No. 47 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or how badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Newspapers run stories on mayhem, disaster and things broken, from water mains to people. But often unnoticed are the stories much more in number. For a century and then some, we’ve written about entertainment. It reminds what keeps us together — singing and dancing, theater and story, most importantly, culture.
Years ago, the wandering tribe of the Canyon Theatre Guild was once again without a home. It landed a spot way up Sierra Highway at the old Callahan’s Wild West Show compound. The place was reportedly haunted, which was fitting. It was Halloween and the Boobie-House Players were presenting “Dracula.”
Ah-blah. Ah-blah. Ah-blah…
It was magnificently awful, even by community theater standards. The actor playing the vampire count had a thick Transylvanian accent. His delivery was so powerful, that it spread like the plague and by the second act, all CTG thespians were talking like Count Chocula.
I so loved them for their devotion to art. Regular people — grocers, Realtors, housewives, students — took time from their impossibly busy lives to stitch costumes, build sets, memorize lines and present theater, 12,006 Ah-blahs not in the script included.
Since its first issue Feb. 7, 1919, The Mighty Signal has been covering the arts here in the Santa Clarita and beyond. No other anecdote best describes the difference between today and a time when entertainment wasn’t glued to our eyeballs via big-screen TVs, tablets and smartphones.
Growing up here, one of my best friends was the future Emmy-winning musician, Curtis Stone. His dad, Cliffie, is a Country Hall of Fame inductee and former Signal columnist. He wrote “The Rolling Stone” back in the 1950s. Cliffie described a ritual completely foreign in the modern SCV.
He wrote about his neighbors and their Monday afternoon ritual. The family were rabid fans of the quiz show, “Name That Tune.” To watch it, the father had to climb on the roof and adjust a TV antenna the size of a Viking sail to pull in Channel 4, NBC. The dad would turn the big signal catcher a few inches, then yell down to his son in front of the Sand Canyon ranch’s front lawn:
His son would yell the same question to his sister in the hallway, who would turn to query her mother, kneeling in front of the TV. Sometimes mom would say, “Worse!” and sometimes, “A little better…” And so the communication went back and forth, up to the roof and back, until the family tuned in a watchable program.
A little tidbit. He paid for his ranch by producing an old folk song that became the hit tune, “The Hokey Pokey,” which, by the way, is what it’s all about.
Anyway. With our poor TV reception, at least out in the canyons, that’s how you changed channels back in the 1950s here. Today, we can watch 10 seasons worth of TV shows in a back-crunching session. Or Korean wrestling on YouTube. We can post our own videos, memes and prose on Facebook to Instagram.
Dancing & Radio Ga-ga…
It’s hard to appreciate how simple life was in 1927. The big draw in town was a brand new 10-tube radio set at the Motor Stage Cafe. The giant receiver could pick up stations as far away as San Francisco. It took a safe cracker’s fingers to operate it, too. If you cranked the channel knob too quickly, you could blow out one of those big cathode tubes. The Signal wrote of time stopping in Downtown Newhall as a huge crowd of about 50 huddled around that radio in a giant wooden cabinet to listen to the fabled ’27 World Series.
Here’s a strange concept.
We used to entertain ourselves.
Nightclubs aplenty thrive today in the SCV. But except for a few community events, you know what we rarely do nowadays?
In a 1922 edition, we covered what was called a “Balloon Dance.” It was over at the long-gone French Village (across the street from Green Thumb Nursery on Newhall Avenue today). Big bands — live big bands — would come up from Los Angeles to play. A first prize of $100 — a staggering amount of money considering you could buy a house in town for $500 — was offered. Couples danced the Charleston, which had an odd, side-kicked step to it. Women wore inflated balloons on their ankles. Last poor woman to NOT have her, ahem — balloon popped — was declared winner.
For a valley containing a few hundred souls, we had many dance halls. For years, the Hapaland Hall (on Market today, next door to where the courthouse building is) was THE community meeting place, hosting everything from talent shows to dances, silent movies to live theater. That all changed the night of March 12, 1928. When the St. Francis Dam burst, sending a 200-foot wall of water and debris down San Francisquito Canyon, it claimed approximately 500 lives. The Hapaland was used as a morgue for dozens of bodies. It was never used as a dance hall or theater after that.
Of course, we had lodges up many of the canyons, from Saugus to Castaic. Two places people no longer remember are the community of Honby (where Home Depot is today on Soledad) and the Green Oaks Dance Pavilion. The Signal covered dancing there in 1925 and it hosted a live full orchestra and dancing from Wednesday to Sunday nights.
In 1967, the SCV’s “First (and only) Hippie Night Club” drew front-page coverage in The Signal. Bill Cornwell, a Canoga Park businessman, rented the former honky-tonk from local country music legend Tex Williams. It was a hole-in-the-wall on today’s Newhall Avenue, near the Newhall nursing home. The teen hangout was virtually an empty room with a revolving mirrored disco ball and revolving local bad but angry garage bands. In its first three months of operation, there weren’t anything approaching crowds at The Lemon Tree.
There was “attendance.”
About to close its doors for good, Cornwell was blessed in a left-handed sort of way by the Rev. Harold Mansfield of Newhall’s Foursquare Church. Harold felt the place would be a haven for “scantily clad persons doing dances.” It never was. The place was usually filled with 99% sulking boys and one or two girls. Mansfield objected to the Lemon Tree because of the “obscene gestures” the kids did while dancing. Mansfield organized huge protests. Some carried signs saying: “Satan Is In The Lemon Tree!”
I can think of no better way to attract teens to a party than by announcing that Satan will be in attendance.
Thanks to The Signal’s tireless and heroic front-page coverage of Protestants vs. Hippies, The Lemon Tree did a land-office business for a couple months until such time that the 99% all-male clientele discovered there were no go-go girls or girls, period, within 10 miles of the club.
Poor Pastor Mansfield. He wasn’t around in 1985 to see the culture slip lightyears lower with the opening of The Limelight.
Wednesday was Male Exotic Dancer Night. Some in attendance are SCV soccer moms today.
One of my favorite local nightclub stories involved The Newhall Land & Farming Co. and the once popular Castaic restaurant, The Blue Moon. The building and lot were owned by NL&F. It was in the 1990s. The eatery couldn’t make a go of it. Newhall Land leased it to a partnership headed by a children’s dentist from Ventura Boulevard in that other valley.
The motif of this new place was hush-hush. But rumors started spreading that Blue Moon was going to reopen as a strip joint with stark raving naked ladies and cheap but overpriced drinks.
The Signal had a fetching and charismatic reporter, Susan Goldsmith. I innocently suggested that with journalism paying less than an internship with a New Delhi untouchable, perhaps Susan should maybe take a little extra time at lunch and go apply as a waitress.
She returned all grins.
The once-family-friendly restaurant had installed stages, mirrored wall panels, red velvet sofas for lap dances, and, of course, poles for undulation and female body inspections.
Susan was rather excited about landing the job. Paid three times her reporter’s salary.
One of my dear friends is Tom Lee, was the high holy mucky muck capo di tutti capi of Newhall Land then. When I called him to tell him that he had rented a lap dance palace smack in the middle of squeaky clean beige Valencia, Tom grumbled about having the absolute worst day and didn’t have time to spend entertaining my monkey shines.
“Dude,” I said. “They’re building a nudie bar at the Blue Moon.”
“Dude,” Tom said. “You better not be joking.”
Fifteen minutes later, I get a call. Without even identifying himself, Tom Lee says: “Dude. They’re building a strip club in the old Blue Moon!”
I understand that somewhere in Valencia, there was an underground cave filled with giant vampire bat attorneys, all employed by NL&F Co. The gates of hell opened. Someone in a high position of authority called the children’s dentist in Encino and promised that if the dentist didn’t stop construction on Valencia’s short-lived X-rated gentlemen’s club, angry SCV mothers would be sent to his children’s dental office by the busloads for daily protests covered by every TV station in Southern California.
Within 24 hours, construction stopped.
The Signal ran a Wholesome NL&F 7, Strippers 0 story on the front page.
The building was also bulldozed. It’s still a vacant lot today.
Circuses and sideshows have made the rounds through the SCV over the years, though not as much anymore. One of the biggest entertainment events, up until the late 1960s, was the shooting exhibition.
‘Right here in River City…’
Remember. In the late 19th century up until about 1960 again, nearly EVERYONE in town owned a gun and/or rifle. One of our more frequent stories was about turkey shoots and contests. In late-March 1947, The Signal covered a visit by one of the most famous men in America — Herb Parsons.
The legendary shooter of the 1940s and 1950s put on a shooting exhibition in Stevens Canyon (near Castaic Junction and today’s CHP headquarters). Herb traveled the country, representing the Winchester company and dear me, could he shoot. There wasn’t a single unovaled mouth of the more than 1,000 people who showed up to watch his dead eye and trick shooting. The stunt that wowed the crowd the most was Herb covering a washer the size of a half-dollar (remember those?) with masking tape. Then, he placed his .22 on the ground, threw the spinning washer high in the air, picked up his rifle and shot a hole through the center of the washer — WITHOUT nicking the metal around the hole.
I should point out that The Signal wasn’t always pro entertainment. Dec. 28, 1933, editor A.B. “Dad” Thatcher wrote an editorial, condemning jazz. Quoth Dad: “…By noise, I mean jazz. That meaningless, discordant, squalling, howling racket, which makes the Chinese and African music seem classical has probably reached the nerve centers of the crooners and squawkers, and they have quit, except in the cases that are hopeless, because they are incapable of understanding what harmony means.”
Next week, in Part 2 of The Signal covers entertainment, we’ll take a look at our eclectic entertainment weekly, Escape, movies and stage.
But first, a teaser is in order.
Another favorite Signal entertainment story occurred on May 6, 1971, and involved a school musical. Right before curtain, the thespians at Hart High were more than nervous, some, hysterical. The Indians were putting on the production of “The Music Man.” Seems the show’s original creator, Oscar and Grammy-winning Meredith Willson, was sitting in the audience. He was in Los Angeles, somehow heard about the performance in this sleepy little cowtown of Newhall and drove out to catch it.
A little trivia?
Willson began his career as a flutist with John Phillip Sousa’s marching band.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Just five stories left. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 48 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.