days later reported that 1,000 Elks and members of their families enjoyed the festivities at the Temples’ “delightful ranch home . . . this being another of the many enjoyable occasions given by these wonderful entertainers at their pretty country place—the old Workman ranch.”

Times, 18 March 1923.

The account continued that “the visitors were entertained at dinner and likewise were given the keys to all doors and gates upon the big estate for use throughout the afternoon and evening, the guests having access to the great private swimming pool, billiard room [in the auditorium] and other delightful places.” The event was said to be “the most delightful ever given” by Walter and his wife Laura “being elaborate to a charming degree” including games and contests. As mentioned previously, the Temples were praised for possessing “one of the most famous private pleasure places in Southern California” and which, due to “sparing neither time nor money,” so much work was done to bring it to that standard.

In early 1922, the Alhambra lodge held the “past exalted ruler’s night” at its quarters (that being the title for the head of the lodge) and John Steven McGroarty, author of the famous Mission Play as well as an Elk, was the featured speaker. The Post reported, moreover, that “an additional feature of the evening will be the presentation by Walter P. Temple of the Workman Homestead trophy,” which was to be granted to the winner of the ritualistic competition of regional lodges and which then went on to compete for the state Benjamin trophy.

Post, 3 September 1923.

Because the Temple family traveled to México for an extensive vacation that summer, a third Elks event was not held, but the Alhambra lodge was give permission to use the Temple Theatre, completed in that city by Walter in late 1921, for the mounting of a fundraiser three-act musical farce called “Purple Flashes,” conducted under the direction of a well-known show director and which was previously performed by lodges at Anaheim, Long Beach, Redondo Beach, Santa Ana and others in the state.

Among the main cast of nine performers was Elmer Potter, who went on to be the manager of the Temple Estate Company, which controlled all of Walter’s properties outside of the Temple City project. The show was apparently successful enough that another lodge show was held at the venue in September 1923 and included the “Alhambra Elks Trio” of singers accompanied by a pianist, along with New York dancers Dave and Nat King and other elements including the Adolph Zukor production (the Temple Theatre was a Paramount Pictures-affiliated venue) “Dark Secrets” starring Dorothy Dalton and directed by Victor Fleming.

Post, 5 September 1923.

Another important connection between Walter P. Temple and the Alhambra Elks lodge came in March 1923 when the organization, which met in rented space in a downtown commercial building, purchased, for $12,000, from him a lot across the street from the Temple family house, recently vacated by them following Laura Temple’s death at the end of 1922 as the Homestead became their full-time residence (the Alhambra structure became the rectory for the Methodist church that is still at the site) at Main and Almansor streets. The lease the Elks had continued for two more years and it was another three years after that before plans were finally announced for a three-story building, to cost about $100,000.

The plan was to have the Spanish Colonial Revival structure, on a lot of 130′ x 160′, contain a first floor leased out for commercial purposes, while the second level was to be “devoted to elaborate clubrooms” and the top floor “entirely devoted to the lodge rooms.” In March 1929, a groundbreaking ceremony was held by the Elks’ Holding Company, which appears to have been formed specifically for the construction process. Enough of the money were raised in a recent fundraising campaign that approval to proceed was granted by the exalted ruler.

Times, 18 November 1928.

In September, the Elks held a cornerstone laying ceremony at the new temple site and hundreds of visitors watched as the order, led by the American Legion drum and bugle corps and the Elks’ drill team, marched from their current quarters to the location, where speeches were made by Elks officials. By the end of 1929, the elaborate building was completed, just as the Great Depression was bursting forth. The lodge continued to occupy the structure until 1938, when it was decided to move to a new site in San Gabriel, where the lodge remains, and the Y.M.C.A. took possession of the Main and Almansor edifice, which survives today.

In one of those curious coincidences that are often found with these blog posts, last night’s entry on the Los Angeles Herald of 10 February 1875 briefly referred to a performance at the Merced Theatre by Charles Vivian’s Pacific Comedy Combination, while an earlier post also featured his performance at that venue in August 1874. Vivian, who was born in England in 1842 and came to the United States and made his debut in New York in fall 1867, quickly becoming a noted comedic singer and actor.

Times, 11 September 1929.

Just after he made his mark in the Big Apple, Vivian was a leading figure in the establishment of the “Jolly Corks,” an informal group of actors who met in restaurants and bars in the city’s theater district and which, not at all surprisingly, were focused on imbibing as a key element of their gatherings. After a member died, however, leaving a family in need of financial assistance, it was decided to formally organize. Because Vivian was a member of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a fraternal society formed in 1822 by stage hands and theater technicians in England, he suggested the “Buffaloes” name, but “Elks” was decided upon in a close vote.

Notably, Vivian did not maintain his involvement in the organization for very long because, after a failed marriage and further performances in other parts of the country, he migrated west and landed in San Francisco. He formed his own company and was very well received throughout the part of the country, such as Los Angeles, that were just getting the opportunity to have well-known troupes and individuals touring through these regions.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 May 1876.

One of his star performers was Jennie Reiffarth, whose maiden name was Rothschild. Born in New York City in 1848 to German emigrants, she made her theatrical debut at age 16 at that city’s German Stock Theatre. Her early years are murky, but she was soon married to German-born operatic singer Otto Reiffarth, who was listed in New York City directories in 1867 and 1868 as an actor and the couple’s children, daughter Otillie and son Oscar, were born there.

In 1869, however, the family migrated out to San Francisco, evidently to pursue opportunities for Otto and Jennie. Yet, while he was advertised as performing operatic pieces in Sacramento the following year, Otto found more a more stable financial footing as a saloon owner. Jennie, however, longed to return to the stage and did so, joining Vivian’s company as early as the start of 1874. As she found success touring with Vivian, however, she neglected her family, at least this was the explanation given by Otto as he pursued a divorce in spring 1876.

Bismarck [North Dakota] Tribune, 11 July 1877.

The Los Angeles Herald of 17 May 1876, the day of William Workman’s suicide in the aftermath of the failure of his Temple and Workman bank, ran a lengthy article on “Another Gay Lothario” concerning the purported desertion of Jennie Reiffarth, her continuous travels with Vivian, and her unwillingness to provide financially for her children, then 10 and 8 years old. Moreover, it was reported that Vivian, whose real surname was said to be Richardson, was, while running a music hall in Southampton, the port city southwest of London, married and then abandoned his wife to go to America. In short order, both Vivian’s British wife (recall above that he was married in 1868 not long after coming to the United States) and Otto Reiffarth obtained divorces.

Yet, Jennie Reiffarth almost immediately separated from Vivian and embarked on a long career as a singer and, after losing her voice in that capacity, as a comedic actress specializing in “old woman” characters. She continued to tread the boards, domestically and overseas, until 1913, when the 65 year old was in her dressing room minutes from the opening of a new play when she had a stroke and died. An obituary in the New York Times stated that she was in San Francisco for almost two decades, but focused on her later years, though it did note that “her husband, who was a comedian, died several years ago” and also mentioned her son and daughter, the latter married to a manager of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Chicago Tribune, 26 March 1880.

Vivian, shortly after the Reiffarth kerfuffle, then took up with a new young performer, Imogene Holbrook. She was born in New Hampshire in 1846 to a lawyer and housewife and, after her father died, she and surviving sister Ellen (Nellie), lived with their mother and stepfather, the latter a Congregationalist minister in Vermont. Imogene and Nellie showed their proclivities for acting at an early age and it is not clear how they wound up in California, though it may have been after their mother’s death and the minister’s new marriage (he was wed five times.)

New York Times, 16 February 1913.

In any case, the Holbrook sisters ended up in Oakland, where Imogene made her debut at Ward’s Opera House early in 1876. Whether it was because of the rift with Reiffarth or because Vivian saw Holbrook and took a liking to her talent and appearance, Imogene became part of the Vivian troupe and the couple tied the know at Nellie’s house in Oakland in July 1876. For the next few years, the pair appeared in performances throughout the west, with both being well-received for their work, though there was a report that, while in Salt Lake City in summer 1877, Vivian physically abused Holbrook.

Brooklyn Times-Union, 27 August 1931.

In 1879, Vivian decided to open an opera house in the mining boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, southwest of Denver, but his efforts failed to secure a solid financial situation. His health failing, the singer and actor, past his prime, but still only in his late thirties, died on 20 March 1880. He was buried with a simple wood marker in the Leadville cemetery, but the Elks reinterred him in Boston with a metal plaque acknowledging his role as a founder of the organization. While it was reported that Imogene was going to return to California, she was enumerated in the federal census in early June at the house of a stepsister at Rutland, Vermont. Soon, she engaged in dramatic readings and returned to the stage, including with her sister Nellie. Her last located public performance was a recitation in San Francisco in 1889, though she lived for over 40 more years. Nellie, meanwhile, under her married name of Blinn, became a well-known orator for the Republican Party and a suffragette of influence in California. In August 1931, she died at an Elks home in New Jersey and was remembered, not for her acting career, but as the widow of the fraternal order’s founder.

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