Balboa's Rendezvous Ballroom was 'a perpetual Mardi Gras' where many of the great dance names of the '30s and the '40s could be found: Bob Crosby and His Bobcats, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Phil Harris, Everett Hoagland, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Kay Kyser, Ted Lewis, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Ozzie Nelson, Buddy Rogers, Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill.
Bix Beiderbecke, the famed jazz cornetist from the Midwest, never set foot in the Rendezvous Ballroom. But that didn't prevent his fictional counterpart in Dorothy Baker's "Young Man With a Horn" from being discovered there by a big-time New York bandleader.
By 1938, when Baker's novel came out, the huge Balboa dance hall already was known across the country as a West Coast home for the Big Band sound. The place teemed with young musicians, to say nothing of the hordes of dance-hungry fans who overran its waxed wood floor.
Dubbed the "Queen of Swing" that year by Look magazine, the Rendezvous was "a mecca for pleasure-seeking modern youth"--at least according to a splashily illustrated story describing how 5,000 "cats" and "alligators" rose one June day at dawn to "cut rugs" and "kick out." One man claimed he drove 396 miles from Tonopah, Nev., to join the party. Another came on crutches.
Clinton Roemer, who was a 17-year-old gate boy taking dance tickets at the door, still his vivid memories of that particular bash.
"I stayed up all night driving around," Roemer, 67, recalled in a recent interview at his home in Sherman Oaks. "We opened the doors at 5 a.m. to let the mob in, so there was no point in trying to sleep. I had gin for the first time in my life thgat night. Got half-loaded drinking it straight out of the bottle."a recent interview at his home in Sherman Oaks. "We opened the doors at 5 a.m. to let the mob in, so there was no point in trying to sleep. I had gin for the first time in my life that night. Got half-loaded drinking it straight out of the bottle."
The big bands that played Rendezvous one-nighters were legion, their music broadcast weekly over the nationwide Mutual Broadcasting System. Throughout the '30s and '40s, the ballroom pulsed with the swinging sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Buddy Rogers, Ted Lewis, Guy Lombardo and others.
"It was a plum to play Newport," recalls Harry Babbitt, 70, who sang at the Rendezvous in 1939 with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. "There weren't many ballrooms with its atmosphere."
Bing Crosby sang there, too. So did the Andrews Sisters. And Tex Beneke. And Mae Diggs. And June Christy. And Nat (King) Cole.
The house bands were no slouches, either. Between 1934 and 1942, they included the resident orchestras of Everett Hoagland, Gil Evans, Don Cave, Claude Thornhill, Bob Crosby and His Bobcats, Carol Lofner and Phil Harris, and, of course, Stan Kenton, whose career truly was launched at the ballroom.
"We were the featured band one night in '41, and I remember Kenton doing the intermissions," recalls Beneke, 74, who played tenor sax with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and doubled as a vocalist with the Modernaires.
"Glenn was so impressed by Kenton he told us, 'Hey, watch this guy. He's going places.' "
TO ROBERT GARDNER, 77, who worked as a gate boy a decade earlier than Roemer, life at the Rendezvous seemed "a perpetual Mardi Gras." Even during Prohibition and the Depression, "there would be a sea of people on a big Saturday night," the retired Orange County judge recalls, "and everybody, as far as I could tell, was drunk."
Chances are they had done their drinking at a nearby spot called The Green Dragon, where the Rendezvous regulars hung out with the locals. "You would buy your liquor at the 'drugless' drugstore," Gardner says, using the common name for the drugstore where you could get straight alcohol for 25 cents an ounce. "Then you'd head to a booth at the Dragon for setups and mixers."
When Prohibition ended, Bill Ireland's bar opposite the Balboa Inn on Main Street--later called the Bamboo Room and, still later, Murph's--took over as the favored saloon. The dance crowd would drift over a few blocks from the ballroom during intermissions to slake its thirst with a popular concoction, the Bal-Rum-Boa, which cost 75 cents and basically consisted of five jiggers of rum.
Not surprisingly, "about 50 to 70 drunks hit the city jail every Saturday night," according to "Newport Beach 75," a history of the area. Yet the Rendezvous maintained a reputation for wild innocence--unlike the Valencia Ballroom on the main road between Anaheim and Santa Ana, which catered to a crowd as eager to fight as to dance.
By the mid-1930s, there were many ballrooms up and down the coast from Seattle to San Clemente. Some were rather famous, such as the Palomar in Los Angeles and, after the Palomar burned, the Hollywood Palladium. Some were more plush, like the Avalon on Catalina. But none was more swinging than the Rendezvous.
"That ballroom would really rock," remembers John De Soto, 75, who played drums with Gil Evans during the summer seasons of 1937 and 1938. "They did a slinky, shuffle-type step that I never saw danced anywhere else. It was called The Balboa. They could almost stand in one spot and do it, and you could feel the floor give and take."
The Rendezvous also was unmatched for ambiance, which had less to do with its barn-basic architecture than with its beach-front setting. It stood between Palm and Washington streets, flanked by the ocean on one side and the Balboa Fun Zone on the other.
Built in 1928 for the Balboa Amuseent Co. at a cost of $125,000, the beachfront ballroom actually was the second Rendezvous. The first had opened in 1924 on Central Avenue (now E. Balboa Boulevard) between Main and Washington streets. It was known as the Rendezvous Pavilion, not to be confused with the Balboa Pavilion, which also featured dancing and opened on the bay in 1906 to coincide with the arrival of the Pacific Electric Red Cars.
In November, 1927, the first Rendezvous was razed to make way for a $50,000 theater--the Ritz boa Cinema)--while plans were being completed for construction of the second Rendezvous on the beachfront. The three major investors were Ray G. Burlingame, president of the company, L. C. Carrigues and H. B. (Pop) Tudor, who became the first manager of the new ballroom.
A mammoth, two-story affair with a mezzanine and balcony, the Rendezvous had 162 feet of beach frontage and ran 95 feet deep. The dance floor, enlarged in 1930 from 6,900 to 12,000 square feet, easily could accommodate 1,500 couples. The ballroom also had a 64-foot-long soda fountain on the ground floor and, upstairs, a smaller soda fountain surrounded by 50 sofas.
The new Rendezvous made its much-heralded debut on March 24, 1928--a Saturday. On the bandstand were The Concordias with Carol Lofner conducting.
"I was a gate boy the night it opened," Gardner recalls. "It cost 10 cents for admission and a nickel a dance. There were seven gate boys taking dance tickets, one man in the check room and a relief man. We'd all gone up to Phelps Turkell at the USC campus and bought blazers at our own expense. They cost $50 apiece, and they were pretty sharp. Blue with white stripes and gray flannel (slacks)."
The band played "Avalon." The dancing started at 9 p.m.
"We marched in and peeled off to our respective gates," Gardner says. "On one side of me was Dick Dittmar. He became a custom boat builder. On the other side was John Huddleston. He became a singer with the Modernaires. We were paid 50 cents an hour, and I think we made about $1.50 a night. I worked there on and off until 1932, when I went back to the Dragon. Then I went off to China, and after that, the Rendezvous burned down."
Indeed, it went up in flames on Jan. 27, 1935--a Sunday--in a fire so intense that the roof collapsed 20 minutes after the flames were discovered at 6 a.m. The building was destroyed. The cause was never determined, though speculation centered on a cigarette left to smolder in one of the sofas. Damage was set at $75,000. Only the four exterior walls were left standing.
Within three months, another Rendezvous, bigger than before, went up on the site. The beach frontage was increased to 216 feet; the interior was painted red and gray and decorated in a marine motif; the floor had plenty of spring. The cost, in Depression dollars, came to a fraction of the original structure, to judge by a building who eventually came a prominent music copyist in Hol lywood, used to hitchhike to work at the Rendezvous from his boyhood home in Santa Ana. The 12-mile trip took him as long as two hours. Getting back was worse, he recalls. By the time the ballroom closed--at midnight during the week and 2 a.m. on Saturdays--the roads were deserted.
But Roemer wouldn't have traded his gate boy's job for anything. Just out of high school, he began working at the Rendezvous in the summer of 1938 and stayed through the fall of 1941. "I got my main music education during those four years," he says. "This was the practical stuff."
Until the summer of 1941, the ballroom was run as a "jitney" dance operation. Admission that year was 40 cents for men, 10 cents for women. Dance tickets cost a nickel each, or 50 cents for a book of 12. The floor was cleared after each number. A loge button, which was clipped to a lapel, cost a dollar and entitled a patron to stay on the dance floor all evening.
The jitney policy did not hold for big-name bands. The flat rate for admission and dancing generally was 75 cents for men, 25 cents for women. But that could vary, depending on the band and the occasion.
When Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra played the Rendezvous in 1938 for the ballroom's 10th anniversary, it cost the men an extra dime--85 cents. (Harriet Hilliard sang. This was years before Ozzie and Harriet gained fame as television's all-American sitcom couple.)
On Labor Day in 1939, the men paid $1.10 and the women paid 55 cents to hear Kay Kyser's orchestra. And when Phil Harris and his orchestra showed up on May 23, 1941--from Jack Benny's Jell-O radio program, as the ads proclaimed--it cost 65 cents for "gents" and 40 cents for "ladies."
The season usually began in mid-June and went to Labor Day. Around Easter, the ballroom would open for Bal Week, which customarily meant 10 days of non-stop revelry by vacationing college and high school students. Then it would operate on weekends until the summer season began. But in 1939, after a fire destroyed the Valencia (also owned by the Balboa Amusement Co.), the Rendezvous began opening on Friday and Saturday nights through the fall and winter.
"It was just a fun place to go," says Katie Gardner, who would come down from Long Beach every weekend. "You went with a date . . .ld still dance with other people. And you had to be dressed (up). I don't ever remember wearing pants."
The ballroom did indeed have a well-publicized dress code. Women could not wear slacks. Men had to wear sweaters or jackets over their shirts. Long sleeves were required, but not ties. Shorts, tennis shoes and sandals were not permitted.
Less well-known--but enforced just the same--was an unwritten race code. More than a dozen people who were interviewed for this story don't remember it. Some doubt there was such a code. But during Roemer's years, at least, "a 'whites only' policy existed," he maintains. "No blacks, Mexicans or Orientals were allowed admittance."
The code was so little publicized that Rendezvous employees themselves generally were unaware of it. "I didn't know about it myself until I started to let a couple of Japanese kids in one night," Roemer recalls.
"Management was on top of these guys so fast you wouldn't believe it. Gave them their money back and let them out. It was all very polite."
The popularity of the Rendezvous and its oceanfront location always drew Hollywood celebrities. Errol Flynn would moor his yacht at Christian's Hut and wander over to the ballroom. Roemer remembers seeing him several times in the company of Howard Hughes, who would buy a loge button and hang around the edge of the dance floor waiting for Flynn to finish cruising the crowd.
"Flynn would look for girls to take back to his yacht," Roemer recalls. "One time, Maxie Moore, who was a part-time employee at the Rendezvous, decked Flynn with one punch for making a proposal to the girl Maxie was with. This happened near the drugstore. Maxie was a little guy, but he had done some amateur boxing. I guess he achieved more fame with that one punch than he ever did in the ring."
Katie Gardner remembers seeing Flynn--and Hughes--"all the time."
"Howard Hughes always wore scuffy old tennis shoes," she says. "I guess that's because he came by boat. And he'd have a pin-stripe suit on. He couldn't go on the dance floor because tennis shoes weren't allowed."
dance floor was a genuine marvel. Its surface was rubbed down more often than a racehorse. This task was performed religiously by an aging janitor the regulars knew as "Old Bob." He had been a fixture at the Rendezvous for a decade by Roemer's time.
"The ballroom seemed his whole life," Roemer says. "He'd show up in the evenings to make sure the floor was being properly 'waxed.' Bob had a secret preparation, which looked like a reddish sawdust. He had a hand-cranked grinding machine in the closet of the checkroom, and it was there he did his secret work. No one, including the owners, were privy to Bob's formula."
One of the Rendezvous staffers would "wax" the floor several times during the course of the evening by sprinkling Bob's preparation from an old cigar box. After the ballroom closed, Bob would drag the floor with a carpet-covered timber about 8 feet long.
It turns out that the aging janitor's floor wax was not his only secret. He had a hidden past, which came to light by accident and was known only to a few Rendezvous insiders.
"It's a great story," says Robert Gardner. "My brother-in-law, Dick Woodson, managed the ballroom for a while, and one day he is eating in the Dragon and reading this magazine. Suddenly he jumps up and goes to the magazine stand right outside and he buys up all the copies of the magazine. Then he goes over to the drugstore and does the same thing.
"Well, when I got home, I asked him why. He made me swear I wouldn't tell, and then he shows me the magazine. There is Old Bob. His name is Bob Sheridan, and he's a famous counterfeiter from Missouri or some place like that back in the teens. Did time, too. Dick went all over Newport buying up that magazine. He didn't want anybody to find out. And nobody did."
DURING THE LATE 1930s, the ballroom crowd tended to congregate at the Gus Sea Shell Cafe on the corner of Palm and Central. It was owned by a Greek immigrant named Gus, but everybody called him Gus Gus. "He spoke with a thick accent," Roemer says, "and usually he only answered direct questions with a 'Yes Yes' or a 'No No.' Hence 'Gus Gus.' "
A combination seafood restaurant and bar, the cafe played a role in the social life of the Rendezvous regulars much as The Green Dragon had done earlier. In 1941, after Gardner had returned from China, for example, he was sitting at the bar, "my head down, meditating," he recalls, "and the best-looking pair of legs I'd ever seen went by. Now I'm a leg man, so I followed those legs."
The legs belonged to Katie Harris, by various accounts "the most popular girl" in the ballroom. "It took me weeks to get a date," says Gardner. "But I finally did. We double-dated. And six months later, by God, I married her. It was a whirlwind courtship."
With the advent of World War II, Balboa became a "liberty town," and the ballroom's popularity peaked during those years. The Rendezvous booked Benny Goodman and his orchestra for New Year's Eve, 1943. The featured singer was Peggy Lee. Servicemen on leave and cadets from nearby military bases packed the place.
But the days of the Big Band era were numbered. Many bands broke up as musicians joined the armed forces. Gas rationing, an amusement tax, the appeal of pop vocalists who had come up with the bands and, several years later, the rise of a medium called television--all conspired to bring an end to the era.
Kenton bucked the trend during the late '40s with a progressive jazz band. But perhaps because it was so progressive--his music jumped with staccato riffs and nervous jazz energy--he had dwindling success at the Rendezvous after the war.
"The people who came to hear Kenton by then didn't come to dance primarily," says Bob Gioga, 83, who played baritone sax in the band. "There were some numbers where nobody would be dancing. It was more interesting to be up at the bandstand listening to a real far-out sax or trumpet than to be out on the floor tickling your toes."
In 1952, Kenton left for Europe. Several years later, he and a few other investors sank about $80,000 into the ballroom for a "rebirth of jazz." The effort fizzled. Rock 'n' roll had come along. The beat had changed.
The Rendezvous was consigned to oblivion at that point, ordered closed in 1957 by a Newport Beach City Council fearful of mobs of rocked-out teen-agers. The story of the ballroom might have ended there but for Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. They managed, against considerable opposition, to resurrect it for a brief period during the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
Dale, who had been playing at the Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor (now the Orange Julius at Main and Balboa), was booked for the first time in 1957. Only 17 people showed up. Stunned at the poor turnout, he began drumming up business at the high schools.
"I'd get permission to play at school assemblies by promising Guy Lombardo tunes," Dale, now 50, recalls. "We'd do a few of those and then I'd say, 'This is what we're going to play at the Rendezvous,' and we'd shift into our super-charged surfer style. Then we'd get kicked out of the school."
But the ploy worked. Within four months of that first Rendezvous engagement, the self-proclaimed "king of the surf guitar" was playing to 4,000 people a night. And while Dale leaped around on stage, driving up the decibel level and destroying electric guitars, the crowd romped on long-gone Old Bob's floor in a frenzied chain dance that became known as "the surfer stomp." It was the Rendezvous' last gasp.
In 1966, for the second and final time, the ballroom went up in flames. Coincidentally, a group called The Cindermen had played there the night before. Again it was a Sunday morning when the fire was discovered. Again a lit cigarette was believed to have touched it off. The damage was estimated at $300,000.
This time, however, the ballroom did not arise phoenix-like from the ashes. Instead a brown-shingled building of condominiums went up on the site.
Today, the only reminder of the Rendezvous is a commemorative plaque at the corner of Washington and Ocean Front. "The music and dancing have ended," it reads, "but the memory lingers on."
Clinton Roemer, for one, will never forget the place: "I still remember walking the deserted Balboa streets on winter evenings while waiting for the ballroom to open. Any time I have been near the ocean at night in recent years, recollections and nostalgia for the Balboa of those days have been conjured up. The Rendezvous was an institution. I am proud to have been part of it."