By J.K. YAMAMOTO. Rafu Staff Writer
July 3, 2018 is a date that will go down in history at The Los Angeles Times.
That was the day Darrell Kunitomi gave his last tour of the Art Deco building at First and Spring streets that has housed the newspaper since 1935. At the time, the president and general manager of Times Mirror Co., Harry Chandler, declared the building a “monument to the progress of our city and Southern California.”
Under new owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire who bought The Times from Tronc for $500 million, the newspaper is moving from Downtown L.A. to El Segundo. The newspaper no longer owns the current building, and the owner, Onni Group, wanted to increase the rent by $1 million a month.
Kunitomi — also known as an actor and singer with the Grateful Crane Ensemble — started as a tour guide in 1977-78. He then worked in Circulation and Archives, helped create the lobby display, and returned as a tour guide in 1982, continuing for 36 years.
The tour started in the lobby, which features a huge aluminum globe with bronze bas-reliefs at the base symbolizing industry, religion, science and art; 10-foot-high murals painted in 1935 by Hugo Ballin, who also painted the Griffith Observatory rotunda; and the historical exhibit covering The Times’ first 100 years.
Kunitomi has memorized facts and figures as well as entertaining anecdotes about the newspaper’s storied past. But this tour was a little different; many of the prize-winning photos had been removed from the wall, and the staff were in the process of packing up their belongings.
Kunitomi reflected on how the tour has changed over the years: “We used to be very formal … All upper management were addressed with honorifics — Mr. [William] Thomas, editor-in-chief, Mr. [Otis] Chandler, publisher, etc. We all dressed in dressy business attire; no one met the public without a coat and tie — Editorial, Advertising, Public Relations …
“I’ve evolved from facts and impressive personnel/circulation/advertising numbers, our foreign and domestic bureaus, Pulitzers, etc. to a more friendly approach. And this approach is seen almost everywhere — churches, schools, government, media. Everything that was formal has relaxed since the ’60s.”
The presses used to be a staple of the tour, but they are now at a different location, 8th and Alameda. “We used to have presses at The Times, and it was exciting to go down at 2:25 p.m. to grab the Late Final fresh off the line, then run them upstairs with the closing New York stocks and latest news,” Kunitomi recalled.
“In those days – ’til 1989 – The Times had a completely self-contained plant: raw paper and ink came in by truck, reporting/editing/photography was processed, printing plates were cast of lead, the presses were loaded up and they roared to life. Just like in the movies. There was a romance and tradition to it, and nothing in today’s world compares.”
For Kunitomi, the most fascinating part of the stories he tells is how the newspaper and the Chandler family built the city. “Now, critics and naysayers would call union-busting, Republicanism and Nixon, the theft of the water from the Owens Valley, and my answer is: Los Angeles, my hometown, would never have become the great city it did without The Times and that family. And really, who am I to criticize?
“When I go the Music Center, take a shower in the morning, like the Hollywood Sign and Bowl, like how the Owens Valley wasn’t overdeveloped because it is City of L.A. land, enjoy movies and Olvera Street and wear clothes that arrived through the Port of Los Angeles, all things have some connection – if not their conception and creation – with the Chandlers and The Times.”
One of the most solemn parts of the tour is showing plaques dedicated to Times staffers who were killed in the line of duty: Tom Treanor, 1944, France; Ruben Salazar, 1970, East L.A.; Joe Alex Morris, Jr., 1979, Iran; and Dial Torgerson, 1983, Honduran border zone.
On the lighter side, Kunitomi talks about notable columnists, critics, cartoonists, photographers and reporters he has hung out with, including Jack Smith, Charles Champlin, Art Seidenbaum, Paul Conrad, David Shaw, Dan Sullivan, Sylvie Drake, Robert Hilburn, Steve Lopez, Chris Erskine, Patt Morrison and Robin Abcarian.
Kunitomi’s family was among the local Japanese Americans uprooted and confined during World War II, and the subject sometimes comes up during tours. “I’ve had the chance to speak of Pearl Harbor, and what happened to our families and community, at times dispelling myths some have arrived with. Clear up what Executive Order 9066 was all about, Fred Korematsu, how the camps weren’t happy summer camps. Sad to say that Lillian Baker, the famous denier, has descendants.”
Although The Times supported the roundup, Kunitomi doesn’t go out of his way to criticize the paper. “Who didn’t favor internment? … 2018 hindsight is perfect. We have to be careful when examining history because we are not of those times. It was a fearful, patriotic and popular war, with only one senator voting against the war. Only two papers I know of editorialized against the removal. Only the Quakers helped us. It seemed the entire nation felt imprisonment was correct. The hate was high, we were at war, a lot of Americans had died. And we were ‘the ones who did it.’ That was the general feeling of that era.
“We didn’t know that Japan could not reach the West Coast, that the Pearl Harbor attack was a gamble that succeeded … Life [magazine] had to show Americans ‘the differences between Japanese and Chinese.’ Few knew where Pearl Harbor was. We have to remember how unworldly the United States was in 1941: 40 percent of America was rural, illiteracy and childhood illnesses were common. My dad spoke of guys who got their first pair of shoes in the Army. The world was far, far different.
“This is not a justification for internment. We have to know what was the atmosphere of the era to understand how the hate occurred and exploded, how movies, politicians and newspapers and radio fed all that patriotic fervor and resulting hate after Pearl Harbor, and how The Times was a part of the era.
“I spoke many times to the public about my family’s experiences, from grandfather Shiro Fujioka — Rafu editor, Japanese pages — who was swept up that afternoon, to aunt Sue Kunitomi Embrey’s struggle to get Manzanar [National Historic Site] established. How our uncle Ted Fujioka joined the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team] as soon as he graduated from Heart Mountain High, and died in combat in France. How I personally understand the WWII era, and what role The Times and others voices of the era helped that along.”
Everyone’s a Critic
Part of a tour guide’s job is fielding questions, and sometimes the questions are less than friendly. “I’ve lately had to address the ‘fake news’ phrase, and how it’s truly bankrupt of meaning. Some of my best times were talking with men — always men — who didn’t like The Times. I sometimes felt as if I were talking to a conservative Nisei uncle, weird as that may sound.
“I’ve always thought that if someone isn’t frothing at the mouth in anger, they can be talked to. Then I could point out how The Times has indeed endorsed Republicans, gone independent, refused to endorse anyone. Gone left, gone right, gone down the middle, making both sides mad.
“But I’ve also learned how one’s ethnicity, religion, domestic situation, sexual orientation or income level affects how you see information, history, and ‘the news.’ Take our community; if we JAs discuss the internment of WWII, most of us are on or near ‘the same page’ – it was unjustified, unconstitutional and a bad thing for America to do. Now, let’s pitch the words ‘American concentration camp’ at a Jewish person and watch what happens. In my own life I’ve done that, and glad to say my Jewish friends are still friends to me, because they didn’t like it one bit.
“We all interpret the world through our experiences … So I’ve learned to discuss hot topics with strangers, on my feet, and keep a level head. I’ve really grown up as a person working at The Times. And the work I’ve done at The Times has really helped me in the theater: speaking, presenting information clearly, thinking on my feet, dealing with uncomfortable moments but staying cool throughout.”
Other questions that he’s gotten have run the gamut: “Why do my hands get dirty?” “Who decides what goes on the front page?” “Will the paper disappear?” “Why don’t you cover this, why not this?” “Why do you love USC so much?” “Why is your website so sucky?” “Why can’t my paper be delivered on time?” “Who eats the food in the Test Kitchen?”
Kunitomi recounted some of the events that stood out the most during his tenure at The Times:
– The death of Elvis Presley in 1977. “I had to inform a public tour — there were gasps.”
– “When the Lakers won a championship … we were up on the balcony over First Street and the Lakers float came by. I spied the immortal Chick Hearn, and I cupped my hands and yelled, ‘Hey, Chick!’ He heard me and looked right at me and waved. That was pretty cool.”
– “I’ve shaken the hands of Jane Fonda, Richard Nixon and Hillary Clinton.”
– “A limo pulled up, window rolled down and a large face appeared. It was Little Richard. All made up. He said in that voice of his, ‘Is this The Times?!’ I said, ‘Yeah, Richard!’ He got into the elevator, and he was very happy to be at the paper. In fact, he was sort of wiggling.”
– “One day I walked into the lobby and right there was a very familiar face, with a familiar haircut. It was documentarian Ken Burns. I just said out loud, ‘Ken Burns. Hello.’ He shook my hand warmly, seemed genuine and real, and I told him of meeting his crew at Manzanar for his National Parks series (didn’t make the cut). He was interested, and also seemed fascinated with our lobby display. Made me proud.”
What the Future Holds
Kunitomi’s last tour included a talk about the importance of the First Amendment. “It comes up. Some who’ve visited since Trump was inaugurated and begun his administration have expressed concern – ‘Please, we need The Times. Please don’t go away.’
“I’ve read as much as I can, listened to much, watched a lot, to get a handle of the current era in America. In the end, truth must out. The best and most honorable outers are the mainstream press. Not television, radio or the bloggers — the traditional mainstream printed media. That means newspapers.”
And what are his thoughts as he leaves the old building? “It’s a terrible feeling, and I may be feeling it more than any of my 800 co-workers. The Globe Lobby contains the history of the region, from pre-Columbian contact though mid-century to today. And all parts thereof. I’ve grown up here. It’s been a 40-year journey with ins and outs, high times and low. But I’ve survived when my entire department has gone extinct — Public Affairs, the good will people.
“I love the history of my hometown and this newspaper. They cannot be separated; they are joined in birth, in success and travail. How does one separate the dancer from the dance? I’ll drive by in the future with a tug in my heart.”
But Kunitomi’s career as a tour guide is far from over. “We’ll have tours in El Segundo … I’ll be creating one in the next month or so. A museum will be created. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong knows the history, and has promised a museum to showcase it at the new campus.
“Most of what I do is meeting and greeting the public and giving tours. I may be the only official one left at an American newspaper; the other big papers stopped theirs years ago. I think that’s a big mistake – you cannot lose contact with the people, your customers, concerned Americans.
“I’m going to hang around because I need to see what will happen to The Times. The future is unknown but we’re hopeful. We’ve survived – I’ve survived – some tough corporate times … and I want to see the return of that old newspaper spirit.”
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo