BY MEGHEDI MELODY NAZARIAN
Do you remember a time when Democrats and Republicans worked together — not against each other? In today’s divisive political climate, especially in 2020 with the Coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matters movement, it’s hard to imagine such a time ever existed. But Walter Karabian — former California State Assembly member from 1967 to 1975 and the first Speaker of assembly (and third Armenian-American ever elected to the state’s legislature in the history of the U.S.) — not only recalls that more harmonious time but actually lived through it. This is a man that turned from Republican to Democrat in a heartbeat (and never looked back) after the fateful meeting of then, soon-to-be-president, John F. Kennedy, at the Democratic National Convention in 1960.
This is a man with many more captivating accomplishments spotlighted in a short documentary titled, Karabian: A Glimpse Into a Statesman’s Life, by filmmakers Hrag Yedalian and Garen Mirzaian. Mirzaian recently served as cinematographer on Live Nation’s documentary, “Truth to Power,” chronicling Serj Tankian.
The idea behind the 20-minute film came when Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian connected the filmmakers with Karabian “because he felt that Wally’s story was valuable and that we would be able to capture it for posterity,” Yedalian said. Mirzaian continued: “I remember I was intrigued, but after meeting Wally, the inspiration was solidified.”
And there’s plenty of inspiring moments to be seen thanks to Karabian’s experiences both as a politician and an Armenian-American man who educated politicians on the Armenian Genocide back in the late ‘60s and simultaneously rubbed elbows with the likes of JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Fidel Castro.
When I first set out the popcorn to watch this short film — which premiered at the Arpa Festival in the fall of 2018 and had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Pomegranate Film Festival — I didn’t expect to feel as close as I did to Karabian’s stories and character. But by the end of it, I was compelled to meet him after experiencing a wave of emotions ranging from enthusiasm for his grand career accomplishments, excitement over his meeting of such prominent figures in history, sadness for his near-death experience during a terrorist hijacking on a plane he was aboard in 1970, and most importantly, pride for his building a powerful legacy as an Armenian-American. This is a man who used the words “candid” and “complex” when asked to describe himself — I, and many others, would settle on a more ordinary lexicon. But as you soon come to find in this fascinating short film Karabian was anything but average.
“Wally is a first-class diplomat and a man of action,” filmmaker Yedalian said. “From making an indelible mark on state politics to improving the lives of disenfranchised communities, Wally has been able to use his career to bring about important and meaningful change.”
Walter Karabian was born in Fresno, California on March 14, 1938, the same day Superman was introduced to the public on the cover of Time Magazine. So it’s no surprise that he himself would go on to exemplify “superman powers” in his political career. “I was ambitious. I had strong feelings about public issues and I felt I could do something about them in a position of power,” he said. Karabian got his political feet wet at the University of Southern California by getting involved in student politics. At the age of 28, he was among four legislators elected under the age of 30 in the history of California. At 32, he became the youngest assembly majority leader in California’s history. Throughout his career, Karabian championed social justice and equal rights. He also changed the way we see divorce by coining a very popular term that we use until today (it’s a funny story which I’ll let him tell in his own words in the documentary).
After running for Secretary of State in 1974, Karabian spent the rest of his career practicing law in Los Angeles for 45 years. He also served as a founding member of the Armenian Bar Association. Among Karabian’s most cherished contributions to politics and the Armenian cause came during the first Armenian Genocide Commemorative Resolution in 1967, which he authored in the assembly. It was the first time the members of the legislature had ever heard of the Armenian Genocide and Karabian “felt it was my duty to educate them.” Until today Karabian continues to teach non-Armenians about our history. “My Armenian identity was always there for me,” Karabian said. “It wasn’t as prominent as it is today but it was always there inside me.”
While he no longer actively works in politics or law, Karabian has left an undeniable legacy for Armenian-Americans who came and will come after him. “I’ve had a fortunate, bountiful, and productive life,” he said. “I was a role model for many and I accepted that role to motivate younger Armenian men and women to engage in politics to better not only themselves but to better their community and their constituency.”
You can view “Karabian: A Glimpse Into a Statesman’s Life” and learn more about Walter Karabian through the accompanying archives.
Watch the film
As for the filmmakers’ upcoming projects, Yedalian and Mirzaian are currently in post-production on their feature length documentary, slated to be released before April 24, 2021, about the emotional and psychological impact of the Armenian Genocide on multiple generations of Armenians since 1915.