I semi-sort of enjoy watching The Next Food Network Star. Episodes occasionally can be entertaining when watching the food preparation and analysis, and the end result has a real-world impact, getting the winner a job on Food Network. My problem with the show is that there can be an over-abundance of self-importance and whining from people who haven't trained one single day for television work. ("I have wanted to be on Food Network all my life and am supposed to do this," while in tears about being in the bottom three, lucky just to be on the show) and also -- and mostly -- I think this is a truly terrible way to pick a TV host. (Although a few past winners have stuck around, it's telling that really only one -- Guy Fieri -- has become a primetime host, let alone actual star.)
What I tend to do is watch the first episode to get to know the contestants, and then either skip a few shows until (hopefully) the most annoying contestants get weeded out, or at least fast-forward through to get to the most interesting parts.
But this isn't really about Food Network at all. Rather something that cropped up as a result of it.
I decided to watch on Sunday night, and was glad I did -- because the bulk of the episode was a cooking competition that took place at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades, California. This was so noteworthy to me and a job because (as I wrote about here in a related tale), I worked there for three years.
(To those who watched last nights' episode, it took place on what was the polo field that Rogers built and had regular matches. In fact, even when I worked there and beyond up to to today, the Will Rogers Polo Club still has weekly matches. For a long while, the club even was allowed to board their horses there in the stables, but eventually -- I'm not sure exactly when, but I think perhaps around the 1990s -- the state decided that such a private use wasn't proper for a state facility. I understood the reasoning, and it''s probably right, though it was a great way help to bring history to life. Though the polo matches do that well-enough.)
I was what's known as a park aide. We gave tours of the two wings of the ranch house (the communal area and private residence), worked in the Visitors Center, took tickets at the entrance booth, and helped out a bit with some basic maintenance. I really loved the job -- in fact, I felt inspired enough to learn how to twirl a rope and jump into it while it was spinning. (Indeed, I still have my rope.) I even considered taking the ranger test, but ultimately stuck with my writing career path.above.
(These grounds above in front of the ranch were actually part of a 3-hole golf course Will Rogers had built. But it wasn't for his own use. A dear friend of his was a very popular actor of the time named Fred Stone. Stone had been in a serious accident and recuperated at the ranch. To help him rehab the use of his legs, Rogers knew that Stone was an avid golfer, so he built the small course as a way to get him walking. And as Stone would walk the course, Will Rogers would often follow along while riding a horse, and whack a golf ball like playing polo.)
One of the treats of working at WRSHP was having access to areas of the estate that weren't open to the public. Going into offices, the kitchen, or library, or behind the roped off parts of bedrooms. Sometimes I'd open drawers and look in hidden areas and make some great discoveries.
Once, I opened a drawer, and saw a framed letter just laying there. It probably had been in there for years, rather than on display. The letter was from Theodore Roosevelt, thanking Will Rogers for allowing his sons spend a summer at the ranch.
I also made a couple of great discoveries in the library. The public could see the books, but there was a rope keeping them at a distance. Often, when that private wing was closed, or if things were slow, I liked stepping over the rope and going through the collection.
Two particular books stood out. Not so much the books themselves, but when you opened them, they had inscriptions inside. One was signed by Harry Houdini. Nothing else written, but the signature was enough of a treat.
The best though was a book inscribed by Helen Keller -- each letter was meticulous drawn, almost like a block letter, and a ruler was clearly used to keep the sentences straight. What she wrote was memorable and moving. Basically, she said how wonderful a particularly radio broadcast of his had been the night before, so meaningful and important to the nation. (I believe it came during the Depression.) She had "listened" by holding her hand to the speaker and felt the vibrations, while in her other hand, "Annie" had tapped her palm with sign language to translate what was being said. (Obviously, "Annie" was Anne Sullivan, her mentor and dear friend who taught her to communicate, the title character in the play and movie, The Miracle Worker.)
Knowing that these all would otherwise be lost to history, or at least deeply hidden, I made photocopies of all three and still have them.
By the way, if you look closely at the piano above, you'll see a brandy snifter at the end. And a closer look will show it filled with something. Those are rose petals. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, the family had stayed with the Rogers in seclusion, away from the press, and every day they were there waiting, Mrs. Lindbergh put a rose petal in the glass.
Another treat was getting to know ever-so-slightly an elderly gentleman named Emil Sandmeir, who had been the ranch manager for Will Rogers. He had lived on the grounds when he worked there, though when the property was given to the state of California, he moved elsewhere and would just come to visit, often. The only thing I remember from our conversations is how much Will Rogers loved the corn bread that Emil made.
I mentioned above my learning to twirl a rope. This was, of course, my homage to Will Rogers, which park visitors seemed to enjoy. Will Rogers was known for spinning a rope a bit while he did his vaudeville act, but most people don't have a clue that this wasn't just a gimmick, but how otherwordly stunning he actually was with a rope. Not just spectacular, but at a level you wouldn't think was possible for a person. I don't exaggerate. There was a short film in the Visitors Center that included a few minutes of a lost silent film, The Ropin; Fool, that Will Rogers had made specifically to preserve a record of his skill with a rope. I'd watch those couple of minutes over and over again, enthralled by them. Then, one day, someone on the park staff somehow tracked down a rare copy of the entire movie -- it was about 20 minutes or so, as I recall. And it was breathtaking. One scene has Will Rogers throwing a rope at a horse as it gallops past and catches it, not around its neck, but right on the snout. But that was child's play compared to another throw that catches the rider and horse in the rope that's twisted into a figure eight. -- the top loop around the rider's neck, and the lower loop around the horse's. An especially amazing trick has Rogers throwing a rope behind a horse and rider as they gallop past -- the rope continues along the far outside of the horse...and then flying forward catches it in the front around the neck! But my favorite is probably where he has three ropes in his hands -- a man comes galloping past him on a horse -- and Rogers throws all three ropes...and two ropes go around the horse, and the third goes around the rider!! Really, it's all stunning, bordering on the impossible. But so seemingly effortless, clearly the work of a master.
My favorite tale, though, might concern the park's maintenance supervisor. Historically, we knew that the floor of the main South Wing, the communal area, had a beautiful wood floor. Perhaps redwood. But one day, years earlier (before I began working there) another maintenance worker went to varnish it and screwed up -- and the entire floor was blackened. That's the only floor I and most people knew: it was bleak and sort of soul crushing, even not knowing what it was supposed to look like. But with such magnificent, rustic design and souvenirs and gifts from around the world, it just sucked so much life out of the room. The new maintenance supervisor -- being proud of his profession -- was the most sickened of all by it, and he kept trying to get the state to give him the approval and send the equipment to fix it. But states and red tape being what they are, it just wasn't happening. And months and years passed.
Then, one day I remember coming to work, walking in the South Wing and -- oh...my...God. The black covering had been stripped away, and this glorious, historic redwood floor shined up and gave majesty to the room! What had happened is that the maintenance supervisor had finally had enough -- and on his own -- stayed late, and when everyone was gone overnight, he moved all the furniture himself, and stripped the black varnish off. And then put everything back. No official said a word, not a single reprimand. Just a lot of thanks and appreciation who understood what he had done.
This doesn't do it justice, but here's a picture I took that gives you a sense of the refurbished redwood floor, surrounded by all the historic artifacts.
Will Rogers State Historic Park was a joyous place to work, and I have the fondest memories. This only touches the surface. I haven't gotten back a lot -- it's a great part to visit, but I particularly liked working there -- but whenever I have, it's remained a joy.
Nice to see it on the food show, even if just background. What a glorious background, though.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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