Joe Lesser had his own L.A. story

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, April 16, 2020

Joe Lesser, pictured leading a tour in 2016, was the driving force behind the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. Elrond Lawrence
“Los Angeles remains the most photographed and least remembered city in the world.”

You don’t have to look very far to find great quotes about Los Angeles — everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Andy Warhol have had plenty to say about the city — but I like the one above, from Norman M. Klein, a California urban historian and writer whose 1997 book, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, landed on a lot of “best of L.A.” lists.

One reason I like it is because it could have been a call to arms for Josef K. Lesser, who dedicated the latter part of his life to preserving his city’s rich railroad history. Lesser co-founded the Los Angeles Railroad Historical Foundation and became a tireless, some would say relentless, promoter of the city’s legacy of Pacific Electric red cars, Santa Fe and Southern Pacific passenger trains, and Mission Revival train stations.

Joe Lesser died February 28 at age 83. He was something rare in his hometown, an actual native Angeleno who, by all accounts, only left the city for the three years he spent in Germany with the U.S. Army. After that, he returned home and, for 45 years, ran his own industrial and commercial film production company. In the years I knew him, Joe lived in Hancock Park, a historic neighborhood west of downtown. In its leafy affluence, it breathed “Old L.A.” 

In March 2000 Trains, Lesser wrote about one of L.A.'s most spectacular railroad events, the runaway of a set of Santa Fe F units at Union Station in 1948. Fletcher H. Swan
Founded in 1999, Lesser’s LARHF isn’t a railroad museum in the usual sense. No vast piece of property, no collection of SP steam locomotives or PE trolleys, no tracks; those are the province of the Southern California Railway Museum in Perris or the Travel Town museum in Griffith Park. Instead, operating from an out-of-way office building in the north-central neighborhood of Eagle Rock, the Foundation sponsors exhibits, conducts seminars and field trips, and acts as a clearing house for historians and authors looking for information on the city’s railroad history.

Many of you might know of the LARHF from visits to some L.A. landmarks, where the Foundation supports long-standing satellite exhibits. I’m thinking here of the Old Spaghetti Factory, housed in the former Union Pacific depot in Fullerton, and, most of all, the back rooms of Philippe the Original, the venerable deli on Alameda Street, just a couple of blocks from Union Station. All of these places bear Joe Lesser’s fingerprints.  

His survivors at the Foundation remember Lesser as a tireless champion of his city. “Joe put together a unique organization focused on outreach to youth and community, to educate on the importance of rail transportation in the growth of our region and nation,” said Wendell “Mort” Mortimer, president of the Foundation. “Joe was a unique and dedicated individual who was a good friend to all. The Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation will continue to build on his ideas and programs, but he will be greatly missed.”

A filmmaker himself, Lesser was interested in the long association between Hollywood and L.A.'s railroads, exemplified by this view of a film crew with an SP train in Santa Susana Canyon. Bison Archives, Marc Wanamaker 
Lesser also was widely known in the toy train hobby. My longtime friend and colleague Roger Carp, senior editor at Kalmbach’s Classic Toy Trains magazine, wrote about him or edited him frequently, especially in connection with Lesser’s landmark O gauge layout, the JL&ATSF Railroad. 

“Joe enjoyed sharing his tips on creating a realistic environment for Lionel trains that brilliantly incorporated popular operating accessories, scratchbuilt structures, hand-painted backdrops, and details,” Roger recalls. “Joe’s was a lifetime dedicated to explaining the impact of railroads full-size and miniature as well as sharing the joy he experienced by building layouts and riding passenger trains. We at CTT are grateful for the many ways Joe supported our magazine while helping it mature.”

Joe and I had our own rewarding, if brief, working relationship. In the March 2000 issue of Trains, we published his story “The Case of Santa Fe’s Flying F3,” an eye-opening account of the day in 1948 when the lead F3 diesel of Santa Fe’s El Capitan crashed through a wall beyond a bumping post at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. A good one-third of F3 No. 19 was dangling in mid-air, suspended above Aliso Street at the south end of the station. Joe’s account of this mishap — runaway light engines and the hostler’s role — was first-rate storytelling.

The book Hollywood's Trains & Trolleys was published just before Lesser's recent death.
I remember Joe as being very particular in the way we edited and designed the story, wanting to be advised on every detail. It won’t surprise you to know that sometimes, for us editors, that kind of author can be a challenge, to put it politely. But that’s not how I felt about Joe. By that point I’d gotten to know him well enough to see his zeal as nothing but good old-fashioned dedication. I had to admire Joe’s determination to tell L.A.’s railroad stories. The growth of the LARHF since then is ample testimonial.

So is the new book the LARHF has published, co-authored by Joe and Marc Wanamaker, called Hollywood’s Trains & Trolleys, a beautifully produced pictorial account of the movie studios’ long and storied association with local railroads and the Pacific Electric. I reviewed the book for the upcoming Summer 2020 issue of Classic Trains and loved it. As a capstone for Joe Lesser’s preservationist career, it’s perfect. 

I’m an unabashed fan of Los Angeles. Beneath the glitz of the entertainment biz and beyond the din of its freeways lies a hard-working city of everyday people who ride the city’s Metrolink and Metro system, populate its train stations, and, with Joe’s help, perhaps understand a bit more about where it all came from. In another life, I look forward to joining Joe at Philippe’s and toasting him with a French dip sandwich. 

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