A visit to the Valley Relics Museum is like stepping into a time machine for a tour of the San Fernando Valley. Your guide for this excursion is Tommy Gelinas, and the Valley Relics Museum is his passion project. In October 2013 he opened the massive collection of historical artifacts in an industrial park in Chatsworth.
Born and raised in the Valley, Gelinas is a walking encyclopedia of historical knowledge and fiercely defends the region against detractors. "The Valley has a lot of rich history," said Gelinas. "Of course, we're always the butt of the joke, and people don't realize truly, truly how much stuff has happened in the Valley." During a tour of the museum, Gelinas talked about everything from indigenous peoples to Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Lockheed in Burbank, and the 62 million Chevrolets produced at the Van Nuys plant.
"It's the world's most famous valley," said Gelinas, noting that Marilyn Monroe and Robert Redford went to Van Nuys High School, and John Elway attended Granada Hills. "Why is it that the Valley was home to so many famous people for so many years? James Cagney's ranch was right down the street from here. Clark Gable's ranch was right down the street, in Chatsworth. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were married in Canoga Park. You had Barbara Stanwyck and Jack Oakie's estate right up here in Northridge."
Gelinas noticed that many of the places from his childhood, from department stores to restaurants and amusement parks, were disappearing. "About 20 years ago, I took it upon myself to try and seek out my history and figure out what happened to all these wonderful establishments. Pieces of architecture and places I used to hang out, realizing that they're gone forever. So I started collecting things like a small photograph, a postcard, an annual."
From that humble start, Gelinas' collection has grown to more than 20,000 rare artifacts, including some items that date back to the 19th century. "That's glass negatives, photo negatives, postcards, yearbooks, memorabilia, old signs, cars, bikes, clothing, just so much more."
Only about half the collection is on view, with a long-term goal to expand to a larger building. The rotating inventory encourages repeat visits to the Valley Relics Museum. For example, statues of two waving cowboys on horseback that once greeted visitors to The Porter Ranch in Northridge, were restored and went on display at Valley Relics in October 2016 before they're installed in a park.
"The Valley Relics Museum really encompasses the history of the San Fernando Valley," said Gelinas. Read on for highlights of the amazing Valley Relics Museum.
The numerous vintage neon signs are must-sees during any visit to Valley Relics. Considering the decades of neglect the signs often endured, it's a credit to the restorers that they all work. "This iconic Mustang Liquor sign that was off of Sherman Way," said Gelinas. "Love's BBQ neon sign [in Canoga]. Van de Kamp's neon sign. Bob's Big Boy neon sign from the '50s. Chez Nous, which was a restaurant that was in Toluca Lake for over 30 years."
Gelinas said that the sign that probably brought him the most publicity was Henry's Tacos, the "gringo" taco spot in Studio City that had celebrity supporters like Elijah Wood and Aaron Paul rally to its defense to save it from closing. Despite their efforts, the original Googie-style location at Moorpark Street and Tujunga Avenue closed in 2012. Luckily for fans of Henry's, the hard-shell tacos were being served again in April 2013 at its new location across the street.
Valley Relics has numerous artifacts associated with Nudie Cohn, the famous North Hollywood tailor who created signature rhinestone-studded Western outfits, affectionately known as "Nudie Suits," for legendary singers and entertainers like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Hank Williams, George Jones, Ronald Reagan, Elton John and Cher. Cohn created the light-up costume for Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman and the infamous marijuana suit that Gram Parsons wore on the cover of The Flying Burritos debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. The museum's Nudie collection includes the iconic gold lamé suit that Elvis Presley wears on the cover of his 1959 album, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong.
Cohn also customized 18 cars, nicknamed "Nudie Mobiles." Valley Relics has two of them in its collection, including a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado decorated with massive longhorn steer horns and 500 silver dollars. "It was the last car that Nudie made. We have a 1967 Pontiac Bonneville that Nudie designed for his daughter. It's decorated with guns and the interior is full color embroidery."
Opened on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood in 1949, The Palomino was L.A.'s best known country music venue, named as "Country Music's most important West Coast club" by the Los Angeles Times. A galaxy of country's greatest stars performed at The Palomino, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker and Merle Haggard.
From its Southern California origins in the early '70s, BMX (Bicycle Motocross) grew into a national movement and eventually an international sport. It's a staple of the Summer X Games and became an official Olympic medal sport at the 2008 Summer Games. Valley Relics has more than one hundred rare BMX bikes from the early 1970s to the mid-'80s.
Gelinas is particularly proud of the bike collection and makes the case for the Valley's key role in the growth of BMX. "Gary Littlejohn was one of the first to make what they call a rigid frame BMX bicycle, in the early 70s. And his factory was located in North Hollywood. He was a stuntman but he was the first one to make a BMX bicycle." Gelinas quickly names other famed BMX brands: "Mongoose bicycles, which was in Chatsworth; Redline bicycles, which was in Northridge and eventually moved to Chatsworth; Champion bicycles, even Robinson bicycles were made in the Valley. And those were all the top of the line BMX bikes of their time, and those were all made in the Valley."
Generations of fans will recognize famous movie and TV locations in the Valley, from E.T. and The Karate Kid to Clueless, Terminator 2, Argo and the iconic Brady Bunch house. The baseball scenes in The Bad News Bears, the 1976 comedy starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal, were filmed at Mason Park (aka Mason Recreation Center) in Chatsworth. Valley Relics has all of the original signs from the Tommy Martindale field, as well as uniforms, baseballs, scripts and photographs.
For many visitors, it's the restaurant signs, menus, matchbooks and other artifacts that really bring back memories. Gelinas notes, "What's interesting is everyone that will walk through this place will say, 'Oh my god.' My uncle worked there, my uncle was a chef, my brother worked there, my parents used to go there. Or they'll always leave with seeing something that used to pull a heartstring. My parents used to go there and they're not here any more, so when I see that it's always for me, a simpler time when the Valley was - when people were very close and it was very safe, and this is our history."
Located at Roscoe and White Oak in Northridge, The White Horse Inn was established in 1958 and closed around 1994. "That [White Horse sign] was the first big rescue that I got, said Gelinas. "The second one was the Dairy Queen, the third one was the Bob's Big Boy." Gelinas describes the White Horse Inn as "one of the very few restaurants in the 50s that served steak and lobster for a really good price. It was a higher end place to go. But it was in the middle of the Valley. Keep in mind in the 50s we didn't have a lot of skyscrapers like we have in Warner Center now or even in Sherman Oaks, so you had kind of open land and not too many things blocking the view. So when you see the White Horse sign lit up in the 50s, you knew that was the place to go."
As part of its mission to salvage history, Valley Relics went "over the hill" and rescued the sign from the Tiffany Theater. (Gelinas described it as "a little bonus.") Renowned as the first theater on the world-famous Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, the Tiffany gained fame as the office in the TV detective series, 77 Sunset Strip. The Tiffany was located just west of La Cienega between the Playboy Club and Dean Martin's lounge, Dino's Lodge.
Gelinas points out a letter in one of the display cases. "Here's one that people really, really love. An actual letter written in 1865 by Isaac Newton Van Nuys." At one time Van Nuys owned the entire southern portion of the San Fernando Valley, an area that spanned 15 by 6 miles. A development syndicate (including Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times) bought him out. Although he didn't found the town of Van Nuys, he was named its honorary godfather by the developers as part of the land sale.
As he returned the letter to its case, Gelinas said, "I know right now a lot of people really want interactive museums, and I agree. The only issue is that I feel that tangible history - real history that you can touch, you can feel, that you can read through, that you can research - is so much more important. So when you can actually research and have it at your fingertips, is in my opinion way more important." Gelinas waves at the displays: "From this, you can make something interactive. It's staying true to its roots."
The Valley Relics Museum will appeal to everyone, not just someone who grew up or worked in the Valley. "We made movies, we made bicycles, we made cars. Anyone that ever rode a BMX bike would have appreciation here. Anyone that has ever seen a cowboy movie would have appreciation here. [The Valley] affected the entire planet."
The Valley Relics Museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Admission is free.
21630 Marilla St., Chatsworth