On January 4, 1949, residents of Southern California awoke to find lawns covered with frost, pipes and car radiators frozen, and breath condensing into clouds when they ventured outside. On the way to work, drivers wrestled with the unfamiliar sensation of skidding on frozen pavement. The worst cold wave in anyone’s memory had brought unfathomable temperatures across the entire region: 28 in Los Angeles (that’s Fahrenheit), 23 in Pasadena, 22 in Palm Springs. Even San Diego recorded an overnight low of 27. A dense layer of smog covered the area, this time not from cars but from ten million kerosene heaters lit by citrus growers in an effort to save their crops. Although the smog was thick enough to close Los Angeles Harbor and Long Beach Airport and leave an oily film on clothes and furniture, the heaters were mostly futile against temperatures that plunged into the teens in many farming districts.
The freeze came on the heels of an equally unusual Southern California event: a Rose Bowl victory by Northwestern. After the Wildcats’ 20–14 defeat of California, a train carrying hundreds of fans got stuck in a blizzard in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The enterprising Northwestern students took advantage of the enforced layover to write and perform a short play. With equal resourcefulness, a Hollywood press agent converted the foul weather into a photo opportunity. The next week’s Life magazine featured a picture of a blonde starlet named Cleo Moore, who was holding a snowball and either smiling or grimacing as flakes fell to earth past her skimpy two-piece sunsuit. Miss Moore parlayed the shot into a career in 1950s low-budget films with titles like One Girl’s Confession and Women’s Prison , proving that even in Southern California, it’s an ill wind that blows no good.