Bixby Knolls was named after Jontham Bixby who acquired the Rancho Los Cerritos land grant in the 1860s. Jontham Place can still be found in the area. Bixby’s son George Bixby erected a mansion in 1890 near the current Virginia Country Club area, where some very exclusive and pricey mansions can be found. In the early part of the 20th Century, this area was still mostly rural with a few ranchers and a whole lot of sheep. In 1907, land for Los Cerritos Park at County Club Dr. and Bixby Rd. was donated to the city by Amelia Bixby. In 1913, Los Cerritos Elementary School at 515 W. San Antonio Dr. was built to serve the few school-aged kids who populated the area and was later supplemented by Henry J. Longfellow Elementary at 3800 Olive St.
1920s: Oil, housing and aviation
In 1921, the Recreation Club Golf Course, which had been built in 1910 for the exclusive use of Virginia Country Club members, went public and country club members moved to a new course adjacent to Rancho Los Cerritos. Down the road, oil drillers in Signal Hill brought in the first gushers in 1921 and everything changed. Civic leaders as well as just plain rich folks began mansion building in the area near Virginia Country Club that became known as Los Cerritos.
During this period, more modest homes were erected in California Heights, now an historic district with a mix of original farm houses, Craftsmen and Spanish stucco styles. Another district south of Wardlow Rd. called the North End was also developed in the 1920s. During that same decade, aviator Earl Daugherty built the city’s first airport between Atlantic Ave. and Long Beach Blvd., naming it Chateau Thierry after a famous WWI battlefield in France. The Chateau Thierry name persists in the neighborhood built between the 1930s and 1950s at that same site.
1940s: Parks and businesses
In the 1940s, much of the area’s parkland was acquired and developed. In 1944, Whaley donated 11.14 acres to the city for Scherer Park at 4600 Long Beach Blvd. at Del Amo Blvd. (with additional land being acquired in 1945), and that same year, the Cerritos Park Assn. donated Somerset Park at 1500 E. Carson St. at Walnut Ave which was developed into tennis courts, sprinklers, buildings and other amenities in early 1945. Cherry Ave. Park at 1901 45th St. at Cherry Ave., L.A. County land since 1944 was annexed by the city in 1948, the same year that Bixby Knolls Park at 1000 San Antonio Dr. was annexed by the city.
The first major market in the area, Ray & Eddie’s Ranch Market opened in 1941 and remained in business as a local institution until 1994. In the 1940 and 1950s, Bixby Knolls was the place to go to dine, see a movie or pick up the latest hit record. And in a sense, with the various restaurants currently dotting Atlantic Ave., that part really hasn’t changed.
For the family, Bixby Knolls was where the theaters were. “I was the first manager of the Towne Theater,” said Lakewood Village resident Bob Lamont. The first movie shown at the Towne was likely “The Bells of St. Mary’s” with Bing Crosby as well as a preview for the Burt Lancaster movie, “The Killers.” “Tickets were .75 cents all the time and there was a federal tax on each ticket. We had to keep track of that.”
“Milt Arthur who owned the Towne lived near the Cerritos Country Club area,” Lamont recalled. “He was a member of the recreation commission for a while and was pretty well known locally.”
Arthur opened the Towne Theater at 4425 Atlantic on Sept 29 1946, putting his Cabart Corp. (a contraction of Cabrillo and Arthur) headquarters at that site. Four months later, on Jan 19 1947, the Crest Theater opened at 4275 Atlantic Ave. It was advertised on the opening-night marquee as the “world’s first pre-fashioned theatre.” “The Crest was a couple of blocks south of the Towne,” according to Lamont. “It was supposed to be a largely prefabricated theater. I think they used cookie-cutter plans and were supposed to build others.”
According to company literature, the 129-ton (steel columns and beams) Crest Theater, owned by National Theater Amusement Co. featured a “TV tower” (though no known TV stations were based in Long Beach), a “germ proofed roof” (no germs either entered or exited) and “no glare lighting.”
The Towne and the Crest also had stylistic differences. “The Crest was more traditional with neon all over it, Towne was more modern and clean in design and less garish.” Others remembered the Towne as “sort of boxy looking.” Nearby was “the real fancy Welch’s Restaurant at San Antonio and Atlantic,” making a visit to this area a real event.
“I suppose the State Theater downtown was the showcase for Milt Arthur until he built the Towne,” said Lamont. “The Towne was pretty successful from the beginning. Arthur didn’t show up that often, but he came in fairly regularly. Once, I caught hell because the mops weren’t hanging in the closet. We were booming for a while, right after the war, but that didn’t last too long. Arthur built an ice cream parlor in the lobby. That was unusual. It had tables out there, but it didn’t pay and it was eventually changed.”
1950s: Shopping center
In 1952, the Jontham Bixby Co built the Bixby Knolls Shopping Center as well as much of the retail development on Atlantic Ave. At the same time, Lloyd Whaley of the Home Investment Co. built many of the private homes in Country Club Estates, Ridgewood Heights and Bixby Highlands.
In the 1950s, two AM radio stations broadcast from headquarters on Atlantic Ave. Religious station KGER preached out of 3745 Atlantic from 1955 until sometime in the 1990s and KBIG played “beautiful music” from studios at 4320 Atlantic as of 1957.
At the time, Long Beach competed with big boys in the radio marketplace. Both Jim Gosa and Johnny Otis had top-rated record spinning shows on KFOX, which was located on Anaheim St. just west of Long Beach Blvd., and KBIG competed with a morning show called “Catalina Bandstand” which attracted six percent of all morning listeners in Long Beach/Orange County Pulse ratings in May 1956.
1950s: Music, drive-ins and teens
Next door to KGER was the Custom Sound Recording Studio at 3687 Atlantic and due west was the Master Recording Studio at 3591 Long Beach Blvd. in 1960. At 4326 Atlantic was the Long Beach location of the Penny-Owsley Music Store as of 1951 where music lovers could buy both records and musical instruments.
But there real action for teenagers were Grisinger’s Drive-In at 4290 Atlantic at San Antonio, built in 1952 (the current site of George’s 50’s Diner), and the Clock Drive-In at 4040 Atlantic at Carson, where car clubbers and independent cruisers from high schools all over Long Beach gathered to admire or envy each other’s cars, listen to tunes on car record players or radios and – in one dramatic instance – watch a professional dragster peel rubber down Atlantic before returning his non-street legal car to its trailer before the police arrived. The cruising route went from the Clock south on Atlantic, then left on PCH and past Ray Robinson’s Record Rack at Alamitos Ave. where the owner played rhythm and blues records over the air from a windowed studio and talked on the about the action he saw out on the street.
1960s and ‘70s
By the end of the psychedelic 60s, a teenaged-oriented night-spot called The Limit was ensconced at 4365 Atlantic. The downturn of the Bixby Knoll area began in the 1970s, though as recently as the 1980s, a customer could still cook his or her own steak at the Keona Club on Wardlow Rd.
Almost symbolically, the Towne’s roof collapsed during renovation in 1977, trapping one workman. Lamont recalled that the hey-day for the classic walk-in theaters lasted about a decade. “It was the whole entertainment package back then when TV wasn’t the competition. The theaters were bigger, don’t have the matchbox theaters you have now, it was more of a complete experience.” According to Lamont, “TV was coming in, eventually that knocked a bunch of these theaters out.”