South Pasadena: If Main Street, U.S.A. Was a Real Town

In the 1980s, Hollywood descended on South Pasadena. It didn’t build studios or offices or theme parks here. Rather, it seems like there was a collective realization among filmmakers that there was a place in the midst of Los Angeles that could pass for a typical American small town or suburb. John Carpenter’s Halloween, released in 1978, was the first notable film to take advantage of South Pasadena’s charm and present it as a small Midwestern town. The list of films that followed is staggering, with many beloved movies of the ’80s: Back to the Future, Pretty in Pink, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Teen Wolf, and Terminator were all filmed in part in South Pas, along with dozens of establishing shots for all the nice suburban houses our TV sitcom families lived in. It seems like in the 80’s, whenever Hollywood needed something that exuded Americana, they sent their location scouts to the Pasadena area.

The film industry has since moved on from South Pasadena, perhaps because it’s just too idyllic to fit contemporary Hollywood’s image of typical Americana (Santa Clarita seems to have taken on the role of default suburb). But it left a lot of memories. Millions like myself saw South Pasadena over and over again without even knowing what we were looking at. This is perfectly normal in Los Angeles, where the psychic landscape of cultural imagery is layered heavily over the physical landscape our bodies inhabit—and if we’re being honest, it’s hard to say which landscape our minds spend the most time in. Fictional or not, the places we see mean something to us.

What’s remarkable about South Pasadena is that it doesn’t lose its idyllic quality from seeing it in person. If anything, the real South Pasadena is a place even more charming and fantastical than any of its depictions on film have captured. And it’s perfectly situated around a wonderfully placed Gold Line station. So in honor of Halloween season, which is celebrated with a particular passion in this community, we present our walking tour of charming South Pasadena.

The Gold Line station is located at the corner of Mission Street and Meridian Avenue, with the tracks cutting across the intersection. This makes a little event out of every arriving train, when the crossing gates go down and traffic in all directions has to be momentarily held up. There’s some really nice public art at the entrance, and a shady little plaza is attached to the station. The intersection itself is surrounded by pleasant old brick and wooden buildings which look about the same as they did a hundred years ago. The main feature of the plaza is statue of a man striding across a set of granite stones, with a plaque explaining that the stones are foundational supports from the original railroad bridge that crossed the Arroyo Seco, connecting Pasadena to Los Angeles.

On the south side of the plaza is a tiny wood frame building—one of the oldest in the city—holding the South Pasadena Historical Museum. Its hours are extremely limited; I’ve only known it to be open during the weekly farmer’s market, which takes place out front every Thursday evening. Among the artifacts inside are a colorfully-painted ostrich from an old merry-go-round and lots of railroad memorabilia, as well as displays on Tongva culture. Right in front of the museum, in the median of Meridian Avenue, is another interesting piece of history: a watering trough made of large boulders, built in the 1900s as a rest stop for horses traveling between Pasadena and Los Angeles. Today, it’s a sheltered bench where you can sit down and people watch, particularly during the very active South Pasadena Farmer’s Market.

The Watering Trough, surrounded by the weekly farmer’s market

The intersection of Mission and Meridian is home to several lovely cafes, making it a good place to grab something to drink before starting your walk. Our personal favorite is La Monarca Bakery, a local chain of Mexican coffee shops, which has its South Pasadena location right across the street from the station in a really pleasant storefront. There’s also Jones Coffee Roasters across the street, with its lovely patio and mural facing the train tracks (and a second floor seating area with couches and board games, which hopefully will be allowed to reopen soon).

Across the tracks from Jones Coffee, wedged into a little triangular lot on the north side of the intersection, is perhaps South Pasadena’s most famous landmark: the Century House, one of the oldest buildings in town. But it’s better known as the Michael Myers House for its use in Halloween. It looks very different now than it did in the movie; since filming, it has been moved to save it from demolition and given a fresh paint job, with a bright baby blue instead of the drab white it has in the movie. But it still attracts plenty of revelers, especially around this time of the year, when many folks walk up on the porch, take a peek through the front door, and snap some pictures. Directly behind the house is the Sugarmynt Gallery, which hosts an annual exhibition about Halloween every October, although it carries a steep admission price of $20.

This stretch of Meridian Avenue is a splendid example of South Pasadena’s tree-lined streets, but the best is yet to come. From Mission, walk a block south on Meridian, make a left onto El Centro Street, and after passing another charming coffee shop you’ll come across a shady block holding the South Pasadena Public Library. The block is a lovely park, with old oaks and a giant fig tree (allegedly the largest tree in town) surrounding the library building, a former Carnegie library built in the 1900s. You’ll almost always find people relaxing on the lawns, sitting in the brick patios of the library, or climbing over the massive roots of the fig tree. And the library itself is a lovely piece of architecture with some nice pieces of public art outside.

The stretch of Diamond Street south of the library is lined with impressive oak trees, but at this time of the year it’s also home to South Pasadena’s spooky answer to Christmas Tree Lane. The street trees are wrapped with orange lights and a bunch of the houses have elaborate Halloween displays in their front yards. Perhaps no other community in the city takes Halloween as seriously as South Pasadena, and given that some of the trees here actually change color and drop their leaves, it also comes the closest to capturing a Midwestern autumn look that anyplace in Southern California can manage.

On the other side of the library is another noted landmark associated with the original Halloween film. At the southwestern corner of Oxley and Fairview, just across the street from the library, is perhaps the most accommodating movie house ever. This house played the part of Laurie’s home in the film, and the current owners have even provided a prop pumpkin on the porch so movie fans can reenact the scene where Jamie Lee Curtis sits on the corner of the yard. Around this time of year, you’ll see plenty of people eagerly taking part.

From here, continue east on Oxley Street. Take care when crossing Fremont, as the traffic is heavy here and there’s only a flashing crosswalk to alert drivers; you may have to wait for that one polite driver who will stop to let you cross. A block later, you’ll see a mural dedicated to the South Pasadena Ostrich Farm, an extremely popular tourist attraction that operated between the 1880s and the 1930s. Why the mural is located here is beyond me, as the farm was located on the western side of town along the Arroyo Seco, near where the Arroyo Seco Golf Course now stands. But it’s a nice feature.

The next block features another architectural gem: the Rialto Theater, a grand old movie theater on the corner of Oxley and Fair Oaks. Built in 1925 in a mismatch of Baroque styles, the theater has actually been abandoned for many years, despite various attempts to bring back the theater. But its exotic appearance has made it a popular filming site, particularly for horror films, although its best appearance in a movie was probably as the murder scene in Robert Altman’s The Player, which took place in the alleyway behind the theater, visible as you approach the building on Oxley.

Continuing down Oxley Street, you’ll enter a very quiet and pleasant neighborhood, with lots of lovely Craftsman-style houses and tree-lined streets. On the block after Avon Place, several blocks east of Fair Oaks, you’ll come across another filming location from a beloved ’80’s movie: Pee Wee Herman’s house from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The house looks a little different from the film; it has a subtler paint job, and it lacks the wacky lawn ornaments and the picket fence seen in the movie. But otherwise the house looks unchanged, and even exudes a certain brightness. It’s been empty for a long time though, presumably because the previous occupants got sick of fans reenacting the “I know you are but what am I?” scene in their driveway.

From here, make a left onto the next street, walk a block north, and then make another left and start heading back on Mission Street. You’ll pass Garfield Park, a linear green space that follows the path of a wash between two sets of houses. It’s a very popular neighborhood park, with lush lawns, picturesque little gardens in the front and very back, picnic shelters, and a large playground, and there’s plenty of places to sit down and enjoy people watching while you rest your feet. The park is also kept in excellent condition, with a clean set of public restrooms if the need arises.

Continue on Mission Street to the intersection of Fair Oaks, which serves as the civic heart of town. The Comerica Bank on the northeast corner is housed in a genuinely historic Neoclassical structure, while on the other side of the street is South Pasadena’s most iconic business: the Fair Oaks Pharmacy, a soda fountain/drug store that has been sitting on this corner for over a century. Inside, you’ll still find an authentic soda fountain with vintage décor and an actual pharmacy, although most of the space is given over to souvenirs, retro toys, and Route 66 memorabilia, harkening back to when this stretch of Fair Oaks Avenue served as a portion of the famous highway in the 1920s. The ice cream and diner food gets high praise, and around Christmas time you’ll see the interior packed with Christmas trees loaded down with baubles and decorations for sale. During the pandemic, only the pharmacy has remained open, but hopefully we’ll see the return of the rest of the store soon.

The stretch of Mission Road between Fair Oaks and the Gold Line station is lined with a lot of wonderful local businesses, and the most charming one is just a few doors down from the Fair Oaks Pharmacy. Just look for the colorful display window filled with giant dinosaur toys: it’s the Dinosaur Farm. This small but very cute toy shop has plenty of toys and books for young children, and per its name, dinosaurs are the specialty here, with an entire room devoted to the creatures of the Mesozoic Era. Dino plushies, dino puzzles, dino puppets, dino action figures, there’s plenty here for the kid (or extremely nerdy adult) who loves their Stegosaurus and Sauropods and Triceratops and T-Rexes.

But the Dinosaur Farm also carries another surprise. In the back, accessible through the toy store, is an entirely different business operating out of the back room: Kidd’s Jewelry Heist. The most straightforward way I could describe this shop is that it’s a jewelry making parlor designed for kids, where they can assemble necklaces or bracelets from all the various beads and charms and trinkets the shop has on hand. But that really isn’t doing this place justice, because you need to see it for yourself. It’s a truly unique space.

The better way I can describe Kidd’s Jewelry Heist is that it feels like stepping into a Gothic mystery novel. The proprietors of this establishment have taken the basic premise of jewelry and run with it to wildly creative places, with the décor being a mixture of Old West, exotic treasures, Victorian lounges, Edgar Allen Poe motifs, and—since it’s almost Halloween—some spooky decorations thrown in. I had the good fortune of running into the owner when I visited, who described some of the events they hold: a lot of birthday parties, but also readings and seances which take advantage of the unique atmosphere.

Continuing west on Mission Street, you’ll pass by city hall (a fairly generic building, admittedly) and a gas station on the next block, followed by a Carrows Restaurant across the street. There’s nothing particularly unique about this specific Carrows, except that it served as yet another South Pasadena filming location. This was the diner Sarah Connor works at in Terminator, spilling plates and dealing with kids pouring ice cream down her apron (which honestly strikes me as a baffling choice on the part of the filmmakers; I’ve never known a child to waste ice cream).

Mission is full of great local businesses, but a particular favorite is a couple blocks further on, just shy of the Gold Line station. Look for the green awning advertising vidéothèque, one of the very few movie rental stores still open in the streaming age. This particular one has hung on by virtue of its movie selection, which specializes in the kind of stuff you can’t normally find on Netflix or (in an earlier era) Blockbuster. The tall shelves inside hold a wide selection of indie and foreign films, with stacks of DVDs and Blu-Rays organized by director, famous actor, or nation of origin. I can’t think of any other rental store where there was a whole shelf devoted to Latin American movies, organized like a film equivalent of the United Nations.

It seems like a lot of the store’s collection is behind the counter in the back, so if you’re looking for something specific it probably pays to ask. There’s also a small vinyl selection tucked in one corner, although unlike the movie selection, the music offerings seem to tend toward the mainstream and well-known (I do not consider myself a music expert, and even I recognized a lot of the record labels). There’s also a fun-looking Evel Knievel pinball machine next to the window that’s worth a close look.

Continue on Mission for another block and you’ll return to Meridian Avenue, where you can hop back on the Gold Line. If you’re in for a wait, you can use the time to grab a coffee or a pastry before heading back, or just take this opportunity to take in your surroundings one last time. You’re never alone in South Pasadena; there’s always people walking around, enjoying the nice weather. As the sun goes down and the buildings grow pinker, the aging oaks cast long shadows over Meridian. Maybe a cool breeze knocks a few yellowing leaves off the trees. But there is always the warmth of activity along Mission—and maybe a pumpkin spiced drink for a little extra warmth.

One thought on “South Pasadena: If Main Street, U.S.A. Was a Real Town

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: