Relics of Fullerton: The Buildings of Leo Fender

Though it goes without saying, we'll say it anyway: Fullerton's considerable contributions to history will probably forever be marred by a few rogue cops, their cowardly police chief and flip-flopping spokesperson. Happily the city has a few saving graces, not the least of whom is Leo Fender. While most folks know that Fullerton was the stomping ground of the venerable tinkerer (who attended both Fullerton High School and College) we guess more than a few aren't aware of the exact locations of the buildings which produced some of the greatest guitar innovations in the last century. 

A Historical Stroll

The idea to take a closer look at these spots came during a recent trip to Fender's current factory located in Corona. There, folks can stop by the visitor center and check out a short film featuring a walking tour of Fender's old haunts.

One location, a turn of the century building at 107 S. Harbor Blvd. housed Fender's Radio Service and was designated  a city of Fullerton local landmark in 2010. According to the book Fender the Sound Heard 'Round the World, written by historian and Fullerton Museum Center Curator Richard Smith, numerous services were performed at this spot in the early 1940's including radio and appliance repair, as well as car stereo installation. The business also sold musical instruments and serviced early amplifiers.
Today the rear of the structure sports a large mosaic by artist Katherine England featuring an image of a guitar. The current business manufactures parts for the aerospace industry. Two other Fender buildings were also located nearby: one is now a Knowlwood's, the other a parking structure servicing downtown patrons.
Fender Hits Its Stride
But the most impressive structure from Fender's early years is the drab, concrete-block complex located on South Raymond Ave. and Valencia Dr. In spite of its unassuming exterior, this building, now home to Jimmi's Nascar Bar & Grill and several auto repair shops, sparks the imagination. A person standing outside the gray facade can easily imagine the place bustling with Fender employees, cigarettes dangling from their lips, in the days before Disneyland opened its gates. 
It was here that the first Stratocasters were mass produced. Chances are the guitar dangling from Buddy Holly's neck during his 1958 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was hand-made a stone's throw away from Jimi's Budweiser tap.
According to Smith, the location served as Fender's base of operations between 1953 and 1985. Here, he says, “a brand new style of musical instrument emerged from Fullerton. And changed the soundtrack of the 20th century.”
Copies of Smith's book (available at the Fullerton museum) come with a DVD featuring 8 mm footage shot by plant manager Forrest White. As Smith narrates we see women straight out of Mad Men laboring along side shirtless guys in the sweltering factory–hand-coiling pickups, stamping metal plates and applying tweed upholstery to amplifiers. Working without respirators in poorly ventilated rooms swimming with lacquer fumes, one has to marvel at the number of employees who would relax outside with a smoke. 
Smith explains in the DVD that it was difficult keeping the plant operating year around as large orders placed during the summer trade shows would be filled before Christmas.
When asked if there's a chance some vintage Fender hardware is sequestered away in a dark corner of the complex, Smith says it's unlikely. In the years since Fender moved its operation to Corona (after employees bought the business back from CBS) he says the building underwent significant changes including an overhaul of the facade and removal of the Fender logo. 

But local grave hunters will be pleased to know that after his death in 1991, Leo Fender was buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana (just a quick jaunt from the niche of Jim Morrison's lover Pam Courson.) An obsessive workaholic until the very end, Fender continued to tinker in his lab despite suffering from Parkinson's disease and several strokes. 
At the funeral, Smith played the late innovators' favorite song–a rendition of Bob Wills' “Faded Love.”
Persistance of Time
And the march of progress continues. Guitar bodies once fed through the saw's blade by hand are now being cut with elaborate computer systems. Meanwhile the hallowed ground of the old Fender factory is covered with wrecked cars and dried vomit.  
On a recent trip to Jimi's I encounter a couple of gents bellied up to the bar while sipping some suds. Both are aware of the building's history. When asked for their thoughts on whether some errant guitar pick or used string might be found under a rug in the building somewhere, one guy looks up from his beer and says, “Dude, you're about 20 years too late.”
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