At Zorthian Ranch, a Return to Bohemia

First published in L.A. Weekly

The parties Jirayr Zorthian threw at his ranch in the foothills of Altadena were invitation-only events, yet everybody in Los Angeles seemed to rub elbows there: Caltech physicists, modern artists, Pasadena bluebloods, jazz musicians, the famous and infamous, hipsters, hippies and hedonists of every stripe came to dance, drink and seek the divine under the moon. The parties featured bonfires, naked dancing nymphs, spontaneous art happenings, drumming that went all night and, of course, a roast pig borne by barechested men and blessed by a virgin. At the center of it all was Zorthian himself, a short, bearded Dionysus, who would take center stage clad in a red union suit and a bedsheet toga, and let the naked nymphs feed him grapes. The parties at the ranch raged for more than 60 years, until the old man died in 2004.

A Turkish Armenian who’d emigrated to New Haven, Connecticut, as a youth, Zorthian came out West in the 1930s with his wealthy first wife, Betty, and bought 27 acres of scruffy land in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. They had three children and divorced — Jirayr was awarded the land in a settlement that is said to have made him the first man ever to receive alimony. He remarried and, with second wife Dabney, engaged in what Burners now call “radical self-reliance.” They grew their own food, including meat, slept under the stars, rode horses, raised five children and practiced sustainable living long before there was a term for it.

Though Zorthian’s vibrant paintings of muscular nudes were well regarded in the art world, his greatest work was the ranch itself. Appalled by the wastefulness of Americans, he made repurposing industrial waste into art his raison d’être. Every inch of the ranch is art. Retaining walls made from cast-off concrete are studded with tiles and toys; residential structures fashioned from telephone poles and railroad ties seem to morph out of the landscape in fits; and huge metal sculptures arc toward the sky, framing sunsets. The now–43-acre parcel, known by locals as “the Eagle Rock Dump,” features a vast field of rusting junk, ready to be scavenged for the next art project. The Zorthian Ranch is one man’s artistic obsessive compulsion writ in rebar.

Zorthian was 5 feet 3 inches of perved-out, narcissistic fury, who had a singular talent for collecting and connecting people. He was a magnetic presence but not an easy man to be around. Caroline Zorthian, daughter of his son Alan, remembers giving her grandfather a wide berth. “He wasn’t the nicest person for those closest to him, but the further you got away from him, the more mesmerizing and present he was.” Today an 18-year-old student at Pasadena City College, Caroline otherwise has blissful memories of growing up wild and free on the ranch, playing with her sister and cousins.

“He was very enthusiastic about children making art,” recalls Seyburn Zorthian, Jirayr’s second-born child and an artist in her own right. “Like Picasso, he realized we do our best work as children and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to that.”

For a number of years Zorthian ran a children’s summer camp at the ranch — a kind of Edenic, naked, dirty, horse-and-art-centric free-for-all.

Alan Zorthian has the gentle mien of someone raised in the shadow of a larger-than-life father. An architect, he now occupies his parents’ house and manages the ranch, which was left to him and his sister Alice when their mother died two years after their father. The task of preserving the 43 crumbling acres of art his father left behind is both a privilege and a burden, one that a ragtag band of old friends, Z-Ranch residents, artists, models and cohorts help Alan bear.

This collective is carrying the ranch forward into an uncertain future. They are close to getting 501(c)3 nonprofit status and hope to make the ranch into a thriving art community once more, offering workshops in art and sustainability and increasing special-event programming.

Even before that happens, they realized, it was time to reassert their presence. It was time to resurrect the Primavera.

“My dad used to have the party to celebrate the physical accomplishments he worked so hard to build,” Alan explains. “He wanted to see people interact with it. It was both an art opening and a celebration.
We’ve been doing things that are less physically tangible, and this is a way to show people we’re still here, we ain’t going anywhere.”

But the question loomed: Without Zorthian himself, would the party fly?

And so, on a balmy May night, 10 years after Jirayr Zorthian rode off to the big orgy in the sky, Bret Davenport, the longtime Primavera master of ceremonies, once again took the banner-draped stage and intoned his traditional opening: “Today there is but one word to know, it is a name, that will for all of us forever act as a password, a secret handshake a way to identify one another as the sweetly debauched souls we are, and that word is … ‘Zor-Bacchus!’?”

The naked nymphs and furry-legged satyrs took the stage, writhing around an empty throne to the mad thrum of drums and sitar. The grapes they would have fed to Zor-Bacchus were thrown out into the crowd. The lead nymph, Zorthian’s favorite art model, Jennifer Fabos, came down off the stage and lit the ceremonial bonfire, and a throng of people — oldsters who had come to the early parties, middle-agers who’d played at the ranch decades before, and kids, who’d heard there was a rave up in Altadena — all danced around the flames as the sound of drumming once again echoed off the hills.

After the pig was eaten and the nymphs threw on their shawls against the night’s chill, the party bifurcated by generation. The old-school partiers hung out by the stage, swapping Jirayr stories, while down on the brick patio, costumed Burners smoked hookahs and danced until dawn.

The presence of so many kids who simply came to the ranch looking for a party initially concerned the Zorthians, who worried about the Primavera turning into a full-on rave, but even Alice Zorthian admitted, “Dad would have loved it.” After all, he pretty much invented the form.

Practical questions still loom for the future of Zorthian Ranch, but one important question was answered that night: The desire for art and joy, community and connection is alive and well in Los Angeles.

Davenport summed it up in his speech: “When you say ‘Zor-Bacchus,’ you will have uttered an incantation to primitive gods to primitive urges, to the beast within. To be in the presence of Zor-Bacchus is to be in the presence of the divine — whether that is the spiritual divine or the divine comedy is for each of you to figure out.”