Whomever the woman was that Clark Gable signed that autograph for (and there's a good chance Carole Lombard signed for her, too) must have felt in the presence of royalty -- but riding a transcontinental train in the heyday of rail travel could make just about any commoner feel titled. On long-distance trips, the various railroads pulled out all the stops for their customers, just as airlines did in their "come fly with me" era of the 1960s and '70s.
And a key part of the train experience were the majestic stations gracing many of America's biggest cities and even some in towns that weren't quite in the top tier. (Stations in Cincinnati and Kansas City were architectural marvels.) Lombard journeyed to many of these stations over the years, including the now-demolished Pennsylvania Station in New York and Union Station (thankfully still with us) in Washington.
This weekend, another historic station she knew reached a milestone. It was where she had her final sendoff from her beloved Los Angeles in January 1942 -- Union Station, which opened for business in early May 1939.
The bottom photo, taken May 19, 1939, not long after the station's opening, explains why it was called Union Station: it housed three railroads -- the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and the Santa Fe, which for many years were housed in separate facilities. Unifying them under one roof long had been a goal of city officials and the powerful Los Angeles Times. Ground finally broke on the new terminal in 1933, displacing the original Los Angeles Chinatown a few blocks away. It was designed by the same architectural firm that drew up LA's iconic City Hall, but you'd never know it -- Union Station is a blend of several styles: Mission Revival, Southwest, Spanish and Art Deco. In other words, a perfect encapsulation of Los Angeles in the 1930s.
Los Angeles Union Station has been called "the last of the great railway stations," a moniker that makes sense. It was hugely popular for the first decade or so of its existence, but in the 1950s, improvements in long-distance aviation made flying to the East and Midwest a quicker alternative than riding at ground level, no matter how palatial the rail meals were or how stunning the views from the observation cars. Airlines developed their own romantic image (sometimes using the sex appeal of the stewardesses), and by the '60s, relatively few used Union Station -- something that only changed minimally when Amtrak took over most U.S. passenger train service in May 1971. (The nighttime photo above is from 1960, but even during the day relatively few parking spaces would have been filled.)
But LA, which has lost its share of architectural treasures (ask any longtime Angeleno resident in their late 50s or over about the stunning Richfield Building, torn down in 1968 and replaced with a soulless office tower), found a way to recycle Union Station. With much of its space no longer in use, film and TV producers used it as a site for movie scenes or commercials. (One of those films was "Gable And Lombard" in 1976.) You can see the station in snippets of Pharrell Williams' megahit video, "Happy."
In the 1990s, Metro subway and bus service and Metrolink commuter trains made their way onto the facility, turning it into a multi-modal transportation venue; both have since dramatically expanded, complementing Amtrak's increasingly popular service. (Not since the glory days of Pacific Electric's Red and Yellow streetcars has Southern California so embraced mass transit.) In fact, Metro bought the station for $75 million in 2011 and is planning further improvements to the facility -- including a possible restoration and use as a restaurant of the fabled Harvey House, which hasn't seen regular restaurant use since 1967.
Tomorrow, Union Station will celebrate its 75th anniversary from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in conjunction with National Train Day. It will start with a re-dedication ceremony at the station's old ticket office, to be followed by all sorts of activities, including vintage trains (both full-sized and model).
Learn more about the event at http://www.metro.net/about/union-station-75th-anniversary/.
Metro also is celebrating with three commemorative TAP cards (reusable fare cards that can be employed either for individual rides or for one-week or 30-day passes), and each reflects one particular aspect of Union Station:
And while Lombard never returned to Union Station after her train (ironically named "The City Of Los Angeles") left town that January morning in 1942, in a way she's back for good, thanks to her inclusion in a mural at one end of the Union Station Metrorail stop on the Red and Purple lines (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/21500.html). And each day, perhaps a few riders think of Lombard (and draw some inspiration) when they pass her.
Don't forget the Romantic Comedy Blogathon is now in its second day; go to http://backlots.net/ for updates.
Finally, a glimpse of Union Station's opening 75 years ago -- and this footage, the only one known of the ceremony, has a classic Hollywood tie-in. It was taken by Ward Kimball, the legendary Walt Disney animator and train buff. It's six minutes long and is silent, but filmed in color (the absence of any bright blues leads me to think it was two-strip Technicolor), and was recently restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If you're into Los Angeles history, prepare to be amazed: