Recordially, Lou Curtiss

San Diego Gems that Are Past and Gone

Bostonia Ballroom interior.

The Spade Cooley Band at the Bostonia Ballroom back in the 1940s.

The Bostonia Ballroom, as it looks today.

This city and its environs have a bad habit of ignoring our roots—particularly our musical roots and places where music has been heard. I could name many venues—dance halls, clubs, theaters, coffeehouses—that have contributed in a large part to our musical history, but few of them stand out, notably because the buildings still stand. Something should have been done to restore their musical importance a long time ago.

Let’s begin with the Bostonia Ballroom, which is located in the city of El Cajon, although when it opened in the early ’30s, it was out in the country between El Cajon and Lakeside. I mostly remember the ballroom as a showcase for the best in country music, both local and national. Acts ranging from Bob Wills  and his Texas Playboys, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Hank Thompson, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Merle Travis, Spade Cooley, and Hank Williams as well as our own Smokey Rogers (who was owner of the Bostonia Ballroom for a while), Roy Hogsed, and Buck Wayne. During the early 1930s Bostonia was a showcase for big bands like Tommy Dorsey and Glen Gray. Today the building houses a restaurant and most of the people who eat there don’t even know what a great place it once was. Occasionally someone asks about its history and the waiters show them the old dance hall in the back, which they rent out for business meetings. I have a tape of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley playing together on stage there and I’ve always thought someone should put together a CD of live material from some of the old Bostonia shows. I wonder if anyone out there has any tapes of those shows. If so, they should make them available sooner rather than later while good musical memories still linger.

Another showcase still standing is the old Pacific Ballroom at 12th St. and Broadway, downtown. It too started as a showcase for big bands sometime in the ’20s I’m told. The original name of the second-floor dance hall was the Palladium and I remember the Palladium Record City record shop, where you could see a radio deejay doing a live broadcast in the window (Was that KCBQ? I don’t remember.) at street level. There was a big, wide staircase from the street in the middle of the block on Broadway between 11th and 12th. Sometime in the mid-’50s it became the Pacific Ballroom. Many different kinds of acts played there, including jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and rockabilly, but mostly rhythm & blues. I remember Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Jimmie Reed, the Dominoes, the Five Keys, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Johnny Otis, LaVerne Baker, and so many others. Carl Perkins headlined a rockabilly show, and jazz artists like Jimmie Smith and Sonny Stitt and Cal Tjader played there. Sometimes the show would be a mixed bag, with R&B and jazz on the same bill. Later on, the building was turned over to Ward’s Jazzville, who tried to move from a smaller club-type situation into a larger showcase venue. They were only open a short time. By the early to mid-’60s, the place was closed up. I understand that the old ballroom is still there and used as a warehouse. Again, I wonder whether tapes of live shows exist and about the possibility of a memorial CD. I’d be more than happy to contribute what I have as well as some time and effort to make it happen.

Now, understand that these are just two of San Diego’s landmarks of music history. Recordings might exist from places like the old Sportsman Club (at 30th and Imperial), the Crossroads (at 5th and Market), the Westerner (in National City), the Clock (in Imperial Beach), the 21 Club (in National City), the Buckaroo Club, the College Inn, or one of the 11 other clubs that Jimmy Kennedy owned, which were mostly in the downtown area. There are also the area’s early coffeehouses, such as Circe’s Cup near SDSU, the Upper Cellar out on El Cajon Blvd. east of College Avenue, the Ballad Man in La Jolla, the Heritage in Mission Beach, and many other places I’m leaving out. Tapes were even made at shows that took place at the old San Diego Arena or Swiss Park in Chula Vista.

If these kinds of recordings were made available at the time they were taped, they would be bootleg, and people might get angry. Now it’s a matter of keeping memories alive and showing people (like those folks who run the San Diego Music Awards) that there has been good music in the area a lot longer than the late ’60s. Hell, Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory were playing in San Diego dance halls as early as 1917. Blind Lemon Jefferson played in the streets of San Diego during the early ’20s. Tex Ivy and the Texas Ranch Boys were on the radio here during the ’30s. Jimmy Durante told me once that he performed on a local vaudeville stage during the late ’20s. The Maddox Brothers and Rose owned a couple of country night spots here in the area during the ’40s. Woody Guthrie and Lefty Lou played on the radio and made personal appearances here in the ’30s (with Woody’s cousin Jack). During the Swing Era, bands led by locals (Jack McLean, Russ Plummer, and others) in addition to all the nationally known bands played at both the Bostonia Ballroom and at the Pacific Ballroom as well as at Pacific Square, Mission Beach Ballroom, Crystal Pier, and many area hotels.

Lou Curtiss

Note: Reprinted from the November 2003 issue of the San Diego Troubadour.