Merrill Gruenberg / Bonar’s Childhood

Regarding Merrill Gruenberg Bonar’s Reminiscences

Chick Lehrer writing to Sandra Bonar, shortly after Thanksgiving Day  2013

I was very moved yesterday when Dad presented a short overview of his life to the family, particularly the mention of his father, Jack Gruenberg whom Dad never knew, since he had died when Dad was just 8 months old. Keeping in mind what Dad had said earlier about bread truck drivers and their afternoon diversions into gambling, Michael McTeer and I now have photographic evidence which shows that Dad’s father,  Jack, was basically a truck driver by profession. Over his short career, Jack is seen driving three very different trucks: A flatbed staked truck in Minneapolis, a gas-engine bread truck in New Mexico, and an electric-engine bread truck in Los Angeles.

It would appear that Jack might have been delivering more than bread during Prohibition since his brother, Al, with whom Jack was very close, was not only a bookmaker, but a major bootlegger in Los Angeles during that era. Remembering that virtually every Jewish Family was cut off from alcohol during those days and either had to make wine at home (as did my own grandfather in his cellar) or purchase it and stronger spirits from the bootleggers, it now seems clear just how Jack met Dad’s mom, Margie, the latter of whom had been living with Uncle Herman and Aunt Tillie (Margie’s double cousin) from the time she left Poland until she married Jack.

I would postulate that Jack’s brother, Al, was also the supplier for Anne Goodman’s family, again, using Jack to make the deliveries. Hence the group of photographs of the Lentzners, Goodmans, and Margie together with Jack on the Santa Monica Beach. Already we see in one of those photos Aunt Tillie with her hand over Jack’s head, indicating that he is the chosen one to marry Margie… who was already pregnant with Dad at the time.

Shortly after Dad was born, as Dad’s baby book indicates, he was taken by Margie and Jack to visit his great-grandmother Babe Canter (Jack’s grandmother) who was living with her daughter’s family in LA. This daughter, Anna Canter Kaufman, was the sister of Bettie Canter Gruenberg, the mother of Jack and Al and their 4 younger siblings. Bettie, never did join the others in the Canter/Gruenberg family when they moved to Los Angeles, as she had died back in Minneapolis during an abortion.

When Jack unexpectedly took his life, his death certificate shows that it was his brother Al who found him at an address which was not Jack’s home, and delivered him to the hospital where Jack died from an overdose of Laudanum, one of the popular drugs available in LA during Prohibition.

So, one can only imagine the horror that Aunt Tillie and Uncle Herman faced at Jack’s premature passing, particularly since his death involved one of the very drugs distributed by the bootleggers. Clearly the response by Herman and Tillie was to break off all connections with Al, who was most-likely the man for whom Jack was distributing booze and drugs (together with bread) in his bread trucks.

Herman must have felt extreme guilt at ever permitting Margie to associate with Jack and Al. And through Herman’s brother David Lentzner’s wife, Tillie Beatrice Block Lentzner, Herman learned that Tillie Beatrice’s sister, Sylvia Block Bonar had just died of pneumonia and that Sylvia’s husband, Sam Bonar, was alone, raising their son, Jackie. Hence, it would appear that it was Tillie and Herman who set up Sylvia’s husband Sam Bonar, with Margie, who also was also alone with a son, namely Dad.

We are sure that Sam Bonar, like Herman and Tillie, the latter two of whom had inadvertently suffered at the hands of the Gruenberg brothers, never let Dad near Al, Al’s aunt Anna, or Al’s father Mose Gruenberg (Dad’s grandfather), who ran a grocery story down on Pico Blvd. in West LA. The only one of the Gruenberg siblings that Dad was permitted to know was Rose Gruenberg Lauber together with her three boys.

The Martinez siblings, Kelly and Patrick both report that Al (who took in their mom and grandmother after their grandfather, Jimmy Kirk, was sent to prison) was a great guy. And we also have written testimony from Barbara Brophy, the daughter of Al’s partner in the bookie business, that Al was a wonderful person. So despite Al’s shortcomings (all of which would render him blameless in today’s Las Vegas, as was the case with Dad’s famous gambling cousin, Sid Wyman), Al was a Mensch of the first water.

Such is a more detailed history of Dad’s father, Jack Gruenberg, his brother Al, and several of the folks who were involved with the Gruenberg boys during those halcyon days of Prohibition when Jews all over LA needed a source for their L’Chaims and Uncle Herman and his friends were supplied by Jack and Al Gruenberg.

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Margie Gruenberg holding her first son, Merrill, who was born in May of 1927.

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Merrill Sidney Gruenberg age 4 months

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Documentation for the names of Merrill’s grandparents

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Merrill Gruenberg

On October 13, 1926, Jack Gruenberg married Margie Steinman. Seven months later, on May 10, 1927, the couple’s only child, Merrill Gruenberg was born. By this time Jack was delivering bread for the Weber Baking Company.

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Birth Certificate of Merrill Gruenberg born May 10, 1927.

Their son’s given name, Merrill (pronounced Merl) is an anglicized version of the Yiddish name Meyerl, the diminutive of Meyer. Margie, his mother, called him Moyshele which is the diminutive of Moyshe, Merrill’s Hebrew name. The latter was also the name of his paternal grandfather Mose Gruenberg, who was still living at the time of Merrill’s birth. It is presumed that Merrill’s given name in English might have been created by whomever wrote out his birth certificate.

Prior to her marriage to Jack Gruenberg, Margie Steinman had lived in Hollywood at 124 ½ South Westmoreland, just a block below Herman Lentzner’s apartment-building project of 1926 whose architect had been the great Leland Bryant. Jack, on the other hand, lived in a residence at 3815 Harvard Boulevard, in the same general area around Exposition Park where the apartment building on Hoover Street, shown below, was located. After their October 13, 1926 marriage, Jack moved into Margie’s apartment on South Westmoreland; and it was during this period that their son, Merrill, was born.

124 South Westmoreland Ave.

124 South Westmoreland Ave. in Los Angeles where Merrill lived with his parents until his father’s death in January of 1928.

On January 20, 1928, when Merrill was a mere 8 months old, his father Jack Gruenberg was found dead at a residence on 1171 Belevedere in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. The cause of death was from an overdose of laudanum. Jack’s death certificate was signed by his brother, Al Gruenberg, a bootlegger during this Age of Prohibition, and a member of the LA’s underworld.

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Jack’s brother Al Gruenberg, a member of LA’s underworld, signed Jack’s death certificate.

He was buried on January 22 in Mt. Zion Cemetery (Plot NE08-31) in Los Angeles. Jack was a just 30 years old at the time. The cause of death in the coroner’s report reads as follows: phenol laudanum poisoning, suicidal.

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After the death of Jack, Margie took a flat on the 2nd floor of an apartment building at 4214 Hoover Street. Merrill recalls that his ‘Uncle’ Herman Lentzner (Chaim Lenczner) and ‘Aunt’ Tillie  Wyman (Tsine Wajman) Lentzner lived downstairs.

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Present day view of the apartment building just across from 4214 Hoover Street where Margie lived with her son Merrill, in the late 1920s. The style of this building is similar to the one that once stood at 4214 Hoover.

A series of photos taken in the 1920s at the apartment building in Los Angeles on the corner of Hoover and 42nd Street includes Tillie Lentzner (Margie’s double-cousin), Margie Steinman, Anne Goodman (a colleague of Herman Lentzner in the millinery business) and Jack Gruenberg. These were taken sometime between late 1924 and late 1927. Merrill believes that Anne Goodman owned this apartment building.


The apartment building at 4214 Hoover Street where the Lentzners, Goodmans, and Margie lived in the late 1920’s. L-R: Tilly Lentzner, Margie, Anne Goodman’s son, and Anne.

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The apartment building at 4214 Hoover Street where the Lentzners, Goodmans, and Margie lived in the late 1920’s. L-R: Anne Goodman’s son, Margie Steinman Gruenberg, Tilly Wyman Lentzner, and Anne Goodman.


Margie Steinman Gruenberg in front of 4214 Hoover Street

Sandy Bonar reported that after the death of Jack, there was a small savings account set up by the Gruenberg family for Merrill that he eventually received, and that was apparently all they wanted of him.

A little over a year after the passing of his first wife, Sylvia Block, Sam Bonar married Margie Steinman Gruenberg. The marriage took place on April 21st, 1929 when Sam was 40 and Margie 26. Each partner brought one child to the new family: Jackie, who was Sam’s son by Sylvia Block; and Merrill, who was Margie’s son by Jack Gruenberg.


Marriage Announcement for Sam and Margie

Although it is not known how Sam met his first wife, Sylvia Block, we do have some insight as to Sam’s initial contact with Margie.

Margie’s half-sister, Tillie Wyman, was married to Herman Lentzner. Herman’s brother, David, was married to Tillie-Beatrice Block.

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Obituary for Tillie-Beatrice Block Lentzner, wife of David Lentzner. Tillie-Beatrice might have been the cousin of Sam Bonar’s 1st wife, Sylvia Block.

If it could be verified that Tillie-Beatrice Block was Sylvia Block’s cousin, then it would be possible to speculate that Sam and Margie become acquainted through the Lentzner Family connection. Merrill, Margie’s son by Jack Gruenberg, has often stated that the marriage between Sam and Margie was one ‘of convenience’, made for economic and child-raising purposes.

When the US Census for 1930 was taken, Sam, Margie, Jackie and Merrill were living at 3038 9th Avenue in Los Angeles:

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1930 US Census for the Bonar Family when it  lived at 3038 9th Avenue in Los Angeles


On the 1930 US Census, Sam’s occupation is listed as ‘Merchant: wholesale oranges and produce’.

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3038 9th Avenue Los Angeles,  the home of Sam Bonar’s family in 1930.

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Merrill Gruenberg (left) with Jackie Bonar

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Merrill Gruenberg (left) with Jackie Bonar. The house on the left appears to be the one that the Bonar family lived in at 3038 9th Avenue Los Angeles during 1930.

By late 1933, when Sam and Margie applied for US citizenship, their family had moved to 735 1/2 West 42nd Street in Los Angeles, just south of the USC campus and only a block away from Anne Goodman’s apartment building on 4214 Hoover Street. By then, Merrill, who was 6 years old, would have started 1st grade, most probably at nearby Menlo Avenue Elementary School.

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Merrill Gruenberg with his ill-fated step-brother, Jacob ‘Jack’ Bonar. This photo appears to show the entrance to the duplex at 735 1/2 West 42nd Street in Los Angeles.

Menlo Ave Elementary School

Menlo Avenue Elementary School

Sam states on his application for citizenship that he dealt in fruits and vegetables. The photographs attached to Sam and Margie’s 1933 documents illustrate the various names by which they were legally identified:



Sometime after 1933 as the Great Depression deepened, Sam moved his family out to Wilmar in the San Gabriel Valley. This area was covered by farms and orchards in those days. Their home was at 2617 Prospect Avenue. Nowadays, the playgrounds and athletic fields of of the Arlene Bitely Elementary School cover the 2600 block of Wilmar. Merrill reports that his step-father, Sam Bonar, raised pidgins and chickens in the backyard of their Wilmar home. In fact, Merill recalled that there were 50 chickens in all, though he makes no mention of an egg business

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San Gabriel Valley in 1928


Wilmar was the former name of a then-unincorporated district of the San Gabriel Valley, about eight miles east of the center of Los Angeles. Wilmar was combined with the unincorporated communities of Garvey (to the east of Wilmar) and Potrero Heights (to the south of Wilmar) to become the unincorporated community of South San Gabriel in the early 1950s. It was named for the city of Wilmar, Arkansas by “Arkies” who migrated to the area as a rural counterpart to their roots in Arkansas.

Most of South San Gabriel was later annexed by the city of Rosemead (mostly during the mid-1960s), though parts of it were annexed by other adjacent cities and part of it remains unincorporated today. Most of the area of South San Gabriel which had been called Wilmar was annexed by Rosemead, but one section of it lying north of the San Bernardino Freeway between New Avenue and San Gabriel Boulevard was annexed by the city of San Gabriel.

The main streets of Wilmar were Del Mar Avenue, Graves Avenue, Hellman Avenue, Ramona Boulevard, and Garvey Avenue. It was the site of a Los Angeles County branch library, and of three schools of the Garvey School District.

2617 Prospect Ave. Wilmar

Location of Prospect Ave. in Wilmar. Number 2617 where Merrill lived with his mother, Margie, and step-father, Sam Bonar, was located just to the south of the ‘A’ on land now occupied by the athletic fields of the Arlene Bitely Elementary School.

Seven major events occurred in the Bonar Family, primarily during the Wilmar Era, which were of supreme importance to Merrill’s development:

1) November 27, 1936: Donald born in Wilmar

2) August 1, 1939: Sam and Margie apply for naturalization: Uncle Herman’s niece, Esther Kalkopf McTeer and her husband, Harold, stood as witnesses. Sam reports that he was a produce merchant at that time.

3) November 10, 1939: Sam and Margie granted US citizenship

4) November 15, 1939 Merrill, age 12,  was admitted to LA Orthopaedic Hospital after an accident which took place near his home in Wilmar. Born May 10, 1927, Merrill was in 7th grade at the time when, running on thick wet grass, he slipped and fell backwards, shattering his left hip socket. To cause such damage perhaps he hit a rock embedded in the earth, but it is more likely (since he has no memory of a rock)  that malnutrition was the culprit. Because Merrill was taught by his mother never to complain, it would be a week before he saw a doctor.

5) September 14, 1940: the 14-year-old Jackie Bonar’s accident and subsequent death in downtown San Gabriel (the next town just north of Wilmar). Born Nov. 21, 1925, Jackie was in 10th grade at the time.

6) September 8, 1941: the death in Wilmar of Merrill’s step-father, Sam Bonar, born May 22, 1890, he was 52. His death certificate reports that Sam was a peddler of fruit and produce at this time.

7) Fall 1941: Merrill entered Hollywood High School. It was here that, although he was a whiz at math, it became painfully clear that Merrill was dyslexic, a disability which would plague him for the rest of his life. At that time, there were no therapists to help him deal with this affliction. Unlike his brother, Don, and their Wyman cousins, Merrill’s opportunity to attend college was dashed.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that manifests itself as a difficulty with word decoding, reading comprehension and/or reading fluency. It is separate and distinct from reading difficulties resulting from other causes, such as a non-neurological deficiency with vision or hearing, or from poor or inadequate reading instruction. It is estimated that dyslexia affects between 5–17% of the population. Dyslexia has been proposed to have three cognitive subtypes (auditory, visual and attentional), although individual cases of dyslexia are better explained by the underlying neuropsychological deficits and co-occurring learning disabilities (e.g. attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, math disability, etc.). Although not an intellectual disability, it is considered both a learning disability and a reading disability. Dyslexia and IQ are not interrelated, since reading and cognition develop independently in individuals who have dyslexia.

Brain imaging studies are beginning to suggest that these difficulties may emerge in part because many children with dyslexia are endowed with a very strong right hemisphere that they use to read. In most people the left hemisphere is largely used in reading. The right hemisphere, which is involved in many spatial, artistic, and creative functions, is, however, very inefficient for reading, which would explain why it takes so long to learn to read. If this research proves correct, it also helps explain why so many great, creative figures have a history of dyslexia: artists like Picasso, Gaudi, and Rodin; writers like Yeats and Agatha Christie; and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, and Michael Heseltine.

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Sam Bonar working in his San Pedro produce store. In this photograph, he stands to the right. In his petition for Naturalization of 1939, Sam stated that he was a produce merchant.


Margie, infant (Donald), Blanch Wyman

On November 27, 1936 Margie gave birth to Donald Bonar, Merrill’s half-brother. In this photo Don as an infant is being held by Margie’s cousin, Blanche Blatt Wyman, while Margie looks on.

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Merrill (right-back) in the backyard of his home in Wilmar during the late 1930s, together with his step-brother Jack (left-back), and half-brother, Donald (right-front). The girl is Merrill’s 1st cousin, once removed: Marilyn Singer (b. Sept. 15, 1932), daughter of Lillie Wiman Singer, in turn the daughter of Jake Wiman, Margie’s brother.


Message on the back of the card above in Yiddish. Although Margie is speaking, it was might have been written by her husband, Sam Bonar, because, according to Merrill, Margie did not know how to read or write.

This letter/photo, which apparently never made it to Poland, is from Margie Bonar to her sister, Toybe Lev in Aleksandrów Kujawski, Poland. Although her son, Merrill, reports that Margie could not read or write, apparently could could..but in Yiddish! In the photo are Margie’s kids Merrill, Don, and Jackie (the latter actually her husband’s son from a previous marriage) together with a little girl whom Margie identifies as Jake and Sarah Wiman’s grandchild, Marilyn born Sept. 15, 1932 (daughter of Lillie Wiman Singer). Jake Wiman was Margie’s half-brother.

Translation by Hershl Hartman:

The little girl is our brother’s grandchild. I am sending you a picture of my children.


On March 22, 2012 the following information was received by Chick Lehrer from Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital. Note that Merrill’s admission to the hospital on November 15, 1939 occurred just over a month after the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which eventually resulted in the loss of Margie’s sister’s family in the Holocaust: Taube Steinman Lev (Margie’s sister), Chaim Lev (Taube’s husband), and their children: Sarah Lev, Wolf Lev, Mordecai Lev, and Hindele Lev.

Dear Charles Lehrer,

I am sorry to say that I am unable to provide complete information regarding your father-in-laws surgery dates. His records are no longer available. The only information found on an index card is an admission date of 11/15/1939 but there is no discharge date and no indication of any other admissions to this facility.


Leslie Arita
Medical Records Dept.
Orthopaedic Outpatient Medical Center

The first of three concurrent tragedies for the Bonar Family occurred a week before November, 15, 1939 in Wilmar: Merrill, 12 years old and in 7th grade, fell and broke his hip. By good fortune, he was able to receive state-of-the-art surgery at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles where his hip socket was rebuilt. This procedure involved two operations a year apart, and many months of physical therapy. Merrill lost a substantial number of days in school during this time.

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Merrill Gruenberg (Bonar) in Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital 1941

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Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital Scene during the time when Merrill was there in 1941

Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital

Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital


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Jack Bonar (left) with his step-brother, Merrill Gruenberg (right)

Tragedy struck again in 1940, when the young Jack Bonar, Merrill’s step-brother was killed in an accident on September 13th of that year. The LA Times report of September 14, 1940 details the tragic death of Jack Bonar at the age of 14. Jack was buried in Beth Olam Cemetery now part of Hollywood Forever Memorial Park.


Corner where Jack was killed

The corner in San Gabriel where Jack’s accident occurred

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The corner in San Gabriel where Jack’s accident occurred


Jack ‘Jackie’ Bonar’s headstone at Beth Olam Cemetery in Hollywood Forever Memorial Park


On September 8, 1941, during the period when Merrill was receiving care at Orthopaedic Hospital for his hip, the third tragedy occurred: Merrill’s stepfather, Sam Bonar, suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Sam was only 52 at the time. His death certificate reports that he was a peddler of fruit and produce at this time.  In fact, Merrill Bonar reports that Sam sold these items door-to-door together with his help and that of three other boys. Merrill also recalls that Sam spoke several languages in doing business, including Spanish.

The death of Sam  was a tremendous blow to all because Margie was, once again, without a husband and major wage earner to support the family, and her two boys, Merrill and Donald, were without a father. It was at this time that Merrill’s uncle, Herman Lentzner, through his connections with the clothing industry in Los Angeles, made arrangements for Margie to do piece-work in order to bring in some income.

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Death Certificate of Sam Bonar


The Headstone of Samuel Bonar in the Beth Olam Cemetery, located in Hollywood Forever Memorial Park

Eventually, Margie, Merrill, and Donald, a little tyke, 10 years younger than Merrill, left their Wilmar residence and moved into a newly-built house in Hollywood at 5449 Carlton Way. Merrill reports that his Uncle Herman was instrumental in locating the property with the help of  one of his colleagues in the real estate business. These family events took place during the intense period when the US first had just entered World War II.

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Margie in front of the house that Herman Lentzner obtained for her on 5449 Carlton Way in Los Angeles after the death of her 2nd husband, Sam Bonar.

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Don Bonar, Merrill’s half-brother in front of the house that Herman Lentzner obtained for his mother, Margie,  on 5449 Carlton Way in Los Angeles.  The house was purchased after the death of  Don’s father, Sam Bonar.

During the period he spent in Los Angeles Orthaepedic Hospital, Merrill had missed both 7th and 8th grades; therefore, after he got out of the hospital he returned to school to complete these grades. On January 28, 1943, not long before his 16th birthday, Merrill Gruenberg, known as Merrill Bonar, graduated with the classes on the Summer-Winter schedule, from Joseph Le Conte Junior High School in Hollywood:

Merrill Jr. High

1943 Summer-Winter graduating class of Joseph Le Conte Junior High School in Hollywood: Merrill is in the 2nd row, 2nd on the right


Although from time he was very young, Merrill Gruenberg was known as Merrill Bonar, he did not legally take that name until he was 16, two years after the death of his step-father, Sam Bonar who had passed away in 1941. In 1943, Uncle Herman Lentzner paid for the name change which would be necessary for Merrill, now the breadwinner in the family,  to obtain a Social Security Card in order to work at Glassman’s Market.

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During the time that Merrill was receiving physical therapy at Orthopaedic Hospital, he would often stop off on his way home to his new Hollywood home, at his Uncle Herman Lentzner’s millinery store on Broadway, located in the Theater District of Los Angeles. On occasion, Herman would take Merrill to lunch at the Boos Bros. Cafeteria on Hill Street, located directly in back of his store. Merrill remembers walking out the rear door of Herman’s place, crossing the alleyway, and ambling directly into the cafeteria through its backdoor.

The cafeteria mentioned by Merrill at 530 South Hill Street is designated Boos Bros Cafeteria in the 1942 LA Directory. With the onset of the Depression, two of the Boos Brothers cafeterias had been sold to Clifford E. Clinton, who launched the Clifton’s chain, and at some point Henry Boos bought back two that had been sold, one on Hill Street and the other in Avalon on Catalina Island. So, apparently, folks continued to call the one on Hill Street, Cliftons, even though it was once again a Boos Bros Cafeteria.


Herman Lentzner’s millinery store in the historic Maximes building on Broadway, is now occupied by D&D Bridal.



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