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The Simon Story

By Alan Simon

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My parents, David and Esther Simon, wanted to have a business in a small town. So, in 1946 my parents and my grandparents, Sam and Sadie Handler, moved to Sherman Oaks. They built a building on Ventura Boulevard, and the following year opened Sun Valley Dry Cleaners, a business still serving the community that soon was to explode in population. The name reflected the sunny San Fernando Valley. In those days there was no local community called Sun Valley. In fact, the town’s name was then Roscoe. To distinguish it from any cleaners in Sun Valley, the name was later changed to Simon’s Sun Valley Dry Cleaners. The business enjoyed a moviestar studded clientele and obtained the reputation of “the best dry cleaner in the United States.”

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio where the Handlers had been in the bottling business (Electura Water & Beverage; SantÈ Beverage) since 1919. My father, Dave Simon, was a professional fighter (boxer and wrestler) who was born in Deva, Transylvania, and as a young man traveled throughout the United States in the fighting game. Between bouts he worked for a dry cleaner in Niagara Falls, New York – the town where my fraternal grandparents, Sam and Laura Simon lived before moving to San Diego for health reasons. After marrying my mother, my father settled down in the bottling business in 1938.

Uncle Sam called my father into the military during World War II, and a family decision was made to sell the bottling company for its valuable sugar quota. My father saw this as a great opportunity to move to California, a place he loved when he fought here and where his parents and a sister had moved a few years earlier. Little did he expect that his in-laws would opt to move with their daughter and leave the rest of the family in Cleveland. They jointly bought a duplex on Palm Grove Avenue in Los Angeles, near Adams and La Cienega where there were temples, kosher butcher shops and an active Jewish community – and there they stayed, until the small town itch set their sights on Sherman Oaks.

I grew up in what is now the inbound fast lanes of the Ventura Freeway on Noble Avenue in Sherman Oaks. The freeway took our home in 1957. Our small house on Noble Avenue was very crowded. I shared a bedroom with my parents, until a small house-trailer was moved to our back yard and became my grandparent’s bedroom. We often had relatives living with us, the couch usually doubling as a bed.

We lived in a rural community with dirt streets and a natural Los Angeles River to play, swim and fish in, as it was not yet a paved channel. Some of my friends rode their horses to visit their schoolmates after school. Between our yard and our neighbor’s, there grew many fruits and vegetables that the kids of the neighborhood were free to pick and eat at will. Life in the San Fernando Valley still had a rural, slow-paced feel.

We walked the mile to Sherman Oaks Elementary School. A crossing guard helped us across busy Ventura Boulevard, the only north-south highway. The kids then skipped and ran on a flower and shrub lined path that traversed Pack Brother’s Nursery to the school on Dickens Street. All the Valley schools were crowded and by the time I got to Van Nuys Junior High School they were on a three-session schedule with some students starting late in the afternoon and going to classes into the evenings so that everyone could be accommodated. New schools were being opened as quickly as possible to meet the tremendous influx of post-war families moving to the Valley. I was just ahead of each opening. The beautiful Neutra designed Kester Avenue School accepted students as I entered Van Nuys Junior High. The former Birmingham Veteran’s Administration Hospital (where my father was treated for malaria he had contracted in the military) was converted into a high school when I was in the 11th grade at Van Nuys High. Teaching was a challenge then, as it is now.

The only Jewish Synagogue was the Valley Jewish Community Center (VJCC) on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood. I attended Sunday School there, and later Hebrew School, and then moved with the Center to its present location on Laurel Canyon and Burbank Boulevards (now Adat Ari El), where Rabbi Aaron M. Wise conducted my Bar Mitzvah in the new Familian Chapel. It was followed by a small reception at VJCC and family party at our home with a tray of cold cuts and some cold drinks. My parents prepared for the party with a major expenditure - they installed wall-to-wall carpeting, a very modern idea at the time - to make the house look more presentable especially for the rabbi and cantor who were also invited to join the family.

The Valley Jewish Community Center’s Chandler location had been a former speakeasy, located far from the eyes of the authorities, until Prohibition made it obsolete. When I attended Hebrew school, there was a bus that picked us up at Sherman Oaks elementary school. However, this service was not available to kids attending Van Nuys Junior High School, so I boarded the red car at Burbank and Van Nuys Boulevards and rode it around the Chandler curve to VJCC, and made the return trolley trip after Hebrew lessons.

Before Hebrew classes we would entertain ourselves by putting pennies on the streetcar track that ran in the center of Chandler Boulevard and we watched the red car flatten them. I still have one of these pieces of copper. We would also play on the railway bridge that spanned, what during most of the year, was a dry wide and sandy riverbed that ran adjacent to VJCC. When the red car came barreling down on us, bell clanging, we would jump off the bridge into the sand below. The conductors were used to us doing this so there was no effort to slow down. This would be unthinkable conduct today.

My parents and grandparents worked at Sun Valley Dry Cleaners, as did I between my various school activities from Junior High School on. The early years of the business saw my parents opening at 7:30 in the morning, and usually working until ten or eleven at night – this being the routine, six days a week, with an eight hour workday on Sundays. My father would sometimes stay all night, getting a few hours of sleep on a cot in the cleaning plant. My grandparents spent less time at the plant, taking up the responsibility of the household in the early morning and evening hours and on the weekends. They all worked hard to produce a quality service. And, they were proud of their reputation and accomplishment. They also employed a highly skilled ethnically and culturally diverse workforce. They paid them well, and provided them with health benefits long before that was the ordinary in the cleaning industry. As a result, many of their employees stayed for decades.

Attending Jewish services was a problem for Sam Handler, my observant grandfather, as the Valley Jewish Community Center was too far to walk. I recall his standing in the corner of a room wrapped in his tefillin and tallis in prayer. There were occasions when he made exceptions and did drive to attend services, especially in later years when he drove me on Saturday mornings. Eventually, a small congregation of men joined together somewhere within walking distance on Sepulveda Boulevard and he joined them to form a minyon.

As I recall, there was a kosher butcher shop on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood just north of Camarillo, and later another one in a storefront on the north side of Ventura Blvd., just west of Van Nuys Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. However, for many years my grandparents made the trip over Laurel Canyon to the Fairfax area in the family’s 1946 Chevrolet to buy kosher foods. I loved riding in the back seat on the long twisting return trip, while eating kosher baloney on fresh rye bread.

As the Jewish community grew in the Valley through the 1940’s and 50’s so did Jewish religious and ethnic institutions and businesses. In contrast to the more insular Jewish community that I saw when I visited my relatives in East Los Angeles, the Valley’s Jewish Community’s integration and interaction with people of other ethnicities and religions was gradual and seemed like a natural way of life.

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Copyright © November 2002. All Rights Reserved

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