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You Must Remember This: How Collins Radio moved its western division to Newport Beach

By NANCY GARDNER

I got a query from Dennis Baker after the column on Joe Collins appeared:  Was Joe involved with Collins Radio? I told him no, but it reminded me of my own connection with the company – and my role in transforming our city.

As a little background, the company was formed in 1933 and became a leader in avionics and radio communications. Having graduated from college with an English major, you can be sure that I had nothing to do with the basics of the company’s business. However…

It was summer. There was the usual guerilla warfare between me and my parents about me seeking summer employment, they for, me against. We were in a temporary truce when my mother noticed an ad in the local paper. A film was being made here, and they wanted to cast a local. Since I “wasn’t doing anything,” she said, ignoring the fact that I was improving my surfing skills, why didn’t I apply. This seemed an easy way to placate her, so I sent in a brief bio and a headshot my mother took and didn’t think anything more about it until a few weeks later I got a letter announcing I had been selected. Suddenly, surfing faded into the background. I was going to star in a movie. It would come out and – I tried not to get too far ahead of myself. Okay, I did practice my Oscar acceptance speech, but otherwise I kept it under control. The first thing was to meet with the director. Would he wear a beret? Jodhpur pants? Carry a swagger stick? No. Bill Deming looked like one of my parents’ friends in his khakis and a polo shirt. Still – he was a director. He sat me down and explained the scenario.  A company called Collins Radio was planning to establish its western division in Newport Beach. However, the executives were concerned that none of their employees would want to leave the east coast and come here. This may seem unbelievable, but remember, there was a time when Newport was not NEWPORT, when it was a beach town with not a lot of commerce, not a lot of culture, not a lot of things to attract people from places that had a lot of those things except…the weather. To someone who had grown up here, I never thought much about the weather, but this was to be the focus of the film. My role – well, Norma Desmond would have been delighted. This was not a talkie. I had no lines. My job was to provide a human element as we highlighted the weather.   Oh, and did I know of another kid, preferably a boy, to augment things. I immediately thought of Rex Mechling, full of freckles and personality. Rex agreed, and then Deming recruited our two mothers to round out the cast and off we went for a week of standing and pointing and smiling at various sun-saturated vistas. After that, Deming went off and cut the film, it was delivered, shown – and to my amazement MGM never called.

Despite that, I have always thought I must have been exceptionally good at my standing, pointing, smiling because how else do you explain Collins’ success in luring its employees out here? And I don’t want to hear about the weather.

Anyway, the company arrived, and although we didn’t realize it at the time, it was a harbinger of the immense changes coming. What I had thought of as if not a step to stardom at least an excuse not to get a real summer job was actually the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning, I suppose, depending on your perspective. A whole bunch of companies took note of the Collins move and decided to move here themselves, bringing their employees, attracting new employees and the result? New development everywhere you looked. Cars, cars, cars clogging our streets – and all because of the film I made for Collins Radio.   Mea culpa. 

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, longtime resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.