Angel City Press is keeping the history of LA alive, one book at a time
Heather King Oct. 19, 2018
Established in 1992, Angel City Press has since published on average between five and 10 gorgeous books a year, in the areas of film-making, architecture, music, and art.
“No other press so single-mindedly focuses on the social and cultural history of LA,” says founder Paddy Calistro.
Just browsing the catalog is a treat. A house that has put out books on both ex-nun artist Corita Kent and Hollywood costume designer Edith Head to my mind definitely has its heart in the right place.
All Angel City Press’ books are image-driven, with an emphasis on historical photos. Printed on sumptuously heavy stock, they run around $35-$45.
Calistro and her husband, Scott McAuley, are co-publishers. Calistro also oversees the editorial content of all publications. Both come from Northern California, and arrived in LA during the 1970s.
They were incorporated in September 1982 and published their first book in May 1983: “Hollywood du Jour.”
They also have a custom publishing division, not to be confused with a vanity press, consisting of books they love but feel perhaps don’t have quite a strong enough market.
“LA is so broad,” Calistro observes, “that in a sense you can only come at it by niche.”
“We only do books we love,” she adds.
Angel City doesn’t solicit manuscripts. Nor do they come up with an idea on their own and look for an author who can flesh it out.
“People seek us out,” she says. “The vision has first to come from the author.”
Every book has a backstory.
For example, several years ago Calistro received a letter, via snail mail, from writer and television producer Stephen Gee. She gets lots of proposals, but this one caught her eye.
Gee told her of John Parkinson, a pre-eminent architect in LA’s early days who had designed, among scores of other greater downtown LA buildings, City Hall, Union Station, Bullock’s Wilshire, and the Coliseum. Why was he not a household word? Why had most of us never heard of him?
She asked Gee to come meet her and McAuley. Parkinson, it turned out, had come from the same English county as Gee’s father. One thing led to another. The result was “Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles” (2013). A PBS documentary followed. Gee then went on to write “Los Angeles City Hall: An American Icon” (2018).
“It all started with that initial letter, and his passion.”
Another couple of books came about through a chance meeting at the LA Book Festival, in which Angel City Press has participated for 23 years.
“We’re always very busy at our booth, so it’s generally not the time for authors to pitch ideas. But this particular day a sprightly woman came up and reported that her husband’s grandfather, Earl Stendahl, had begun showing artwork in LA in the early 1920s. He had a gallery, originally in the Ambassador Hotel, that was the first to display Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ on the West Coast.”
The woman, it turned out, was April Dammann, and the resulting publication was called “Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario” (2011).
“Nobody else would have done this book,” avers Calistro. “But it told a very important story about the history of art in LA.” Dammann then went on to publish “Corita Kent: Art and Soul: The Biography” (2015).
“Baca: Art, Collaboration & Mural Making” (2017), edited by Mario Ontiveros, features another notable female LA-based artist. Judy Baca painted the iconic half-mile mural in the Tujunga Wash that, begun in 1976, has become a cultural landmark visited by millions.
“Sacred Material: The Art of the Tapestries of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels,” by John Nava, also published in 2017, came about when Calistro was on the downtown Cathedral’s Fine Arts Committee and, at a gallery opening, fell into a chat with the artist’s mother.
“Few of our books are academics, though they may be written by academics.” Josh Kun, for example, professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, bases his books on collections found at the LA Public Library.
“His book of sheet music, ‘Songs in the Key of Los Angeles’ (2013) is about people who celebrated LA through music and song from 1859 through 1959. His book on menus, ‘To Live and Dine in L.A.’ (2015) is about what we’ve eaten in LA through the years and how that relates to what we eat now. So he brings in the social and the cultural.”
Other subjects range from Clifton’s Cafeteria, to Jean Harlow, to the Santa Monica Pier, to golf, cycling, and swimming in Hollywood.
“Our hope is that ideas or visuals about the LA we know won’t be lost.”
Calistro is currently working on the sixth edition of “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles” by David Gebhard and Robert Winter, originally published in 1965 and considered by scholars and enthusiasts to be the Bible of LA architecture.
It’s time to return to her editing. The work is hard and unrelenting.
“Not many small publishers have done what we’ve done,” she winds up. “We hope to leave a legacy. We hope to have kind of done our part for the history of LA.”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books. For more, visit heather-king.com.
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