Check My Custom Machines

Ron Binkley photographed with his latest project, a canary-yellow 1938 Cadillac La- Salle, 2-door Opera Coupe. (photo by Valerie Electra Smith-Griffin)

The layers in-between the lip-smacking cake that’s our town are its people, such as Pedro-blooded Ron Binkley, a non-stop cars and electronics tinker who once played a mean electric keyboard and danced the night away with an alluring woman known only as Midnight at the now vanished Canetti’s Restaurant.

It’s a typical gray mist-laden morning, and Binkley replaces the baritone, two-tone foghorn once known as “Moaning Maggie” with the commanding startup of his most reliable 1971 Ford Torino Station Wagon, its wheels whirling off to San Pedro’s Sacred Grounds, his personal haunt for his ritualistic cup of high octane. It’s a happening destination where he celebrates the day with relished camaraderie consisting of long-time friends and his kids who enjoy sharing the day with Pappy. After toasting the sunrise with Columbian and cream, he returns to his home that’s chockfull of cars, a mish-mash of machinery and a plethora of photographic memories spread across a thick wooden table that is laden not with salt and pepper shakers, placemats and artificial fruit, but hundreds of faded Kodacolor, sepia-tone and grainy black and whites of cars, machinery, wars past and family, collaged and creating a watercolor wash that are the festive colors of Binkley, whose lead foot is glued on the accelerator pedal of life; his fervor for all things cars, and the restoration of engines and drive trains ever-smoldering.

The Gilbert Electric Train Set, Slinky, or that extra special toy packaged with a barrage of sexual curiosity questions, the Doctor and Nurses Kit, magnetized many kids of the 1940s but not necessarily so for our mechanical-minded Binkley. Reflecting on his mother’s memory, Binkley says, “In 1940, at the age of three, I found car parts in an alley and, using a board, rolled them up into my crib.” For Binkley, his fascination with vehicles and machinery visibly evolved from a curious childhood habit into a lifelong emotional, and some might add, spiritual attachment.

In his early teens, Binkley worked as an usher at the Warner Grand Theatre where he played piano for the 1950 movie premier, South Sea Sinner, which also starred Liberace. Other jobs included Howard Cross Auto Repair and 7th Street Garage. In 1959, his strong interests in electronics and aerospace were further stimulated at Ryan Aeronautical Company, best known for building Charles Lindberg’s “Spirit of St. Louis” for his illustrious 1927 transatlantic flight. Always one that harbored a now realized yearning to witness man’s flight to the moon and beyond, he worked on the Doppler Radar for the Lunar Lander until he was drafted into the army, then returned to Ryan and onto Vickers Aerospace as an instrumentation technician on the Gemini Space Capsule. He retired in 1998 as foreman of the Radar and Antenna Restoration Division in the Electronics Weapons Facility at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.

Binkley’s cars read like classic commercials from Cal Worthington and his fantasy dog Spot, but unlike Worthington, he won’t stand on his head, and don’t expect to see a Smart Car, which to Binkley, is an abomination of the greatest kind. As we peruse his aisles we see his 1968 Buick Special complete with a Buick 350 V-8. Interested in a 1931 Model A, or perhaps a Ford 1955 F100 Truck? The head-turning 1947 Cadillac Fleetwood Convertible that was advertised last week flew off the lot, but that snazzy 1938 Cadillac 75 series Coupe that was one of forty-two cars ever built, and survived the London Blitz, is waiting for you to drive it away, as is the 1964 1/2 Mustang and the 1940 Cadillac ’62 series with a L-Head V-8.

“My cars must have noise, that’s why I install duel exhaust and headers on all of them. It’s like beautiful music to my ears,” says Binkley.

Perhaps a 1974 Plymouth Gold Duster is more to your liking, or a head-turning 1969 purple Cadillac El Dorado with a no-nonsense 472 engine. Yearning to nourish your inner diva? Try an eye-popping 1961 Chevrolet Impala Convertible, it’s the one Binkley used to chauffeur former Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the San Pedro Christmas parades, and it comes complete with a 348 V-8 engine and 4-barrel carburetor. Still perplexed as to what honks your horn? Try a 1938 Cadillac La Salle Opera Coupe, complete with a 1942 military tank engine, or its earlier LaSalle cousin from 1937. If you crave a 1936 Ford 4-door sedan with the 1949 Olds V-8 and 1937 LaSalle transmission, sorry pal, that one flew off the lot as fast as its scorching wheels could go.

In addition to the artful cars just mentioned, Binkley is also the proud owner of two, 700 pounds each, solid stainless steel, early model nuclear submarine periscope foundations, complete with floor plates that display 360 degree markings. Perhaps they’ll eventually come in handy as lawn statues. Seriously, pink flamingos are so yesterday.

Binkley reflects on his prize car. “Without hesitation, one of my favorites was the one I purchased from Cecil Thomas and Sons on Pacific Avenue in San Pedro. A 1936 Ford 4-door sedan for $49.” Being the modification surgeon that he is, he rebuilt the engine with an Oldsmobile overhead valve V-8, a rear-end from a 1941 Cadillac LaSalle transmission, duel 4-barrel carburetors and a drive shaft from a 1932 Cadillac V-12. The track of Lions Drag Strip (1955-1972) in the Wilmington district, adjacent to Long Beach, whose slogan was “Drive the Highways, Race at Lions”, paved the way for the revamped car. “My lifelong friends, Billy Stecker, the late Jack Stecker, Frank Iacono and Tom Taros are 1940s and 1950s drag racing world icons and without Taros, all the hot rodders wouldn’t have a place to go.”

Lions Drag Strip is now a ghostly image in Binkley’s rearview mirror and his Canetti’s nights are kept alive in lively remembrances at Sacred Grounds with friends who frequently slip in a friendly barb of, “Can’t you find another subject besides cars to talk about?” Ignoring the question, he downs his final sip of Columbian and cream, eager to make a mad dash home and determined to breathe new life into his latest project, a canary-yellow 1938 Cadillac LaSalle, 2-door Opera Coupe. Care for a ride anyone? Take Binkley’s word for it, once you hear the engine roar and caress that velvety burgundy mohair interior, you haven’t lived! spt

Remembering Tom Phillips

Artist Tom Phillips (right) with Mrs. Mary Thomas (left) widow of Assemblyman Vincent Thomas, photographed at the Arcade Building in historic downtown San Pedro beside the original painting of “The Cinematic Bridge,” commissioned by festival director Stephanie Mardesich for the key art for the first official poster for the L.A. Harbor International Film Festival (LAHIFF), April 2004. (photo courtesy of LAHIFF)

Tom Phillips was happiest in his studio, painting. He was considered a bit of an introvert, and his love of art seemed to overshadow most other areas of his life. But it was this mindset, and dedication, that put Phillips on the map – early and often.

Until May of this year, when Phillip’s life tragically ended due to post-surgical complications after a lung procedure, he could always be found creating something – he could always be found pushing the limits of his artistic ability.

“He was selectively reclusive, his world outside of painting consisted of a small group of high school friends, myself and our son,” says Laura Davidson, Phillip’s ex-wife. “But he was very in tune with what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it.”

With strong roots in San Pedro, and a lineage that can be traced back four generations to Southern California, it is no wonder that in the final stages of Phillips’s career, as well as some of his beginning work, he focused on painting pictures of his beloved city.

“He was very proud of his family and where he came from,” Davidson says. It was this love, shared through art, that have made Phillips’s paintings so iconic in San Pedro. From the decorating of the walls of the San Pedro Brewing Co., to his painting of the “Cinematic Bridge” that became the poster image of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival, Phillips made is mark in San Pedro, and he made it through his painting.
After his passing in May, Davidson, their son, and Ron Sesco, owner of The Distinctive Edge Gallery, joined together to host a gallery in Phillips’s honor, to “cement recognition for his work.”

“Tom was one of San Pedro’s most renowned artists of the last 30 years and will be missed and remembered alongside the likes of Violet Parkhurst,” says Sesco. “Tom chronicled the essence of San Pedro history through his paintings of historical local buildings and landmarks that bring great memories of the past. His paintings also included farmland area of the Palos Verdes Hill where his great grandfather, Harry Phillips Sr., worked as a foreman on the Bixby Ranch in the early 20th century.”

“After his death, we found pieces he was working on and they were exciting,” Davidson says. “We were in awe.”
Upon deciding the date of October 27 for the show’s reception, Davidson, her son, and Sesco, whose gallery will host the event, are collectively deciding what works to feature. “This show is a celebration and recognition of his life. It’s for his clients to be able to come and view his work from beginning to end,” says Davidson. “It will be the fruits of his labor on the walls.”

Phillips, a native of San Pedro, was a man which life afforded many opportunities, who chose to live and die an artist in its truest form. His familial roots firmly planted in the ground of San Pedro, he kept this city forever close to his heart and made it an integral part of his work, says Davidson.

Phillips ex-wife speaks volumes on the life and work of her late husband. Their marriage ended amicably, resulting in one son. Davidson, who also has a background in art and a career in art galleries, says Phillips career took off almost immediately. “When his career first took off, it was at a furious pace. Everything he painted, he sold,” she remembers fondly. “He showed at the National Academy of Design in New York, two years in a row, on first submissions, which is unheard of. It’s an honor just to get in, let alone show work two years in a row, for a newcomer.”

When she saw his work at the beginning, she wondered why he wasn’t painting professionally – at this time he was pursuing a career in business law. This quickly changed, as Phillips followed his heart and dreams and was quickly rewarded with amazing opportunities. One of those opportunities came after an art show featuring three artists in the home of Sharon Disney.

“They wanted him to be part of WED Enterprises, doing illustrations and artwork, this was when EPCOT was being built at Disneyland,” Davidson says. “During his show in Sharon’s home, big wigs present, he was quickly offered a gig.” Although a tremendous career turn, Phillips declined in the interest of having sole responsibility of his work and his career. Davidson says that was one of many difficult decisions that paid off.

His career started booming, and around 1974, with Phillips selling paintings as fast as he could finish them, he was commissioned to do ranch pieces. Gene Autry even had a painting done by Phillips in his collection. Yet, even with such success, Davidson remembers these beginnings as humble. She says they were selling paintings out of their home, entertaining future buyers with “wine and cheese parties, and enjoying the rapid pace of life.”

A graduate of one of the best fine art schools in the United States – Art Center College of Design in Pasadena – Phillips knew that perfecting his technique, and always being open to learning new things was important to a life dedicated to art.

“His roots were always here,” says Davidson. “He loved San Pedro, and painting this city was always some of his best work.”

Now, as Davidson, their son, and Sesco, prepare to honor Phillips and his work one last time, they remember fondly the talent and drive he had.

“Picking the pieces to feature has been a real challenge,” explains Davidson. “We want the community, his clients, and those that never met him to have a chance to view the work that was his life. This gallery, this showing of his work, is the cement that will keep his name and his work in San Pedro forever.” spt

Tom Phillips (1948-2012) Exhibit & Sale Reception is Oct. 27, 5-8pm at The Distinctive Edge Picture Framing & Gallery (29050 S. Western Ave., Suite 113, Rancho Palos Verdes). Serious buyers & collectors, please call (310) 833-3613 for a preview and information.

ON THE COVER: She’s Here! The USS Iowa Arrives in the Port of Los Angeles

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - The USS Iowa sits in its permanent location at Berth 87 in the Port of L.A. The battleship officially opens to the public on July 7. (photo by John Mattera)

THE USS IOWA ARRIVES CARRYING WITH IT THE HOPES AND DREAMS OF A PROSPEROUS FUTURE FOR SAN PEDRO

Robert Kent stands with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the eleventh level atop the USS Iowa as it makes its final journey down San Pedro’s Main Channel. On shore, thousands of cheering spectators line Harbor Blvd. for a view of the ship’s arrival; it’s a proud day for the community that rallied together for a piece of military history. The WWII era battleship is finally making its home at Berth 87 in the Port of Los Angeles, where it will open as a museum ship this month.

Only two short years ago, Kent was pulling together every resource he could to convince the Port to reconsider making room for a battleship. “It’s real satisfaction,” he says, “We’re home. Our mission was accomplished.”

Veterans, dignitaries and community leaders roam the ship’s lower levels, getting a sneak peak before the ship opens to the public on July 7.

On the main deck, Yolanda Valle-Sedillo shows off a photo album of her older brother Charlie on the Iowa during the Korean War. He is among many veterans on board today wearing hats identifying their ships of service. “I remember seeing him in uniform coming up Sixth Street,” Valle-Sedillo says. “I thought, ‘Oh there’s my brother, he’s so handsome!’”

Robert Kent, president of the Pacific Battleship Center stands with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (photo by Joshua Stecker)

Charlie points down at the decks he hasn’t stood on for years. “They didn’t look like that!” he laughs. “We had a lot of fun out here. We had movies and you could even get a malt or a sundae. We had our own laundromat. This thing was a floating hotel!”

He and other Iowa veterans will be back in early July for a reunion. They’ll have access to the ship before it’s opened for public tours.

“We’ve created a tour called Tour Alpha, which is basically a trek around the ship all the way from the main deck, up to the flying bridge,” says Kent, President of the nonprofit Pacific Battleship Center, which runs the museum. “You get to see pretty much everything on the outside of the ship and then we’re allowing people to go inside into the main bridge, to the captain’s cabin and the officers boardroom.”

He’s crossing his fingers that the tour will also get to cover the crew’s galley.

Tour goers are strongly encouraged to buy tickets online ahead of time since space is limited. Four additional tours are also in the works, but each costs about a million dollars to put on. Kent hopes the next general tour will be open by next summer.

Half a Century of Service

Built in Brooklyn in 1940 for a cost of $110 million (it would cost $2.5 billion in today’s dollars to replace it), the USS Iowa was the lead ship of its class of fast battleships; so advanced that it was used for more than 50 years. The more than 15-story, 887 ft. long battleship was the fastest and most powerful of its time, nicknamed “The Big Stick.”

The ship earned 11 battle stars for its service, beginning in the Pacific Theater in WWII. It saw action again in the Korean War and was recommissioned for use in the Cold War. In 1989, a turret explosion killed 47 crewmen on the ship off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Saturday, June 2, 2012: The USS Iowa is towed past Angel’s Gate Lighthouse and into the Port of L.A. for the first time. (photo by John Mattera)

The Iowa hosted more U.S. presidents than any other battleship, beginning in 1943, when it transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a secret meeting in Tehran with Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kaishek. A special bathtub was added to accommodate Roosevelt, who suffered from polio.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan boarded the Iowa to celebrate the restoration and centenary of the Statue of Liberty. President George H.W. Bush went on the ship twice, first for its recommissioning in 1984 and again for the memorial service for the crewmen who perished in 1989.

Saturday, June 9, 2012: (Left) More than 800 specially invited guests board the USS Iowa for its final voyage into the Main Channel. (photo by Joshua Stecker)

From Mothball Fleet to Museum

By 2001, the Iowa had joined other mothballed vessels on reserve in the Suisun Bay near San Francisco. Four years later, it was struck from the Naval Registry, becoming the last remaining battleship available for donation to become a naval museum. Groups in Stockton, San Francisco and Vallejo took interest.

Kent, who had successfully helped find homes for other decommissioned warships, originally worked with the group in Vallejo. But its bid was denied in 2007 over concerns

about fundraising needed for a massive dredging project. Kent decided Los Angeles was the best bet to save the Iowa from being scrapped. In 2009, he formed the Pacific Battleship Center and began looking for fundraising and real estate in the Port of Los Angeles.

In early 2010, he made a proposal to the Port to provide a berthing site for the battleship, but it was struck down, citing interference with waterfront redevelopment.

A few months later, the Navy put out another call for bids. With a deadline in sight, Kent turned to the community to rally support for his proposal. It would take a lot of convincing to get the Port to reconsider; a museum ship wouldn’t be a moneymaker for the Port as much as it would be for San Pedro.

“Once the Port said no, I went to the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council and they passed a vote to support this project. Then right after that we were invited to the other neighborhood councils and it was pretty much unanimous support,” Kent recalls.

The response from not only San Pedro, but the entire Harbor Community was overwhelmingly supportive. Soon residents were collecting hundreds of petition signatures to sway the Port. Mayor Villaraigosa pledged his support and then-Councilwoman Janice Hahn got the L.A. City Council to pass a resolution backing the proposal. Endorsements even came from President George H.W. Bush and FDR’s grandson, H. Delano Roosevelt.

“At that point, the Harbor Commission was on notice that this really was a City and community-based supported project and they needed to listen,” Kent says. “And they did.”

In summer 2010, the Port decided to conduct a study on the financial feasibility of berthing the battleship. There were a few wrinkles to iron out, but on November 18, 2010, the Board of Harbor Commissioners unanimously voted to make room for the ship. The decision came in the nick of time, just days before the deadline for bids. Kent overnighted the Pacific Battleship Center’s application to the Navy. The only other bidder was Vallejo.

On September 6, 2011, the Iowa was officially awarded to L.A. by the U.S. Secretary of the Navy. “Without the community support for this project, this ship would not be sitting here right now and that is the absolute truth,” Kent says.

Former San Pedro Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Camilla Townsend, who was first approached by Kent three years ago, agrees. “I think the community had a big voice on this one, which was nice. It’s a good feeling for the community to be heard,” she says. “The credit really goes to Robert Kent. He’s worked tirelessly for eight years to make this happen.”

The Iowa underwent refurbishments in Richmond, Calif., before being towed to L.A. in late May of this year, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge on its 75th anniversary.

The USS Iowa (photo by John Mattera)

A Part of Pedro

USS Iowa fever swept San Pedro long before the ship’s arrival. A street party is set to take place on July 6 in downtown San Pedro to welcome the ship before its ribbon cutting the next day.

Business owners and community leaders have been important players in the push the bring the ship to the waterfront. “It’s a really big deal for us to have this ship, so we’re really excited both as business owners and as residents,” says Mona Sutton, owner the Omelette & Waffle Shop. “We finally have a good cornerstone attraction and a big piece of history.”

“I think our community is really happy and excited because it’s a good thing and we’ve been needing to see a positive thing happen in all of our revitalization,” says Townsend. “It’s going to be a beautiful sight here on the waterfront.”

The USS Iowa is now the premier surface warship museum on the west coast (the other two are aircraft carriers), making it a hot spot for veterans of not only battleships, but cruisers and destroyers.

Television production companies have already been calling asking when the ship will be available for filming. There is even a virtual reality experience in the works with a video game developer that will recreate some of the attacks the Iowa saw in WWII.

For many, the USS Iowa is more than a sorely needed tourist attraction, but a symbol of San Pedro’s own Naval history. “The Port of L.A. has a rich Navy history going back to the early part of the 20th century, where it used to house the city battle fleet,” says USS Los Angeles veteran Jim Whitt, who got to ride on the Iowa the day it settled at Berth 87. “There’s a very rich history, but all that has just about disappeared, so it’s nice to get some of that back.” Efforts to turn the USS Los Angeles into a museum ship never saw fruition and it was eventually scrapped. “This is kind of a second chance for us,” Whitt says.

Preventing the same fate for the USS Iowa, the world’s last remaining battleship, was a big part of Kent’s motivation.

“People ask me why I’ve been working 18 hour days, seven days a week pretty much for no pay for the last two years, living off my savings and putting in $250,000 of my own money for the project,” Kent says. “Well, I met a lot of crewmen along the way whose hopes were dashed so many times when each group that tried before failed. I was determined not to let the Pacific Battleship Center fail. I wanted these crewmen to finally get the satisfaction that their ship was going to be saved and be home again.” spt

For more info on the USS Iowa and to purchase tickets for tours, visit www.pacificbattleship.com.