6 of L.A.'s Greatest Urban Legends

A section of the 5 freeway collapsed during the Northridge earthquake in 1994, which was preceded by unseasonably humid weather. Just kidding.EXPAND
A section of the 5 freeway collapsed during the Northridge earthquake in 1994, which was preceded by unseasonably humid weather. Just kidding.

Los Angeles is an oft-misunderstood city. East Coast media types describe us as a bunch of illiterate, solipsistic screenwriters, forever inventing new diet trends and going on "hikes," which are really brisk walks. 

But even those of us living in L.A. often fail to fully grasp the city's history, or simply aren't aware of any history at all. Which is why urban legends are so fun — it's like filling a void with bubble gum. 

Here, then, are our six favorite urban legends:

6. Earthquake weather

The idea that a certain kind of weather precedes or even causes earthquakes is not unique to Los Angeles. The notion has, in fact, been around since the 4th century B.C., when Aristotle hypothesized that quakes were caused by wind trapped in underground caves. 

But the earthquake-weather theory is especially common in California, where people are forever living in fear of the Big One. No one really agrees on what earthquake weather is — usually an unseasonably warm, humid day with no wind.

Sorry, folks. Earthquake weather is not a thing. According to the United States Geological Survey's website

There is no such thing as "earthquake weather." Statistically, there is approximately an equal distribution of earthquakes in cold weather, hot weather, rainy weather, etc. Very large low-pressure changes associated with major storm systems (typhoons, hurricanes, etc.) are known to trigger episodes of fault slip (slow earthquakes) in the Earth’s crust and may also play a role in triggering some damaging earthquakes. However, the numbers are small and are not statistically significant.

5. Gravity Hill in Altadena

Most people think Altadena is a dairy. It's also an unincorporated area of L.A. County, just north of Pasadena. It's also haunted.

Well, not really. But there's a hill on Loma Alta that's said to be haunted. There, according to local lore, if you put your car in neutral, it actually rolls uphill. There are a couple of different versions of this legend, but the most common one is about a school bus crashing decades ago; the ghosts of the dead children push your car uphill to avoid another accident, or something to that effect. 

There are a number of these supposed gravity hills in California, and the general consensus is that they're optical illusions — that is, you're not actually facing uphill when you think you are. 

In 2008, some killjoy went around posting flyers debunking the idea of Gravity Hill in Altadena. 

Orson Welles in Madrid during the filming of Mr. Arkadin in 1954EXPAND
Orson Welles in Madrid during the filming of Mr. Arkadin in 1954

4. Orson Welles once ate 18 Pink's hot dogs in one sitting.

This factoid is weirdly persistent – the website Thrillist even included it in a list  of "10 mindblowing things you didn't know about Pink's." Sometimes the number is different — a website devoted to Pink's claims: "Orson Welles found the place irresistible and once consumed 13 hot dogs at one sitting, a house record."

This one's hard to disprove, but there is virtually no evidence to support it happened.  As Chris Nichols writes in Los Angeles Magazine:

While the legendary actor-auteur was an enthusiastic patron, it’s unlikely he publicly enjoyed a double-digit wiener binge. Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich tells me the director was a “secret eater” who preferred indulging in private. “People loved to gloat over his weight,” Bogdanovich says, “because they felt it would diminish his genius in some strange way.”

3. Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen.

Walt Disney's head was not cryogenically frozen. Neither was any other part of his body. Actually, the first man to be cryogenically frozen was Dr. James Bedford in 1967, jut two months after Disney died of lung cancer.  Disney was cremated; his ashes are interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale, within sight of Disney's headquarters.

So why the rumor that Disney was frozen? According to Marc Elliot's biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince:

Disney often mused to [his brother] Roy about the notion of perhaps having himself frozen, an idea which received the same kind of indulgent nods from his brother as did the suggestion of creating an artificial King Disney. 

Elliot goes on to write:

Contrary to rumors that persist to this day, Walt Disney wasn't frozen. Sick jokes about it percolated through the studio for weeks after his death. One animator recalled a running gag at the time that freezing was Walt's attempt to make himself a warmer human being.

2. Lizard People once lived below the ground.

For sheer fun and audacity, nothing beats the legend of Lizard People, kicked off by no less than the Los Angeles Times in 1934:

Busy Los Angeles, although little realizing it in the hustle and bustle of modern existence, stands above a lost city of catacombs filled with incalculable treasure and imperishable records of a race of humans further advanced intellectually than the highest type of present-day peoples, in the belief of G. Warren Shufelt, geophysicist mining engineer now engaged in an attempt to wrest from the lost city deep in the earth below Fort Moore Hill the secrets of the Lizard People of legendary fame in the medicine lodges of the American Indian. 

So basically this nut Shufelt convinced city and county officials that a Hopi Indian called Chief Green Leaf had told him about a super-advanced race of humans who lived in underground tunnels below Los Angeles and had, of course, buried a ton of gold down there. Shufelt also claimed to have invented some sort of radio X-ray machine, and had the whole thing mapped out before he started digging.

According to Glen Creason, writing for Los Angeles Magazine:

After getting permission from the County Board of Supervisors, he began a dig up on North Hill Street “overlooking Sunset, Spring and North Broadway” that was watched like an engineering soap opera by folks in the grip of the Depression. The wildly speculative newspaper reports insisted that the buried treasure was Spanish gold planted in the colonial period and that the crew felt they were ready to bring it out after 28 feet of shaft was sunk.

Shockingly, Shufelt's dig never turned up anything. Eventually, his money ran out, as did the media attention, and he was forced to pack up his tools. 

Pacific Electric Railway cars piled atop one another at a junkyard on Terminal Island in1956
Pacific Electric Railway cars piled atop one another at a junkyard on Terminal Island in1956

1. The automobile industry killed the streetcar.

Everyone who's seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit knows that L.A. once had a wonderful railway car network until the evil car companies, led by cartoon Christopher Lloyd, came along and destroyed it. 

Except it isn't true.

There were once more than 1,100 miles of railway track in the Los Angeles area, running from Newport Beach all the way to the San Fernando Valley and from San Bernardino all the way to the Pacific Ocean. At its peak, in the 1920s, it was the largest electric rail system in the world. What happened?

For one thing, the electric street cars were never very profitable. Most of the lines were owned by real estate magnates like Henry Huntington and Moses Sherman. They could afford to run the lines at a loss because the streetcars helped increase the value of their real estate developments. As their land was subdivided and sold off, however, they had less of an incentive to operate the streetcars. (Everyone credits the automobile with encouraging sprawl; in fact, it was the streetcar that initially played that role in L.A.)

As the population in L.A. boomed in the 1920s, from 570,000 to 1.2 million, streets became clogged with traffic. Automobiles became wildly popular and competed directly with streetcars for what has always been among L.A.'s most valuable of resources — our streets. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2003:

The conflict between the trolley and the automobile was often played out at intersections, where they collided repeatedly, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Newspaper editorials raised the alarm about the accidents and crusaded against the streetcars.

The Red and Yellow cars became transit villains. Buses began competing with them as early as 1924, when a serious drought caused a power shortage, forcing cutbacks in trolley service for several years.

The streetcar's death happened slowly. It simply became less profitable and less popular. Yes, the Automobile Club lobbied against them. Yes, there were cries of conspiracy when National City Lines bought up transit networks and tore out rail lines, replacing them with diesel buses. But the streetcars were replaced because the buses were faster, cheaper and safer – at least at the time. 

When the last Red Car was scrapped in 1961, a transit official declared, "The rail passenger operations of Pacific Electric became obsolete, and economically there was no justification for their perpetuation. As a result, like the horse and buggy, they dropped from the scene."

Now, of course, Angelenos are learning to love rail once again. There's even a proposal, to be funded if Metro's latest tax measure passes, to build another streetcar downtown. Of course, it will be as slow as a regular old bus and exponentially more expensive to build, but that's a different article ...

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