By RICHARD THOMAS
Sometimes what you think is fact, well, really isn’t.
For years, I like many others, had concluded that locations of movie studios important to the history of La Mesa were located in a specific geographic site according to historical lore. Further, conclusions were drawn about this accepted location that were perhaps simply just not true.
While researching the history of the Grossmont Severin Hills neighborhood in La Mesa, a long-standing assumption (at the very least on my part) seems to be just plain wrong. In fact, published historical documentation seems to be in error based on recorded records.
S-L Studios — later named Grossmont Studios by East San Diego County legend Ed Fletcher — was a big deal for La Mesa in 1922. According to an article by Roger Anderson in the Sept. 7, 1989 issue of the San Diego Reader, the El Cajon Valley News had reported on Nov. 19, 1922 that between 15,000 and 20,000 people attended a formal dedication. This early motion picture studio was to make the Grossmont area a mecca for those creating within this new art form.
This was no small crowd in 1922. The entire population of La Mesa was just over 1,500 according to city statistics.
“Hundreds traveled on a special train over the S.D.& A. railway direct to the studio site …,” Anderson stated. “Mayor E.W. Porter of La Mesa made the address of welcome …,” he continued.
Speeches were made praising the foresight of Fletcher and those “businessmen of San Diego” realizing the value of S-L Studios and believing in its future.
Bringing a major silent motion picture studio to the east county foothills would be an integral part of fulfilling Ed Fletcher and William Gross’ dream of creating a utopian artist colony for Fletcher’s land holdings in the Grossmont area.
Fletcher was so enthused with the project that he “deeded approximately 20 acres of land to Mr. Sawyer, promoter of this enterprise, adjoining Grossmont on the state highway,” according to a letter he wrote to another potential investor at the time.
But where exactly was the S-L Studio located?
This has apparently been debated for years according to Anderson’s article. And that was news to me.
I had always thought it was near what is today Anthony’s Restaurant. I am not alone. This has been repeated by current residents and historians for years. After all, Fletcher has long been associated with what was then called the “Lotus Pond” that is now part of the restaurant’s outdoor dining experience. And as it turns out, this also may be wrong!
The fabled San Diego Flume Company, later called the Cuyamaca Water Company when it was purchased by Fletcher in 1910, ran its fresh Cuyamaca sourced water through its redwood flume directly behind the pond. In fact, for a period of time the flume helped fill what was actually built as an earth dammed reservoir by business mogul Hervey Parke on his Alta Ranch in the 1890s.
Written historical accounts abound describing Fletcher as the owner of the “solitary lotus pond in the entire county,” with “Fletcher lending the land around it for a theater group to perform in.”
When Parkes Ranch holdings were sold upon his death in the early 1900s Fletcher was a buyer. But not of the entire ranch, which also included what was then known as Villa Caro, an adjoining ranch a little further east that was considered the gem of East County at the time.
Fletcher kept the Villa Caro gem and surrounding hillside of the north Grossmont Summit that made up a large portion of the Villa Caro Ranch but only purchased portions of what was the Alta Ranch which did not contain it’s fabulous barn, ranch house and reservoir. This portion of the former Alta Ranch was sold to others, contrary to widely held beliefs.
This was recently confirmed by the San Diego County Recorder’s Office. “We have concluded that a transaction between a Bank of Chicago (holding company for a portion of Parkes Estate) and Ed Fletcher regarding block 29, lots 1-6 did not occur,” a cadastral technician in the mapping division of the assessor’s office said.
He continued, “According to our records we have ownership for BLK 29, Lots 1-6 recorded as so: 1893 – Charles Johnson; 1895 & 96 – Hervey Parke; 1903-1907 – Hervey Parke; 1911-1915 – Harriet Miles- 1939-1944 – Frank Huneck.”
So, if Fletcher did not even own the land where the S-L Studios purportedly existed (or the “lotus pond” for that matter) it must have been located elsewhere.
The answer lays, I believe, in the same 1989 San Diego Reader article by Anderson. In it he states that a long-time East County resident, responding to a 1983 Daily Californian article that had published the location of the studio as “built behind the plot of land where the La Mesa branch of Anthony’s Fish Grotto has stood for decades” was just plain wrong.
“The old Grossmont Studios building was not located near Anthony’s, unless the restaurant has moved in the last couple of years…. [It] was located west of Fuerte Drive about 100 yards from the crest of the hill on the north side of the highway. The acoustics in that old barn were terrible and after it became a bar room and dancehall it even smelled bad. I distinctly remember the urinals running over every time I was in there, which was quite often, even though I was only nineteen. We started early in those days,” the unidentified old timer went on.
These memories, complete with vivid descriptions of sights and smells, sure seem authentic to me.
In the same 1989 San Diego Reader article the S-L Studio is described in the Sept. 8, 1922 edition of the El Cajon Valley News as being “immediately north of the pavement leading over Grossmont and just east of the dirt road which leads to the Eucalyptus Reservoir …”
A close look at a recorded 1911 plat map clearly shows the area being described. And it is not even close to the accepted Anthony’s restaurant. In fact, it is nearly one-half mile to the west — and on property that is labelled as owned by Fletcher.
“Talkies” helped put an end to the short-lived Grossmont Studios. But at least we now know where that part of La Mesa’s history was laid to rest.
— Richard Thomas is a local history buff who is currently researching the history of the Grossmont/Severin area of La Mesa.