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March 2024
Vol. 23, No. 6

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

San Diego Coffeehouses in the 1950s

by Lou CurtissSeptember 2013

It was about 1957 when I first went into the Zodiac (a coffeehouse European) down at 11th and Broadway at street level below the old Pacific Ballroom. That night I heard a folksinger named Mickey Myers and met the owner, a guy named Dick Masterson who also owned a place called the Zen Coffee House and Motorcycle Repair Shop down at Broadway and India. The next week I saw Judy Henske and Fred Gerlach there. In the next couple of years I got around San Diego’s early coffeehouse scene fairly thoroughly. Each place (much like those today) had its specialty although then it was the Age of the Beatnik and the word coffeehouse was sort of suspect. The Zodiac proclaimed itself San Diego’s only Oriental-style coffee house (there was a large dragon mural on the wall). Some went for a much simpler motif. A place on El Cajon Blvd. called the House of Cosmetics became the House of Villikins (after the old folk song “A Villikins and His Dinah”). A street-level basement motif and you had the Upper Cellar out around 70th Street and El Cajon Blvd. Bob Stane who owned the Upper Cellar also owned a place in La Mesa called the Voodoo Man. Bob later ran the Icehouse in Pasadena for many years and today is still in the coffee house business, running the Coffee Gallery in Hollywood (“My 65 Years with an Expresso Machine.” Bob should write a book).

There were two coffeehouses on Adams Avenue. The Settlement was a quiet place with chess boards and studying students. I think they might have had a poetry reading from time to time. “The Subterranean” (named after a Beat novel) was about the only San Diego place playing to a Beat theme (they weren’t around long). The Pour House on La Jolla Blvd. is the only place serving booze that was always listed among the coffeehouses. I remember seeing Maya Angelou there once during her Calypso-singing days. Up in La Jolla on Pearl Street Bill Sherman ran the Ballad Man (quiet folk song was the theme here). The Gallery in Ocean Beach was for readers (they had a library). The Ivory Tower Jazz Quartet from SDSU played progressive jazz at Circe’s Cup just a step or two from the SDSU (actually then it was SDSC) campus. The quartet also played at the Upper Cellar and other places.

Downtown there was Il Pavone, which was an open-all-day and cater-to-downtown shoppers kind of place (that’s when a lot of shopping was done downtown.) Out on Midway Drive was the Brush and Horn (sort of a center for the striped-shirt trios of the Great Folk Scare). Sometimes local jazz places like the Powerhouse or the Honeybucket would be listed with the coffeehouses although what they served was mostly on tap. I know I’m leaving out some places (I left the ’60s places out on purpose) and some of the places changed name (for instance, Circe’s Cup started out as La Parise, and the Voodoo Man was the Coffee Man). My interest was the folk song. Some of the people I remember playing those places include Eric Hord, Hadley Batchelder, Ed Ellison, Ray Phoenix, Judy Henske, Mason Williams, the John B Trio, Fred Gerlach, Buddah, Jack and Marilyn Powell, and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. It was before the Folk Scare and the songs came from folks like Pete Seeger, Richard Dyer Bennett, Ewan MacColl, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Logan English, A.L. Lloyd, Robin Roberts, Peggy Seeger, and others. Interesting times.


I was spending the summer in McComb, Mississippi as a civil rights worker in 1964. It was at the Steak and Shake in McComb where I learned that if you add “bless their hearts” after names you can say what ever you want about them and it’s okay.

“My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,” the waitress said. “He rents storage space for his kids’ toys — they’re only one and three years old, bless their hearts.” Another lady said, “Well, my father, bless his heart, has turned into a sentimental old fool. He gets weepy when he hears my daughter’s voice.”
Before our steak burgers came someone blessed her office mate’s heart, then as an afterthought the jealous hearts of everyone in the office. I heard bestowed blessings on many a heart that day. I even heard a guy bless his ex-wife’s heart. I remarked to my companion Paul that our waitress, bless her heart, would not be getting much  of a tip, for which, no doubt, she’d bless our hearts.


My Dad used to talk about jumping freight trains. He always said that his old buddy Doc Horton was the best he ever knew. I’ve seen him swing on a train under circumstances that would make most expert hoboes think twice before risking their bones. He and I were barely out of school when he taught me the finer points of “beating the rattlers,” which opened up a whole new world to me”.

“We’d jump ‘blind baggage’ into the space between the engine and the baggage car. We sometimes rode the cowcatcher just beneath the sight of the engineer, or ‘hit the decks,’ clinging to the top of the passenger cars. Probably the most dangerous was to ‘ride the ticket’ or the ‘rods,’ which was a long board under the car, where you could lie just above the tracks and be pelted with dust, pebbles, ashes, and cinders; you had to hold on ’til your knuckles became numb, because with a sudden lurch you could be thrown beneath the wheels.” Doc used to say that boring though the night on a teetering, rocketing, plunging locomotive is very much like riding a cannonball. He sure got that right.

Lou Curtiss

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