In 1889 my paternal grandfather, Gustave Arnold Tistaert, “Gus,” came to southern California from Brussels at the age of 7.
Gus’s grandfather, Albert Joseph Charle, was a famous Belgian architect, well known for the design of his own home. The house was aptly named the Charle-Albert Castle, giving credence to the adage that a man’s home is indeed his castle. Unfortunately, the castle was destroyed by fires and World War II bombings. In 2005 I was invited to visit the castle prior to its six million euro restoration.
Gus contracted polio in his teens and consequently walked with a limp and suffered from health issues. Despite that, he and my grandmother operated two general mercantile stores in Los Angeles and Oxnard. Gus was also a printer and owned a printing business. At age 35, Gus decided he wanted to become a dentist, graduating from USC Dental School in 1918. While in school, he won a gold scholarship key and received a gold watch for publishing the class annual.
My grandfather set up practice in downtown Los Angeles in proximity to what is now the Pershing Square Garage. He was in the Subway Terminal Building with its white tiled tunnel housing the underground electric rail line that brought thousands of workers and shoppers from East Los Angeles. Gus established an office with five physicians, all of whom were concerned about the aftereffects of polio on Gus’s health. Yet Dr. Gus outlived all five and practiced dentistry until he was 84. He and my grandmother lived in their own castle – a 32 room house on Hoover Street.
My grandfather was an early adopter in technology. He purchased a Victor x-ray machine that looked like something out of a science fiction movie. He took x-rays of teeth, but also of other body parts – arms, wrists, legs, chests – for his partner physicians’ patients. Eventually he upgraded to a more sophisticated GE x-ray machine, which he used on Clark Gable! Gus had before and after autographed pictures, extracted teeth and photographs of the dentures he made for Mr. Gable. When Gus wasn’t telling stories with Clark, to my grandmother’s chagrin, he could be seen at the horse racing track with Myrna Loy.
My father, Leslie Clinton Tistaert, played the piano professionally on the new media of radio. His parents wanted another dentist in the family rather than a musician, but they didn’t offer financial support for this goal. So my father paid for dental school by playing the piano, sometimes until the early morning hours, dragging himself to tests at school the next day.
In 1929 Leslie graduated from USC Dental School right into the throes of the Great Depression. He worked with Dr. Phelp, then with my grandfather, but encountered the same challenge: there were few patients. My father eventually set up an office in Ocean Park. Payment was often in the form of barter – chickens, eggs, rabbits, fish, clothing. Once a patient gave Leslie a wooden nickel in exchange for extracting his tooth.
The big band era musicians and singers knew my father from his piano playing days and he had a tremendous following. Leslie understood there were design and attributes to the teeth and jaws that only a musician could appreciate. He developed treatment concepts that maintained and enhanced musical sound and tone. Musicians flocked to him for dental care.
My father was also interested in technology. Around 1950 Leslie acquired an air driven dental handpiece from a New Zealand company. My father reasoned that if air sanders worked well on boats, a dental specialized air tool could also work on teeth.
As a dentist Leslie made a remarkable observation. He noticed that if one spouse had periodontal problems, the partner was likely to develop the same condition. He theorized that the cause may have been bacterial and began treating the periodontal issues with tetracycline. He noted improvement, but the problem tended to reoccur. This made him wonder if husband and wife were sharing the infection back and forth. Leslie mentioned this to a periodontist colleague, but due to the social mores of the 1950’s, he decided against public announcement. Today, of course, we recognize the link between microorganisms, transmissibility and periodontal disease.
My younger brother and I, a year apart in age, began working on boats from the time we were children. Father tasked us with sanding and fiberglassing his 32-foot boat. A neighboring boat owner, a North American Aviation employee, took pity on us and taught us how to fiberglass. Our upbringing was strict, consistent with Father’s experience in the Depression, and I was required to pay room and board by age 12. After school and on weekends, I worked in a wooden boat building yard, becoming skilled in the utilization of table, band, and skill saws, jointers, planers and disk sanders.
One of my jobs was to putty screw heads, then sand them flush with the surface. Filling and finishing 1,500 screw heads paid $150. Compare that to 1,500 silver fillings that paid my dad $12,000. Nevertheless, I liked building boats.
On a special one-year program, I attended regular high school classes and studied machining and welding at Santa Monica College. After graduation I continued my studies at SMC and added engineering, in preparation for a mechanical engineering degree. I transferred to USC engineering and hoped to attend the Stevens Institute next for a Masters in naval architecture. My father and grandfather had other ideas though, insisting that one of us – my brother or I – follows in the family business. Reluctantly, I became a dentist, graduating from USC Dental School in 1965.
Like my father, who attracted musician patients, my lifetime involvement with boating brought many yacht owners, commercial fishermen, tugboat owners and marine service people to my practice. A special honor was treating Donald Douglas of Douglas Aircraft Company and his family. The company swelled to 150,000 aircraft employees during World War II. Douglas Aircraft built many famous planes like the DC3 and original passenger jet DC8 series. I also had three billionaire patients. One of them brought in an armaments dealer unannounced – and wanted me to clean his teeth. I learned that the arms dealer had constructed a 283-foot yacht, “Nabila” – and it was used in a James Bond film. The yacht would be later purchased by Donald Trump and renamed “Trump Princess.”
In the late 60’s, I decided to build my own boat. A WWII naval architect and I designed a 42-footer and tested the prototype in the MIT test tank. At the time, it was the fastest diesel powered boat on the Pacific coast.
I next tried my hand with a land project. In 1975 I purchased a Santa Monica downtown property and designed and built a dental office building. It has been my dental home for over forty years. There is, however, no fourth generation to continue the dental legacy. The practice and building are both “for sale.” Although I initially became a dentist to please my family, the profession has been great. I have met and interacted with so many interesting people, patients and colleagues alike.