Revisiting Groening and the L.A. Reader

Last week's post about the Pasadena Weekly story by former Reader writer Nigey Lennon prompted some unusually detailed responses. One email picked up on Lennon's statement that she couldn't get in at the LA Weekly for lack of interest on her part in the local music scene:

She was fascinated enough by a specific part of the music industry--Frank Zappa--to have been with the band and to have had a personal relationship with him before she met her husband. It's in her book, Being Frank. Her exact role and performance dates have been endlessly debated by Zappa fans....To have not mentioned this in the piece seems odd to me.

Conrad Heiney writes to recall his time at the Reader differently than Lennon:

Nigey Lennon is just flat wrong saying that "Life in Hell" didn't run in the Reader. I started working there in August 1986, just after Groening left. The strip had just left for the Weekly, because the new publisher, David Addison Hawley and Groening couldn't make a deal. I remember people morosely saying "Everything has gone to shit here since we lost the Bunny". At the time the Reader was on Melrose near La Cienega, but Hawley moved it to Laurel & Victory in the armpit of North Hollywood.

I basically had Groening's old job...sort of a junior arts critic with editorial duties. It was a blast at age 21, and I got to be Assistant Editor before I got fired in a rage like everyone else.

And James Vowell, the Reader's editor and eventual owner mentioned in Lennon's piece, emailed to clarify Groening's role at the paper and other facts. He disputes her memory, for instance, that the Reader and the LA Weekly began publishing the same week: he has the Reader first by six weeks, on October 20, 1978. After the jump he also lists some other L.A. Reader alumni of note.

I first met Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, shortly after the Reader began publishing. He approached me in November or December with an idea for a cover story about the artists who painted the fancy billboards on Sunset Blvd. He pulled it together and I published it in early February 1979 as a cover story.

We continued to work together over the next few months until the publisher at that time, Jane Levine, offered him the job of operations manager, which included distribution. Matt continued to work with me, helping with proofreading etc. We would go over to the typesetter in Hollywood every Monday and Tuesday night. We often took breaks for dinner and Matt would draw sketches of cartoon characters on napkins and hand them to me. I would critique his sketches, saying things like "lips are too big, Matt."

A few months later I convinced Jane to switch Matt over to the position of assistant editor. Matt began writing columns and helping with the music listings, etc. And he continued to show me cartoon ideas.

Lennon hints that the L.A. Weekly was first to publish Life in Hell. No, no, no. In April 1980, Matt drew the first Life in Hell cartoon for the LA Reader, which we published on April 27, 1980. It ran in the Reader for six years or so.

I left the Reader in February 1985 to be, oddly enough, president and publisher of The Pasadena Weekly. Shortly after that, the Reader's new publisher got into a dispute with Groening and Matt chose to go over to the LA Weekly.


In 1988, I went back to the Reader as publisher. A year later, the Chicago owners told me they were going to close the paper. I offered to buy it and made a deal with them. My wife Codette Wallace and I owned the Reader for almost eight years, taking it up to a 72- page weekly product with a circulation of 93,000. We sold to New Times in August 1996.

I want to point out one more error in Lennon's article: Though I love Matt and all of his work and believe he deserves every ounce (well, every penny) of his success, the L.A. Reader also provided the starting ground for a good number of successful individuals. To name a few:

1. Kevin Uhrich. L.A. Reader city editor, now editor of the Pasadena Weekly
2. David Ulin, L.A. Reader book editor, now book editor of the L.A.Times
3. Erik Himmelsbach, L.A. Reader managing editor, now a TV producer
4. Steve Appleford, L.A. Reader reporter, now editor of CityBeat
5. Natalie Nichols, L.A. Reader arts editor, now arts editor of CityBeat
6. Patrick Goldstein, L.A. Reader columnist, now L.A. Times Calendar columnist
7. Jack Viertel, L.A. Reader theater critic, now a Tony-award-winning Broadway producer
8. David Colker, L.A. Reader writer, now L.A. Times writer on tech topics
9. Myron Meisel, L.A. Reader movie critic, now a movie producer
10. Kit Roane, L.A. Reader staff writer, now staff writer for U.S. News and World Report
11. Tom Christie, L.A. Reader assistant editor, now an editor forL.A. Weekly
12. Marc Cooper, L.A. Reader writer and columnist, now a columnist for L.A. Weekly

Vowell is currently a book editor living in Yucaipa.

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