Grateful for 25 Years of Telling Burbank’s Stories

There’s nothing that makes an old newspaper columnist like me feel even older than to go into someone’s home and see a column I wrote decades earlier attached to the side of their refrigerator by rusting magnets.
That has actually happened to me more than once.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is rather heartwarming to experience such a thing. However, it is also a bit disconcerting to see your younger self faded and sun-wrinkled on what looks like a yellowed parchment you would find at the National Archives.
In recent years, along with refrigerator sides, I have also found myself face to face with columns I have written for The Leader that have been tucked away in people’s scrapbooks, file folders and various other repositories.
As we plod through this pandemic summer, I, like so many others, have gone through a lot of old stuff in hopes of coming through this period of quarantine being able to say I wisely used my time to do some decluttering.

At some point, that quixotic undertaking took me to piles upon piles of old files crammed full of my own collection of yellowing newsprint that bears my byline, mug shot and musings. As I went through all of those files, not only did my fingers turn a lovely shade of 1990s black ink, I also began to think of how all of this aging ephemera will take up a considerable amount of space in the Burbank landfill once I take leave of this earthly plane.
As I continued on through my stroll back in time via my columns, I was also reminded of something I had not been consciously aware of until I came upon a piece I wrote about a fundraiser for the now-defunct Burbank Symphony Orchestra (not to be confused with the thriving Burbank Philharmonic Orchestra): That this summer marks the passing of 25 years since I wrote my first column for the Burbank Leader.
Twenty-five years! Really? As in a quarter of a century! William Jefferson Clinton was serving the third year of his first term as president. Pete Wilson was in the second year of his second term as California’s governor, and in Burbank, Dave Golonski had just begun the first of what would ultimately be an unprecedented run of four terms as the city’s mayor.
That was the year when “Braveheart” kicked off the summer movie season and would eventually go on to win the Oscar for best picture. It was the summer of “Batman Forever,” “Waterworld” and “Babe.” Musically, it was when we lost Jerry Garcia, TLC’s “Waterfalls” topped radio station playlists and people were doing this new dance craze called the Macarena.
I recall having the editor who hired me, Paul Hubler, assign me to that first fundraiser I covered. My wife, Max, who at the time was a collector of Cinderella memorabilia, had joined me that evening and as we waited to check in she tugged on my sleeve. “Look at that woman checking people in,” she said. “She looks just like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.”
When we got to this elegant woman with the swept-up white hair and twinkling blue eyes, we learned not only that her name was Mary Alice O’Connor, but that her husband had been the art director on Disney’s version of the cinders-to-satin princess story, and that she actually WAS the real-life inspiration for the film’s depiction of the Fairy Godmother.
Little could we have known that O’Connor would not just go on to become my “go to” person to introduce me to Burbankers from every walk of life and teach me almost everything one could possibly know about our city’s history, but would also become like a surrogate mother to Max and me. Oh, and by the way, “Burbankers” IS the historically correct term for who we are. During my search I came upon a column I wrote back in the ’90s in which the term is confirmed by Mary Jane Strickland, who founded the Burbank Historical Society.
During those early days of my Leader career, I shared the pages of this paper with quite a few fellow columnists. There was Bob Young, who covered service clubs; Stan Lynch, who did observational columns and also covered the local faith-based community; and two fellows who both went on to serve as Burbank city councilmen and mayor: Bob Kramer and Will Rogers. Another columnist colleague was a young attorney by the name of Adam Schiff, who, from what I hear, has also gone on to make a bit of a name for himself in the political arena.
As I looked back through my archives I couldn’t help but be a bit melancholy. That came from seeing the names of so many people who regularly appeared in my columns who have now passed away, moved away or, perhaps, most wistfully, just faded away.
While rummaging back through my columns I began to think of the many reporters and photographers I have worked with, far too many to name. I thought of all my editors — the aforementioned Hubler, Rick Arthur, Joyce Rudolph, Jeff Keating, David Silva, Dan Evans, Mark Kellam and now Camila Castellanos (I think that’s all of them).
I also thought that it is purely due to the quarantine that the milestone of my silver anniversary with The Leader is not being celebrated with citywide parties, a huge parade, and a fancy gala during which I would be lauded by local dignitaries and showered with commendations and gifts. But that’s all right. To me, two of the best gifts I have received over the past 25 years have been from Hubler, who gave me the opportunity to be a columnist for this paper, and Charlie Plowman, the owner of Outlook Newspapers and current publisher of The Leader, who earlier this year saved our city’s local paper of record and kept me on.
Oh, and as for the greatest gifts I have received: They have come through the hundreds, probably thousands, of people I have gotten to know by writing this column. People who have done so much to make Burbank a wonderful place in which to live and work. People who graciously shared their stories with me so that I could share them with you. People who have become dear friends, many like family. And for people who still have a crinkled old column I wrote on the side of their refrigerator.
To each one of you whom I have had the pleasure to write about, or who have given your time to read what I have written over the past 25 years, my gratitude is profound.

David Laurell may be reached at dlaurell@aol.com or (818) 563-1007.

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