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ANNA SMITH: "Historical tour on steroids" to grace streets of Bakersfield in February

Alfred Harrell

Alfred Harrell was the editor and publisher of The Bakersfield Californian for nearly 50 years. His tale, along with nine other local historical figures, will be told in Stories on the Sidewalk, a walking tour organized by the Arts Council of Kern.

Some true stories are so incredible they are almost unbelievable. Bakersfield’s past is filled with tales of colorful characters like Dick Fellows, a hapless outlaw. In his 14-year career as stagecoach robber and horse thief in the 1800s, Fellows displayed both tremendous daring and shocking ineptitude. He was jailed and released multiple times, even escaping prison once. While in jail, he was always a model prisoner, only to return to his outlaw ways immediately upon release. He fell off his horse numerous times and shot himself while robbing stagecoaches near Bakersfield. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

These stories would be even more vivid when paired with the location where they took place. There is pure magic hearing a tale from ages past on the very sidewalk, under the exact tree, outside of the building where that heroism, heartbreak, fear or perseverance took place. The Arts Council of Kern has a plan to do just that.

Downtown Bakersfield’s Chinatown, east of Chester Avenue, was an area bustling with Chinese-owned businesses and families during the 1800s through the 1960s. A lot of fascinating history took place there. It was alive with Chinese-Americans from Canton province. The area served as a hub for immigrants to live, operate businesses and worship at the nearby Let Sing Gong Temple. Chinese residents worked laying down rails, mining for gold and tungsten and, later, working in the fields. They raised families and contributed to our city’s rich history.

Charlie Ping was a notable Chinatown character. His story sounds straight out of The Godfather. A gangster, he was described as the most feared man in Bakersfield’s Chinatown. From pre-World War I days until the 1930s, he was an enforcer, a member of the Bing Kong street gang with territory in Bakersfield’s New Chinatown. He was thought to have been involved in the murders of multiple members of the rival street gang for Old Chinatown.

Despite all that, Ping became a respected businessman and lived a long life.

This hometown gangster turned successful businessman will be one of eleven characters profiled by local actors for an upcoming event developed by The Arts Council of Kern. Early next year, The Arts Council is hosting “Stories on the Sidewalk”, an educational walk through history, where colorful characters from Kern County’s past come alive on the streets of Bakersfield. Brimming with insight and the odd fact, laced with humor and drama, I suspect Stories on the Sidewalk will shed new light on the history of our beloved city.

I think it's important to share stories and details about the fascinating characters that contributed to the rich, diverse fabric of this place. The glossy side of the story is not enough. We crave authenticity, and the textbook history lesson is just a portion of the story. Our city was shaped not only by prominent families, industry and market forces, notable disease outbreaks, migratory shifts, natural disasters, public faces and city leaders. It has also been shaped over time by outlaws and bandits, hidden forces, taboo trades and previously untold tales of well-known figures. We need to pass on the true story of this place - in all its raw, wild, unadulterated glory.

Eleven stops in downtown Bakersfield will feature actors portraying some of Kern’s most famous —and infamous — residents, such as Colonel Thomas Baker, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, Madge the Madam, the bandit outlaw Dick Fellows and more. The Arts Council is pairing local writers with actors to produce mini plays on the sidewalks of downtown. These stories of Kern’s rich history, told in riveting presentations and performed by local actors will be right on the streets of Bakersfield. (Due to the dramatic nature and mature content, the event is not recommended for children.)

The idea came from Beth Pandol and Tracy Walker-Kiser, who approached The Arts Council about an idea to pair Kern County history with the arts. The event will bring the sidewalks of Bakersfield alive through Kern history told by those that made it.

“The writers have developed some very creative pieces by telling the stories in drama and dialogue. This will not be a history class lecture. It will be highly entertaining, sometimes serious and sometimes fun,” explained Pandol.

Guests choose a time slot; tours depart every 10 to 15 minutes for a two-block journey through history. Led by a guide, groups of 20-25 will come upon actors portraying characters, such as Charlie Ping and Flossie Haggard, telling stories of Kern's past.

“It's educational, entertaining, full of drama and comedy,” said David Gordon, Executive Director of The Arts Council. “We do not believe this has ever been done before. It is a historical tour on steroids.”

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