Bandits and celebrities ran wild in days gone by

As long as an aging pipe has Runyon Canyon closed until July, why not take some time to look into the park’s eventful history? Over the years, the canyon has played host to bandits, celebrities, and liqueur tycoons. Here’s a short summary of some of the highlights.

Long before dogs ran wild here with Go Pros strapped to their backs, Runyon Canyon is believed to have been a camp spot for the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, who have resided in the Los Angeles area for thousands of years.

After California became a United States territory following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the canyon fell into the hands of the Federal Government, who in 1867 deeded it to a fellow by the name of “Greek George” Caralambo for his Army service and mastery of camels. As it turned out, Caralambo was a friend of notorious bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, and frequently offered up his new home as a hideout.

Tiburcio Vasquez portrait
Tiburcio Vasquez portrait

Tiburcio Vasquez, apprehended in Runyon Canyon
USC Digital Library – California Historical Society Collection

Vasquez is often cited as one of writer Johnson McCulley’s primary inspirations for the character of Zorro. Known throughout California as a “gentleman bandit,” Vasquez prided himself on his chivalry and denied ever having resorted to murder during his long career as a thief. He also justified his crimes as acts of resistance to the oppressive rule of the United States over the Spanish speaking California-born citizens.

By 1874, Vasquez’ exploits were enough for the state to offer $3,000 for his capture. After members of his sister’s family, disgusted by his womanizing ways, reported his whereabouts to authorities, Los Angeles Sheriff William Rowland organized a posse to capture Vasquez. They eventually found him at Caralambo’s house, where he surrendered and was taken to the Downtown jail at the present day site of Grand Park.

Map detailing capture of Vasquez
Map detailing capture of Vasquez

LA Public Library

Vasquez was hanged in 1875, but not before he found the time to collaborate on a play celebrating his exploits and helping to cement his legacy as a charming folk hero and defender of his people. Today, that reputation has been enough that a health clinic and (briefly) a school have been named in his honor.

Years after the death of Vasquez and his patron Greek George, Runyon Canyon was purchased by its namesake, Carman Runyon. Despite giving the park its name, Runyon only kept the property for ten years before selling it to Irish singer John McCormack, one of the most popular entertainers of the time. During McCormack’s tenure in the canyon, it hosted many legends of Hollywood’s golden age.

Errol Flynn and plane
Errol Flynn and plane

Sometime Runyon Canyon resident Errol Flynn
Iberia Airlines

The most famous resident of the canyon, however, was Errol Flynn, who rented the pool house of George Huntington Hartford II in 1957 and ’58. Hartford had bought the land in 1942 with the intention of building a hotel and country club designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Those plans fell through, however, and all that ever materialized was the pool house and a cottage, designed by Wright’s son, Lloyd Wright. Flynn was apparently reduced to renting in the Hollywood Hills after back alimony forced him to sell his primary residence.

In 1963, the land was purchased by Jules Berman, who had made his fortune importing Kahlua to the United States from Mexico. Berman hoped to develop several luxury homes in the Canyon, but a wildfire in 1972 dashed those plans.

The land was eventually turned over to the city and turned into a park in 1984. It’s been a haven for dog walkers and celebrities ever since.

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