Charlie Turner Calls It a Career

Charlie Turner Calls It a Career

Charlie Turner, the "Mayor of
Griffith Park," is hoisted upon
the shoulders of his many friends
in 1989 at the dedication of the
Charlie Turner Trailhead at the
north end of the Observatory
Parking lot.

Photo: Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks

Note: This article originally appeared in the Glendale News-Press on Sept. 10, 1993.

At 85 years old, few people choose to spearhead a major three-year rebuilding project. Even fewer see the project through and have it exceed expectations.

But that's exactly what Charlie Turner--keeper of Dante's View, a cool, leafy half-acre oasis overlooking the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park--has done. And although this soft-spoken native of Liverpool, England is not the sort to brashly declare victory, it's apparent that he's put his enterprise back into the green.

Which affords him an ever-so-graceful exit. Turner, now 88, recently handed over responsibility for the garden (which he's held since 1975) to his trusted lieutenant, Tom LaBonge. Turner is now keeper emeritus.

Just three summers ago, the future looked less upbeat for the volunteer-tended garden founded by Dante Orgolini in 1964. Three Augusts ago, Dante's View looked dead.

1990 Dante's View Fire

Shortly before 2 p.m. on July 31, 1990, a fire (believed to be arson) swept up the southeast slope of Mt. Hollywood, starting from a point near the bird sanctuary.

Dante's View was directly in the fire's path. Turner, who was at the garden checking his sprinklers and raking the dirt pathways, had to flee for his life.

Reports that the garden was completely destroyed by the 30-acre blaze were overstated--but not by much. All of the trees planted by Orgolini died in the fire, as did many of the shrubs. Even Turner's silk floss tree--a birthday gift so prized that he lugged gallon bottles of water up the trail in 112-degree heat for it earlier that summer while the city fixed leaky water pipes--was lost. Only the garden's northwest corner, where Turner and his friends conduct potluck brunches on weekends, was unscarred.

Within hours, Turner had hiked up to survey the damage. "It looks bad," he told a reporter, "but it will come back."

Three Augusts ago, Turner was sifting through the ashes, performing a sort of botanical triage: deciding which plants were healthy, which needed extra care, and which needed to be dug up and carted off.

"For the first couple of months it was a pretty gloomy place," he said. "The cactus looked particularly gruesome; it looked boiled."

Heaping despair upon destruction, 1990 was also a tough year for the hearty band of mostly veteran hikers known as "Charlie's Brunch Bunch." These good friends--good enough that they once gave Turner a trip to Paris for his birthday--staged lavish potluck affairs in the garden several times a week.

"We had about ten deaths that year," Turner said. He began to feel guilty about outliving so many of his friends--most of them younger than him.

But Turner--whose birthday party each April routinely draws over 100 well-wishers to the garden--found that he wasn't even close to running out of friends.

Volunteers and Contributors Rebuild Dante's View

Some sent money to a special fund set up by the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners. A group of Korean hikers was particularly generous, donating several thousand dollars. Local nurseries donated flowers and shrubs.

And somebody gave him another silk floss tree.

Hikers who knew Turner only to say hello to him as they passed on the trail or ducked into the garden to get a drink of water, toted potted oleanders and yuccas up the trail. The Boy Scouts and Los Angeles Conservation Corps arrived and planted still more.

Amir Dialameh, keeper of Amir's Garden (situated on a hillside overlooking the Griffith Park golf clubhouse), came with iceplant snippings, red bud and other ground cover. Volunteers got on hands and knees and replanted.

The city pitched in, too, clearing away dead trees, improving the irrigation system, and repairing a hillside retaining wall and wooden stairs ruined in the fire.

An Improved Garden

Turner saw an opportunity to not just restore the garden, but improve it. He redesigned it to have more flowers, making up for some of the lost trees. It is now a bit less shady, but provides more light and has better views of the observatory, park and city below.

Some of the changes were unplanned. Cassia, a plant that grows to 10 feet tall and has bright yellow flowers, has taken over the lower reaches of the garden where the fire had burned away a large patch of chaparral. Turner said all of the new cassia is the result of pods from a couple of plants opening up and scattering their seeds because of the blaze.

The fire, Turner said, "served the same purpose that wolves have in an elk herd--clearing out the old and weak."

The results--most visible this spring following the wet winter--have been gratifying. "It's come back even better than I expected," Turner said.

A Well-Deserved Retirement

But he hasn't. Turner believes something in those ashes--maybe something he ingested or inhaled while he was shoveling and raking through the rubble--knocked some of the vitality out him, and he hasn't gotten it back.

Turner, who jogged six miles daily in the park until he was 80, now finds the steep, rustic, often muddy stairs to the lower levels of the garden increasingly difficult to negotiate. "It would be foolish to continue," he said.

Not that Turner plans to retire to a barcalounger and watch the world hike by. He will continue to ascend the 1.4-mile trail from the Griffith Observatory parking lot to the top of Mt. Hollywood every day "unless it's really pouring down rain, and even then you can find an hour or so when it stops," he said.

And, Turner said (as he reflexively picked up a beer can from a path in the garden) he will continue to help wherever he can.

LaBonge brings a slightly different orientation to the garden simply because of his personality. Turner, short and slight, is gentlemanly and perhaps a little shy. Along the trail, he returns dozens of greetings, but initiates few.

LaBonge, less than half Turner's age and a head taller, is an unabashed civic booster. He greets everyone he sees on the trail and often strikes up conversations, usually extolling the virtues of the city, the park and the garden.

LaBonge plans to take more of a team approach to maintaining the garden, organizing work parties and courting scouts and other youth service groups.

Art Seidenbaum, the late Los Angeles Times columnist, wrote about Dante's View in 1978, two weeks after Orgolini's passing. Seidenbaum observed that while on the surface it looked like the keepers of the garden were cultivating soil, they were actually cultivating community.

Fifteen years later, his observation holds up. The key to a healthy community, LaBonge said on a warm recent morning as he hiked down the Charlie Turner Trail after tending the garden, is for each person "to do one thing for the community--and do it well."

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

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