From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Remembering Veterans: The Revitalization of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, CA
In August 26th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 137, host Theo Mayer spoke with Lester Probst and Fernando Rivero from Hollywood, CA's American Legion Post 43. Started by WWI vets, Post 43 has had a distinguished membership, including many famous names from the film industry. Over time, the Post fell into disrepair. However, an effort spearheaded by Mr. Probst, Mr. Rivero, and others to remember WWI in the Los Angeles area and inject new life into Post 43 has been wildly successful; it has grown in numbers and once again become a community focal point. Read on to learn more about this remarkable transformation. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: For Remembering Veterans, it's the 100th anniversary of the American Legion. Having been conceived in Paris as the war ended by veterans who served in World War I, the American Legion, its history, its advocacy on behalf of veterans, and its accomplishments are truly amazing. But one of the more interesting aspects of the organization, and one that I've come to appreciate during my years working on the World War I Centennial project, is the American Legion's structure and organization. It seems to me that it's all about the actions and activities of individual Posts that gives the organization its real strength. So with that as a set up, I'd like to invite you to join me in exploring one of those Posts, its history, and its unusual role because of its unique location. It's Post number 43 in Hollywood, California. And joining us to talk about the Post's history and its current projects are Fernando Rivero, the Post's past commander and chairman and founder of the Legion Theater, and Lester Probst, Post chairman of the Americanism Committee, which is one of the four pillars of the American Legion, and co-chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee. Gentlemen, welcome to the podcast!
Fernando Rivero: Hi Theo. Thanks for having us.
Lester Probst: Yes. Thanks very much, Theo.
Theo Mayer: So, let me start with a quick overview of your personal histories. Lester, where and when did you serve?
Lester Probst: Well, I served from 1953 to 1954 in the DMZ in Korea. As you know, that separates North and South Korea to this day. And hopefully at some point in time, it may even end.
Theo Mayer: Lester, what branch were you in?
Lester Probst: I was with the Infantry. I was actually drafted out of New Jersey and I ended up in the 40th Division, which is the California National Guard. However, that California National Guard was not in Los Angeles. It was physically on the DMZ in Korea. Not as much sun and beautiful flowers.
Theo Mayer: Interesting. Interesting. Well, your whole family has a tradition of service, doesn't it?
Lester Probst: Yes. At the age of 16, my dad actually enlisted in the Coast Artillery. At the age of 17, he was actually Sergeant Major, Junior Grade. And at the end of that year, he made Senior Grade. And he taught Artillery in Seattle and never got overseas, and I guess that was lucky. In addition, I had four uncles, one of whom was in the infantry in the trenches in France, and he actually was wounded by shrap metal (shrapnel). And, I guess, lucky for him, he came home.
Theo Mayer: Fernando, how about you? What's your story of service?
Fernando Rivero: Well, I joined pretty late. I actually went to film school first in Florida and was on my way, moving to California to pursue a career in Hollywood, when the September 11th attacks occurred. And, although I'd had some interest in joining the military in high school and my dad had served in the Army... He was drafted during Vietnam... I chose a different route. But after 9/11, I was compelled to do something. And so, I joined the Navy Reserve, ended up deploying to Afghanistan, and later to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the ISIS fight. And so, yeah. I ended with sort of this unexpected military career that's defined my life in ways that I would not have expected. But alongside that, I did end up working in television. I've worked in television now for nearly 25 years.
Theo Mayer: Turning our focus now to the Post. First of all, I've personally had the pleasure of being there, and it sits literally directly below the Hollywood Bowl on Sunset Boulevard. It's an iconic location. But more than that, it's a really iconic building. It's beautiful. Could you tell our listeners a quick history of this beautiful art deco building? And which one of you would like to do that?
Fernando Rivero: I'll take it, just because I've been telling this story now for the better part of seven years. The Hollywood Post of the American Legion, when I discovered it after I came back from Afghanistan, was just like any other Post in America, and also unlike any other Post in America in the sense that, what I found there was a level of camaraderie and acceptance and fellowship that you expect to find when you walk into American Legion Posts. And a lot of the life there was centered around the bar. But the history of the American Legion in Hollywood is interesting because it was started by World War I veterans who all worked in the motion picture business in Hollywood. It got its charter in 1919, along the national organization. We're celebrating our centennial this year. So, our members have included guys like Walter Long, Charlton Heston, Micky Rooney, Gene Autry, Ronal Reagan, Clark Gable. So, really, a who's who of Hollywood notables. And ten years after they chartered, they built a 30,000 square foot Egyptian revival building right below the Hollywood Bowl that is stunning. It's just a gorgeous building. But, you know, (after) 90 years, it had become sort of run down. Of all that space, you know, largely member activity centered around the bar and the meeting once or twice a month and there didn't seem to be a bright future ahead for the Post when I joined.
Theo Mayer: Lester, at the very start of the World War I centennial period, you and I met because you got directly involved 100 Cities 100 Memorials Grant program to restore World War I memorials, and you had one in L.A. that you were working on. Could you talk about that? And the Post's role in that project?
Lester Probst: Yeah. That started under the leadership, really, of Fernando before he became commander. And, of course, my interest was because of my family and its history in the first World War. But also because the American Legion... It was getting to be the 100th anniversary of World War I. World War I and the American Legion are directly connected, obviously. And I thought it was very important and would be really interesting if we could win one of the 100 Cities (grants). And so, I got involved directly with Courtland and Bill Betten, who led the Centennial L.A. Committee. And there's a Victory Memorial Grove actually overlooks the Dodgers' stadium. And, as you turn around in 360 degrees, you're actually looking at the Hollywood sign, you're looking at downtown Hollywood. It's a beautiful spot. And, unfortunately, it had been run down. Graffiti was all over the place. And we managed to get the L.A. Parks Commission involved. We got the El Pueblo Park Association involved. We just got all of L.A. Involved, especially in Elysian Park, and we restored that memorial. And it's beautiful today, and there are actually poppies and other native plants growing. The Park Commission takes care of watering. And every year, especially on Flag Day, which occurs in June every year, we're there replanting, restoring, if you will, and making sure that this memorial lives on.
Theo Mayer: I think a lot of organizations got involved, including the DAR and you all and the city. Really great job of just pulling it all together and creating community remembrance. Really great project.
Lester Probst: Yeah. And it's being remembered every year in Elysian Park and in LA. And that will continue now.
Theo Mayer: Well, Fernando, you're the chairman and founder of the Legion Theater project. When I toured the facility when I came out, I think it was 2014 or 2015, you were waving your arms around and talking about this project and, you know, what it was going to be. And now that it's complete and it's pretty amazing, congratulations! Can you tell our audience about the project and its inauguration?
Fernando Rivero: Yeah. We've come a long way. It's really hard to believe. Yeah. A few years ago, much like the American Legion in general, we're seeing a decline in membership. Preserving this as a place where we could continue to grow our membership and really have that community and that camaraderie was important. Because our clubhouse was built by veterans who worked in the motion picture business, it seemed natural that they would build it with a movie theater in it, and so they did. It was where they held their meetings. It was kind of a multipurpose auditorium. But it had a projection booth and back in the 30's they had gotten studios to donate film projectors, where they would show movies in addition to having all kinds of other activities. We were trying to grow our membership and we were trying to find ways to use the amazing building, not just to save it, but to generate some activity and revenue and be something in the community, because it was really falling apart. We looked around and said, well, we have a theater. We should really see if we can have a movie theater. And one of the things about L.A. Is that we always have movie premiers here and there's always some sort of big event going on. We said we have this crazy venue right in the middle of Hollywood that nobody knows about. And so, we set out in 2014 to determine the feasibility of having a movie theater and how we would use that to rent it out, but also to be kind of a flagship premier event space that was state of the art, so we could be that place where we could have events that centered around the military, national defense, veterans' affairs, so that we could have almost like a convention center or a venue to have these conversations and to have events. And so, one of the very first things that we did there was to have the World War I Centennial Film Festival. You know, when we started this project, I had just gotten married. I didn't have any children. We just finished the theater project. I now have two kids. And one of them got to see his first film in a movie theater in our theater at the American Legion, which was amazing for me. And it was Sergeant Stubby, which is a really wonderful animated film about the legendary Sergeant Stubby.
Not only do we do digital, but we can also do 35 and 70 millimeter film, which is kind of a big deal here. It's becoming a niche thing. It's almost like being able to listen to music on vinyl records. And some of the most elite film makers, like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, are great promoters of traditional film exhibition. And so, we also have this mission of being involved in film preservation and being able to exhibit it. So the anniversary D-Day that just passed, we had a special screening. We borrowed a print from 20th Century Fox of the Longest Day, Darryl Zanuck's epic production of D-Day. And we had, in the audience, a number of new enlistees into the army who had just been sworn in, along with World War II veterans, including Normandy D-Day veterans, in the audience. And that was just a really amazing event. We also did a partnered screening for the community along with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, in partnership with Warner Brothers, and we showed Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, which is The World War I documentary where they restored all the footage. And if you haven't seen it, it's really amazing. So, for me, I feel like we accomplished the mission, not only of restoring a beautiful building, keeping it current, opening it to the community, having something that can generate revenue for our Post so that we can continue to do our programs and have sort of financial survival, but also have this thriving and living cultural center where we can share our stories with the community. We can honor veterans. We can do it in a very classy way. And, being in Hollywood, we have a unique opportunity as the culture factory here to educate and influence the Hollywood community who are out there writing movies and making television shows, and give them an opportunity to have a touch point with our community and say, you know, come and learn about World War I or come and interact with our veterans. We're not all just victims of PTSD. We are restoring historic buildings. We are a powerful cultural force in the community. We're a significant player in the cultural landscape here.
Lester Probst: And I want to put an addendum to what Fernando was talking about. He alluded to the bar, both past and present. I think the theater, and all the other activities that we've been involved with and continue to be involved with, is taking emphasis away from the bar. We got there because it's vibrant and because it's exciting. And because the members are vibrant and exciting. Maybe because I'm 86 years old and I have seven children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, what I want to say is that it's kept me young in mind, if not in body. And I go there because I'm invigorated by talking to all these young people that have just served, and getting involved with them. And this theater and the revenue that we can derive from this theater and all the other events surrounding it will give us the opportunity to provide more benefits for our members and future members. And as you know, the government has just opened up the American Legion to all veterans, not just those that served in the war. And so, I'm hoping, over the next year or so, that we will go from something like 1,100 members of Post 43 to maybe even double that amount.
Fernando Rivero: I mean, we have more than doubled our membership since we started. One of the things we did was just simply was redesign our website. But we set a goal back in 2013 that we would, by 2019, double our membership. At the time, we had just fewer than 500 members and we said we're going to try to hit 1,000 members by 2019. Well, we hit 1,200 by 2018 and a lot of that is due to aggressive outreach, to kind of a snowball effort of diverse and vibrant group of veterans coming in really of all ages. We've had Vietnam vets and Korean vets. We had a World War II vet join that had never joined the American Legion before. So, it's not just post-9/11. It's all kinds of people that are rediscovering the American Legion, at least at our Post. And we reversed that trend of decline to really explosive growth. It's really been an amazing thing to be a part of. Working with guys like Lester is such a huge reward, because he is a delight and a great American. I would never have had this opportunity to meet a guy like that and be friends with him, and a lot of men and women like him that, if I had A, not joined the military and B, not joined the American Legion.
Theo Mayer: Well, your guys' story is really a wonderful one. And, clearly, you guys have a success story in all the ways you would want it to be. What advice would you give to somebody sitting somewhere else? How do you self-examine? How do you look at yourself as an organization, a Post, and go, okay, so, how do we do that in our community? Any suggestions?
Lester Probst: Join, number one. And then show up and mix with the members and get to know what they like, what they dislike. Find out what we can do for the community around us, that only helps us. But we have a group here at Post 43 where we actually, ten of us veterans got together and wrote a play about PTSD. We've had it read by actors on stage four or five times in the last year. And it's not only helped the audience, and hopefully audiences in the future, but hopefully it's helped individuals get up and talk about their issues. You know, learn to live. People say that they join the military for a family. Well, joining the American Legion is the same. We have basically a family at Post 43 and we support each other. And we look to have others join us and we can help them, also. So, show up. Get to know us and we'll get to know you and we can help each other.
Theo Mayer: Anything to add to that, Fernando?
Fernando Rivero: Les said it right. I think joining and showing up are first. If you just join and never show up, that's great, because it helps all veterans to have a strong American Legion that is represented in Congress and Washington, D.C. To lobby for our benefits and for our interests. But the American Legion is kind of a grassroots (organization). I think the strength of it and why it sort of survived for 100 years is really the way it was set up, which is on the foundation of local Posts that create a community for their veterans and their families. For me, that happened when I had just gone to war and come back. And now, in a very real way, right in front of me, I was seeing that I was a member of a long line of service. A long fraternity of folks that sign on the dotted line. That connection to my country, that opportunity to continue to serve with a family, as Les said, is something I think that, at small Posts, you need to do. You need to talk about your history. We need to talk about our purpose, which is the four pillars of the American Legion and serving fellow vets, of preserving American values, of taking care of children and youth. Getting back to those principles and creating community. Being welcoming is important. And each Post is going to find, in sort of the tactical ways, what is their thing for their community. If you're in a community where grilling outside or doing, you know, outdoor activities is important, then that's what gets you guys together. That's great. If you're in an urban area where arts, entertainment, or culture is what that membership in that local area wants, you'll figure that out. But what binds everybody together and the reason people show up, I think, is that community and that sense of history and really being in touch with that past.
Theo Mayer: You guys are doing a great job. Congratulations.
Fernando Rivero: Thank you, sir. We really appreciate you reaching out to us and helping us tell our story. It's validating for me, after the years of hard work that we've all put into this, to see that it's being well received. So, thank you.
Lester Probst: Yeah. I want to thank you also, Theo. And I want to invite you back down and take a look at what we've done.
Fernando Rivero: Yeah, come and see us.
Lester Probst: It's fantastic.
Theo Mayer: Guys, thank you so much.
Fernando Rivero: Thank you, Theo. Thank you.
Lester Probst: Oh, you're welcome.
Theo Mayer: Fernando Rivero is the Post past commander, as well as the chairman and founder of the Legion Theater. And Lester Probst, post chairman of the Americanism Committee, which is one of the four pillars of the American Legion, and co-chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee. We have links for you to the Post in the podcast notes.