Sunday, December 20, 2009

"A Piece of the Rock"



It was like a scene out of a sci-fi movie: A behemoth threatens an innocent town from atop a cliff, shrugging off all capture attempts.

Only this real-life besieger was a 116-ton boulder, which gave indications in February 1979 that it might plunge onto Pacific Coast Highway and possibly squash a BMW or two, if not some beachfront architecture.

The innocent town was Malibu, so naturally elements of show biz were involved.

It was movie producer/ writer Robert Radnitz who led a campaign lobbying Caltrans to bring the big rock down from its 186-foot-high perch.

He was understandably nervous: His home lay in its potential path on the ocean side of PCH. Radnitz estimated that the hulk had slipped 20 feet in the previous two weeks.

PCH was closed to traffic, making it the perfect gathering spot for dozens of onlookers during the 40-hour drama.

A few watched from kayaks.

One viewer was sculptor Brett-Livingstone Strong, who said he wanted a piece of the Malibu rock so he could fashion a mini-Mt. Rushmore: a 3-foot-high bust of then-Gov. Jerry Brown, alongside the words, "For President."

Yes, the same Jerry Brown who is now state attorney general.

But the hunk of sandstone wasn't being cooperative.

A 2,500-pound steel net was dropped on it by a helicopter, but efforts to loosen the boulder from above failed.

At one point, a fire hose was attached to a hydrant and aimed at the big rock. A continuous stream of water slammed into it for more than two hours.

The Caltrans contractor in charge of capturing the giant told The Times that he had come up with the idea after his father-in-law said to him: "Why don't you wash it down?"

A reporter asked if his father-in-law was an engineer.

"No," replied the contractor. "He's an accountant." (but he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night!)

Alas, the hosing failed to bring down the boulder.

Finally, after more than a day and a half of struggle, an inch-thick cable was attached to the steel-webbed net.

The cable was fed through a pulley-like device on PCH and secured to a huge four-wheeled skip loader parked about 400 feet down the road.

Darkness was falling, "turning the boulder into a hulking silhouette," when the skip loader began to pull the cable, The Times reported.

At first, only a few fragments broke loose. Then a rumble could be heard.

"It's going! It's going!" someone yelled.

The rock began sliding slowly, its fall inhibited by additional cables attached to it on a plateau.

Then it snapped the cables and began to tumble faster and faster, caroming off an outcropping.

It crashed onto a 4-foot-deep earthen landing pad on PCH and stopped. Dirt spewed about 75 feet into the air.

"For several seconds no one said a word," The Times reported. "Then, as if on a director's cue, a loud cheer went up from the people standing nearby. Finally, there was steady applause."

One young woman scrambled atop the boulder and danced.

Crews used pneumatic drills and dynamite to break the rock into small pieces.

Onlookers chipped off souvenirs and snapped photos.

Radnitz, now 85, wrote an unproduced script about the incident, titled "The Rock." He still lives in the house near Las Tunas beach. Today that stretch of PCH is guarded by a sagging chain-link fence.

Strong, the sculptor, paid $100 for a 12 1/2 -ton chunk but changed his mind about a Brown-for-president sculpture.

"I decided to do someone not so controversial," he said.

Brown's penchant for making offbeat pronouncements had prompted critics to dub him Gov. Moonbeam.

Instead the artist chose a more strong and silent type -- actor John Wayne.

Strong rented an air chisel and, working from photos, labored for 10 weeks on his chunk, which was parked at a shopping center in Century City. Spectators watched.

"For a time, I was getting comments from people like, 'I believe that's Jimmy Durante you're carving,' " said Strong, referring to the comic whose trademark was a big schnoz. "But now people say they can see the resemblance."

An Arizona real estate man bought it, reportedly for a million dollars, and put it on display for a few weeks at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

There was talk of the celebrity rock going on a tour of East Asia but that venture never came off.

Eventually the Wayne bust was donated to Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas, where it sits in the library.

Contacted by The Times last week, a librarian there said, "Oh, the rock from Malibu."

She added that people "come up and ask about it all the time."

Jerry Brown has yet to be elected president.