A Mall Full of Memories: Reminiscing about the Eagle Rock Plaza – The Eastsider LA

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A clear sky. Low 47F. Winds N at 5 to 10 mph.
Updated: February 17, 2022 @ 5:11 pm
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Assistant Editor
Eagle Rock —  With the news of the Eagle Rock Plaza being put for sale in late 2019, local social media buzzed with longtime residents waxing poetic of the 1970s-era mall. “My mom taught me how to drive in that parking lot,” “My first job was at Morrow’s Nut House,” “I saw Jim Stafford at the grand opening of the Eagle Rock Mall.”
Now, after 18 months, a pair of real estate investment firms known for overhauling properties past their prime emerged as the new owners of the nearly-half-century-old shopping center, currently anchored by Target, Macy’s, Seafood City, and Fitness 19.
The new owners hint at potential big changes. While waiting to see the next incarnation, many folks and mall rats have been traveling down Memory Lane.  For many, the opening of the mall in 1973 ushered in an exciting new era, not only as a place to shop but also as a central meeting place to hang out.
These comments and memories were collected in late 2019 but still stand the test of time:
Angel Awuma and Marina Amis-Garcia – Glassell Park teenagers in the early ’80s – sigh with delight thinking about Casa Escobar’s nachos. “We would always get them from the takeout counter, I don’t think we ever sat in the restaurant all the years we went there,” says Amis-Garcia with a laugh. “We’d just take the nachos and eat them in the mall,” continues Awuma, adding that she’s not sure what made them so memorable. “They were just … good!”
“There was nothing close to it!” exclaims Cameron Cali, who grew up in Highland Park and remembers the day the mall opened. “You’d get your Levis at Miller’s Outpost, check out Oshman’s Sporting Goods, pick up a gag gift at Spencer’s and browse through the vinyl at the Wherehouse. I got my ears pierced at Spencer’s. Drooled over posters of Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Tiegs there.”
Young boys also eyed the mall’s smooth polished floors with focused intent. “I don’t know how many times we tried to skateboard through the mall from one end to the other without getting caught by the security,” says Cali. “They chased us, but they never caught us.” Additionally, the expansive parking lot was also a favorite location for skateboarders especially the curvy entrances and exits.
“I got my first BB gun from Oshman’s,” relates Eric Spangler who also grew up in Highland Park in the 70s. “We’d ride our bikes over, lock ‘em up and then spend the whole day there.  We’d check in with our parents through the day by using a pay phone. On Sundays, there was an All You Can Eat Pancake breakfast at the Montgomery Wards’ employee dining room. I think it was about $1.50.”
Trips to the mall with the family usually involved shopping. Awuma and Amis-Garcia got their prom and graduation dresses from Suzi’s and Contempo  Casuals. “My mom took me to the May Co. to get my ballet tights,” says Noelle Nese Mercer, who grew up in Highland Park. “She would send me to get one of those lollypops from See’s Candies to keep me busy while she shopped.”
“My mom was a die-hard May Co. shopper,” concurs Tim Carruth, Eagle Rock resident. Before the mall opened, the Carruth family would travel downtown to shop at that May Co. “There were two bills my mom hid from my dad,” he shares. “The telephone bill and the May Co bill!”
As the mall aged, so did infrastructure. “The elevator at the Montgomery Wards was weird and scary,” relates Mary Frances Spencer who moved into Eagle Rock in the early 1990s. “It smelled like rubber. We avoided using it, but it was hard if you had kids in strollers.”
Perhaps the biggest lure of the mall-scape: the Eagle Rock Cinema and its four 290-seat screens.
“I distinctly remember seeing ‘The Three Amigos’ in that theater,” says Chad Benton. “It was so cheap! That’s one reason we kept going back to it.”
Benton, who grew up in Sun Valley, would meet schoolmates from Village Christian who traveled from Tujunga and La Crescenta to hang out. “There were no movie theaters in the Foothill area. This was the closest,” he says. “Our parents could easily drop us off on weekend or in the summer.”
“It was a terrible little theatre and the first five rows were leaning backwards, but we loved it,” describes Escott Norton about the cinematic experience. “Sometimes it was less about what was going on the screen and more about what was happening in the seats with your friends.”
“It felt huge when I was 11- years-old. We all thought it was so cool,” says Norton explaining it was the first mall he had ever experienced. Now, having witnessed housing being destroyed to make way for the mall, Norton finds it ironic that perhaps the new owners could add housing into the developmental footprint. “It would certainly be full circle, wouldn’t it?”
Eagle Rock – Now that Eagle Rock Plaza has sold, it may be facing some big changes. But it won’t be the first time.
Most of the stores from the mall’s debut in 1973 are no longer there; in fact, some of the original stores are no longer much of anywhere. When the mall first opened on Oct. 1, 1973, you could spend a pleasant afternoon getting fried clams at Howard Johnson’s, a refreshing protein-smoothie at Orange Julius, Jackson Browne’s latest album at the Wherehouse, and pretty much anything else you could think of at one of the anchor stores, Montgomery Ward.
Here are a few high lights and low lights of the mall’s history – and its possible future:
Oct. 1, 1973
Eagle Rock Plaza opens – though it almost didn’t have that name. Though originally conceived as Eagle Rock Plaza, the management of May Co. briefly had a sign calling it the Verdugo Mall Shopping Center. According to a Glendale News Press story on Oct. 19, 1972, that didn’t sit well with area residents, who complained that the new name “did not adequately promote the community of Eagle Rock.” May Co. met with City Councilman Arthur Snyder – and backed down.
The mall replaced 106 properties, according to the L.A. Times — including motels, a church, apartments and houses.
November 1973
The Plaza opens up even more parking – contributing to a building footprint that now seems dwarfed by its parking area. Eagle Rock historian Eric Warren, president of Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society, later told the L.A. Times, “Architecturally, they bought into a model which, unfortunately, is not viable anymore. The parking lot is an almost half a block barrier to the street that people walk on.”
May 1974
The Plaza hosts a three-day celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Over the years, the Plaza would also become a venue for community events such as Halloween and Christmas celebrations, as well as a police expo, a salute to America’s bicentennial on Flag Day, celebrity appearances (Leif Garrett! Zsa Zsa Gabor!), and a visit from the Budweiser Clydesdales.
Barely four years old, the mall faces the worst sort of scandal. Two victims of the Hillside Stranglers were last seen boarding a bus there on Nov. 13. At that point, Sonja Johnson, 14, and Dolores “Dolly” Cepeda, 12, were already being followed by Angelo Buono and his cousin, Kenneth Bianchi, who would later be identified as serial killers. The two girls got off the bus at York Boulevard, where the men got them into their car, using fake police badges. Buono and Bianchi were arrested and convicted.
March 1981
Things seem to be back to normal, and the mall is once again treated as a safe space, as Eagle Rock Plaza hosts the regional California Dance Championships. Top qualifiers moved on to the dance championships at Knott’s Berry Farm.
The mall comes in for renovations, under a program called “Eagle Rock Plaza Adds Pizazz.” This may have been when the mall removed a steel sculpture that had been placed there at the beginning – a 32-foot high, 17-foot-wide steel recreation of nine soaring birds, according to the L.A. Times. Renovations also included replacing the ceiling, augmenting the lighting, redoing the paint scheme and bringing in new furniture for the lobby areas. Many of these renovations have, themselves, since been changed.
The May Department Stores Co. announces it will merge with the Robinson’s department store chain, effectively ending the May Co. brand. Some stores are closed, though not the Eagle Rock location just yet.
December 2000
The Montgomery Ward company announces it will close all its retail outlets, and lay off its 37,000 employees. Ultimately, Montgomery Ward and May Co. are replaced as anchor stores by Target and Macy’s.
The movie theater – originally called Cinema 4, then later Eagle Rock 4 – finally closes for good, according to Cinema Treasures
February 2005
Chuck E. Cheese’s gets approval to set up a 14,806-square-foot restaurant, with game arcades and the sale of beer and wine.
September 2006
Seafood City already seems to be in operation, as it asks for, and ultimately receives permission to sell beer and wine for off-site consumption. A later story in the Times says this was Seafood City’s first store in a mainstream mall.
The plaza has become a center for the Filipino community by now. In a feature story on Aug. 22 of that year, the L.A. Times calls it “Filipinos’s home away from home,” also referring to it as “the Mall of Manila.” A photo that runs with the story shows the Chow King is already in business.
Nov. 2 2017
The mall gets a gym. The city planning commission approves converting four tenant spaces “into a gym/health club.” We know it today as Fitness 19.
The Eastsider is committed to providing news and information free to all as a community service. But reporting and writing neighborhood news takes time — and money. Join the other Eastsider readers whose one-time contributions and monthly sponsorships help pay our bills and allow us to provide you the news and info that keeps you connected to your community. — Jesus Sanchez, Publisher
Brenda Rees is a writer who lives in Eagle Rock.
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Assistant Editor
Barry Lank has worked for newspapers on the East and West Coasts, and earned an MS in journalism from Columbia University. He formerly produced “National Lampoon Presents: The Final Edition.” A native of San Gabriel Valley, he now lives in East Hollywood.
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