Welcome to the second edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco and the Russian River. Can you spy a glimmer of your yesteryear from these tales? Fasten your seat belts for a slippery ride down memory lane. http://www.johnmccarty.org/about-john-mccarty/
A True Story(or so I've been told):
There is usually little room for error when you're living on the edge. But as my grandfather once told me, "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room." It is a fine line between good and evil, between temptation and sin.
In 1953 my friend Bobby decided to pitch in and help the Sisters of Our Lady of Angels Grammar School with the annual paper drive. He went door-to-door collecting old periodicals, which would later be turned into a recycling plant for money. The fundraiser would be used for the betterment of the school such as improvements to the baseball diamond or updating the all-purpose room or perhaps to defray the costs of the upcoming picnic. All worthwhile and wholesome causes, right? Bobby's twisted mind, however, had other intentions.
You see, 1953 was the year of the very first edition of Playboy and its centerfold was none other than the curvaceous Marilyn Monroe. Bobby decided to stash these priceless magazines for himself rather than offer up the Hollywood bombshell to the Church. During the paper drive, he managed to collect thirty-five pics of Miss Monroe.
Early one morning, Bobby sneaked into Sister Mary Grace's classroom and plastered the centerfolds to the blackout shades before rolling them back up. Now all that was left was to wait.
Two hours later the moment of all moments arrived. It was time to show the daily film. Everyone put away their catechisms, sat up straight and folded their hands while the good nun went to the panel of windows. Being the suspicious tyrant that she was, Sister Mary Grace never let her eyes wander from her mischievous pupils as she began to lower the first shade. She felt for the string and pulled. The horrified expressions of the children put the Sister into alarm-mode. She scanned the aisles for any revealing signs of wrongdoing while feeling her way down the row of shades. Another string, another pull. More gasps. The Sister's head jerked right then left as she deftly yanked on another string behind her. With jittery fingers pointing to the window area, the anxious nun swung around to a mural of naked ladies. Her jaw fell, her face went blank.
Unable to live with the guilt, Bobby later confessed all to Jesus and Sister Mary Grace. His parents paid for an "untainted" set of new shades and Bobby was allowed to receive Confirmation, a passage of rite into adulthood. With this new anointment, Bobby would accompany his parents to Rio Nido that summer and continue to test the boundary between good and evil.
Rio Nido: A Brief History, Part Two
Back in the thirties you could buy a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to west Sonoma County for a $1.50. A ferry would carryyou from the City's Embarcadero to Sausalito where you would board the Northwestern Pacific R.R. On an average summer weekend, the trains would haul 14,000 passengers to the Russian River (30,000 on July 4th). There might be as many as 13 cars with first class smokers, second class non-smokers, mail & baggage, a hunters' car, school commuter, and a caboose. After crossing the Petaluma River and arriving in Santa Rosa, you would catch the Fulton & Guerneville Line to the River.
During the winter, the tracks would often washout between Korbel and Rio Nido. In that case, you would transfer to a boat-taxi and make your way downriver (more on railroad mishaps when we dive into Stumptown, the early years). After the five-hour trip from S.F., you were ready to twirl.
For your pleasure, there would be six dance halls operating six nights each week, including the Palomar on Fitch Mt., Mirabel (the dance floor extended out over the beach), the Grove in Guerneville, the Guernewood Lodge, Monte Rio, and, of course, Rio Nido. A ticket might set you back 75 cents, but the best deal was an all-week pass for $1.25, which would allow you to swing to the likes of Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Phil Harris, Buddy Rogers or perhaps Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians.
Harry James and His Music Makers would render an hour-long preview of that night's entertainment at Rio Nido's amphitheater. Under the watchful glow of the winking moon, the band members and patrons would then march next door to the dance hall and get serious. Buddy Rich was on drums while Frank Sinatra did the crooning. However, not everyone was there for Ol' Blue Eyes. Many of the male hound-dogs, no doubt, were hoping to catch an eye-full of the band leader's wife, movie star Betty Grable. Yowser, baby!
The Tommy Reed Band was another popular group back then. Reed was one of five sax players accompanied by three trombonists, three trumpeters, one drummer and a pianist. What made them so special was the admission price to play in the band. One needed to be a former Marine with at least four purple hearts. Yikes! Talk about your "no gain without pain". Those boys took it to another level.
Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra hit number one on the single's chart in 1935 with "And Then Some". Ozzie's calm vocals were a big smash with the fans, especially when combined with the perky sound of Harriet Hilliard.
The last band to play at Rio Nido was Tex Benecke's Glenn Miller Band in 1952. A new music genre challenged the Big Band Sound that year with Bill Haley & The Comets as well as Roy Orbison, among others. The devil shook, rattled and rolled as the days of innocence faded in the rearview mirror.
Ozzie Nelson married his lead singer, Harriet, and they had two sons, David and Ricky. Evidently, Ozzie's on-screen character was very different from his real-life persona, which has been characterized as an authoritarian figure, monitoring every aspect of his children's lives. His dictatorial personality thwarted his sons, preventing them from attending college while reminding the boys that they were obliged to work on television. So the fifties (and Ozzie) were not so calm after all. Who would've thunk?
It is no secret that Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra had a contemptuous relationship while playing for Harry James. Rich would try to throw Sinatra off with some very arrhythmical drumming. One time Sinatra became so fed-up that he stormed off stage and returned with a glass of water, which he promptly dumped over Rich's head. Frank quit the band after just one year and signed on with Tommy Dorsey. Boys will be boys.
The music industry in 1952 was desperate to find a Caucasian blues singer. Roy Orbison was sent overseas for a trial run. Although possessed with satin vocals, he failed the stage-presence portion. In 1954 along came Elvis and he stuck. Others challenged the Memphis kid, including Pat Boone, who had stolen Little Richard's 1955 hit, "Tutti Frutti". But Boone was too vanilla and the King remained atop his throne.
Perhaps you have a story of your own you would like to share with Fellow Book Benders. Go to www.johnmccarty.org and click on "Contact" and tell all. The taller the tale, the more majestic.
In July, Bobby will do battle with a prehistoric creature. Also, we'll join Dick Crest as he entertains River Rats and other unsavory characters. Until then, my friends, keep turning those pages.