The odd origins of 7 city names in Los Angeles County

A lot of place names for cities and streets are pretty straightforward. They come from famous people, frequently those involved with its founding: Burbank, Lankershim, Van Nuys; or from physical features: La Mirada, La Puente, Eagle Rock. But some place names have slightly weirder origins. Here are a few from my home county of Los Angeles.

  1. Agoura Hills: This somewhat rustic and suburban enclave is located on the extreme western edge of the county, a bit beyond the West Valley made famous as the birthplace of the Valley Girl archetype. Originally, most of it belonged to a sheep ranch owned in the 19th century by a man named Pierre Agoure. By the 20th century, the place was called “Picture City,” because Paramount studios owned their own ranch out there and various film companies used it for filming. When the residents needed to establish a post office, they had to come up with a name, and they voted in 1927. In a very pre-internet version of Boaty McBoatface, the winner decided to name it after that sheep rancher, but whether the person who made the nomination goofed up or the government worker who tallied the entries is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, Pierre Agoure became the namesake of Agoura, later Agoura Hills.
  2. Azusa: This is a neighborhood out beyond Pasadena. Marketers would love to have you think that this town was named because it has “Everything from A to Z in the USA,” but that’s just a bunch of bunk. In reality, like many place names in California, this one was stolen from the natives, in this case the Tongva, who called the area Asuksagna, their word for “skunk place.” As someone who’s driven on the freeway through the area multiple times on evenings when, as we like to put it, “a skunk went off in the hills,” it’s a rather apt description. You can smell those cute but dank little buggers for miles, whether your windows are up or down. Other place names Tongva have given us are Canoga Park and Tujunga.
  1. Echo Park: Located not too far from downtown, you’ve probably seen this lake and its fountains in many a film and music video. This is one of those place name origins that will sound like a total urban legend until you get to the explanation. When this artificial lake was built in 1892, Superintendent of City Parks Joseph Henry Tomlinson picked the name Echo Park because, well, that’s what he heard when people shouted at the construction site — but those echoes went away as soon as the project was finished. It sounds weird until you realize that, in order to create an artificial lake, human engineers had to create a gigantic concrete quarry first, so while that thing was set up and empty, of course it was echo city. But as soon as it was filled with water, ta-da: Echoes no more. Doesn’t seem so weird now, does it?
  1. Los Feliz: Directly south of Griffith Park and probably most famous because Hipsters was shot in the Dresden Room right in the middle of town, Los Feliz is one of those interesting places in L.A. that not only seems to be named wrong, but which everyone pronounces wrong. On its face, “los” is a plural article but “feliz” is a singular noun. It’s a Spanish thing, but the expression should be either el or la feliz, for “the happy one” (feliz doesn’t change regarding the gender) or los or las felices, for “the happy ones.” On top of that, people in L.A. tend to pronounce it as “Las FEELis,” rather than the correct way, “Los FayLEASE.” (If you know the song “Feliz Navidad,” then you know how the word is supposed to be pronounced.) Now here’s where it gets more interesting. “Los Feliz” is actually correct, but for only one reason. It doesn’t refer to a happy person or persons. Rather, it refers to an entire family with the surname Feliz, founded by a Spanish explorer named José Feliz. They owned land in the area for years, had a very colorful history, and, in this case, Los Feliz correctly refers to the Feliz family. Unlike English, where you might refer to “The Smiths” to mean an entire Family, Spanish only changes the article, so “Los Feliz” really means “the Feliz family.”
  1. Sylmar: This is way up on the north central part of the San Fernando Valley, and a place that is more known by name than by anyone actually ever going there. This one is short and sweet. The name was created by cobbling together the Latin words for forest and sea: sylvia and mar. (Sylvia is also part of the name of the state of Pennsylvania — Penn’s forest.) At the time it was named, the place had a lot of olive trees and was the location of Olive View Hospital, which was destroyed in an event that will be forever associated with the city, the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971.
  1. Tarzana: Mostly known as that bedroom community stuck up in the hills that tries to keep Woodland Hills and Reseda from banging into each other, Tarzana has a simple etymology that looks like it’s made up, but it’s not. It’s where Edgar Rice Burroughs eventually retired to. Ol’ Edgar was most famous for creating the character called Tarzan. The place needed a name, he was a famous resident. Ta-da: Tarzana.
  1. Venice: While it’s not a huge leap to realize that Venice, California, was named after Venice, Italy, if you only know this hippie/hipster hangout stuck between Santa Monica and LAX for its boardwalk and colorful people and street vendors, it’s easy to forget that it was originally absolutely intended to recreate the original Venice, right down to the canals — which are still there, although you do have to travel a bit inland to find them. Its founder, Abbot Kinney, was a polyglot who spoke six languages, and eventually made his fortune from tobacco. Originally called Venice of America, it opened in 1905, and was an immediate success. Kinney died of lung cancer as karma took its revenge in 1920. Nearly a century later, Venice is still a success as one of the more recognizable and unique parts of L.A., and well worth the visit for tourists and locals alike.

What are some interesting place names with weird origins where you live? Share in the comments!

Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

After a month off for the holidays, it’s nice to be back on the improv stage again, and in tonight’s match I was captain of the blue team and we won, 25 to 20.

If that terminology for improv seems strange, let me give a brief explanation. I do improv for ComedySportz — the Rec League, the starter rung, as it were, of their performance groups. They also have the Sunday Team and the Main Company. It’s an international franchise, founded in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1984. The L.A. company opened in 1987 and it’s the longest-running comedy show in town.

If you don’t know what the term “improv” means, then you might recognize it from shows like “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It’s basically comedy that is made up on the spot by the performers with a lot of possible games, which generally divide into two broad categories: Scene games, in which the players are performing a scene about characters with specific relationships in a particular setting with the goal of finding a conflict and a resolution; and non-scene games, in which the goals revolve around things like wordplay, puns or rhymes.

There’s also short-form and long-form improv, the latter known as a “Harold,” but what I do is strictly short-form. The ComedySportz twist is that each match, which consists of a number of games, is performed by two competing teams, Blue stage right and Red stage left, moderated by a referee and with an announcer keeping score. Matches usually have two halves, which open and close with a head-to-head or team vs. team game, then alternating single-team games. Sometimes, there will also be another head-to-head game in the middle of a half. This is all in keeping with the sports (or sportz) analogy — and if you’re wondering why it’s “sportz,” that goes back to the mothership in Milwaukee, a city with a strong Polish-American heritage, and a lot of Polish words either end with or have a Z in them.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point is a note that I got about a non-scene game that we played to open the second half of the match. This is a rhyming and singing game in which we line up alternating red and blue team members, then sing a particular song using a suggested name from the audience. The first person gets to just use the name. The second person has to use a rhyming word. The third person has to come up with three rhymes that haven’t been used yet. So, for example, if the name is “Jon,” the first person uses “Jon,” the second might use “gone,” and the third could use “con,” “non,” and “pawn.” The pattern repeats, so that every third person has to come up with three rhymes.

Needless to say, the more times around it goes, the harder it gets for that person in the three-rhyme spot to hang on, and people are eliminated if they hesitate, break the rhythm, or repeat a rhyme. Homophones are okay, though, so if the original name were Jim, for example, the words gym and gem would be acceptable, provided that the differences were clear in context: “He goes to the gym,” and “his ring has a gem,” for example.

And when I first started learning improv, although I loved to watch this game, the idea of doing it scared the holy crap out of me. And, in fact, every single time I tried to play it in class or when I first joined the Rec League, I would be (clap clap) “out of there” during the first or second pass because I’d either repeat or totally freeze up.

But the entire reason I’d started taking improv classes in the first place was because I loved the art form but it scared the hell out of me to actually do it. And the more classes I took the more I realized that I liked it, so a big note I gave myself when I actually started performing for people was this: Play the games that scare you silly.

This was one of them, and by forcing myself to keep playing it, I’ve managed to go from “person who gets thrown out on the first or second pass” to “guy who keeps winning it.” That’s not an attempt to brag, by the way. It’s just the lesson I’ve learned. You can absolutely get good at something that terrifies you if you put the fear aside and do it. And what is that fear about, really? It’s the fear of failure. And yeah… every time I used to play this game, I would fail badly and get called out early. But as soon as I put aside that fear, a funny thing happened. If I got called out early, so what? And if I didn’t, I was just having fun, and the more fun I had the easier it became to keep on going to the end.

A really nice personal culmination to all of this came tonight when we got notes after our first match of 2019. The note I got basically boiled down to, “You’re really great at this game, but please don’t be so great when your team is ahead at the start of the half.” In other words, intentionally fail at what you’re good at so we can keep this as more of a horse race. Which, in a strange way, is really kind of the next level thing I need to latch onto in my improv progress: Failing spectacularly in this genre is just as good as winning it all.

So, note to self: Keep playing games that terrify you while not being afraid to fall on your sword when it will make the other team look good.

I would have learned none of this, by the way, had I not gotten over my initial fear of actually doing improv and starting classes in the first place. If you’re interested in doing improv and have a ComedySportz franchise in your city, look them up. Especially if you’re interested in doing it but also scared to death of trying because, trust me, three or four classes in, your fear will be a thing of the past.

A company town

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Studio City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I work in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!