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Hidden Local History

Dr Doran

My Mail is Forwarded Here
Los Angeles
The most boring stretches of road often have history of great vintage interest. An ugly and unremarkable avenue in my area, for example. I've been to the Hotsy Totsy Bar which the article references ... it's still there, and it's full of people who look like bikers who did time in prison for assault with bottles and speed manufacture. Anyway, here goes ...

Strippers and Swing:
Navy Vet Recalls San Pablo's Risqué Past
By Michael Kai Louie, September 15, 2002 11:08 AM
San Pablo Avenue Times

ALBANY -- George Clark was just getting into one of his favorite subjects when a listener raised a hand to ask if it was all right to interrupt him to ask questions.

Clark, his pants cinched well above his waist with a Burberry’s belt, looked squarely at the man for a moment. A spry fellow at 82, his agility manifests itself in a quick and sharply witty tongue, and when he was finished looking incredulous, Clark said, "When I’m through there won’t be any questions."

Chances are, Clark was only half-joking. Clark is a member of the Lincoln Highway Association, a group devoted to preserving the history of the first trans-American thoroughfare, which stretched 3389 miles from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco.

He is also an unofficial authority on the stretch of highway that ran down San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay for nearly 20 years. It is a corridor known now as little more than a continuous melange of strip malls, aging small businesses, and automobile repair shops, a mere conduit through sundry towns.

But, as a small class of first year graduate students at UC Berkeley recently learned from the magnetic Clark, the 12-mile area has a rich, and somewhat infamous, history.

Packed and rocking Dixieland jazz halls, clubs with names like the Hotsy Totsy Bar, Kona Club, Sweets Ballroom, the Claremont Hotel and Six Belles, and scandalous strip bars were all part of an intense nightlife that featured both activities legal and illegal and drew crowds from all over the East Bay during the late 1920s up through the end of World War II.

Clark displayed photos from the era depicting a scene almost diametrically opposite of the now quiet strip valued mostly as a transitional thoroughfare. But Clark was there first hand to see it at its height.

In 1927, the Lincoln Highway re-routed from Sacramento to Oakland via the newly completed Carquinez Bridge and San Pablo Avenue -- -no longer crossing the Altamont Pass before completing the circuit to San Francisco by ferry.

San Pablo, Clark said, was rife with competing ferry companies, a Vegas-style atmosphere of hedonism and a booming jazz and Country Western music scene brought by the many working families who’d come west searching for jobs on the Bay’s ports and shipyards.

Clark, who’d played drums in Newtown, Conn., since he was 12, was just returnin from Naval service in the Pacific during World War II when he came to the East Bay. He quickly found other Navy musicians who shared his love of jazz and played some clubs on the rapidly evolving San Pablo strip. One of those was Hambone Kelly’s at 204 San Pablo, formerly a nudie club called Sally Rand’s Hollywood Club.

Sally Rand, already famous throughout the country for her sexy and shocking strip teases involving giant 8-foot translucent balloons, ostrich feathers and cowboy hats and holsters and not much else, had come from Ozark country in Missouri.

She’d made her way through the Ringling Brothers Circus and William Seabury’s Repertory Theatre Company before landing in Hollywood. She acted in 20 silent movies, including "The King of Kings," by Cecil B. deMille, who is said to have anointed the girl born Harriet Helen Gould Beck with her stage name, Sally Rand.

Rand made her infamous and highly profitable fan dance at Chicago’s Paramount Club in 1933. She also performed at the World’s Fair there and was arrested on charges of lewd and lascivious acts, but Superior Court Judge Joseph B. David dismissed the case saying, "As far as I’m concerned all these charges are just a lot of old stuff to me."

Fresh from another controversial and lucrative venture at the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, Sally moved her operations to the thriving San Pablo Avenue scene before closing in 1946.

"There was one place that I never went to and it was Sally Rand’s," Clark says. "And I wish I did; back then I was into listening to jazz bands."

But the music scene was fading fast -- it was gone by the early 1950s.

For 32 years Clark worked in the savings and loan industry. He also served another Naval tour, this time during Vietnam, on the USS Alvin C. Cockrell, the same ship he served in during WWII. The destroyer was among the first to arrive at the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis and its crew on August 5, 1945 – the ship that delivered the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was struck by Japanese torpedoes and resulted in the deaths of over 800 sailors, many of whom were eaten by famished sharks, and the worst Naval disaster in United States history.

Though he retired from the S&L industry in 1982, Clark has had no problems staying occupied. "I’m busier now than I ever was," he said. Aside from collecting Lincoln Highway memorabilia, he also has 5500 jazz records ("LPs, not compacts," he’s quick to correct), 200 books on jazz and 300 books on Navy activity in the Pacific during World War II.

But the Lincoln Highway easily ranks with his jazz LPs. An archivist looking for Lincoln Highway relics for a small museum display recently visited Clark. "She told me, ‘You have all the stuff we need’," he says.

Clark says he gets most of his items off eBay. From post cards and cigar boxes to old magazines and rare travel guides, he finds it all on his computer. "The Internet is probably the easiest place to find things," he says.

Now he’s working on a book with fellow LHA members Wes Hammond, editor of the LHA’s newsletter "The Traveler," and Jack Duncan.

"It’s a photo-journal book of the Lincoln Highway just in California," Hammond says "We want to find sections of the highway that have not been altered, but look at the way it was then and the way it is now, too."

Hammond, who’s been a member of the LHA for four years, says George Clark was "the only one who really knew about San Pablo."

It’s that kind of evolutionary thinking that keeps Clark’s historical perspective dynamic. "I was driving down San Pablo the other day and saw the place where we used to place and now it’s just a convenience store," he says. "I guess it’s like us old people; these things slowly fade away."


One Too Many
Clipperton Island
I've always found that the roads that were the main highways prior to the advent of the freeway system to be 'interesting' places, particularly where they enter and exit towns and cities. Because they grew and flourished in the era of our interest, they bear examination.

Much of the built environment along these roads catered to the new, mobile automobile-traveling public: Motor Hotels, Cabin Courts, Service Stations, Coffee Shops. Places where people traveling cheaply by car could overnight and refuel without the hassles or expense of parking in the nearby city. Because of the transient nature of much of its clientele, these businesses also offered a fair degree of anonymity. Consequently, that degree of variable respectability that clings to anonymous travelers became to be associated with the businesses along these roads.

Another contributor to the questionable reputation of these areas is that they tended to be on unincorporated land outside the nearby towns' legal jurisdictions. Hence businesses that were illegal or restricted in the nearby towns could operate along these roads much more freely: Bars, Night Clubs, Juke Joints, Road Houses, Fortune Tellers. Card Rooms. (And upstairs and in backrooms, horizontal entertainments and other forms of gambling.) These establishments not only took their custom from travelers, but were also patronized by people from the nearby town who wanted a bit more excitement in their life.

By the late 1930s, there also began appearing along major routes and towns, large 'motor resorts' which combined clean lodging, fine dining, a night club, with resort amenities such as tennis courts and swimming pools. Big-name entertainers would be booked. These not only appealed to the more upscale traveler but also became destinations in themselves. The El Ranchos in West Sacramento and Fresno were two of these. The El Rancho on what became the Las Vegas Strip followed later in 1940 and became especially succesful.

These business and social environments gave rise to several features of modern life we pretty much take for granted. Because of the admixture of respectable and not-so-respectable businesses, particularly motels, along these roads, respectable travelers need a way to tell the sheep from the goats. First, guidebooks and rating agencies such as auto clubs provided this information. By the 1950s, chains and franchises such as Travelodge and Best Western began to appear. By this time, freeways had begun to pull the highway traffic away and the city approach roads started on their decline which continues to this day. Food and lodging chains also helped put paid to the local colour of the old highway businesses districts, by offering a standardized, consistent product to the traveler.

The decline of the old highway city approaches has been long. Most of the respectable business places left long ago for the freeway off-ramps leaving a concentration of dubious establishments, places too poor to relocate, and a lot of vacancies. The fancier nightclubs left as the increasing tawdriness of the area repelled the well-healed local. The local infrastructure declined as state highway money and tax revenues disappeared. Many are now shadows and shells of places that once were vibrant.

The stories these places hold are also disappearing. As many communities are want to do once they become respectable, their tawdry, illicit, and colourful past is swept away and denied along with almost all physical trace of their existence. This is particularly the case in places like West Sacramento which incorporated as its own town. In other however like San Pablo Boulevard, the local towns expanded to absorb the old highway area and much that was in still there, however neglected and run down. I wonder if any of the local Clamper chapters have any plaques in the works for some of these places that the local historical societies would prefer to forget...

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