When Hollywood Stars Put on a Show

In chapter 19 of The Esmeralda Goodbye, the protagonist, patrolman Jake Stirling, and his girlfriend Millie, attend a performance of Bus Stop at La Jolla Playhouse. Millie works as a waitress in a local diner and one of her customers has given her a pair of complimentary tickets to the opening night show. The customer is one of the actors in the show—Lee Marvin. It was a fun way to work some real history into the novel.

Some of the cast from the 1956 production of Bus Stop at La Jolla Playhouse
From left to right Sally Forrest, Lee Marvin, Benay Venuta, Fred Clark and Sue Carson

La Jolla Playhouse is known today as a major regional theater, sending shows to Broadway and earning Tony Awards. But in it’s original incarnation it was a Summer Stock theater which presented shows in the gymnasium at La Jolla High School. Like most summer stock theaters, the production values were minimal and shows only lasted a couple of weeks. But the Playhouse had one attraction that other theaters didn’t—it was founded by Hollywood stars Gregory Peck, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire. That, and La Jolla’s proximity to Los Angeles, made it an attractive summer job for film actors looking to stretch their acting muscles while also taking a break from the stresses of the movie business. A busman’s holiday.

While doing research at the La Jolla Historical Society archives, I came across some programs from the early Playhouse shows. My classic movie fandom kicked into high gear as I read over the names on the programs—Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Marge Champion. Howard Duff, and Norman Lloyd. In the early 1980s I worked on a production of The Skin of Our Teeth at the Old Globe Theatre. I got to know the play pretty well and was intrigued by the cast from the Playhouse production back in the 1950s. Eartha Kitt as Sabina couldn’t be more perfect with James Whitmore as the everyman Mr. Antrobus a close second. And it was fun to imagine a young Dennis Hopper and Cloris Leachman as the Antrobus children, Henry and Gladys.

The production of Bus Stop took place in 1956, the same year the bulk of my novel takes place. The actors I mention (Marvin, Fred Clark and Benay Venuta) were all part of the show. That part is straight from the history books. I worked Lucy and Desi Arnaz and Zsa Zsa Gabor in as members of the audience. That part was fiction as far as I know, but it was certainly possible.

Another item I came across as I was going through the Historical Society’s files was this photograph from the Women’s section of the San Diego Union Tribune (I’m old enough to remember when newspapers had a women’s section). It’s a photo of local society folks joking around at a dinner before opening night of The Reluctant Debutante. The second figure from the right is Mrs. Barry Goldwater, wife of the longtime Arizona senator and one-time Presidential candidate. Even back in the 1950s the Zonies escaped the summer heat of their home state by heading to La Jolla.

Raymond Chandler’s Taco Place

Below is a photo of the La Jolla Methodist Church on La Jolla Boulevard, located in the Lower Hermosa neighborhood. The chapel on the right was originally built in 1924 as a passenger and traction power substation for the San Diego Electric Railway. The turret-like building on the left was added a few years later, containing retail shops, professional offices, and studios.

By the time Raymond Chandler and his wife, Cissy, arrived in La Jolla, the turret had been purchased by a man named Moe Lock, who turned it into the La Plaza restaurant and El Toro bar. Albert “Al” Hernandez was hired as bartender and his wife Helen became the head waitress. A chef named Washington cooked steaks, lamb chops and other meats on an open grill near the front entrance. Various Mexican combo dinners were also on the menu.

The restaurant was a short distance from the Chandlers’ new home and Ray and Cissy became regular customers. They were always fastidiously dressed and, according to this 1982 Reader article by Jeff Smith, highly particular about the service they received (all dinner dishes must be removed before bringing the dessert menu).

As Cissy’s health declined, she found it more difficult to go out. Chandler continued to visit the bar on his own, usually late at night. He was working on his penultimate novel, The Long Goodbye, and often shared his thoughts about the work-in-progress with the bartender, Al Hernandez. The two men shared an emotional bond, as well. As. Cissy lived out the final months of her life Hernandez’s son, Albert, Jr, a promising tennis player, died of cancer. The two men grieved together and supported each other.

El tiempo no importa. Time doesn’t matter. That was the motto of the La Plaza restaurant, printed on the menus and over the entryway, clearly meant as an invitation for customers to relax and enjoy themselves. For these two men that motto may have been bittersweet, each hoping for just a little more time with their loved ones.

I don’t know if Chandler ever ordered tacos at La Plaza. I suspect he preferred the steaks and chops to the Mexican dishes, but who knows? La Plaza is also celebrated, correctly or not, as the first American restaurant to serve blended margaritas. Al Hernandez may have encouraged his writer friend to try one, but I’m guessing Chandler stuck to his regular gimlets.

Also of note, for those interested in San Diego restaurant history—Al and Helen Hernandez eventually moved their family to North County and opened the Hernandez Hideaway restaurant on the shores of Lake Hodges. It still stands today, although the family no longer owns it.

The original train station, circa 1925. Chandler’s house would be built top center where the two streets intersect at the edge of the ocean.
The front facade of the station, still part of the church today.
Map of the San Diego Electric train lines in the 1920s

Drinking with Dr. Seuss

“And across from me is Ted Geisel,” Miller continued. “Who writes a few small words, mostly for children, and gets paid extravagantly for them. That’s the only reason we let him in the group. He also draws very strange pictures.”

The Esmeralda Goodbye, Chapter 10

Okay, I never had a drink with Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). But my parents did. They were part of the same creative & social circle in La Jolla, CA in the 1950s and 60’s. And my father took the photographs for 3 books written by Geisel’s first wife, Helen Palmer. I think I met Dr. Seuss at our house when I was a little kid, but that’s one of those memories my brain may have constructed later.

As I was writing The Esmeralda Goodbye, I started wondering if there was some way to fit Ted Geisel/Dr. Seuss into the story. I’d already made writers Raymond Chandler and Max Miller important characters in the book, but I couldn’t figure out a way to fit in Dr. Seuss. Then I got an idea. Perhaps he used to drink with other writers at the Whaling Bar, which was a popular watering hole for La Jollans in the 1950s. It was located at the La Valencia Hotel. Tourists as well as locals were patrons. Needless to say, La Jolla was a small town back then and some interesting people hung out together. I thought my idea might work.

The solution I ended up with was to have my policeman protagonist enter the bar as he’s searching for a suspect in the disappearance of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s diamond necklace(!). He’s hailed by his friend, Max Miller, who introduces him to the other writers at the table—Ted Geisel, Raymond Chandler and Neil Morgan (Morgan was an editor and columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who also wrote the first biography of Dr. Suess). They trade some jokes and banter with our protagonist before providing some useful information.

Top L-R Raymond Chandler, Max Miller, Ted Geisel and Neil Morgan
Bottom The Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel, circa 1950 something

I had more fun writing that chapter than any other in the book and I think it turned out well. About a year ago I met Neil Morgan’s widow, Judith Morgan. I told her about the chapter I’d written. She paused for a moment, considered it, and said, “Yes, that could have happened.” Validation!

Rather unwisely, the corporate owners of the La Valencia Hotel decided to replace the Whaling Bar ten years ago with a newer, hipper “bistro”. The good news is that they’ve now gone back and replaced the bistro with a new version of the Whaling Bar that contains some of the fixtures and art from the original. I’m planning to visit soon. I’ll order a Gimlet, of course, one of Chandler’s favorite drinks.

Here’s a story about the Whaling Bar’s closing that was broadcast by our KPBS station. If you’re interested you can download a copy of my chapter here (or even better read the book).

Tijuana Bibles & The Perverted Savants Club

My recent novel, The Esmeralda Goodbye, is set in Southern California in the mid-1950s. Some of the characters I developed early on were a trio of disaffected young teenagers—Danny Stirling, Willie Denton, and Rachel Shapiro—who chafe against the conventions of high school and the provincial attitudes of their hometown. They’re smart, talented kids, but they’re seen as troublemakers and weirdos by their teachers and fellow students.

Danny, the ringleader, embraces his outsider status and flaunts his rebellious attitude. He convinces the other two to join him in a secret club, The Perverted Savants. The objective of the club is to share information about all the things polite society doesn’t want them to know—sex, crime, politics and adult hypocrisy.

To give the story verisimilitude, I needed to find examples of transgressive literature and art of the time, but also something the kids would have access to and could believably share with each other at their meetings. Danny, the reader, brings in a paperback copy of Jim Thompson’s 1952 noir, The Killer Inside Me. Rachel, whose father is a scientist, brings in her parents’ copies of the Kinsey Reports. Willie is a talented artist who likes to draw cartoons, which made me think of the underground comics of the 1960s (Zap Comix, Robert Crumb, et al), but my story preceded those publications by at least ten years. MAD magazine had been around for a couple of years by the time of my story, but I wanted something more salacious. What kind of cartoons could Willie have brought to the meetings?

That’s how I learned about Tijuana Bibles.

Tijuana Bibles weren’t from Tijuana. And they weren’t bibles. They were pocket-sized pornographic magazines, published in the United States from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Most of them were eight-page comic strips printed in black and white. At least a couple of panels in each magazine featured the characters engaged in some form of explicit sexual activity.

Some of the characters were original creations, but many of the booklets featured parodies of celebrities or well-known cartoon characters.

Even Mickey Mouse got in on the act.

These were major copyright infringements, of course, but the nature of the medium, the anonymity of the artists and the lack of publishing information helped protect the creators from legal entanglements. The booklets were sold under the counter at magazine stands, bus terminals, penny arcades, and second-hand bookshops. Downtown San Diego in the 1950s was a popular gathering place for US Navy sailors and shops like those were plentiful in Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District. Tijuana Bibles were almost certainly sold in some of those shops, so it was feasible that my characters might get hold of a copy.

In today’s one-click-away hardcore world, the Tijuana Bibles seem almost quaint. They’re funny and feisty and, in their way, provide a snapshot of American sexual attitudes in the 1950s, an underground challenge to the prevailing puritanism of the day.

If you’re interested in learning more (or want to see more explicit images from the comics than I’ve provided here), you may want to check out Tijuana Bibles:Art and Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies by Bob Adelman and Richard Merkin. For more more about the history of Tijuana Bibles, try Wikipedia.

Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave

The cover for The Esmeralda Goodbye is taken from an old postcard I found, which features an illustration of a female swimmer standing on the rocks at the entrance to a cave, preparing to dive into the ocean waves below. As you’ll see from the images below, it’s a real location—Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave near the La Jolla Cove. It’s been a popular tourist attraction for over a hundred years.

Cover of The Esmeralda Goodbye.
Photo by Sharonannajacob via Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’re a particularly strong and fearless swimmer, you may be able to access the cave from the ocean. Kayakers also like to approach from ocean side. But most people get to the cave by taking a self-guided “tour” that starts at The Cave Store, located on the cliffs above. You can view a short sample of the tour via the video below.

In 1902, a German professor and mining engineer named Gustav Shulz hatched a plan to construct a tunnel to the cave from the land he owned on the cliffs above. It took him nearly 2 years to dig the tunnel. Visitors were originally required to use rope ladders to get down. The current stairway and observation deck were built later.

Photo by Cultivar413 via Flickr

A restaurant called the Crescent Cafe stood above the entrance to the cave, but it was burned down by an arsonist in 1915 and was replaced by The Cave Store. It is said that bootleggers used the cave and passageway to smuggle in whiskey during Prohibition and that human traffickers may have used it as stowaway spot for Chinese immigrants.

Photo by Cultivar413 via Flickr

In The Esmeralda Goodbye, the chief protagonist’s younger brother gets a summer job working at The Cave Store. I won’t give away any spoilers, but he discovers something important in the cave one morning while doing his rounds.

My friend and fellow San Diego author Matt Coyle used the cave for a book cover and scenes from his 2018 novel, Wrong Light. A Hollywood movie, Neptune’s Daughter with Esther Williams and Red Skelton, used the cave as one of its filming locations (I don’t know if Esther actually swam there).

How did the cave get it’s name? Well, the leading theory is that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz and a San Diego visitor in the early 1900s, named the cave after a cartoon character, Sunny Jim, who appeared on boxes of a British breakfast cereal. You can see how the outline of the cave resembles a man’s profile.

Sunny Jim's Sea Cave photographed from inside the cave
Photo by Jarek Tuszyński, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s an old-fashioned kind tourist attraction and still worth a visit.