Giving the Beach Boys a permanent address

Obsessions

March 28, 2004|By Christiana Sciaudone | Christiana Sciaudone,Los Angeles Times

Harry Jarnagan loves the Beach Boys, although he's never been to a show, never been in a fan club and never owned all of their albums.

The proof of his passion lies in an 80-page application that he hand-delivered in February to the California Office of Historical Preservation to have the site of the Wilson brothers' childhood home declared a historic landmark.

The home at 3701 W. 119th St. in Hawthorne, Calif., was leveled in the 1980s to make way for the Century Freeway.

The street is quiet except for the hum of the freeway several feet above. Where the Wilson brothers grew up, there is now an embankment, an empty sidewalk and a yellow traffic sign. The sign points drivers left or right; they can't go north on Kornblum Avenue anymore.

The home was where the Beach Boys recorded their first hit, "Surfin'," and where Brian Wilson apparently wrote some of the band's best-known songs, including "Surfer Girl," "In My Room" and "Surfin' U.S.A."

The Wilson brothers lived in the modest, one-story tract home from about 1944 until 1964. Their parents, Murry and Audree Wilson, stayed for several more years. Murry Wilson died in 1973; Audree Wilson in 1997. It was demolished sometime between 1986 and 1987.

In the neighborhood, residents are used to having fans come by looking for the site. It doesn't bother them much. In fact, they support recognition of the site with a sign.

"If they are going to make it a landmark, at least make it a nice place to come and see," said Erick Pravia, who lives on West 119th Place. He pointed out two empty lots, one directly across from the site and both littered and overgrown with grass.

The Beach Boys' music "signaled the arrival of suburban Southern California," said University of Southern California history professor Kevin Starr. He compared it to the advent of hip-hop and rap today.

"They were the music of a generation," said Jarnagan, 50, of Tracy, Calif.

Jarnagan has revered the band since he was a boy because of the appealing portrait the Beach Boys painted of Southern California.

"I'm from Iowa, OK, and when you're sitting in the dead of winter in a place like Iowa, you want warmth and sunshine," said Jarnagan, a construction project control manager who moved to California in 1995.

Although they often sang about surfing, Jarnagan never tried the sport. Rather, he was attracted to the hotrods, California girls and sunshine the band crooned about.

Jarnagan has some of his original Beach Boys albums stashed in his childhood home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At his Northern California home, he keeps the band's box sets on CD.

Jarnagan seems an unlikely candidate to spend months preparing an application in the name of memorializing the band. He was disappointed when he first arrived at the site of the old Wilson house last year.

"I saw a freeway and nothing, and I said, 'That isn't right,' " Jarnagan said. "At first, I'm like, 'Wow, this is it' -- I mean it's like going to Graceland to me -- I got the same kind of rush. 'Oh, this is where the Beach Boys grew up' -- then I got sad that there was nothing there."

In September, Jarnagan applied to have the site designated a California Historic Landmark. He has to prove that the Beach Boys contributed in some significant way to the state.

The application includes maps, photographs and letters of support from the city of Hawthorne, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Starr, the USC professor.

Starr said he believed the band was historically important because it embodied the era of the "silent generation," which he described as unpolitical. The music and the time focused just on being young.

"They basically took this landscape and they memorialized it," Starr said. "They gave it myth; they gave it emotional resonance; they gave it music."

The curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the Beach Boys in 1988, also contributed to Jarnagan's labors.

"The Beach Boys were simply the most popular rock band of their era," said Howard Kramer of the Hall of Fame. "They unquestionably created the California sound."

Brian Wilson, now 61, is performing in Europe and could not be reached for comment. His brothers, Dennis and Carl, are both dead. The two other members of the band were Mike Love, a Wilson cousin, and Al Jardine.

Jarnagan is scheduled to make a presentation to the historic commission in August.

Even if the state doesn't approve the application, Haw-thorne's mayor said, he will recognize Jarnagan's efforts and commemorate the site with a city plaque.

"What he's doing is great," bringing attention to the city and the band, Mayor Larry Guidi said. "He has a lot of passion, and with passion things get done. I've got to give this guy a lot of credit."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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