First published in the Oct. 29 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Happy Days were here again.
That’s the feeling I got last Friday when I joined about 30 class of 1961 graduates from South Pasadena High School, along with 14 of their spouses, for the start of their homecoming reunion.
The high school friends — who came from as far as Bethesda, Maryland — were having so much fun at Mamma’s Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta restaurant that many of the people missed the homecoming game — something they never would have done back in high school. (And missed a game they did: the Tigers eked out a game-winning touchdown against rival San Marino with a minute to spare.)
It’s funny how South Pasadena gets tagged with the names of TV shows. People talk about South Pas as “Mayberry” — the fictional site of the “Andy Griffith Show.” I interviewed about a half dozen people and many of them talked about the series “Happy Days” — the show featuring the Fonz and Richie Cunningham — or the film “American Graffiti” — George Lucas’ hit movie about life in a town in the early 1960s, where students were cruising, dating and trying to figure out what was next in their futures.
“‘Happy Days’ was the closest you could compare it to,” said Al Kinser, now living in Claremont. “It was casual. People were friendly. The teachers cared about education and our personalities. Everyone was friends. They were happy, carefree days.
“The biggest thing that some people did wrong,” he admitted, “was maybe sneaking a few beers on a Saturday night.”
I heard about boys wearing white bucks and girls having to wear certain colored skirts. Kinser remembers that when you liked a girl, you might give her a St. Christopher’s medal. Ron Powers, now of Folsom, sat with his wife, who smiled as her husband described people in his class being dressed like they were in “American Graffiti.”
For SPHS students back then, there were double-feature movies at the Rialto Theater on Fair Oaks Avenue and the Hastings Ranch drive-in theater. You could cruise your Chevrolet on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena or go to Henry’s Drive-In restaurant, Bob’s Big Boy or Frosty’s, where McDonald’s is now located in South Pasadena.
Ah, memories. Many of these memories are 60 years old and those gathered were about 78.
“My high school years were the highlight of my life,” said Halle (Ellison) Kistenmacher, now in Clayton. “These reunions take me back to where I was for a short period of time. Things were a lot different than today. I found friends my own age and we played outside. The Plunge (an outdoor water slide) was a big deal.
“When I was in high school, there was shopping in Alhambra, football games, drive-ins,” she added. “We dated — mostly in groups. I had a boyfriend with a car, so I didn’t need to have one. Girls had to wear blue or white skirts. Girls never dreamed of wearing pants back then.”
Dolores Hoegeman Brown went to school in South Pasadena from elementary through 12th grade.
“Things seemed so easy compared to today,” said Brown, of Eagle Rock, who has been on the organizing committees for most of the reunions, which have been held usually every five years. “I’ve got friends today that I made in kindergarten.”
Cars were important among some of the guys.
“The 1955-60 Chevys were big,” Brown recalled. “Having your own car — and having a muscle car — was really something special. But it really didn’t matter what you had, just as long as you had wheels.”
He still remembers when the son of a local car dealership drove a Chevy 409 around town. But in their younger years, the South Pas alums remembered that they often walked or rode their bicycles to elementary and junior high school.
“It was so ideal. Kids played outside with friendly kids. There were no worries about being attacked,” said Kinser, a former junior class president, who went on to fly for the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. “You could stay out until dark. You could go anywhere in the neighborhood and there were lights everyplace. On Halloween, there was no danger of having something in your candy. The worst trick I ever got was that someone put a melting ice cube in my candy bag.”
But not everyone carried only happy memories of those days. Ted Rhodes, who grew up to be a tax accountant once circumnavigated the world in his boat, recalled that although SPHS was friendly, he certainly wasn’t in the “in-crowd.” His mother and father divorced when he was 9 and his mom died when he was 12.
“It certainly wasn’t a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ life in those days,” Rhodes said, recalling the popular 1950s series. “Most people had a nuclear family and I didn’t, which might explain why I felt like a little bit of a misfit.
“But,” he added, “the rest of my life has been a charm.”
Remember “Happy Days”? You didn’t see much racial diversity in that crowd, and there wasn’t much in the class of 1961.
Powers said there were 243 people in the Class of 1961 and Félix Gutiérrez, one of the organizers of this year’s event, remembers there were three Latino, three Asian and no Black students in the graduating class. Gutiérrez could literally feel the difference between himself and other students.
“It was very friendly, and very white,” Gutiérrez said. “It was all part of the package.”
He encountered some physical “roughhousing” and hurtful comments.
“It just became part of life. Every day, you just moved on,” Gutiérrez said.
And move on, he did. Gutiérrez grew up to be a senior vice president of the Freedom Forum, which works to foster First Amendment rights for all people, and also a dean at University of Southern California.
“My teenage years in South Pasadena taught me a lot about whites and white society,” Gutiérrez said. “This prepared me for a life in which I was the first or only Latinx or non- white person in every job I had after college. It also inspired me to advocate for equality for members of all marginalized groups.
“These were the ‘Happy Days,’ some days happier than others,” he added. “Either way, I made friends who are still friends today.”
Gutiérrez, who is in the process of moving back to South Pasadena, and his fellow alumni were still eating pizza and telling stories when I left them. Some stories were probably left untold.
But everyone seemed to be having a good time and remain bound together by experiences they had growing up in South Pasadena and being graduates of the class of 1961.