On his last day in eight years of being on the Studio City Neighborhood Council, John Walker talked about a wonderful local school garden where they are growing edible plans and he posed with the student council representatives, Sally and Eveline. Then, he gave out some honors, to Studio City Lifestyle magazine publisher Barry Wise, to CBS Radford Studios managers Sandra Reed-Funnell and Michael Klausman, to Chamber of Commerce’s Esther Walker, Studio City Residents Association’s Alan Dymond and yours truly (for media coverage). (Please check out the Slideshow!)
“It has been an extraordinary eight years, so rewarding,” Walker said with tears in his eyes. “The wonderful activists are made up of people just like us, they give up time and money, and work for free and it’s hard.”
Then, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian handed out the honors, but pointed out Walker’s selflessness. “By talking about all these others, it shows how you are a rare leader in the city of Los Angeles,” Krekorian said. “The sacrifices you’ve made and the disagreements you’ve dealt with you did with grace and compassion. I’m sad to see this day.”
Walker is taking a position with the city and working with the Studio City Business Improvement District, which handles the heart of the area with some of the most major businesses.
When Walker first announced that he was considering stepping down from his position at the Neighborhood Council, he said he was stunned by the response. “I got over 200 emails, not just from people in Studio City,” Walker said. “People said, ‘We need you’ and they named specific issues and concerns they still had about the community, and how much I’ve helped them.”
And so, Walker decided to stay on to finish a few major issues that were still plaguing the community that he loved so much. Walker’s involvement in the volunteer Neighborhood Council system has become a model for all the 96 councils throughout Los Angeles that advise and inform the city council members and other city officials. They handle about $40,000 for the community and are overseen by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE).
Walker personally went to meetings at City Hall to fight to get Studio City put back into one district, rather than shared between three council members. Walker also worked closely with Universal Studios and the city officials to downscale the Universal Evolution plan, which at one point attracted 370 locals to their council meeting.
The 64-year-old film producer and production designer has led the neighborhood council as vice president and president, through some contentious times. Even on the last meeting he presided over, he was being harangued by a first-time visitor who asked foolish questions about procedures and threw ridiculous accusations at Walker. The president remained calm, just nodded and let the guy have his two minutes (a few times during the night), and then the guy left angry. Walker has learned not to take it personally.
At first, the guy who is now the model for the system said he wasn’t convinced that the Neighborhood Council system would work.
“I still think the Neighborhood Council should have a vote in the city council,” Walker said. “I think if five or six councils feel strongly and vote for a certain idea or issue, then we should have a vote, rather than just be an advisory body to our council members.”
In his area of Studio City, the charming walking area of Colfax Meadows, he said, “We got 17 cut-outs on the curbs for people in wheelchairs, we did that! We got 16 stop signs throughout the different neighborhoods in Studio City. It’s because we have some great volunteers, but it’s also because I could pick up the phone and know the person at the other end and get something done.”
He can cut through the bureaucracy, too. He got involved because he wanted the cut-outs in his neighborhood, and joined a slate of activists whom he still calls friends, and so his activism began.
Although Walker and the council members are not paid positions, it’s been practically a fulltime job for him. He is often consulting with the Studio City Residents Association, the neighboring councils, the Studio City Chamber of Commerce and the Studio City Improvement Association on ways to help the community, or how they can pool their influence and people power to get something done. For example, getting new and usable parking meters along Ventura Boulevard instead of the ones that people had so many problems with recently.
Walker got a master’s degree in Political Science after going to the University of Maryland on a baseball scholarship. He grew up in a Republican family in Portland.
“My parents thought I would become the youngest mayor of Portland, Oregon—that was their aspiration for me,” Walker laughed.
He fell in love with a young actress, and he became an actor himself, and began producing and packaging plays for a few seasons in a theater company put together by Maureen Stapleton. Then, he worked as an executive assistant for Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oregon). He got to meet Richard Nixon, and Walker’s personal politics leaned Democratic because he felt that humanitarian issues, and programs such as Food Stamps and student aid, were important.
“Then, I got a job at the lumber mill of Universal Studios, on the lower lot, and I was the first college-educated person working in the lumber yard at Universal Studios,” Walker said. “I developed an accounting system that was tabulated on a computer.”
That was in 1974, and he got to meet Universal bigwigs such as Dr. Jules Stein, Lew Wasserman and he befriended Steven Spielberg during the time that the young director was sneaking onto the lot to plant himself in any empty office. Walker got to work in the Black Tower, and worked his way into his profession.
“I worked my way into production because I was aggressive,” he said. “I nurtured the right relationships, met the right people and was given opportunities that everyone comes to Hollywood for.”
He helped Spielberg with his first TV series, “High Incident,” a cop show, and Walker tells funny stories of how the innovative director would call for 11 cameras and two cranes for a single scene on an intersection at DeSoto and Victory Boulevard and get away with it.
Then, Walker worked on the most expensive TV pilot ever shot at the time, for $11.5 million, for “Return to Fantasy Island” and was scouting shoots for Barry Sonnenfield. It was during that time that Walker was living in the Studio City hills on Laurie Drive and he got a call that his house (and a half dozen others) were sliding down the hill.
“That was a most horrible, horrible time,” Walker recalled.
He called for help from then-councilman Joel Wachs and ended up filing a joint lawsuit against the city in 1999 when they could show that leaking sewer pipes eroded the land under their houses. Walker lost everything.
Walker’s younger son Michael is developmentally disabled and Walker went back to school to get a clinical psychology doctorate.
“All this time, I was still interested in politics,” Walker said.
Walker also credits CBS Studio President Michael Klausman with encouraging him to stay in politics. One of the first neighborhood council presidents in Studio City, Klausman donates space and offices to the council, and allows the public to come to the studio backlot for community meetings.
“People don’t realize how much Michael Klausman does for the community,” Walker said. “For any project we get involved with, I can call him up and says, ‘What do you need?’ and is there for us.”
Being part of the film industry creates some awkwardness for Walker, especially when people complain about an inordinate amount of filming going on in Colfax Meadows.
Speaking as a private citizen, Walker said it doesn’t bother him, and he doesn’t feel it’s excessive.
“People are allowed to complain, that is what our meetings are all about, but it doesn’t bother me,” Walker said. “And I also think you can’t chase everything away. We are Studio City, after all.”
He will still stay involved, and there are plenty of issues still looming ahead.
“I’m so pro-Studio City and love the community so much,” said Walker, who is also looking to spend more time with his grandchildren. “I’m looking forward to continuing to serve the community in whatever capacity.”