Column | Interesting Elections

Part 3: Signal Hill’s Checkered Past

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The following is Part 3 in a new series by historian Claudine Burnett titled ‘Signal Hill’s Checkered Past’.

In October 1959, Long Beach Independent reporter Bob Wells described how the 4500 residents of Signal Hill liked their politics loud, partisan and frequent. At the drop of a hat, citizens would take up recall petitions and remove what they considered to be the “boil on the body politic.”

The recall weapon was first used in 1926, a short time after the city was established in 1923. The populace swept from office a council it blamed for a street paving job it felt was not up to standards.

Recalls followed in 1937, 1949, 1953, 1958 and 1959 (and 1980 and 1981 which I will talk about in a future article).

To taste its political climate, it might help to know that “drifters” were brought in for every political election up until the mid-1960s, according to Press Telegram reporter George Robeson. They lived in tents for the 45-day residency period and then voted and moved on. Both sides in a hot issue hired these tent voters, and the outcome of a city election in Signal Hill often depended on which faction had the most tents.

Many of the recall elections surrounded the police and gambling.

The 1937 recall was started after Jack Niblack was dismissed as Chief of Police and J.B. Kerrick of Oxnard named as his successor. The recall of the City Council failed by a small margin. The 1949 attempt to get rid of council members who favored gambling failed and allowed gambling to continue in the city. The 1953 bid was over the firing of police chief Ted Murray who allegedly appropriated for his own use a $1750 dice table seized years ago in Kid Mexico’s bingo parlor.

Mayor Lloyd Tomlin, Councilman Lloyd Coulson and Horace Green Jr. were removed on charges they endangered the public welfare by interfering with the efficiency and morale of the police and by acting with prejudice. The 1958 recall of all council members was an outgrowth of the Council’s refusal to enlarge the Fire Department and the firing of police captain Travis F. Oltman, president of the newly organized Police and Fireman’s Association over wage disputes. The recall failed, but issues with the police continued.

On April 7, 1959, Signal Hill traded in its 17-man police force for officers almost outnumbered by the population of the “island” city.

The change gave the 4000 residents of the city the full law-enforcement services of the 3800 member Sheriff’s Department. Along with the 20 or so men who worked out of the Signal Hill substation (Signal Hill police officers would be absorbed into the Sheriff’s department), the city would be covered by narcotics, vice and other special details from other sheriff’s offices.

Under the contract, the city paid $113,000 ($1 million today) a year for services. The council felt that for the $113,000 they would be getting more protection than under the $168,000 ($1.5 million) police budget.

The change, the council stated, was the end result of months of morale-shattering unrest during which officers were fired, rehired and then fired again. The council also decided county fire and ambulance service for Signal Hill would be less costly and provide better service. On June 24, 1959, the fire and ambulance service change went into effect.

A city contracting out for services was a relatively new thing at the time.

Signal Hill citizens believed they should have been consulted on what would in later years become a basic municipal action. However, other issues included a $90,000 ($800,000 today) police building – just completed in 1959 – sitting virtually unused because the county sheriff’s office worked through a Lakewood station. Also, five police cars and a city fire ambulance which taxpayers had paid for were now “in storage,” not being used.

In October 1959, 75% of the city’s registered voters turned out to give the recall a 2.5 to 1 majority. Recalled were four of the five city council members- Harold V. Clark, Frank B. Vaught, Emil B. Haughty and Benjamin A. Moyle (who also served as mayor). Only Councilwoman Nellie Combellack, who had not voted for the contract move because she felt it should be a decision made by voters, remained in office. The Signal Hill contract for police and fire services with Los Angeles County ended July 1, 1960.

Nellie Combellack, called “Old Nell” by residents, was a council member (and sometimes mayor) from 1948 until her retirement in 1962. A reader remembered Nell was quite a character. But did “Old Nell” have enemies?

The same reader told how her family, the Smiths, moved into Nellie Combellack’s former home at Orange and 33rd Street in the summer of 1959. Shortly after the Smiths moved in and had gone to bed the family heard two loud blasts. Not wanting to disturb his wife, who had just returned from the hospital, Mr. Smith got up without turning on a light, looked around and didn’t find anything wrong. However, the next morning the Smiths found lots of glass, shredded drapes, the back of a new chair shredded with stuffing covering the floor, holes in the living room and kitchen windows and the hallway door leading to bedrooms full of shotgun holes. The debris ended just a foot from where the recently hospitalized Mrs. Smith was sleeping.

The police were called and seemed VERY surprised that the house did not belong to Mrs. Combellack. They started questioning family members as to who they knew who could have done it, even asking the Smith daughter if she had a jealous boyfriend. In between questions, they kept asking about Mrs. Combellack.

Mr. Smith said after they left he thought the police were the ones who had attacked the house. His parting words to them, his daughter recalled, were “make sure you tell people Mrs. Combellack doesn’t live here anymore.” When the police were contacted asking about the status of the investigation the Smiths got the feeling no one wanted to talk about it. No leads. However, the family did feel fortunate that no one had been seriously injured or killed. The Smith daughter, who told me this story, said the family would talk about it over the years and remark that not everyone got their house gunned down in the wee hours of the night…especially in 1959.

Nothing was reported in the press about the incident or attempts to harm Nellie Combellack and no suspect was ever found.

Drama surrounded many Signal Hill elections such as the one in April 1952, which had Bingo King Kid Mexico (Tod Faulkner) afraid that his gambling interests would come to an end. On election day Faulkner said he needed guys with cars to drive certain Signal Hill citizens to the polls. An undercover reporter for the Long Beach Independent signed up to be a driver.

There was no mention then of what drivers were to be paid, but word had circulated beforehand that they would get $15 ($146) each – plus a big fat $30 ($292) bonus if the gambler’s slate won.

Faulkner’s campaign manager, Cliff Waters told drivers he had a list of 1200 registered voters whom they believed would vote the “right” ticket. Waters then explained who the “right” candidates were – Mayor Lloyd J. Tomlin, Loring R. Jones and James F. Walsh. Drivers went out at 7 a.m., knocking on doors, ringing bells, and making pitches for Faulkner’s slate of candidates. Each driver was given a pack of cards, more or less sample ballots, on which crosses had been marked opposite the names of Tomlin, Jones and Walsh. Drivers were told to hand a card to each passenger to guide him or her in choosing the “right” candidate.

The undercover reporter was surprised to find most people already up, and they weren’t surprised to see someone at their door so early. Perhaps they had been told beforehand that drivers would be around. However, no one, except one sickly lady, accepted the reporter’s invitation to ride to the polls. This wasn’t so hard to take when one realized that the polling place was only two blocks away from the street were the reporter had been assigned.

Despite Faulkner’s actions only Mayor Lloyd Tomlin, who had been in office since December 1946, was reelected. In July 1953, Faulkner pleaded guilty to election fraud charges which involved his trying to rig registrations in the November 1952 Signal Hill election. An anti-gambling ordinance passed by a vote of 1358 to 660. But Faulkner was not one to give up.

Faulkner found religion. He claimed that in April 1958, God and Faulkner’s dead wife Edna appeared to him, telling him to go out and preach the word of God. One person, he found “ungodly” was Signal Hill City Administrator-Engineer Charles Trygg.

In 1962, Faulkner admitted he helped finance a four-page smear sheet against Trygg distributed in Signal Hill just before the April 10 municipal election. The paper referred to the city administrator as “Big Wig Trygg,” “Boss Trygg” and “Mr. Big Trygg” and cast innuendo on Trygg’s competence, although no specific charges were made. Faulkner was successful. A new city council asked for Trygg’s resignation. Trygg resigned, though the charges brought against him were not revealed.

A persistent Faulkner decided to run for council himself in 1964. His platform included: effective zoning to provide for high-rise developments without sacrificing single-family residential areas; working to create a modern “downtown” area with top-quality retailers; creating a municipal auditorium for conventions and other meetings; attracting modern businesses in order to keep the tax rate low and get Signal Hill moving ahead. He also pledged to keep away politics and gambling, which voters found hard to believe. Faulkner ended up running sixth among nine candidates.

For more about Faulkner see my 2016 Tribune article, Kid Mexico.

In the April 1968 Signal Hill election, another “interesting” campaign began when City Council candidate George Papadakis offered to pay 5 cents for each election poster of Floyd Jones which was removed from any power pole, school or public property.

It seemed zealous supporters of Jones had stuck campaign posters on illegal places such as power poles, schools or other public property. But Jones posters had also appeared on private property and youngsters who wanted to collect a nickel for every poster they could find snapped up all the Jones posters all over town, including ones Jones had tacked to his own home and garage.

In retaliation, the Jones contingent planned to put 6000 Jones posters throughout Signal Hill and invite the kids to tear them down and redeem them from Papadakis at 5 cents apiece. The thing was 100 or 200 posters would be attached to a single nail, so everybody would get a shot at the bounty money!

George E. Papadakis, a Torrance school teacher, Floyd Jones and Gertrude Beebe were running to fill the vacancy of Morris L. Shoup, who decided not to run for reelection. Floyd and Beebe both lived in the 7-year-old Flintstone Apartments at 2165 E. 21st Street, known for its two-story-high mosaic dinosaur with red mazda eyes, which adorned the front of the apartments. Papadakis was their neighbor who owned a small apartment house outflanked by the Flintstone.

See related: Column | The Flintstone

Earlier I wrote about Papadakis’ fight with Flintstone owner Miles Shook over partying at the apartment building and how, as a city planning commissioner, he was able to convince the city council to pass a city-wide anti-noise ordinance in 1962. Ironically, he was now running against two residents of the Flintstone.

Both Jones and Beebe agreed that Signal Hill needed to be straightened out. Here’s where the gut fighting and nitpicking came in: Floyd Jones said he wanted to know why the curbs in front of the apartment house owned by the mayor were not painted, allowing parking when in front of other apartment houses they were painted red. Jones called the Signal Hill Police Department “worse than a Mack Sennett comedy,” and he deplored the nepotism in the department, epitomized by the fact that the police chief, Richard Denham, was the mayor’s son.

A native of Wheatland, Wyoming, Mrs. Beebe taught elementary school in that state for six years after graduation from the University of Wyoming before moving to Signal Hill in 1935. She served as city treasurer from 1942 to 1966. Mrs. Beebe held the distinction (and possibly the state record) of being reelected as city treasurer and as city clerk, all on the same ballot in 1966.

She said this about the City Council and the Police Department: “The city councilmen are no more than puppets for the city administrative officer (Fred Baxter) and the police operate in pathetic fashion. Many of our patrolmen are the finest law enforcement officers one could find, but politics prevents them from doing their duty as they see fit.” ( Press-Telegram, 3/15/1968) She also mentioned remedying the city hiring policy, which barred blacks from being employed by the city.

Gertrude Beebe won a seat on the council and continued to serve as councilwoman until March 1976 and as mayor from March 1974-March 1975. Papadakis bounced back in April 1970, continuing an on and off a career as councilman until March 1984, also serving as Mayor from April 1973-March 1974 and from March 1981-July 1981. Floyd Jones also made another run for a council seat in 1970, charging misuse of city funds “so the politicos can make a killing in real estate.” He also favored a break up of “family control of Signal Hill.” He lost.

Another candidate who won in the 1968 election was Sandra L. Miller who served on the council until April 1972. More about her and her fight against the political bosses of the city in my next article.

Claudine Burnett has written 10 books about Southern California history. For more about her, and to access her blogs, visit her website here. Also, visit her Facebook page here.