Thais Rust Sykes—1925-2021

by Pablo Capra
By Pablo Capra

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Thais Rust Sykes—1925-2021
Clayton Rust’s gas station in the 1920s, where Oasis Imports is today.
With the passing of Thais Rust Sykes, 96, on December 30, 2021, Topanga lost possibly its last living connection to the 1920s. Thais’s father, Clayton Rust (1886-1974), from Oklahoma, worked as a surveyor on the Topanga road to the beach, rebuilt in 1915 to handle cars. Thais’s mother, Ina Thrasher (1901-1988), descended from pioneers of Van Nuys. In the 1920s, the Rusts moved to Lower Topanga, where Clayton ran the Topanga Service Station and Ina had a restaurant called Rust’s Barbecue. The Rusts were joined by about 20 family members. Others owned the store that would later become the Malibu Feed Bin, and a hamburger stand called Paxson’s Café, where Mastro’s Ocean Club is today. Thais was born on April 5, 1925, and grew up in a two-story house behind the Topanga Ranch Motel. She could remember seeing the German Graf Zeppelin fly by on its 1929 trip around the world. In 1932, her house had to be moved a half mile up the canyon to Brookside to make way for the construction of the current bridge across the lagoon. (The motel was also moved to its current location, a few dozen feet inland.) One of Topanga’s worst fires burned Thais’s bedroom in 1938, but the rest of her house survived. The house was the only one selected for historic preservation when State Parks bought Lower Topanga in 2001 and bulldozed over 50 others. Unfortunately, State Parks didn’t maintain Thais’s house, and it fell into disrepair, and had to be bulldozed as well. As a child, Thais was a fearless swimmer, in an ocean dotted with 1930s gambling ships. “We were at the beach probably from eight or nine in the morning till five or six at night. It didn’t matter how large the waves were, we just had fun…. One day, Marilyn and I went with Ida Lee and her dad [Ottie] to the beach. The three of us got out beyond the waves, not knowing that there was a strong riptide. When we couldn’t get back to shore, Ottie called the Santa Monica lifeguards to rescue us. We were picked up just before Sunset Blvd. We were having a great time but Ida Lee’s dad was frantic.” Marilyn Kays was Thais’s cousin, and Ida Lee Carillo was the niece of actor Leo Carrillo, both living in Brookside. During World War II, Thais scanned the sky for enemy planes from a lookout tower that was across the street from today’s Getty Villa. The Coast Guard had a headquarters at Sunset Blvd., and patrolled the coast on foot every evening, passing by Topanga Beach with bayonets and German Shepherds. Machine gun nests were placed on dirt mounds on either side of the lagoon, and the army sometimes closed the beach to play war games. Thais first became engaged to Las Tunas Beach neighbor Bob Talmadge, the son of actors Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge, before deciding to marry Jack Sykes (1935-2017), another neighbor, instead. They raised two daughters, Lori (b.1958) and Lisa (1961-2018). Because of the war, Thais and her mother both began working in the aerospace field. Thais got her first job at Douglas Aircraft, then went on to work at the RAND Corporation and the Planning Research Corporation. In 2006, Thais was the subject of a Topanga Historical Society presentation that is now posted on YouTube with the title “Lower Topanga in the 1920s-30s.” Her photos can be viewed at Author’s Note: In 2005, former Topanga Messenger editor Susan Chasen and I drove to Orange, CA to interview Thais and her husband Jack Sykes about growing up in Lower Topanga. Thais and Jack told their stories with such detail and humor, and generously shared so many photographs, that the discovery still remains my biggest thrill as a historian. At 26, I also experienced a moment of growing up that imbued me with a responsibility to preserve and pass on rare historical knowledge. Susan and I published their stories in the Topanga Messenger article, “Thais Sykes: A Lower Topanga Girlhood” (November17, 2005); in “The Topanga Story: Expanded Edition” (2012); and in my own book, “Topanga Beach: A History 1820-1920s” (2020). Topanga is indebted to Thais and Jack for enriching its history with their contributions.
Thais with neighbor John Foundoukos, a Greek fisherman, on Topanga Beach, where the lifeguard station is today, circa 1928. “One day John gave me a live lobster to take to my mother. He taught me how to hold it and I carried it to our house where my mom was shouting at me to drop it and was furious with John for giving me a live lobster.”
Thais’s house being moved to Brookside, 3427 Topanga Canyon Blvd., in 1932.
Thais sitting on a 1935 Ford Coupe at Brookside, circa 1945.
Photos courtesy of the Sykes Family Thais and husband Jack Sykes, Thanksgiving 2014. Photo by Thais’s daughter, Lori Sykes Ardis.

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January 21, 2022