October 23, 2014

Hanging Out In the Canyon: Hangouts Past—Elysium

 

Once upon a time, Topanga had a members-only hangout called Elysium Fields, the very mention of which usually provoked smirks and sniggers. The dress code was ‘clothing optional.’ That did not mean casual attire, as some innocents believed, but usually no clothes at all. Let it all hang out, indeed (pun unavoidable).

Elysium encompassed nine acres of Topangan paradise on Robinson Road, with stands of sycamores and oaks, a large central meadow, a sweeping view of the Canyon, a waterfall and assorted flower gardens tended by members. I had the privilege of staying there in a cabin with no running water and scarcely room for a single bed. It did have windows, and my definition of bliss was to awaken to Elysium’s dawn chorus, roll out of bed and head for the open-air showers. Ever since, I have been asked, “What is it really like to live in a nudist colony?”—a term deplored by Elysium members, who preferred to call it a naturist family recreation and health spa.

Elysium was renowned for classes, seminars and workshops of all kinds. But what people really want to know about is my taking off my clothes, a moment that arrived when I left them in the cabin and strolled to the large swimming pool, trying to look nonchalant. Everyone said this would be a liberating experience, and of course it was. You cannot be shy or embarrassed when a dozen or more people around you are all similarly unclad. Staring was a big no-no at Elysium, along with cameras and behavior that might make others feel uncomfortable. I admit it felt great to swim with no trunks, as a start to an all-over tan. I quickly realized that being unclothed takes away any clues to a person’s identity. Elysium was proud of its diversity. Many professional types were among members, including a Los Angeles judge. I found one real disadvantage—no pockets. If you are ever tempted to become a practicing naturist, take a wallet—and shower shoes.

Elysium is a term from Greek mythology, meaning a place or condition of ideal happiness. How apt.

The arbiter of acceptable behavior among Elysium’s nudes was the club’s founding genius, the late Ed Lange, an urbane figure from Chicago who was an accomplished photographer and writer, plus a determined civil libertarian. He did not just show up one day to encourage folk to walk around the grounds naked. No, it took him 20 years and a million dollars in legal fees to convince the Board of Supervisors to grant planning permission giving people the right to expose their all in private at Elysium. What’s more, he had to take on his neighbors on Robinson Road, who had justifiable worries about noise and traffic, while some were less than enthusiastic at the thought of nudists frolicking not far beyond their backyards. Ed mollified them with promises of no visible frolics, no loud music and a speed limit of 15 miles an hour, rigorously enforced.

Ed warned his staff that he wanted no sexual intercourse on the open space of the grounds, nor in the sumptuous hot tub, which had room for 30. Oddly, however, he did allow two private suites, called “meditation rooms.” They were in demand and usually had a line. Later, Betty Lesley Meltzer, Elysium’s executive director, feared that their notoriety was costing the club members and closed them.

Apparently, the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s had a puritanical streak. Ed’s wife June expressed it in an interview with a sunbathing group. She said that when Elysium first opened, “The taboos were enormous. They squeezed the humanity out of people in order to prove that nudism was innocent. At the time, many nudist clubs had ‘no touching’ rules, and you were not allowed to look at another person lower than their neck.”

The same was not true at the legendary Sandstone, on Saddle Peak in Topanga. There is much about the truth of the swinging era in a book by Elysium’s co-founder, Aileen Goodson, called "Therapy, Nudity and Joy: The Therapeutic Use of Nudity through the Ages, from Ancient Ritual to Modern Psychology.” Goodson, now a retired psychotherapist, says the book is her testament to Ed and is now out of print. I found it selling for $8 at www.abebooks.com.

Ed, meanwhile, put his journalistic skills to use by launching a series of successful magazines devoted to nude living and healthy outdoor recreation.

Today he is known on the Internet as “The Father of American Naturism.”

Then, after his death in 1995, the saga took an almost Shakespearean twist, which caused his inspired and tranquil legacy on Robinson Road to vanish. His two daughters, Lisa and Dana, decided to sell the property their father had fought so hard to establish. The asking price was a reported $2.6 million.

Devastated, Elysium’s 700 members suddenly had no place to visit. Betty Meltzer and her husband led the charge to a new site on Mulholland Highway in Malibu. It was not the same. The 45-minute drive from Topanga was a drag and the ambience of the first Elysium could not be replicated. Then, after 9-11, the bank refused to come through with a loan to buy the new place, and the project failed. To this day, Elysium veterans cling to hope that the club can be recreated somewhere in the Santa Monica Mountains. But the legal and financial hurdles are too high for the idea to be any more than a pipedream.

When the Elysium Institute had gone, Topanga recognized it had been a good neighbor. Few members were from the Canyon, yet they enjoyed patronizing its shops, restaurants and the Theatricum. When a Topanga house burnt down, Elysium weighed in with help for the homeless family. Ed was chosen as Citizen of the Year.

My best pal at Elysium was Noel Pugh, a droll Welshman renowned for his skill as a masseur. He could find muscles you were unaware of when he raised his massage table on a sun-dappled patio under a trellis of vines. He was also a skilled caricaturist who decorated a mural beside Elysium’s swimming pool with brilliant parodies of members. We have all seen his work from his Christmas paintings on the Topanga Post Office windows. Tragically, he can no longer draw as he could because of a stroke. He is recovering in Simi Valley near the Reagan Library and is reachable by e-mail at noelart@earthlink.net.

Betty Meltzer now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is still remembered for her exchange with Roseanne during a television show about nudity. “Are you naked now?” Roseanne asked. “Yes, and so are you,” said Betty, adding, “Under our clothes, we’re all naked.

Ian Brodie is the publisher of the Messenger