The late 50s – early 60s really were tough years. With a wife, two children and a house with a mortgage, I figured I’d better find something, maybe start a little advertising agency of my own. I was scratching. My friend Burt Harris, who wasn’t really in the big bucks himself, offered me a desk in his small office so I would have an address and phone number. With his company, Harriscope, he made a modest living renting old movies, comedies and wrestling films to struggling independent television stations. Burt also filmed and distributed a TV series called Jalopy Races from Hollywood, which was probably the nation’s first ‘Demolition Derby’.
When Toni decided to produce its half hour situation comedy, “So This is Hollywood” for NBC, Burt was hired to manage the business end of the series which required so much of his time that he had to give up the Jalopy Derby. He made a deal with another larger TV film distributor named George Johnson to take over Harriscope’s film distribution business. George was a big round man with a smile to match. George’s deal with Burt was that Harriscope would receive 50% of the money George earned renting Burt’s films.
Out of work, I had been running a small mail order sales campaign for Burt’s films, which I too turned over to George. I decided to devote my energies to building my little agency and pursuing other opportunities that would help feed my family.
It was about six months before Burt and I realized that we had never received any money from George Johnson. We knew the films were playing because we got weekly reports from the stations, however nothing from George.
We arranged to have lunch with George in Hollywood. We met with him at Musso Frank, a famous spot for show biz lunches. After a lot of fancy dancing George, who owned race horses and was a notorious gambler, explained that his own horses weren’t doing so well, and the “track wasn’t being nice” to him. He apologized for not sending us our commissions and simply said that he just didn’t have the money. Instead he asked us if we would be willing to take some real estate he owned in a place called Agoura in exchange for his obligation which by that time was over $30,000 and growing. We explained that we really needed the cash, but all he did was shake his head with a sad look on his broad face.
With virtually no other alternative, Burt and I agreed to consider his offer, though we had never heard of Agoura. George went on to explain that his land consisted of over 800 acres, a small portion of which was being utilized by a turkey farm. He offered to throw in the entire property, turkeys and all.
George explained that Agoura was up near the Ventura County Line and suggested that we drive out and look it over. Neither Burt nor I had ever heard of Agoura. “It’s easy to find,” said George anticipating our question, “Just drive out to the San Fernando Valley and go west on Ventura Boulevard. You’ll pass through little towns like Encino and Tarzana until you get to a place called Calabasas. You’ll see a Shell gas station. They will direct you toward Agoura Road. Keep driving west on Agoura Road through the hills until you reach the Agoura General store. You won’t have any trouble finding it, because it’s the only store in Agoura. Stop and ask the owner for directions. He’ll tell you how to find my turkey ranch.”
Back in the fifties, at the time of this adventure, there was no Ventura Freeway. Ventura Boulevard itself was Highway 101 in those days. Neither Burt or I had ever been to Encino or Tarzana or had even heard of Calabasas.
It was the middle of a very hot summer day when we drove off on this adventure in Burt’s 1949 Oldsmobile convertible which had no air conditioning and a top that was unpredictable. One could live with those problems in Beverly Hills, but not on a 100 plus degree day in the San Fernando Valley.
By the time we reached Agoura we were really feeling the heat. But true to George’s word, right there at something called Cornell Corners we found the Agoura General Store. It was right out of an old cowboy movie, and so was the proprietor with the predictable chaw of tobacco in his cheek.
“You boys look like you could use a glass of cold lemonade. What brings you out here to Agoura?”
We accepted the glass of lemonade, and said that in addition to some gas from his only pump, we needed some directions.
“We’re looking for a ranch owned by a man named George Johnson,” said Burt, “He said you might be able to tell us how to get there.”
“You mean the turkey farm?” he replied. “It’s not much of a ranch, it’s just some rolling hills with a lot of turkeys. There was once a farm house, but it burned down in a big grass fire a few years back. All that’s left is a couple of big hen houses and a lot of turkeys running all over the place. A caretaker stops by once a day with some turkey food and that’s about it. The only time there’s much activity up there is around Thanksgiving.”
“That must be the place,” said Burt. “Are there any other turkey farms in these parts? What’s its name?”
“I don’t think it has a name,” said our new friend as he began filling our gas tank while we sipped his lemonade. “It’s certainly the only turkey farm in this neck of the woods, I can assure you that.”
“How do we find it?” I inquired.
“Just cross the highway and follow this road for about four miles,” he responded. “You won’t have any trouble. With that top down you’ll be smelling the place long before you see it.”
“Many thanks,” we replied. “What do we owe you for the gas and the lemonade?”
“The gas is 48 cents a gallon; with 15 gallons it comes to $7.20. The lemonade is on the house. It’s a hot day. Stop by on your way back. My wife makes a great peach pie.”
What a nice guy, we agreed together as we drove across the highway and proceeded up the unmarked dirt road he had suggested. It was high noon or thereabouts; it was really hot, and the road was dusty. We stopped to put up the top on the convertible, but it was jammed, and wouldn’t budge.
“This is a bad sign,” Burt said. “After what we heard from Bronco Billy back there, and what we’ve seen so far and now with this jammed top…”
“C’mon Burt,” I said. “We’ve come all this way. I played golf in 100 degree weather when I was stationed in Laredo, Texas, and as I remember you spent a couple of years in Brownsville. Besides, I’ve never seen a turkey farm. The guy said it’s just a few miles up the road.”
Burt said nothing, but he continued driving. I don’t think we had gone two miles before we picked up the first whiff of our destination, and it got stronger as we drove on.
A small sign hanging on a barbed wire fence verified that we had reached what had to be George’s ranch, but it was hardly necessary. There were turkeys everywhere, what looked like thousands.
There were two long buildings which we assumed was where the turkeys went to roost or lay their eggs or whatever. Most of the windows were broken and the roof was in serious need of repair. The whole place was a mess and the gobbling, or whatever turkeys do, was very noisy and just seemed to get even louder the longer we hung around.
I looked at Burt; he was just standing there shaking his head.
“Should we go in the gate and check it out?” I suggested, knowing full well what would be Burt’s answer. He just stood there still shaking his head. “Hey, it’s a lot of land,” I said as a follow-up. “It’s got to be worth $30,000 someday.”
He continued to shake his head.
Then, turning to look at me Burt said, “You’re right Geoffrey; all this place needs is a manager. I’m sure you could make a go of it. As a matter of fact, you and Elayne and the kids can move out here, fix up one of those hen houses, it’ll make a great hacienda.”
Enough said, we turned and walked back to the car, never having so much as set foot on George’s property. We drove back down the dirt road to the highway, forgot all about the peach pie and headed back to the safety and comfort of Beverly Hills. We settled with George the next day for $6,500.
On April 5, 1960 the state of California completed construction of the 101 Freeway. Today Encino, Tarzana and Calabasas are thriving cities and George’s turkey farm is now the City of Agoura Hills, population 21,000 plus and booming.
Like my father-in-law, Harry Nagin used to say, “Welcome to the ‘I-Shoulda-Club’ .”