Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wake Up, Sheeple! Part 1: Germain Pellissier and the Wiltern

I love music more than life itself, and have been to many, MANY shows. Consequently, I know Southern California venues pretty well.

I was completely shocked - in the best possible way - to discover that two of them had French connections.

Germain Pellissier was born September 24, 1849 in Saint-Paul, France, and left at age 16 after his father died. Pellissier arrived in San Francisco in 1867 and soon moved to Los Angeles. Like so many other transplants, he was young - just 18 when he arrived.

Land was still plentiful and inexpensive at the time, allowing young Pellissier to set himself up in the sheep business, importing French and Australian breeds to improve wool production - and, in time, make real estate investments. He became a naturalized citizen in 1879.

Sources disagree over whether Pellissier owned 140, 156, 200, or 400 acres west of the original pueblo, but we do know that his considerable land holdings included the modern-day intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, purchased in 1882. Wilshire and Western didn't even exist in those days, but Pellissier knew that Los Angeles proper, then several miles away and comprising much of modern-day downtown, would eventually need to expand. In the meantime, he used this land as a grazing pasture for some of his sheep (he also grazed sheep in Kern County and Ventura County).

In 1887, when the Southern California land boom hit, Pellissier was proven right, and parceled out some of his land. Developers called it "Pellissier Square." By the 1920s, Wilshire and Western was considered the busiest intersection in Los Angeles (the city traffic commission deemed it the busiest in the world). Today, the intersection is part of Koreatown.

Pellissier's descendants continued to own the land long after his death, and grandson Henry de Roulet commissioned the Pellissier Building - one of the city's most beautiful Art Deco buildings - which opened its doors in 1931. The Wiltern Theater, which is part of the Pellissier Building, was a movie theater for many years, and is now one of Southern California's most beloved live music venues.

On a personal note, when I went to my first Wiltern show, I could barely focus on the band (and THAT is saying something!) because the venue is SO beautiful. I have been to Versailles, the Louvre, Buckingham Palace, and St. Peter's Basilica, and to me, the Wiltern has them all beat.

According to Pellissier's death notice, there was an earlier Pellissier building, commissioned by Germain himself, standing at the corner of Seventh and Olive. Originally, it was a house, and Pellissier rented out the ground floor to a saloon. In 1887, he built a hotel on the site. Like so much of LA's history, it is long gone. I have been unable to find a reference to which corner it occupied. The intersection currently boasts jewelry stores, a 7-11, and (shocker) more parking.

Like so many other French transplants, Pellissier did have a few relatives join him in Los Angeles. His nephews Francois - "Frank" to his Yankee friends - and Anton got into the dairy business, with Frank eventually relocating to Whittier, where land was still plentiful. Frank's house on Workman Mill Road stood roughly where Rio Hondo College's athletic fields are today, and the Pellissiers owned much of modern-day Whittier and the Puente Hills before urban expansion put an end to the Pellissier Dairy in 1971. Today, Pellissier Place in City of Industry and Pellissier Road in Whittier still bear their name, as does a Rio Hondo College scholarship awarded in the name of Frank's wife, Marie Valla Pellissier.

Between sheep ranching and real estate, Germain Pellissier became one of California's richest men. He and his wife Marie (née Darfeuille) were known to be active in the French Benevolent Society. They had four children - Marie Louise (born in 1877), Léon (born in 1888), Louise (born and died in 1890), and Adelaide (born in 1892).

Léon Pellissier died in 1901 at age 12. His headstone at Calvary Cemetery, shared with Germain, is entirely in French and states "Il s'est envolé vers le ciel ayant a peine touché la terre." (In English, this means "He flew to heaven barely having touched the ground.")

Pellissier lived at 191 Olive Street, near the northeast corner of Olive and 2nd. In his later years, he lived at 697 Cahuenga Street.

Germain Pellissier died January 15, 1908 at his home on Cahuenga Street at the age of 58. He was survived by his wife and daughters Marie-Louise and Adelaide, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery with Léon. Louise, interred at the original Calvary Cemetery in 1890, was reburied with her father and brother.

The house on Olive Street is long gone. A multi-level parking garage takes up the entire block. I somehow doubt any of the people parking there and walking to the Walt Disney Concert Hall just across Grand Avenue have ANY clue about the shrewd sheep rancher who lived there.

Next time: another LA music venue with ties to a notable French family.

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