Robert E. Petersen’s Celebration of Life
Mar 29, ‘07
Story by Richard Parks, photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Robert E. Petersen passed away on March 23, 2007, at the age of 80. On Thursday, March 29, a Mass was held, followed by a Celebration of Life Memorial party at Petersen’s beloved Petersen Automotive Museum on Fairfax and Wilshire, in Los Angeles, California. Robert Einar Petersen was best known as a publishing giant who created some of the best known and most loved magazines of the twentieth century. He was a kind, humble, likable person who made everyone feel important. He gave constant praise and support to those around him and his life will always be a testament to those who went on to achieve their own success in life. Part of his charisma is that he could fit into so many social circles with an ease that was natural and unassuming. Whether he was rolling up his sleeves to help work on cars, go hunting on safari, or preside over business board meetings, Petersen was at peace with the world. He was always approachable and genial to the public and employees of his vast businesses.
Petersen encouraged those around him to grow and develop and took pride in their achievements. One of the uncertainties that people had about Petersen was what to call him. He had this ability to blend into every group and situation with poise, so that people would refer to him in terms of endearment fitted to the event they found themselves in. He was Pete to his car buddies, Bob to his friends, Mr. Petersen to his employees, or just “The Boss,” during working hours. The charitable groups that he helped called him by his full name, Robert E. Petersen. This chameleon-like ease was what made him so popular with people. I don’t think it ever bothered him what name people used. He had a way of overlooking the uneasiness that people had and getting right to the essence of what they had to say.
Petersen also knew exactly what he wanted and what seemed best to those around him. He was unbelievably patient but in the end he made the decisions and earned the name – “the Boss.” He was never belligerent or condescending and his advice was right to the point. I once introduced myself to him at an event at ‘his’ museum, and he said, “I know who you are. You have a great father and that is something to live up to.” In his gentle but strong voice, he could make a person feel important whether he was upbraiding you or giving you praise. His focus on a problem was intense. He might not have always made the right decision, but his track record for successes was phenomenal. Pete, as I always called him when talking with my friends, was born in East Los Angeles, in an area that was home to many immigrant families. His father had emigrated from Denmark, which is why the spelling of his name ended in –sen and not –son. Another famous Dane was Ak Miller, though the spelling was actually Moeller. Petersen’s father was a mechanic and worked on heavy equipment for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Petersen’s early life wasn’t easy. His mother died when he was only ten, and his father’s work took him all over the desert regions of Southern California. He graduated from Barstow Union High School on June 4, 1942 at the young age of 15. The principal of the high school told Pete that “he would not amount to anything," said Gigi Carleton. Most of the achievements that he accomplished in life were self-taught. He was a great observer of how the world worked and he excelled at solving problems. Petersen took any job that he could get, for this was during the Great Depression and a job was precious. He was only sixteen when he returned to Los Angeles and got a job as a messenger boy at MGM. Pete was bright, cheerful, optimistic and fearless. He worked his way up the studio ladder to the Public Relations department. The luck came about due to the war that caused so many workers in Hollywood to enlist or to be drafted into the service.
Petersen worked and he learned the skills of public relations. He would put notices in the papers about the gossip of the actors and actresses, reviving and reinvigorating the war weary public’s interest in the movie stars at MGM. Coming of age, Petersen enlisted in the Army Air Corp reconnaissance unit as a photographer. He returned to the movie studio after the war and prospered for a time, but as other returning serviceman were discharged from the military following World War II, he was laid off his job for lack of seniority. The government had passed laws, which protected a person’s job if he enlisted or was drafted. Several of Petersen’s friends at the studio were let go for lack of seniority, including Phil Kent, Rolly Mack, Bob Barsky, Lee O. Ryan and several others and they formed Hollywood Publicity Associates (HPA), and began to look for clients. They were also young men who loved the Southern California car scene and participated in the local car club scene or the racing scene. At that time, just before and after WWII, the kids either raced on the streets or if they were more responsible, at the dry lakes out in the deserts, east of Los Angeles. There were many organizations, including SCTA (Southern California Timing Association), Mojave Timing Association, Bell Timing Association, Russetta Timing Association and other groups interested in holding timed events. There were also oval track auto racing events and boat racing. He was a young man struggling to make his mark in the world and with all the wants and needs of any young person of that era. Petersen approached Wally Parks, secretary of the biggest timing association, the SCTA, to see if they would like to sign on as a client. Parks was the most progressive of the officials in the various timing associations, but told young Petersen that there simply wasn’t a budget to pay Hollywood Publicity Associates. Petersen and Parks worked out a deal where HPA would publicize a first ever Hot Rod Show at the Los Angeles Armory in 1948, in conjunction with the SCTA. Pete and his friend, Bob Lindsay, started a small publication with borrowed funds and with copies of the fledgling Hot Rod Magazine (HRM) under his arm, became a publisher.
Pete asked Parks to become a partner in the new magazine venture, but Parks turned him down as there was too much work to do in the SCTA at that time. Parks did offer to help provide articles and support and Petersen listed Parks as a Technical Director. Petersen took photos with a borrowed Graflex camera and hustled ads relentlessly. Lindsay wrote the stories and was the administrative and office manager. Lee O. Ryan was another early employee. Before war broke out in 1941, there had been a publication called Throttle Magazine, owned and produced by Jack Peters, that had embodied all that HRM tried to do. It had been a great success for the twelve months that it had been in operation. The 12th and final issue for December 1941 had come out before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Peters had written in his editorial how much growth there had been in his magazine and he was looking forward to an even more successful year in 1942. Talk about irony. Auto racing was shut down for the duration of the war, Peters went into the service, and no one knows what happened to him after that. Whether Petersen knew of Throttle Magazine or Jack Peters is not known, although HRM is very close to the look and layout of Throttle Magazine. HRM experienced the same growth as Throttle Magazine did. Vic Edelbrock Sr took out an ad with reservations, only to corner Petersen later with these words, “Petersen, what has your magazine done, my phone has been ringing off the hook with more business than I know what to do with.” Other parts makers had the same success story and now there came a deluge of ad orders. Petersen and Lindsay were on their way to success.
Success built up, month by difficult month, but Petersen knew himself and he had confidence that he could succeed. Within a year he finally wooed Wally Parks away from SCTA and gave him the job as editor. Parks had at first only agreed to write articles as the Technical editor, but he could see that Petersen’s vision was going to lead to something and that a successful HRM would provide the SCTA with publicity. Although Pete was the boss, he very much respected the older man. Parks was 13 years older than Petersen and was the acknowledged leader among the racing scene, at least in the local car club scene. Parks was also known and respected among the oval track racing groups and was offered the presidency of the CRA track roadsters group in 1947. Parks and Petersen would remain close friends and business associates for the rest of their lives. With Parks as the new editor of HRM, Petersen was able to start up another magazine, called Motor Trend. Eventually the two magazines would form a division within Petersen Publishing that would command and control the car racing and hot rodding media market. Pete would add other magazines over the years and expand to include hunting, guns, fashion, trucks, motorcycles, archery, bicycling, skin diving, photography, golfing, off-roading, extreme sports and other topics. His media empire would dwarf many other companies and control much of the market. In the early days it was a day to day operation and no one knew if HRM would survive. The common joke was “this has been fun, but sooner or later we will have to look for a real job.” In 1947, Parks and many other SCTA members went to Bonneville to see John Cobb attempt to set the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats. They were impressed with the hard, flat surface and the size of the lakebed. The next year Parks asked Lee O. Ryan and Petersen to go with him to Salt Lake City to try and negotiate a lease with the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce. They wanted to lease the lakebed for the first Speed Week land speed trials under the direction of the SCTA/BNI. Petersen and HRM would remain a long time supporter of Speed Week.
Petersen was never still. He was always a man in movement, analyzing a situation and solving the problem. He founded Petersen Aviation at Van Nuys Airport in California, which was a FBO (Fixed Based Operation) and aircraft charter company with Gulfstream and Hawker Jets, according to Gigi Carleton. He bought a restaurant. He was involved in business dealings that brought him as much happiness in running them as in profiting from them. Petersen got just as much pleasure in giving away his money as he did in amassing his wealth. He was on numerous fund raising and charitable boards. He was a proud member of activities to raise money for police benevolent associations, Boys and Girls clubs, the Thalians, and other charities. “He was particularly involved with the Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood. The Boys and Girls Club in Hollywood was able to buy their building because of Mr Petersen's donation to the Club. The building is named the Margie & Robert E. Petersen Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood,” said Carleton. His fondest gift giving was reserved for the Petersen Automotive Museum on Fairfax and Wilshire Boulevards in West Los Angeles. Petersen loved people and doing things for people. He was successful and rich, but his greatest pleasures were doing things for people in his life. His greatest love was Margie with whom he has been married to for over 44 years. Pete was a handsome bachelor in Hollywood and was famous for his generous parties. He dated starlets by the hundreds, but when he met a redheaded model by the name of Margie McNally, he knew that this was the lady that he wanted to marry. He proposed to her on their very first date and he was absolutely devoted to her. They had two sons, Bobby and Richie, and their lives were complete. In one of those indescribable twists of fate, tragedy came into their lives. "Bob, Margie and their two sons left the day after Christmas for a skiing vacation in Colorado and a brand new resort, formerly the King Ranch outside of Denver. There were two small private planes. One plane carried Mr and Mrs Petersen and the other plane carried Bobby and Richie. The boys had met some children and their family and they wanted to fly on the same plane as their newfound friends. The plane carrying Pete and Margie landed safely but the plane carrying the two boys and their friends, crashed into a mountain during a sudden and unexpected snow squall," Carleton explained. Pete and Margie were absolutely crushed by their loss. They admitted that they never really got over this tragedy, but they both resolved to work even harder in their charitable activities to help others in need.
Petersen was also a supporter of hunting and gun ownership. He and Margie went on many hunting Safaris in Africa and Asia. Petersen was given the assignment of Commissioner of Shooting Sports at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to organize the shooting events, which were held in Chino, California. The Olympic committee had been under pressure to ban shooting events at future Olympics due to the tenor of the times and the scars of the Vietnam War among Americans. His resolve, skill and ability to get Olympic members to work together left a favorable impression in their minds and the pressure to ban shooting events eased. There were few things in life that did not interest Pete. He looked at everything with an enthusiasm and zest for life that was infectious. Already a wealthy man, Petersen sold a majority interest in Petersen Publishing to an investment group in 1996. He then turned his attention to helping create a lasting memorial to the Petersen name and the car culture that started him on the road to success. He bought the vacant Ohrbach Department Store building on Wilshire and Fairfax, in 1992, with the intention of creating a museum. The old and well-known building had been vacant and he enabled it to be restored to its former glory. Petersen gave an endowment to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (NHM) to create a museum out of the Ohrbach store. The NHM had control of the project and from the first day there was a power struggle as the NHM attempted to draw funds away from the Petersen Automotive Museum (PAM). Pete watched his dream wither as the museum, which bore his name struggled for survival. Finally he had enough and bought back the PAM from the County of Los Angeles and set up an independent Board of Directors to operate it as he would one of his businesses. Today there are thousands of members and a strong endowment fund to oversee the long-term success and future of the PAM. Like so much of Robert E. Petersen’s life, this museum is predicated on a firm foundation.
We arrived at the museum for Pete’s Celebration of Life party and there were no tears among those in attendance. Over 700 people came to pay their respects and the food and beverages flowed along with the music and laughter, just as Pete would have wished. Ruta Lee, Debbie Reynolds and Bruce Meyer were the emcees for the night. Margie Petersen sat on a special Director’s chair as a long line of well-wishers waited to give their condolences. People from all walks of life were there to celebrate Pete’s life. We saw Ed Justice Jr, president of Justice Brother’s Car Care Products. Ed also has a very popular TV program on the car culture scene. JB Products has sponsored car racing and many other car events over the years. Orah Mae, Bruce and Robin Millar were present. Orah is the widow of Pete Millar, the famous CARtoonist writer. Robin is his daughter and she is trying to preserve the cartoon work and humor of her late father. Bruce Millar is Pete’s grandson who is on vacation from his home in Moscow. Other notables were Dan and Evi Gurney, Linda Vaughn, Doug Stokes, Louie Senter, Ed Iskenderian, Leon Kaplan, Wally Parks, Alex Xydias, Dick Wells, Jack Lalanne, Barry Meguiar, George Barris, Jack Carter, Gigi Carleton, Dr Lawrence Piro, Ken Elliott, Carroll and Cleo Shelby, Bill Tilley, Arthur Kassel, Webb Lowe. We also saw John Dianna, Vic, Nancy, Camee and Christy Edelbrock, Dick Messer, Ralph Panico, Phil Spagenberger, Stan Goldstein, Alissa Wineland, John Athan, Nick Arias Jr, Joann Brock, Charles Rollins, Phil Remington, Mike Carson, George Hale, Ed Pink, Tony Handler and so many more. Ruta Lee and Debbie Reynolds were every bit as beautiful and vivacious as when we fell in love with their performances in the movies. Bruce Meyer was the third emcee. He is well known for his love and restoration of cars and the support he gives to hotrodding.
The first speaker of the evening was Leon ‘Mr Motorman’ Kaplan who is the host of ABC’s Saturday morning car show. He told us about the brotherly bantering that Petersen and Carroll Shelby used to indulge in and how close they were as good friends. Wally Parks followed Kaplan to the stage and said, “Pete achieved more in his eighty years than any other person he knows. I met him when he was twenty years old. We had a lot of fun together. Pete took advantage of the opportunities that came his way. He was a grass roots kind of guy. He always ordered veal cutlets and I asked him why. Wally, he said, nothing can ever go wrong with veal cutlets. Pete knew how to make things work. He didn’t have a steady girlfriend, but he told me that when he turned thirty-five he would settle down. Pete did just as he said he would and married Margie.” Alex Xydias recalled how Pete would come to the SCTA meetings and promoted the Hot Rod Show at the Armory in January of 1948. “He started Hot Rod Magazine from that experience. The last photo Pete took and used in HRM was of my Belly Tank car at the dry lakes.” Alex worked for Petersen Publishing for 12 years. “Pete enjoyed talking about the old days,” said Xydias, and he continued, “at the office he was always known as Mr Petersen, but to me he will always be known as Pete.” Jack Lalanne, 93 years young and still ready to lead the crowd in push-ups, was Petersen’s good friend. Lalanne has been a fitness guru, trainer, TV celebrity and all around advocate of fitness. He was the second oldest in the audience and his enthusiasm and love for his friend was evident. “Petersen treated me like part of his family and we’ve been friends for many years. If there were only more people like Pete, the world would be a better place. He always lived by the motto that anything is possible. He’s one of the most successful person that I know and there ought to be a movie on his life,” said Lalanne and he led the crowd in a roaring tribute and ovation
Following Lalanne is no easy task, but Barry Meguiar was up to the task and fervently wowed the crowd with, “is there any better place on the face of the earth than the Petersen Automotive Museum?” Meguiar’s Car Care Products is well known and his sponsorship of car events is legendary.
“When I was a boy I would read about my heroes and would wait for my Hot Rod Magazine to show up. Petersen made our car hobby possible, not only in Southern California, but also around the world. Hotrodding began in Southern California, and Bob Petersen was above them all. His passing completes an end to an era, but also the continuation and beginning of a new generation for hot rodding,” said Meguiar. George Barris, the legendary custom car builder whose creations provided Hollywood with many of the cars used in their movies, was next to speak about Petersen. “I was the first guy that Pete came to in 1948 when he was looking for a custom car to display in HRM,” said Barris. “We want your custom car,” he told me, “and it made me feel great.” Barris added, “Pete made all of us car guys famous. Only in America could this happen. Pete put on the Motorama in Hollywood and we did movies for Hollywood. I made 67 cars for the movies. Petersen made our passion for cars worthwhile and possible. We owe so much to Pete and I will always be grateful for the Lifetime Achievement Award that the Petersen Automotive Museum bestowed on me,” said Barris. The next person to take the microphone and give his praise of his friend and neighbor was Jack Carter, the Hollywood actor and comedian. “I have the same birthday as Margie,” he said. “We used to have keg parties aboard the ship to celebrate our birthdays but no presents. Bob had a lot of class. He could find the best restaurants in any place that he went, while I couldn’t even find a bad hamburger joint. Bob bought me a gun to go skeet shooting with. He was a master at skeet shooting but I had to have help lifting it,” said the jocular Carter. “Bob loved to go hunting at his ranch and Margie would go with him, but she never was a good shot,” Carter said. Carter then broke up the crowd with a comedy routine bring oohs and aahs from some and groans from others as he pilloried current politicians
Gigi Carleton, Petersen’s longtime personal assistant, spoke about what a privilege it has been to serve Pete for over forty years. She worked hard on the services and memorial to the boss that she enjoyed working for all these years. “We always called him the Boss,” she said. “It was what his friends called him. He was fair-minded, loyal, a team player, patient and took his time before making a decision. He was very creative and always came up with the right phrase and slogan. He was inspirational to so many people. He saved the shooting events at the 1984 Olympics with his motto that ‘we can get anything done.’ He loved parties and made people feel welcome, and it was an honor to get on his guest list,” she said. “He did a lot of business at lunch and he did it with class,” said Gigi.