Coming of Age on an Encino Estate

Reflections on what might have been had it not been for a serendipitous house-hunting trip one day more than 40 years ago.

You wonder sometimes—the tiny turns way-back-when that affect so much … so much later. Like the one in 1970 in our rental house on the Westside. recently relocated from Long Island on account of my dad’s work. He was writing music for the ABC sitcom Love, American Style. The deal was, if the show got renewed, we’d move west … and here we were.

My mom was 26, I was 6, my brother 3, and my sister was just a baby. My dad drank coffee at his piano late into each night, then after too little sleep skipped off to Paramount, where an orchestra awaited him.

In turn, my Mom scrambled to keep busy in a heat wave with no friends, an infant, a toddler and me. Each day we got in the car with a different Realtor in search of “home.” My mom didn’t know Cheviot Hills from Studio City, or Valley from city. She just knew school was starting, and timing was key.

Then one day in the paper: “Encino Hills, executive estate.” My dad wasn’t exactly an executive (a soft-spoken musician with long sideburns, actually), but the estate part sounded nice.

We arrived at the house, with its 12 x 12-foot bedrooms and L-shaped pool. The Realtor pointed out that three houses above lived comedian George Gobel—then the top right box on Hollywood Squares. If that weren’t enough, below was Mr. Rowan, the TV announcer who proclaimed nightly: “I Love Lucy is a Desilu Production.”

Years later I concede: There were probably more glamorous celebrities to neighbor with on the Westside. But nevertheless, when we told relatives back home about George and Mr. Rowan, they were anything but disappointed.

The Realtor drove us past family restaurants like El Torito and Hamburger Hamlet (now Lakeside Cafe and Hokkaido Seafood Buffet) and fun spots like the Encino Theater and Encino Bowl (now Hilltop Cleaners and Marshalls)—and ending at Lanai Road School, a picturesque, hilltop grade school that was home to, I swear, exactly 300 Jews and The Jackson 5.

The next weekend my dad broke from his piano and ventured into the Valley. His brother, who came along for the ride, was a larger-than-life theater producer who had accepted baldness as a style choice decades before it was fashionable.

Uncle Manny walked inside, took the cigar from his mouth and said, “Charles, this is hardly an estate.” Though my dad clearly agreed, my mother gave him a look I was too young to understand … and like that, we were moving.

That house on Meadowridge Way became home for the rest of my childhood. The kids from the surrounding houses became my best friends—many remain so to this day.

In 1981, after graduation, I headed east for college. And by the time I returned, my parents had moved again. Years later, I sometimes imagine life had we ended in Cheviot Hills … or Studio City. Or if low Nielsen ratings kept us in Long Island. What memories would I have? Who would my friends be? Who would I be?
As I ponder this, my computer dings and I see on Facebook a vintage clip from The Tonight Show—Johnny Carson interviewing a hilarious comedian I don’t immediately recognize. It’s soon clear this is, in fact, George Gobel. He’s funnier than I ever imagined, and with each joke I’m more nostalgic for my old neighborhood and my childhood—and thankful for the day my Mom threw us in the car, went left, right, then north and changed our lives forever.

Robbie Fox is a TV and film writer. He lives in Encino with his wife and son (his daughter is away at college). His parents, by the way, also still reside in Encino.