Some people find history in textbooks, Tommy Gelinas finds it in dumpsters, at the curb or in the hands of caring strangers.
For nearly 25 years, Gelinas has been collecting relics of the San Fernando Valley’s history.
“For me, it’s a way of holding on to my own history,” he said.
What started as a postcard collection now fills walls, conference tables, display cases, filing drawers and glass-fronted cabinets in his North Hollywood custom clothing printing plant, Print Lab.
For the 180,000 Facebook fans of Valley Relics, his regular postings are a magical trip down memory lane.
Gelinas’ dream of giving his more than 10,000-item collection a home of its own is on the threshold of coming true. He is currently negotiating the lease of property that would allow the collection to be displayed to the public — and allow for the exhaustive work of photographing, scanning, cataloging and archiving the collection.
“This is my own little Egypt to excavate and explore,” Gelinas said.
Indeed, many items in his collection provide clues to long-gone times. One of the oldest items in his collection is an 1853 leather-bound book commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives, titled “Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economic Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean” to document what explorers found on expeditions to California.
“They didn’t have cameras, so they brought artists to paint scenes of the people they met, the landscape, the rocks, plants and rivers they found,” Gelinas said.
By contrast, he also has a city zoning atlas from 1964 that maps out housing tracts, street names and zoning areas.
Other items in his collection include:
- The sign from the White Horse Inn, 17710 Roscoe Blvd. in Northridge. It was the reigning steak house in the valley when there were still wide open spaces and stars like Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Clark Gable maintained ranches in the area. The restaurant opened in 1958 and closed in the late 1980s.
- The red Cafe 50s sign that marked a nostalgic restaurant at 4609 Van Nuys Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. Gelinas was able to call in a crane and rescue the sign even as it was being taken off the building.
- The neon sign of the first kosher deli to open in the San Fernando Valley. It was opened in the 1950s on Burbank Boulevard by Rena Drexler, a survivor of Auschwitz liberated on her 18th birthday in 1945.
- The sign from Henry’s Tacos, 11401 Moorpark St., North Hollywood, which closed in January after 52 years in business.
- A fully functional telephone booth from the SmokeHouse, built in 1946 at the corner of Pass Avenue and Riverside Drive. Located near Warner Bros. Studios, it was a favorite of actors Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, producers and other movie industry insiders. “That was in the days before cell phones,” Gelinas said. “Imagine how many celebrities slipped in there to call their agents?”
- A match book for Birmingham General Hospital. Built in late 1943, the 1,777-bed hospital served the general public and soldiers being discharged from the U.S. Army. Actor Marlon Brando lived there for a month doing research for a role as a paraplegic veteran in “The Men” (1950). It became a school in the early 1950s.
- Memorabilia from Nudie Cohn, a rodeo tailor who was the first to design rhinestoned clothing for cowboys. His clients included singers Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Cher, Elton John, Glen Campbell, Porter Wagoner, Tex Williams, Hank Williams and Gram Parsons and actors Robert Redford, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Clark Gable. Gelina’s collection includes belt buckles that stars had made to thank Nudie after each film was completed. Gelinas said that Nudie’s granddaughter has donated one of his custom designed cars to the museum.
Anyone with items to give to the museum or a desire to help with cataloging, archiving or other tasks, can contact Gelinas at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (818) 521-5646.