A Sign of The Times

Darrell Kunitomi starts the tour in the L.A. Times lobby, which includes a large globe and murals dating back to the 1930s.

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.

With a display about the Chandler family as a backdrop, Darrell Kunitomi shows replicas of the newspaper as it appeared more than a century ago.

Dispelling Myths

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