Biography - Los Angeles Years
Once, when asked when his art career really got started, Johnny laughingly replied, “Not until 1923. I learned to paint signs. It was after we came to California in 1919 to help out on the family ranch that my Uncle Aram bought several years earlier in Sanger, near Fresno. Dad started a new tailor shop on N street. My brother, Eddie, and I worked the ranch; my kid brother, Leo, went to Sanger Elementary school. When dad died in 1923, I decided to go to Los Angeles. I got a job with the Bentham Sign Company. In the beginning, I drove the sign truck, delivering and hanging signs. Then I was advanced to the laying-out of signs, using perforated patterns which were traced on the sign boards. We used little ‘pounce bags’ filled with powdered chalk to get the tracings on the boards. We made these pounce bags ourselves, using little circles of this cloth and tying the drawn-up edges with string, similar to a sachet bag.” At Bentham’s, Johnny was taught how to do pictorial work, lettering, silk-screening and how to use gold leaf. He became adept at all of these.
Johnny liked to remark of those days in 1923, “That’s the year Walt Disney came out here. Imagine the difference though! We both came to Los Angeles about the same time, only he went one way and I went the other.”
In his twenties, Johnny liked to amateur box. He belonged to the Los Angeles Athletic Club and was a good friend of 1924 Olympic flyweight gold medal champ boxer Fidel LaBarba. He was also an excellent swimmer. But most of all, he liked to be busy. It seemed that work was really more of an avocation than something he was forced to do.
Around 1925, Johnny went to work for Richfield Oil Company, now called Arco, in the graphics art department. While there, he took time off to work on the cartouches of The Ten Commandments which were commissioned for the Los Angeles Court House, which was nearing completion.
Johnny when recalling said, “I actually did all the lettering for the Ten Commandments, which were all around the walls of the big hall.” Continuing he said, “I also worked on the gold leaf designs on the ceiling pictures. We had to go up on the scaffold and lay on our backs to lay the gold leaf, kind of like Michelangelo. Everybody can’t lay gold leaf because it is so flimsy. Gold leaf is made by pounding gold into very thin flat sheets. It’s a real mess if you’re not careful; it tends to disintegrate and fly all around,” he further emphasized.
Marriage came in July, 1930, to a non-Armenian girl, Edna Lee Fox. They were married in Las Vegas, Nevada, as yet only a little desert town. It was not an elopement as such, but rather a convenience in that Johnny had to do a job for Richfield in that area at the time. He was to inspect the huge racing car monuments being placed by the company along the highway, every few miles, from California to Nevada.
These monuments were life-sized concrete statues of race cars, mounted on a rectangular base, with a driver seated behind the wheel. They could be seen on the left hand side of the highway while driving towards Las Vegas. Johnny was also in charge of the bulletin board advertisements to promote the oil company.
On this trip, he was to repaint a new text and add the head of a race car driver as a makeover design for a giant “Richfield Gas” bulletin board. The bulletin board was posted 17 miles outside Vegas also on the side of the highway heading toward town before encountering the series of racing car monuments. This was before the depression caused by the stock market debacle of 1929 had begun to take a radical effect.
The wedding ceremony occurred during the noon hour - lunch-break time - in an old church with only the minister, his wife and the choir organist as witnesses. After a brief ceremony, the minister presented to the bride a copy of the marriage license at the court house – just in case perhaps. When they had gone to purchase the marriage license at the court house before they found the little old church, Johnny had humorously told the clerk he did not have the $2.50 license fee since he had lost it in the nickel slot machines. He then turned to Edna and said, “How about it?” Edna paid the fee. That became a prize story of Johnny’s and he never lived it down. The marriage lasted for 58½ years.
When Richfield Oil Company folded during the depression, Johnny got work at the movie studios. He, along with another artist, painted a version of the familiar Republic Eagle logo on glass that was used in the opening film credits for several years by Republic Studios. He also worked on the sets for the pictures being filmed. However, work was sporadic and a long driving distance in those days without freeways.
He returned to oil company work, contracting for Violet Ray gasoline, which became General Petroleum and is now Mobil Oil Corporation. As a licensed general contractor, he did work for the Shell Oil Company in the field doing pictorials and advertising bulletin boards as well as work in their art publicity department. Recalling those days with Shell Oil, Johnny laughed, “They used to serve tea at 4:00pm every day in our department. I guess it was because it was an English-Dutch company and the English must have their tea.”
In 1939 the family began building a home with FHA funds. There was nothing very spectacular about their lives. They worked together – Johnny outside the home, Edna inside the home. They engaged in church activities, Girl Scouts and later Boy Scouts. They had family gatherings most Sundays. They enjoyed the beach and the neighborhood city-owned swimming pool. There were barbecues; Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were spent with family and friends. In other words they lived each day to the best of their joint abilities. They possessed “togetherness.”