Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Simpsons and East Pasadena's Parrots

Seems most every morning I'm greeted by the screech of parrots.  Often they fly over our house.  Sometimes, like this morning, they hang around the neighborhood screeching back and forth.   This one landed in our eucalyptus tree and, on cue, gave me that quizzical parrot look as I sneaked up for a picture.

Legend has it our local parrots are descendants of parrots that were let loose in 1959 when a fire engulfed Simpson's Gardenland and Bird Farm.   The story is often recounted as "local legend" but, as legends go, it seems fairly well accepted.  I know I've heard and read the story over and over since moving to Pasadena more than twenty years ago.

Not often reported, however, is the legend's East Pasadena connection.

You see, Simpson's Garden Town Nursery and Bird Farm was a long-time East Pasadena institution.  On little more than a wing and a prayer, in 1928, Hal Simpson started his nursery.  He had a $500 loan, a $55 Model T delivery truck, and moonlighted on odd jobs as his business took hold.   Over time the business grew until it blossomed into a mall of sorts that included a nursery, florist, lawnmower shop, garden center, materials supply, and pet shop.  Eventually Simpsons occupied a swath of land that fronted Colorado Blvd. east of Sierra Madre Blvd. and stretched north beyond the present-day 210 freeway.    Billing itself as the largest and most diversified garden center in the West, at its height, Simpsons deployed 70 trucks and fielded calls on nearly 50 phone lines.

Then, in 1959, fire hit.  The nursery buildings, supplies and records were destroyed.   According to legend, as the fire raged, the birds (including the forebears of our local parrots) were released.

The birds were gone and a big part of his operation decimated.  But, Hal Simpson got back on his feet and rebuilt.  Customers stepped forward to pay accounts that were due even though Simpsons had no records.  Simpsons remained an entrenched part of the East Pasadena landscape.  

But, in the 50's and 60's, East Pasadena's landscape was changing fast and Simpson's resurgence was short-lived.  Eventually the State of California did what the fire could not.  In 1968, the State took much of the Simpson property to build the 210 freeway.   Forty years after he started, Hal Simpson was finished.

But, the story's not over.

Old Hal was not quite ready to call it a day.   With proceeds from the State of California, he moved south.  He bought a160-acre spread in East San Diego County and ... that old guy started over growing and selling plants. 

And, in 2011, Simpsons Garden Town Nursery in Jamul, California is operated by Hal's granddaughter, Cathy.  Like her grandad, Cathy offers plants, and lots more, for sale.  She has a pretty good website, too, with pictures of the nursery, gift shop and dozens of classic cars on display at Garden Town.  Fittingly enough, Cathy's website pays homage to Garden Town's East Pasadena roots and beautifully tells the story of Hal Simpson -- a story that I've recounted above.


Sarah said...

Wow, what a great story! Those Simpsons parrots wake me up every morning too. :)

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Kudos for chasing down this story. My partner recalls the Simpson Garden. Says it's where Osh is now (he lived in the trailor camp where Target now is). As a kid, he and his friends snuck in after hours to spend the night. They got busted and kicked out. He remembers the birds.

btw: My grandfather lost his home to the 210 freeway also. Little white clapboard house centered on a large lot he dedicated to growing his victor garden. I remember it as such.

Cafe Pasadena said...

Perhaps, the Parrot s/b named the official city Bird?!

If a booklet on Pasadena Parrot history hasn't been written, then it should. And, I think I've just read the outline to begin the process for it.

Michael Coppess said...

Thanks, Sarah. You know, I enjoy the parrots very much and have waited a long time for a photo that justified a post. Luckily I got an obliging parrot.

PA, I always appreciate your insights. Your comment makes me curious to know the story behind the 210, the businesses and homes that were lost.

CP, hey a parrot history would actually be interesting and I would enjoy writing it. I wonder what kind of advance I could get....

Petrea Burchard said...

The parrot presence has been quiet on the northwest side, lately. I was worried about them. Now I know where they went. They must have eaten all the berries here and they're off to decimate your part of town.

I miss them.

pasadenapio said...

I had lunch with my daughter in Jamul a couple of Sundays ago. I didn't realize the Simpsons' tradition was being carried on there.

Anonymous said...

My dad, who just turned 90, was the insurance adjuster who handled this fire claim in 1959 (although he thought it was 1957) says the cages were opened during the fire so the parrots could escape and survive. He was working for LibertyMutual at the time.

Anonymous said...

Interesting side note on the parrots. In their native land, NE Mexico, they are endangered and the feral populations are larger than the native populations. The SG Valley group may be the largest remaining group for the entire species.

Don Gilmore said...

A lot of the parrots live in the Arboretum on Baldwin. I grew up in E.Pasadena in the 60's and remember Simpson's fondly. I used to go to the lawnmower shop and druel over his mini-bike inventory. That was a good neighborhood before the freeway. Bob's Big Boy, Besse Park, Boys'Club,Hastings Drive In, the motorcycle shop on Colorado and Madre, Moonlight Rollerway with a Chicken Delight stand out front. Another world.

Dillon Novak said...


My name is Dillon Novak and I have found your article in my OWN search for the origins of these magical parrots.

I am a film director here in Pasadena and I would say my number one favorite thing about living here is these wonderful green and red squawking friends. I could go on and on about them, but I guess that is why I have fiercely decided to begin a documentary about them.

Thank you for your lovely post, it has been the best told and most accurate accounting of the story that I have found.

I would love to talk more about them with you and would be honored if you could be a part of the telling of their story.

Please let me know if this would be something that you'd have fun doing. I think there are a lot of people in our community that are big fans of them and would enjoy seeing an exploration into their special story.

My email is
I do hope that you will reach out. Thank you for your time.

Dillon Novak

Anonymous said...

I just shared your story with a young lady in the office I work in. She did not know where the Parrots came from, and I did. I was born and raise in Pasadena from 1956. And even as a little girl, I never forgot the first at Simpsons. We lived right down the street from it. My Mom always went there at least twice a month for item, and I always enjoyed the birds. They had a talking Mina bird, though I cannot remember its name. I remember crying when we saw the fire, and thinking they were all killed. And then we heard they had opened the cages and the birds were freed. But not all of them made it. And the Parrots who made it, nobody held out any hope that they would survive in the concrete jungle of southern California. Everytime I hear them, and then see them, I smile and thank God that they are around, love them.

Anonymous said...

Anonynmous above is me, my name is Catherine Walthour-McBride

Anonymous said...

Born in Pasadena in 1955, I remember visiting Simpson’s regularly with my Mom and enjoying looking at the parrots. I Also remember the fire the release of the parrots. They flourished, visiting the tangerine tree next to my bedroom window. When in the area Now, I enjoy hearing them and look forward to seeing them.

Lisa Marchbanks said...

Fun fact: Amazon parrots can live up to 100 years old in the wild. Some of the parrots in Pasadena are STILL the original parrots.

Carlos Carrillo said...

Hi I live in El sereno/Alhambra area and love seeing and hearing them. I am amazed that while most of the nation is dealing with harsh weather, I able to experience a flock of at least 50 or more parrots fly from tree to tree. Hope their legacy continues for ever. I don't understand how their are people that lack empathy and want them out of their neighborhoods. Give our green friends a break and learn to coexist with each other.

P.J. Batatian said...

I grew up in pasadena, going to Simpsons with my mother. After the fire in 1959 they rebuilt on the same lot, then suffered a second fire, once again turning all the birds loose. I know this fact because I always took my own daughters, who were born in the early 1960s, there. They loved it and remember it welll, visiting the various birds for sale. They were so sick, thinking at first that the birds had perished. Besides the parrots Simpson's had then a Java myna bird with an entertaining list of words and phrases such as saying in a woman's voice, "Call the dog! Call the dog!"; and in a gruff older man's voice, "Hello, George! Hello, George!" I can still hear that bird today! They also turned loose that time a large sulphur crested cockatoo that flew around the skies of Pasadena and Altadena for years and years. I got to see it fly in to land on the spiky tip of a tall juniper that grew in the neighbor's yard behind my own. As the tree grew too tall, he would land and perch on the side of it. I guess that area was the same number of feet above sea level - why else? Simpson's also had freed a huge, gorgeous, blue Amazon parrot that second time. For years we often saw it flying though the parking lot when we went to The Huntington Gardens. Just think: if that cockatoo and that blue Amazon had mates, what might be flying today in the skies of Pasadena and Altadena, shrieking like no other birds now in our skies and trees.