The history of Tiny Town is, sadly, partially lost. It was already one year old when I was born, and no written record exists to my knowledge. All we can do is piece together the facts gleaned from newspaper articles, together with our memories.
Apparently Matt was working at the Richfield refinery. He built his first rides in the front yard of his home on Tamarind Avenue in Compton. We have pictures from that time labeled 1944. He invited neighborhood children to ride. Eventually his interest outgrew the front yard and it was decided to open a real business and lease land at the corner of Olive St. and Long Beach Blvd. We know that Matt built some of the car rides, a trolley ride and the airplane ride. As for the others, there is no one left who remembers. The official founding of Tiny Town was in 1946.
Harry and Beatrice and their family of three children seem to have been something like nomads during the depression. After leaving Colorado, they settled temporarily, here and there, throughout the southwest, at times residing in campgrounds. Las Cruses and Silver City, NM, are locations where they lived. It must have been a hard life, but they told very colorful stories of people they met along the way. They worked at anything they could, from piano playing to candy making to auto repair.
Matt had the show biz bug, and it’s said he wanted to go to Hollywood! But how would that work with a wife in a wheelchair and 3 children? Ultimately through his incredible tenacity and ingenuity, he got himself into show business after all, sort of. He knew a lot of people in Hollywood and in the entertainment and amusement park businesses and, yes, our family was invited to the private opening of Disneyland in Anaheim.
Matt was a business man-philanthropist. Perhaps influenced by his wife’s disability, he championed populations that struggled with handicaps, especially children. Serving on several boards, operating through his affiliations with Rotary, Shriners, Masons and the Chamber of Commerce, Matt put on scads of benefits for groups such as Sister Kenny, City of Hope and Spastic Children’s’ Foundation. He gave away thousands of free tickets at these benefits, where his model involved bringing in a celebrity to promote greater attendance. It was a win-win situation–the celebrities were promoted, Tiny Town was promoted, people spent money on food and souvenirs, the charity’s coffers were replenished, and everybody went home happy.
Our grandfather was engaged, he was brilliant, and he was really working it! In the early 50’s, Tiny Town was a fabulous success. But those days would be his last. When our beloved Harry Curtis Matthews passed away, unexpectedly, of heart disease at age 59, he was running for Mayor of Compton. That was 1956.
Needless to say, Matt’s death left our family devastated, and there was no one to fill his shoes. His only son, Harry Jr. was a schoolteacher at the time. He helped out all he could but he wasn’t called to follow in Matt’s footsteps at Tiny Town. Soon, Bea’s sister, Mona Schwartz, who’d also recently lost her husband, moved to Compton to live with Bea and help run Tiny Town. And thus did two gritty women in their sixties, one (my grandmother) with very limited mobility, take over the management of the business, with its technical challenges, huge promotional demands and don’t forget the menagerie.
Bea and Mona, with the help of long-time friend and employee, Ernie Ball, were able to hold on to the Tiny Town traditions for a time. But without Matt’s vision, there was no new growth. The old model of charity benefits and celebrity appearances wasn’t perpetuated. Without Matt’s amazing engineering skills, maintenance problems set in. Then, in 1958 an opportunity was presented: there was a proposal to build a Cole’s supermarket and a new-fangled strip mall on the block occupied by Tiny Town. My grandmother agreed to relinquish her long-term lease on the property in exchange for assistance in scaling down her operation and moving the new, smaller Tiny Town into an area about ¼ it’s former size. This meant liquidating all the animals and our dear Billy Puffer, as well as removal of the Matthews mobile home. I remember the day NaNa moved into a nearby apartment; the family dug up all her rose bushes and moved them to her new yard.
Some of us thought this new Tiny Town was, well, pretty boring. No ponies, no drive-your-own boats, no Billy Puffer, no more visits from clowns or cowboys. Now, I thought, Tiny Town is just for “little kids.” I was heading for Junior High School (right across the street from TT, Roosevelt Jr. High), playing violin in the school orchestra and, like every ‘tween’, developing interests that went beyond the circle of family and even Tiny Town. But I still spent time there every day after school, helping out and hanging with the employees.
Tiny Town was to last 8 more years, until 1965, when it was sold to a Mr. Wright. It was a relief to my grandmother, now 69, to be out from under the responsibility, and by selling Tiny Town on contract to Wright, she anticipated a secure income for life. But it turned out that Mr. Wright was actually Mr. Wrong. Soon Tiny Town went under, and he stopped making payments to Mrs. Matthews. I’ve been told that she tried to repossess the merry-go-round, but it was put into storage and never found. Bea was not the type of person to pursue a legal case. She and Mona moved into a mobile home court in Anaheim. Later, she lived with Aunt Jean and eventually my Mom, Pat. Our wonderful NaNa, Beatrice Louise von Buchholtz Matthews, lived into her nineties. Her death occurred as a result of a conscious decision to stop taking nourishment.
It’s impossible to find words to fully describe what Tiny Town meant to me. Everything I learned and experienced there was the finest, most honorable, most fun and inspired stuff any child could want. I was encouraged to work hard, be nice to customers and respect everyone’s differences. I learned to do so many things: accounting, typing, painting, saddling and riding, presenting myself, directing others, preparing food, handling complaints. Above all I remember Matt’s admonition to be courteous and kind to every customer. Once I was caught ridiculing a group of gypsies who showed up for a birthday at Tiny Town. I found them to be so oddly dressed, and I laughed at how they talked to one another. Matt took me aside and said: “Candy, this is our family business, and we treat everyone the same here. The customers may come in a lot of different colors, but their money is all green.”
Over the years I’ve met countless people who went to Tiny Town! From ex-pats I encountered while living in Germany, to the guy who owns Buddies clothing store in Sebastopol, California, there are Tiny Town fans all over the world. TT was a great meeting place, a center of creativity and entertainment, where the whole family could have hours of fun for a few dollars. Or if you wanted to, you could just picnic there, or walk around, or pet the ponies. There was no need for entrance fees, security guards, hand stamps or any other trappings of modern ‘amusement’. Tiny Town was for fun and for families. It sustained our clan and generated thousands of dollars for worthy causes.
So, if you have Tiny Town memories, please share them with me via the contact address for this site. Or go to the Tiny Town Facebook page and post your own comments and photos. Those of us who remember TT are not getting any younger. But the story of Tiny Town and those innocent times will not be forgotten.
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