Throughout its history, Orange County has been an attractive, dynamic place in which dreamers, visionaries, entrepreneurs and innovators from many walks of life have found fertile ground to realize their dreams. There are many OC innovators whose achievements in aviation, engineering, business, medicine and other fields have built companies with world-wide influence; they’re great stories, but they’re not places visitors can directly experience. Here’s a sampling of OC innovations that have gained national or international renown that visitors to Orange County today can experience first-hand.
Electric Guitars and Surf Rock
Leo Fender created the first commercially viable, mass-produced solid-body electric guitars, and changed popular music forever. Tinkering in his modest radio repair shop on Fullerton’s Harbor Blvd., Fender found ways to create more efficient and reliable equipment for musicians and began attracting the attention of musicians around the country. One of these was Dick Dale, “King of the Surf Guitar.” Dale’s musical experiments and discussion with Fender were the impetus for the creation of the Showman amplifier which, in turn, greatly influenced the development of Surf Rock, one of OC’s cultural exports. Rock and roll’s great guitar players, including Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards all played Fender guitars. Fender was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For more, check out the Fender Gallery at the Fullerton Museum Center. For more about Dick Dale, surf guitar and Surf Rock, visit the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach.
The Valencia Orange Industry
Considered the “father of the Valencia Orange industry”, Charles C. Chapman’s marketing techniques and common-sense methods were so effective they ensured the county’s powerful economic growth for decades. Chapman developed the first commercial growth of Valencia oranges and was the first grower to brand his oranges. He culled his oranges into three brands. The top, Old Mission, dominated the New York market for 32 years. By leaving his oranges on the trees longer than other growers, he produced tastier fruit that brought higher prices on Eastern Markets. His late-ripening fruit went on sale in the later months of the year, opening up a brand-new market. He also spearheaded the development of the oil industry in north Orange County, built several Fullerton buildings and institutions, and was the visionary behind today’s Chapman University, located in Orange. A small group of trees representing the grove originally planted by C.C. Chapman in 1875 still stands at the Fullerton Arboretum.
America’s First Modern Amusement & Theme Parks
Walter Knott and his family built a small berry farm into America’s first modern amusement park. Arriving in 1920 as a sharecrop farmer on 20 acres of land in Buena Park, Knott took advantage of the automobile traffic on what is now Beach Blvd. to set up his roadside berry stand. The boysenberry, an especially flavorful hybrid berry developed by Anaheim Park Superintendent Rudolf Boysen was particularly popular. Knott was able to buy his leased land a few years later. To make ends meet during the Depression, Cordelia began selling homemade jams and jellies and serving chicken dinners on her wedding china; the roadside business grew into a restaurant in 1937. Knott began collecting buildings from the Old West to create a Ghost Town to entertain his customers while they were waiting to eat—sowing the seeds of the modern amusement park. Knott’s Berry Farm eventually grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise and was operated by the Knotts family until 1997 when it was sold to current operator, Ohio-based Cedar Fair. (You can still order a piece of boysenberry pie at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant or pick up a jar of boysenberry jam; and the Ghost Town is still part of today’s Knott’s Berry Farm.)
Walt Disney had already realized notable success with his animated cartoons and movies, when he set about realizing his dream to create an amusement enterprise where parents and children could have fun together. In the 1950s, there was no such thing as a theme park. His idea for a single park entrance, themed “lands” with more emphasis on storytelling than ride thrills flew in the face of what people thought an amusement park should be. With a set of drawings in hand, he got ABC to by a 34% share in the project in exchange for a weekly television program—which, of course, became the vehicle to enter families’ homes to tell them about the new park. Located by the newly completed freeway, on 160 acres that had been largely occupied by orange groves a few short months earlier, Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, launching what would become a world-wide enterprise and permanently changing the concept of family entertainment.
Hobie Alter’s Designs Changed Surfing & Sailing—An avid surfer in the 1950s, at a time when riding a wave meant getting on a heavy 12-foot redwood and balsa plank, Hobie Alter started tinkering with surfboard design in the garage of his family’s Laguna Beach cottage. By 1954, he opened a retail surf shop in Dana Point—the first surf shop in Orange County. He and friend Gordon “Grubby” Clark experimented with polyurethane foam, creating shorter, lighter boards that helped popularize surfing around the world. In 1967, he turned to sailing and designed an affordable, lightweight catamaran (the 14-foot Hobie Cat) that helped more people get out on the water. It became an international success. Check out early Hobie-designed boards at the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente and Costa Mesa or at the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach. There’s still a Hobie store in Dana Point and Hobie products can be found throughout the world. While Hobie Alter may be the most well-known, Orange County’s list of surf-related innovators is long. The county is the birthplace of skimboards, boogie boards, surf films, surf publications and of many surfwear and surf equipment companies whose products are known around the world.
Martin Begins Aviation in CA—The first successful airplane flight in California took place in Sana Ana on August 1, 1909—only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight. Glenn Martin, bicycle mechanic by day, assembled his plane in an abandoned Methodist Church at 2nd and Main in Santa Ana. Martin made more history on May 10, 1912 when he made the first water-to-water flight from Newport Beach to Catalina Island. Martin sparked the birth of the aviation industry in OC and his company eventually became one of the nation’s leading aircraft manufacturers, producing such successes as the China Clipper, the Martin Bomber and the B-26 Marauder. A plaque commemorates the historic flight (at the base of the Newport Pier at Main and Oceanfront.) Visit the Lyon Air Museum for more about Southern California’s aviation history.
Creating A World-Renowned Art Colony—Artists began settling in Laguna Beach in the early 1900s, drawn by the light and the area’s natural beauty. Their efforts transformed an isolated beach town into a world-renowned art colony. Frank Cuprien, Edgar Payne, Anna Hills, William Wendt and others founded the Laguna Beach Art Association (today’s Laguna Art Museum) in 1918 and, in 1929, opened a gallery—the first venue in Southern California devoted solely to exhibiting art. The Festival of Arts began in 1932 to lure visitors attending the Olympic Games in Los Angeles; and the “living pictures” were added in 1935, a unique tradition still celebrated today as the Pageant of the Masters.
Innovating for the American Theater
Back in 1964, two young guys with freshly-minted college degrees decided they wanted to start a theater company and bet on the fact that theater could thrive in an Orange County that was just beginning to show its growth potential. Starting in the back of a station wagon, South Coast Repertory is, today, one of America’s most respected regional theaters. Along the way, founders David Emmes and Martin Benson turned their theater into one of the country’s premier centers for developing new work for the American theater. The two founders just turned over the reins of day-to-day management in 2011, but are keeping an active artistic hand. South Coast Repertory is located in the heart of Costa Mesa’s Theater & Art District and visitors can experience the artistic vibrancy of the theater they created.
Changing the Way Communities are Built-- A former Academy Award-winning Hollywood art director, who also designed the Kennedy Space Center and the Transamerica Tower in San Francisco, William Pereira was the master planner of the 93,000 acres that once formed the Irvine Ranch. He pioneered the idea of orderly town planning and molded much of central Orange County into what we know today, including the City of Irvine, the UC Irvine campus, Newport Center and Fashion Island in Newport Beach. The university admitted its first students in 1965 and, in the first half of the 1970s, Irvine was the West’s fastest-growing city. Just up the road, in Seal Beach, builder Ross Cortese was redefining how seniors would live as he pioneered his first experiment in senior housing, Leisure World, and promoted a new “active senior” lifestyle. Cortese built retirement communities across the country and, in 1963, he was named builder of the year by the National Association of Home Builders.
Contributions of OC’s Vietnamese Community Leaders--After the Vietnam War, many refugees passed through Camp Pendleton on their way to resettlement, and Orange County became home to the largest community of Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam. Little Saigon (which straddles the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove) became the touchstone for the Vietnamese community. It is the home of Southern California’s first Tét Festival, the first Vietnamese newspaper published in the United States, and the first Vietnamese-American to hold public office. A visit to Little Saigon today is a great introduction to the rich cultural flavors and traditions of Vietnam.
OC Food Pioneers—Given OC’s casual vibe and fascination with cars, its list of food innovators may not surprise you. If you’ve ever eaten a Carl’s Jr. hamburger, a Marie Callendar’s pie, a Wahoo’s fish taco, an In & Out burger, or enjoyed the retro atmosphere of a Ruby’s restaurant, you’ve sampled some of the fruits of OC-based food pioneers...and, in most cases, you still can do so today!
Fashion Innovators—OC-based fashion innovators whose creations have made waves around the world run the gamut from the sleek high-end St. John Knits to the active sports and surfing-minded Oakley, Hurley, Volcom, and Van’s, to name a few.
Turning Video Gaming into Big Business—As Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment turned 20 in 2011, it released its newest “World of Warcraft” game, attracting more than 12 million subscribers, and making it the world’s most-subscribed online game. The best place to experience what video gaming means to millions around the globe is scoring a ticket to BlizzCon, Blizzard’s yearly conference in Anaheim, which attracts world-wide aficionados and sells out in minutes.