Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach hosts Lost Landmarks of Orange County author

By Pete Weitzner

There are people who can write, and people who can tell stories, hold a crowd. Author/historian Chris Epting is both and proved it on Thursday night (April 25) before a sold-out gathering at the Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach.

Epting came to share stories from his latest book, Lost Landmarks of Orange County. It’s his 10th book about Orange County, the adopted home of a native of Westchester County, N.Y.

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Courtesy of Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach

Author/historian Chris Epting with his book, “Lost Landmarks of Orange County”

“In writing this book, I wanted to bridge the gap between generations, spark conversations,” Epting said. “For new residents I want to help you understand the cultural fabric of your new community…celebrate the vibrant tapestry of Orange County.”

The author hit the nostalgia button at the outset, playing a three-minute film of all things lost and lovely from Orange County in the 1950s-1970s.

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Courtesy of Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach

Chris Epting shares nostalgic short film with attendees

Epting has written more than 40 books and memoirs on travel, history and pop culture, including James Dean Died Here and Led Zeppelin Crashed Here to memoirs of musicians John Oates, the Doobie Brothers and Dave Mason.

When Epting first visited Orange County with his family in the 1970s, naturally he visited Disneyland, but he also went to Lion Country Safari. A picture of the long-gone drive-through wildlife park adorns the cover of Lost Landmarks and inspired Museum Executive Director and Curator Tiffany Hoey to dedicate this spring’s upfront exhibit to the Lion County Safari legacy.

“Everyone who was here has a Lion Country story,” Hoey said.

But few have more stories on all things history in Orange County than Epting. He spoke for well over an hour. He and his rapt audience would likely still be at the museum if schedules allowed.

Here are a few lost landmarks that evoked memories, laughter and nods of the head from museum patrons.

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Courtesy of OC Archives/Chris Epting

(L-R) Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth at Brea Bowl, 1924

–Babe Ruth’s 1924 appearance at the Brea Bowl, at the invitation of his friend and fellow Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, who grew up in nearby Olinda, an oil town east of Brea. “(It) Was a benefit for I think the Lion’s Club,” Epting said. “All the oil companies had baseball teams, very good, so of course it was a baseball game benefit and they asked favorite son Johnson to be the main attraction. He said sure, let me ask my friend Babe.” Today, there is a residential mailbox at the approximate spot of one of Babe’s two home runs; the one rumored to have been launched more than 500 feet.

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Courtesy of OC Archives/Chris Epting

The Golden Bear nightclub, a Huntington Beach landmark, was torn down in 1986

–The Golden Bear. Alas the Bear is extinct, torn down in 1986. The downtown Huntington Beach nightclub had two glory periods spanning from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. George “the Greek” Nikas reopened the Bear in 1966, and “by the early ‘70s, everybody is playing the Golden Bear,” Epting said. “Every single night that place was booked with a name act.” Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Peter Gabriel, Jose Feliciano, Jerry Garcia all played the Bear, with Garcia effectively saving the joint after “the Greek” sold to new owners who made the dubious decision to add an Indian restaurant. Garcia loved the intimacy of the Bear, talked it up to musician friends and got the new owners back to its roots. Comedian and Garden Grove cheerleader Steve Martin played the Bear. Artist Wyland painted his first Whaling Wall on the building’s east side.

–Ski Villa, the snowless, downhill ski run in Carbon Canyon opened and mercifully closed in 1966. The slope was comprised of some 2.5 million plastic tiles, “and I think in that year of operation 14 people broke their backs,” Epting said, “but it speaks to the craziness of Orange County. Anything went in Orange County.”

–There was the Japanese Village and Deer Park in Buena Park, and the Buffalo Ranch in Newport Beach. A buffalo statue on Bonita Canyon remains, but for many of these landmarks, all are gone. “I like when there’s a little something left,” Epting said.

There is a little something left of Lion Country. That memento is the gravestone of Frasier “the Sensuous Lion.” Frasier was the most famous resident of the wildlife park off Moulton Parkway that closed in 1984. Mexican-émigré Frasier sired some 35 cubs and was so famous that Walter Cronkite covered his funeral.

“Frasier was an unwitting ambassador for Orange County,” Epting said.

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Courtesy of Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach

The Gallery wall in the museum displays historical accounts and photos of Lion Country Safari

Lost but not forgotten in the book are the Prison of Socrates coffee house where Sunny Hills alum Jackson Browne played and the Cave in Huntington Beach where Meat Loaf gave his very first concert, opening for Van Morrison. Today it’s the La Capilla Mexican restaurant on Adams Avenue.

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Courtesy of Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach

Chris Epting fields questions from the audience

There are 15 chapters in Lost Landmarks, organized by type. There is even a section on bowling alleys and drive-ins. “There were Tiki-themed bowling alleys,” Epting said. “It was the Disney effect on Orange County.”

Epting returns to the museum on June 6 to talk about his upcoming book, yet another ode to Orange County’s history, The Bolsa Chica Gun Club.

“My only wish,” Epting said, “is that I’d grown up in Orange County.”

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Courtesy of Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach

(L-R) Chris Epting with museum patron Scott Allen

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Courtesy of Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach

Chris Epting will return to the museum on June 6 to discuss his upcoming book, “The Bolsa Chica Gun Club”

Visit the store at the Balboa Island Museum Newport Beach or shop online at https://balboaislandmuseum-shop.square.site/. Balboa Island Museum is open daily and located at 210B Marine Ave., Balboa Island. For more information, visit https://balboaislandmuseum.org.

Pete Weitzner is the co-producer of “The Golden Age of Newport Harbor.”


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