Growing up Zorthian: Family business sells nothing

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Photo by Jen Rice

Photo by Jen Rice

Alan Zorthian and his daughter, Caroline, are the owners and operators of Zorthian Ranch. It’s hard to say what their jobs actually are – other than being Zorthians. They have a family business that sells nothing.

Alan Zorthian
Alan Zorthian

Alan’s father, the artist Jirayr Zorthian, built the ranch more than 70 years ago. It resembles a sprawling village built of out of driftwood and washing machines, perched on the northeastern edge of L.A., beyond Pasadena and Altadena, over a wobbly bridge and up a dirt path.

Jirayr Zorthian’s most famous work of art was this ranch – the homemade buildings and sculptures as much as the legendary parties he threw there. They were parties where Charlie Parker performed to an increasingly naked audience, parties where Andy Warhol and Richard Feynman rubbed shoulders with Buckminster Fuller, and they all wandered around amid the goats and the bees and the artful piles of junk.

The ranch’s future is uncertain, and so the Organist sent a radio producer, Jen Rice, to find out what remains of Zorthian’s weird legacy.

The story continues below these photos of Zorthian Ranch by Jen Rice.

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The History: The artist Jirayr Zorthian and his wife, Betty, bought the first acres of their ranch in the 1940s. His outsized magnetism usually made him the center of attention, plus it attracted a wealthy wife, an heiress from New Orleans. Zorthian was 5’3”. He liked tall women and short horses. A few years later, Betty divorced him, leaving him the ranch but taking their three little children: Barry, Seyburn and Toby. That’s how Zorthian became the sole owner of one side of a mountain in Altadena bordering national forestland. Zorthian’s family fled the Armenian genocide, coming to the U.S. in 1922, and this place looked a lot like home.

The Artist’s Surroundings: In a documentary called “Planet Zorthian,” the artist offered some advice about how to begin your own art project on a mountain: “If you don’t chase the buck but pursue diligently the things – not the thing, but the things you love to do most and do them very well, then suddenly you’ll find people will hear about it and they’ll come – they’ll come to you.” Zorthian became friends with scientists and musicians, fine artists and bohemians. Luckily the ranch was surrounded by lots of other people trying out whatever maverick ideas they had about the world. Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory attracted Nobel Prize-winning scientists. And in a nearby mansion, two well-known roommates were experimenting with occult rituals – L. Ron Hubbard and the rocket engineer Jack Parsons.

The Parties: When Zorthian threw a party, worlds collided. One night Charlie Parker gave an unexpected performance at the ranch. Someone who probably had no clothes on even thought to record it. If you’re paying attention you can hear people shouting along to a striptease. Zorthian loved to tell the Charlie Parker story: “I’ve never seen anything like it. There were 35 people entirely nude. All these beautiful breasts flying up and down. It was the most maddeningly exciting thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Life on the Ranch: Brian Carlson is a construction foreman who sometimes lived at the ranch along with the other unofficial tenants, artists, and nude models. Sitting on a mattress recently in the studio where Charlie Parker played, Carlson recalled Zorthian at age 80: “He’d be running around with a purple Speedo on and a pair of boots. And he’s working. He’s directing the masons over there building something and such.”

Zorthian married his second wife, Dabney, and they had two kids who grew up there: Alan and Alice. It was a weird childhood but it’s all they knew. They probably thought that everybody sleeps under the stars and celebrates Thanksgiving like Burning Man.

Zorthian died in 2004 leaving his masterpiece unfinished. Or maybe now that he was dead, the ranch was finished. Nobody knew for sure. Not even Alan, who inherited it along with his sister. By this time, Alan had two children of his own and a career as an independent architect building houses in the area. But he moved back to the ranch anyway, where he’s been more or less a full time Zorthian ever since. Though he’s an architect, he hasn’t built a single thing on the property in 11 years. It turns out, it’s pretty hard to build on the past when your dad was a tyrannical garbage artist whose greatest piece of work was his life.

A donkey quietly wanders around the ranch like a family dog. The ranch has goats, bees, horses, and one llama. Plus all of Zorthian’s tenants who were still living at the ranch.

“There was just a lot of chaos,” Alan Zorthian recalls. “There was a group of guys, vaqueros who had horses, who were wonderful horsemen. My mom loved them because they were very handsome and would flirt with her and come up on their horses and stuff. They would like to drink and play their music too loud. There would be gunshots going off. There would be cockfights happening. There was a lady who lived in the barn down there who had been there for years, she occasionally paid rent, a lot of times she didn’t. She was a retired kickboxer.”

After his father died, Alan Zorthian was summoned by city health and safety officials and barraged with code violations. Residents had to become official tenants. Structures needed permits. The vaqueros and their 50 horses had to go.

Not to mention all the piles of junk. Zorthians returned from everywhere to help. Alan’s half-siblings showed up – Seyburn, an artist in Santa Barbara; Barry, a doctor; and Toby, who lived with an indigenous tribe of Crees in Canada. Since Zorthian left the ranch only to his two youngest children, there was unavoidable tension about how to move forward. That’s part of the reason why years pass and it seems like things are just stuck where they are.

Alan and his 21-year-old daughter Caroline are the only full time Zorthians at the ranch. She goes to school, but Caroline Zorthian is definitely working in the family business, whatever it is.

“I’ve found my title for this period – well forever probably, but especially relevant to this period in my life – is Zorthiologist,” she said.

Her home has a sweeping view of Los Angeles but she might run into other people in her shower because it is outdoors. She spends a lot of her time sorting through junk, which often yields treasures like an ocarina necklace that sounds like a flute. Caroline and her father don’t always agree on what’s garbage. For Alan Zorthian, it’s hard to throw someone else’s stuff away.

“It’s like inherited neurotic hoardism from my grandparents,” Caroline Zorthian said. “He came and saw all this stuff in the truck and he was like ‘OH NO.’ And so he just starts digging in and all the stuff that I’d put into the truck to go to the dumpster was going back out to go back into the place where I’d just started cleaning from.”

While giving a tour, Alan Zorthian waved to some visiting film students as he passed the family car graveyard on the way to visit the bees, which provide the family with honey.

“OK. I just got stung but anyway, that’s …” Alan Zorthian said. Picking up his thought later he added: “It stimulates your immune system, is my understanding. And indeed right now I feel very – I feel very alive. I feel very energetic right now having been stung by that bee.”

So Alan and Caroline live on their ranch, trying to piece together what it meant for them growing up and what it might be in the future. Caroline Zorthian wants to organize art workshops, like an adult summer camp. Alan Zorthian wants to build a beautiful tower on top of the mountain so people can see the ranch from a distance. Carlson wants to keep the ranch the way Jirayr Zorthian dreamed it up. The ranch could remain amorphous, deeply unprofitable and difficult to describe forever. Except lately they’re posting the ranch on Airbnb and exploring non-profit status. Plus occasional weddings and film shoots pay for their basic expenses.

The family loves hosting events so the public can visit, and it rebuffs the real estate developers who come by. The family doesn’t want the money. At the ranch, they already have jobs, even if they don’t know exactly what they are.