Passing the torch: Legacy stories from the Almanac

In a town like Claremont, history takes center stage.

Many businesses in town have been handed down from one generation to another, giving the City of Trees a unique and personal flair. Here are three examples of businesses that are thriving thanks to the efforts of family and friends to keep legacies alive.

 

Pizza ‘N Such

One of Claremont’s best-known restaurants, Pizza ‘N Such, has called the corner of Yale and Second Street home since 1979, when Mike and Sue Verbal bought a tiny storefront near the intersection and opened up a small pizza place.

For Mike Verbal, the decision to open a pizza place was a no-brainer.

“This was a business I could afford and it was something we thought we could do,” he said.

At the time, business for Village restaurants was rough; Mr. Verbal told the story of how restaurant owners would park employees’ cars out front to create the illusion of patrons. It’s a far cry from the bustling Village of today.

But over the years, the business grew. The Verbals bought the entire building in 1992 and moved into their current space 10 years later, when Claremont Drugs closed down.

The Verbals’ daughter, Laura Verbal, has been working in some capacity at the restaurant since she was a teenager. She’s now the manager, but shies away from any official labels.

“Being a small family business, we don’t have titles,” she said. “Whatever I need to do, I just need to do it.”

She remembers getting picked up from school and hanging out around the pizza place, bussing tables and sometimes pouring drinks.

The family has many stories about growing up with the restaurant. When Laura was born, and the restaurant was still in the tiny space on Second Street, employees decorated the restaurant with pink ribbons before Sue arrived with the new baby. 

And one time, when Laura was just a baby, Ms. Verbal had to chase down a customer who tried to leave without paying for his meal.

“Laura was in one of those rocking things and she rocked herself off the table,” Ms. Verbal said.

Many regular customers have grown up over the years and started families of their own.

“You don’t feel old, but then you’re like, ‘Oh, that six-year-old is in college now,’” Laura quipped.

Being at the same spot for so many years has also given the Verbals a front-row seat to a changing Village. Bentley’s gave way to Rhino Records, and the formerly quiet town has become a bustling destination.

But it’s clear that over the years as Pizza ‘N Such has grown, the Verbals have remained humble. When asked about their place in Claremont history, Sue said, “It’s hard to say.”

Laura shares her mom’s surprise at the restaurant’s popularity.

“I don’t think too much about it, because it’s been in my life for so long,” she said. “Me and my family are so in it that we can’t really see the outside perspective.”

Some talk about handing the restaurant to Laura has come up, but no decisions have been made yet. Mike and Sue are still heavily involved in the day-to-day operations.

The family is still visited by former employees who grew up in Claremont and have moved on to other things (one former employee is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post). One former employee hadn’t visited Claremont for 12 years, and came by just to see Pizza ‘N Such.

“And me and my mom are still doing the exact same thing,” Laura said. “The restaurant’s a little older and so are we.”

 

Candlelight Pavilion

Claremont’s famous dinner theater, a staple of inland entertainment for decades, has been thriving due to the efforts of one family—the Bollingers.

Ben Bollinger first opened the Candlelight Pavilion in a space that was formerly the Claremont High School gym as a way to showcase local talent and bring a unique form of entertainment to the City of Trees. Now two of his children, Mick Bollinger and Mindy Teuber, are carrying on that legacy.

The elder Mr. Bollinger was the head of music at Citrus College when Sandy Sanford, the former owner of the long-shuttered Griswold’s, approached him about opening a dinner theater on the grounds. At the time, Ben would be in charge of the theater and Mr. Sanford would be in charge of dining.

Once Griswold’s closed in 1989, the Bollingers took over the dining side of the theater and made it what it is today.

“If you’ve ever met our dad, his standard was nothing but excellent,” Ms. Teuber said. “That’s where Mick and I sit to this day, it has to be excellent. Because that’s what his name was, that’s what he represented—it was the best of the best or don’t do it.”

Both Mick and Mindy have held jobs at the Candlelight—Mick worked his way up from busser to general manager, and Mindy started as a hostess and moved up to producer.  Their brother, Mark Bollinger, was also part of the team, but left for another career.

It’s a classic example of keeping a family business alive.

The Candlelight has entertained guests from all over Southern California for years, and many are regular customers. Part of running a business for so long is seeing families grow up.

“There are so many of our patrons who have been here over the years; they have their kids on Santa’s lap, and now they have their great grandkids on Santa’s lap,” Mr. Bollinger said. “And I know so many of the customers here because I’ve bussed their tables and waited their tables, and now I’m managing.”

One season ticket holder’s last wishes was to have Michael Ryan, who plays guitar at the Candlelight, play music by his bedside while he was in hospice, just so he could have one last dose of the dinner theater he loved so much.

“It would be a sad day when this place wasn’t around because there are so many people who are affected by it,” Mr. Bollinger said.

Ben Bollinger passed away last October, and provided his input on the business until the end. He would always be in his booth, giving notes and thoughts on each production and how it could be better.

The day after the elder Bollinger passed away was the opening night of The Addams Family. The booth where Ben Bollinger would always sit was covered in roses that evening.

“It was the most surreal moment, it was our first production without him, the lens was from a different perspective,” Ms. Teuber said. “He wasn’t sitting in the booth like he was for every production.”

But remnants of the elder Bollinger are still around. His voice still can be heard during many of the show’s announcements, from the ten-minute warning to asking patrons to silence their cell phones.

“There are a lot of patrons in the theater, when that voice comes on they’ll raise a toast,” Mr. Bollinger said.

The Bollingers are keeping the spirit of their father and the Candlelight Pavilion alive, and are hard at work figuring out what next season’s productions would be.

“Now there’s this new take on it, is it supposed to be my lens now? Is it my turn to see it a certain way? Or am I still carrying on his vision?” Ms. Teuber said. “So I choose to carry on his vision.”

But for Mick and Mindy, they can’t see themselves doing anything else.

“I pinch myself often that this is what we do when we go to work,” Ms. Teuber said.

 

Amelie

Tucked in between two wellness shops on Yale Avenue sits Amelie, a stylish dress shop in the heart of the Village that tells an incredible story.

Brian Ofstedahl, the current owner of the Claremont boutique, is carrying on the legacy of the original owner, Sydney Blanton, who died from cancer nearly four years ago.

Ms. Blanton opened the boutique as a passion project 15 years ago.

“She started it because she was diagnosed with cancer. And so this was something that she always waned to do, it was her passion,” Mr. Ofstedahl said. “It was something that was going to give her purpose.”

Amelie offers designer women’s clothing that one can’t find without making the long trek to West LA or other tony places in Southern California. The service also stands out, with employees dedicated to giving customers a personalized and positive experience.

Mr. Ofstedahl and his partner, Ruben Lopez, met the Blantons 10 years ago and the friendship quickly blossomed. Mr. Ofstedahl, with his years of experience in the retail industry, knew the shop well.

“I was always kind of here sitting back here and talking with Sydney, so I always knew the shop,” he said.

But over time Sydney’s illness progressed, and Mr. Ofstedahl found himself taking on a larger role in keeping the store running. She passed away in January 2016.

With the heart and soul of Amelie gone, Mr. Ofstedahl knew he had to keep it going.

“My thought process was, this was such a unique store, it had such a following, it was very successful,” he said. “And it meant so much to her, and her being one of mine and Ruben’s closest friends, we just said, what do you think?”

But he knew that retail was all about having what your customers wand and expect from you, something Ms. Blanton had already achieved.

“Sydney had created what Amelie is all about,” he said. “For me it was just continuing her vision.”

Keeping that legacy alive proved to be a huge responsibility for Mr. Ofstedahl.

“It was something that meant a lot to me, it was emotional to me,” he said. “It was not just business. I didn’t have to do this, but I wanted to because I really felt that she had created something.”

In the years since he bought the store, Mr. Ofstedahl and Amelie have seen the Village change and morph as new businesses open and old ones move on. Around 60 to 70 percent of customers have patronized the store since it opened, and Mr. Ofstedahl said people tell him they still feel Ms. Blanton’s presence in the store.

“To me, there’s no better compliment,” he said. “It just shows we’re keeping that spirit and her spirit and her vision and her passion alive by not trying to think outside of the box and just take it in a different direction.”

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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