DESIGN: Those Were The Times – No.24 1943 Movie Stars and Paper Routes

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disney

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Published on December 11, 2013 at 3:00 am with 15 Comments

Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1943, so here we go. In the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, tries to convince author P.L.Travers to allow Disney to make her story of Mary Poppins into a film. In one scene, Walt shares his childhood memories of how hard his father made him work at an early age, specifically delivering newspapers with little payment from his father. This revived similar newspaper delivery experiences that I had as a 12 year old

After the death of my father in early 1943, as a 10 year old, I tried to help with our family expenses by selling magazines door to door in our hometown, North Hollywood, California. I would carry samples in a big cloth bag knocking on doors to try to sell subscriptions, which I would later begin to deliver monthly. Such titles as Collier’s Weekly, McCall’s Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal were typically sold on local routes by young boys on foot, managed by a distributor who hired a number of boys in his territory.

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I don’t think I was a very good salesman, so after a year or so I gave my route back to the distributor. I had just entered junior high (middle school) which was several miles away from our home. In grammar school I was able to make the trip by electric trolley (the very same design as those used today at Disney’s California Adventure Buena Vista Street). So asking my mom for a bicycle, I was told “get a paper route first”. Thus began a lucrative few years as a delivery boy for the Hollywood Citizen-News. This was a favorite newspaper read by many movie industry folks.

Paper routes in those days were organized into specified route areas of usually around 100 subscribers. The routes were in turn operated by area managers who might have 10 or 20 routes, generally assigned one route to one boy. It wasn’t long before I began to add nearby routes to my area as other boys would periodically get tired and offered me theirs. Eventually I built up a group of four adjacent routes covering an area of nearly three square miles with around 440 subscribers.

So, just how did paper routes work in those days? The Hollywood Citizen-News editing and printing plant was located in Hollywood at 1545 North Wilcox. Papers were packed into bundles then sent out by truck and bus throughout the city. Every weekday I would ride my bike from school to the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon to await the bus carrying my bundles to drop them off.

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I’d sit on the busy sidewalk, fold each paper, then load them into a chest and back sack that would fit over my head and rest on my shoulders. Some of the papers would be stored in a second sack on the rear bike rack. Each paper would be folded into a box shape. On rainy days the bundles would include protective waxed paper sheets that would be folded with the boxed papers. On larger special editions, they’d be triple folded and closed with rubber bands, waxed covers when needed.

I’d carry a printed list of the subscriber addresses, which showed the periodic new subscribers, cancellations, and vacation stops. I’d ride the bike, hold the list, grab a paper and toss it toward each house. Some subscribers demanded that I “porch” their paper – if you miss, it might go in the bushes or worse yet, smash a window. If you ever missed a delivery, the subscriber phoned in a complaint, my manager called me at home during dinner and I’d have to ride miles back to make the single delivery.

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Dogs were a big problem – they’d bark and chase me, nipping at my legs. One time a doberman pinscher bit my leg so fast and hard I fell off my bike, breaking off a pedal – I had a tough day pushing the bike to finish the route with a bleeding leg. While the Hollywood Citizen-News was weekday paper, I also was required to deliver 1,000 free advertising and shopping news to all route homes before dawn on Thursdays and Sundays. On rainy Thursdays, I arrived at school totally drenched and would pile what clothes I could on the schoolroom heat radiators. Rainy afternoons gave me the same soaking. I actually loved to splash madly thru the deepest puddles just for the fun of it – couldn’t get any wetter!

The night before the pre-dawn deliveries, a big truck would drop off a pile of bundles, my mother and sister would help me box them all before bedtime. My mom would drive the routes in our old Model A Ford while I would ride on the right front fender throwing right and left with both arms. I’d hold on for dear life on corners! All 1,000 papers would fit in the car when the back seat was removed. Naturally I drowned on the rainy mornings. While I never suffered the snowy cold that Walt did, nevertheless I was frozen by the time I returned home for breakfast.

Before I could ride to school, and before dinner, I’d have to milk my goats morning and night without fail, despite all weather and sickness. I had additional income from selling expensive goat’s milk to folks whose doctors prescribed it for them. Since it was wartime, I bought a victory bond every month – priced at $18.75 but cashable after WWII had ended for $25.00.

Now here’s the fun part of delivering newspapers to movie people; I’d have to go to each home to personally collect payment at the end of every month. This could take quite a few days to do – I’d have to ride back out after dinner to catch some of the subscribers at home. I paid the collection money to my manager, keeping a portion for myself. Each of the movie folks, some active and some retired, were all characters, and I’d never know quite what to expect. The most disgruntled ones refused to pay me, claiming I forgot them too many times. I’d dare not stop delivering – their wrath with my manager might be worse.

Lon Chaney Jr. was crazy; he’d peek thru a window when I rang the bell, then tell me “OK kid, you can have all the change in my pockets, if I’m short, tough”. Naturally all the coins always added a big tip. Smiley Burnette took a lot of time. He had a big wood shop and insisted I inspect all his latest projects. Long retired Josephine Dillon (Clark Gable’s first wife) always insisted I stay for cookies and tales of her early acting years. Fay Holden (Ma Hardy in the Mickey Rooney Hardy Series) was so sad. She wouldn’t pay me until she showed me her pictures of how pretty she was long ago before she got old – living in the past I suppose.

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Other famous stars I delivered to included western actor Hoot Gibson, Bowery Boys Leo Gorcey, Big Boy Williams, and famed director B. Reeves Eason (who had a big yard filled with deer). Ub Iwerks (who in the 1920s had joined up with Walt Disney in Kansas City) was another subscriber, very friendly and who loved to show me his little garage gun shop. His younger son Dave and I became buddies in high school, Oscar-winning Don (the older son) later founded Iwerks Entertainment, which was one of my clients during my post-Disney years as GurrDesign, Inc. Yes indeed, my early paper route years has given me first hand knowledge of what Walt Disney’s youth must have been like.

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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15 Comments

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  1. What a wonderful memory for you. I had a paper route myself briefly (hated the early mornings in Northern California) I switched to sweeping and raking neighbors yards. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Simply fantastic. I love that you included your route, which must be forever seared into your memory!? Bob, you’re a real treasure here. Please keep it up!

    Best,

    e

  3. [...] According to the actor, 57, it wasn't an overnight transformation. Not only did he grow …DESIGN: Those Were The Times – No.24 1943 Movie Stars and Paper RoutesMiceChatall 3 news [...]

  4. You didn’t just have a paper route, you assembled a little paper empire! While the work sounds grueling, it’s neat that you had so many famous people on your route!

  5. Reading this illustrates why young boys no longer deliver newspapers. Can you imagine the liability of having a bunch of middle schoolers pedalling around town before dawn? Great article. Thank you, Bob.

  6. I just love hearing your stories, Bob. Such gems you share with us, thank you!!!!! xo

  7. Loved the article! I too sold magazines, but only to Mr. and Mrs. Nobody, not to movie stars!

  8. Your life is so amazing Mr. Gurr. There is no way a kid today would be wiling, or even allowed to go trough what you describe here.

  9. Another gem! I love your stories Bob! Keep them coming!

  10. This still exists in Canada! My friend delivered papers his whole school life. Rain or snow, I joined him just enough times to know I didn’t like delivering papers. Then again, I’d say the hard work paid off for you Bob!

  11. Your story reminds me of the old days. Even baby boomers can remember the paper boy era. The yarn about the director with a yard full of deer was amazing.

  12. Thanks for the stories Bob! For some of us without grandfathers, this is the next best thing to stories of the good old days!

  13. Working for over 10 newspapers in my lifetime (currently 29+ at The Sacramento Bee), I found this story particularly interesting. And not much has changed, other than the age of the people who deliver newspapers. Subscribers still call and complain about the least little thing.

    I am very curious to see what a “boxed” paper would look like. I’ve always seen papers rolled up with a rubber band around them.

    I am fascinated by your stories of delivering for the Hollywood celebrities. Oh what stories you were told! Again, your attention to detail makes your column so very intriguing. I appreciate them very much.

    (Holding my martini up) Cheers!

  14. Another great story. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

  15. Bob were you ever invited in for milk and doughnuts? while collecting your money for deliveries? Malcolm Cobb said he used to stop and eat Walt’s fresh doughnuts when delivering the mail at the Studio back in 1952.