I Was In Vegas

Burt and I had to go to Las Vegas on business– the magical glittering town’s ad campaign advises “what happens here, stays here”, but, for me, it’s simply not possible to stay too long. Two nights is just perfect, I think.

It was dark when we flew out of Oakland– but getting there was filled with the kind of terror you feel when you’re on time and then you’re really late. Traffic was terrible and we couldn’t figure out why until at the airport exit there was an injury accident and the most fire engines I have ever seen.

We thought we were on the last flight out and calmed ourselves by being cool, Well, whatever happens, happens.” In reality, of course, we were gritting our teeth.

With minutes left to get to the Southwest gate we sprinted out of the car and into the terminal, with one piece of carry-on luggage and this small but ancient, heavy suitcase that we had to bring. Luckily a uniformed woman directed us to a security checkcpoint that had no business. We were getting a break but I forgot to wear shoes I didn’t have to remove and in my rush I forgot to put the carry-on on the conveyor belt thingy, all of which made me and everybody else dizzy.

Here we are with no minutes to spare and we learn that our gate is the last gate in the terminal and while the carry-on can be rolled, we’ve got this heavy old suitcase that has to be hand carried. What a nightmare.

At the gate the ticket-taker said, “We were about to give your seats away.” We were the last pair to board, with seats at the very back of the full plane. But we made it.

Burt was carrying the old suitcase and it looked like it hadn’t seen light in a long time prompting a passenger to say, “Next time why don’t you dust the suitcase before you bring it.”

“You can see how long it’s been since I’ve traveled,” Burt quipped.

Next to us sat a young Irish fellow who had lived and worked in San Francisco for seven years. In Vegas he was meeting the rest of his large family, siblings and mother who lived in Dublin–they had never seen the eighth wonder of the world and he wanted to be there to enjoy their reactions.

We talked about Ireland because I had heard there was a big real estate boom, with housing prices skyrocketing, and Chinese restaurants on every block, and, in general the economy was prospering due to high tech. He confirmed all of the above but cautioned that the prosperity wasn’t benefiting everybody–it was a bit picky.

Most interesting to me was that he said he never wanted to go back and live in Ireland. He visited the place of his birth a couple of times a year but he said he loved America.

An hour-and-a-half later we landed in Vegas. We got in the taxi line which was moving fast and the dark skinned, very muscular looking guy wearing two earrings in front of us captured our attention.

“Are you a wrestler?” Burt asked.

“I used to do cage wrestling,” he said.

“You’ve got the look,” Burt said.

He said, “I work for the government now, I’m a pencil pusher.”

Burt and I looked at each other. He didn’t look like a pencil pusher.

A few minutes later he said, “No, I’m a bounty hunter. I’m the one they send out to bring the bone back home. Somebody else got my guy so I’m just relaxing.”

The wrestler-pencil-pusher-bounty hunter disappeared into a cab and so did we.

Our trip to Vegas was turning into a movie.

On the strip where imagination rules the building of hotel-palaces and gambling casinos, there is an incredible building boom going on. This morning there was a story about a tacky-looking shack selling for over 1 million buck. In this desert of dreams, condos and houses are going up in the least likely places,in fact, they’re going up any old place. Two experts I know, one an economist, the other a Midwest realtor, said when the building bubble bursts, it will start in Vegas.

The first time I visited Las Vegas was with my father in the late 1960s. There was no terminal. We stepped off the plane in the searing heat and walked across the field. I don’t recall any large buildings. I was there because a high school friend, Danny, had asked my father for my hand. Danny was going to UNLV in Vegas and worked as the assistant to a state senator. Danny was a sweet Catholic boy who had been kicked out of Sacred Heart in San Francisco for playing too many pranks. He ended up at Lincoln High School where I was going and that’s how we met. We didn’t marry.

(PHOTO, Below, right. This is Danny in Vegas, back when. I always wanted to be a writer and he once said, “I hope I get a chapter in your book.” Well, Danny, I hope a graph is okay for now. )

I’ve been to Vegas many times since. Burt was there even earlier, when the Stardust was being built, or another hotel with a romantic history.

When Burt and I were there over the weekend, we took a cab to the Mandalay Hotel’s Convention Center. Our cab driver was a woman from Eastern Europe, very interested in world politics. Like the Irish fellow we met on board the Southwest flight, she loved America and never wanted to go back to Europe. She had lived in Italy, a beautiful place, but said you can’t find a job there unless you know somebody. The police was a good place to start, she said.

I don’t know if you’ve seen those Vegas convention centers but the one at the Mandalay is mammoth. Long, long halls, long, long walks. Everything is extra large in Vegas.

Somewhere along our travels we learned that Bill Clinton was coming to town, staying at the Bellagio for a fundraiser.

Yeah, I gambled at the Venetian, where we stayed on the concierge level, both a lovely and quiet experience. I favor the slots but most of them don’t crank out real coins anymore. You get a piece of paper and I guess this is an extension of the cashless society. While the paper is printing there is the recorded sound of coins coming out–I like the slots because it’s mindless work that cleans out the “mind’s disk”.

To wrap up, we were picked up by a friend who was taking us to his brother’s home to look at some things he wanted appraised. His 70-year-old brother had died a few months earlier–for decades he had been a casino manager. It was clear that the 1970s was the peak of this man’s life. The house was built in the 1970s, and, as a single man all of his life, his home underlined that sort of lifestyle. I could see it as a partyhouse. His car, though a late model, had the furry seat covers. There was a photo of him with that fluffy hair look.

The ride from Vegas to the airport was fascinating but I’ve thought about it, and I can’t, not now, anyway, tell you about that conversation with the cabbie. Another time.

Incident at Billy Grosskurth’s Hotel: Part II

Through his ties to the entertainment industry, Moss Beach hotel owner Billy Grosskurth met lots of eccentric characters but the red-haired Woodside millionaire George Whittell may have been the strangest of them all.

Perhaps the men became acquainted in Oakland. Whittell loved animals and he may have been drawn to Idora Park, where Billy worked as the theater’s manager. Part of the show included caged animals.

A third generation Californian, Whittell inherited a fortune from his parents who had invested wisely in real estate. Not the working type, George pursued the life eccentric. He owned a luxurious apartment in San Francisco, a chateau in France, an apartment in Paris–but these were just the trappings of the super rich, just like his custom made Duesenberg automobiles, world class speedboats, airplanes, expensive gadgets and toys were.

Of all the eccentric characters Billy Grosskurth met up with, George Whittell (below with is dog) may have been the strangest of them all. It was at his Woodside estate on Kings Mountain Road–and later at Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe– that he began to live out his fantasies. photo Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society

And his fantasies included a love of circus characters, and it was widely known that Whittell kept lions and elephants outside his Woodside home. Like Billy, he’d had woman trouble, too, though of a different nature. When George Whittell was an impulsive young man he wed an actress his parents disapproved of. They paid the lady to vanish and start another life. Later, again single, some women George met complained about his behavior, even resorting to the courts for financial compensation as a result of injuries they claimed to have suffered.

At Woodside he kept a lion that scared off U.S. Marshals attempting to serve him with a subpoena. A local joke was that a boa constrictor that hadn’t eaten in several months lived in a tree near the estate’s entrance.

By 1934 his erratic personal life had settled down. He married a lovely woman he met during World War I in Paris where he earned honors and distinction driving ambulances in the City of Lights. And unlike others who were financially devastated by the Great Depression, Whittell was one of the remarkable few who preserved his wealth by liquidating his stocks before the market crash.

All was not perfect in his life. George was in the middle of a thorny situation. He was being sued by his stepbrother Alfred for half of the family inheritance–reportedly some $9 million. As Whittell tried to overturn Alfred’s suit, the newspapers rubbed their hands together, anticipating a juicy trial.

Whittell’s lawyers recommended that he change residence to avoid his stepbrother’s lawsuit and so he was building a fabulous getaway at Lake Tahoe called Thunderbird Lodge–outfitted with a boathouse large enough to berth his custom-built 50-foot speedboat, powered with two airplane engines. There was also special housing for three elephants, stone stables standing side-by-side, outfitted with individual fireplaces to keep the animals warm when the weather turned cold.

How unlikely it seemed that the paths of Moss Beach hotel owner Billy Grosskurth and Woodside millionaire George Whittell would cross–but that is exactly what happened in an extraordinary encounter on New Years 1934 at the Marine View Hotel.

Inside the House of Doors

Ever wondered what WAS inside the House of Doors on Highway 92?

Way back when Anne Howe lived in the House of Doors–which was composed almost entirely of doors–she was going to sell antiques to the public but the idea was dropped because of the awkward location of the entrance/ driveway.

Antiques with friend of Anne Howe’s inside the House of Doors

The outspoken Anne Howe became a famous member of the Half Moon Bay City Council, one of the most colorful as she had been a successful madam in San Francisco.

Heady Times At Billy Grosskurth’s Hotel: Part I

Photo: Marine View Tavern

By 1934 Prohibition had ended, and now that it was legal to drink booze in Half Moon Bay roadhouses, people stopped coming to the Coastside.

Instead attention turned to the Bay Meadows Race Track in San Mateo that had just flung open its gates– and to make things sweeter, a rich Burlingame car dealer was about to purchase Seabiscuit, the famous super-racehorse that was going to help distract people’s minds from the doldrums of the Great Depression.

There was a real drought at Moss Beach where generous shots of liquor had dried up at the Marine View Tavern, former vaudevillian Billy Grosskurth’s seaside roadhouse. Billy was a toe tapping piano player, all show biz, and proud of his talent. He’d had some success traveling with roadshows, too.

When his traveling days were over Billy managed a live theater in Oakland, part of an amusement park with “girlie productions”, thrilling roller coaster rides, a swimming pool and caged animals, including a bear called “Hi”.

One of the “girlies” may have been at the center of a lawsuit filed against Billy. He had pressed one of the young ladies–against her better judgment– to go down the “Joy Laundry”, a giant slide. Finally she did and like a self-fufilling prophecy, she was injured, thus the lawsuit.

That was just one of the lawsuits Grosskurth was dealing with when he decided to get out of town. He knew about the Ocean Shore Railroad and the little beach towns that were popping up on the San Mateo County Coastside. Friends said, “take a look, there might be a good investment for you.” He did and learned that the 20-room Marine View Hotel at Moss Beach was for sale, fell in love with it, and purchased it about 1915.
The three-story Marine View Tavern stands at the left. Both photos by R. Guy Smith

And it was a good investment. During the heady days of Prohibition, Billy’s fingers rolled across the piano keys as he entertained the politicians and silent film stars who wandered about, drinks in hand. Outside it was dark and on the reefy beach below it was business as usual for the rumrunners and bootleggers.

Charlie Nye & The Reefs: Part III

Me at Charlie Nye’s Reefs II. Photo Suzanne Meek

In 1980 I interviewed Charlie Nye, whose father, also called Charlie Nye, had owned a wonderful restaurant called The Reefs in Moss Beach. It was unique, a foundation-less building with piers stuck in the sand. People came from all around to boat, collect shells and enjoy a bowl of ab chowder. The Charlie I talked with lived on the cliffs above the spot where the Reefs once stood. His place was called the Reefs II and across the way was another building that served as the Moss Beach Hotel.

Mother Nature kept reminding Charlie Nye, Sr. that the Reefs was a temporary building. Every time the tide was high the waves splashed against the Reefs. When it was stormy they lashed angrily at the building, wearing it down and tearing into the cliffs behind it, too.

Charllie Nye, Jr.: Finally there was a tidal wave and it lifted the Reefs off its pillars.

But Nye had anticipated this moment and already built the Reefs II on the safer cliffs above.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: This was completed, I think, in about 1926. Rooms were rented out to fishermen and people from the Valley who came when it got too hot. The Valley wasn’t air conditioned in those times. They came down for a month at a time.

Getting to Moss Beach from anywhere in the 1920s was frustrating.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: The road coming over Pedro Mountain was terrible, just awful. Words can’t describe it. It was just impossible. It went around turns and more turns, hairpin turns, short turns, backward turns. There were potholes on top of potholes. When you come down here today and complain about a few earth-slides on Devil’s Slide, well, that’s nothing compared to that old Pedro Mountain Road.
The way to Moss Beach via the Pedro Mountain Road

June: Any other memories of transportation in those days?

Charlie Nye, Jr.: I remember my father talking about the horse and buggy days. He said it took a full day to ride from San Mateo to Moss Beach. He said it could take four to five hours with a horse and buggy to haul lumber from Half Moon Bay to Moss Beach.

Charlie’s father loved his work.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: He ran the Reefs II until he was so blind that we forced him to stop. That was in 1967. He stopped serving food in 1965.

When I interviewed Charlie in 1980 the Reefs II was open on Saturday and Sunday–not for food but for conversation in an eccentric, historic environment.

Charlie Nye, Jr.: Curiosity seekers are coming in constantly. They say, ‘I didn’t know this was a bar. It doesn’t look like a bar. I often wondered what this place looked like. It looks like a curiosity shop’.

The Reefs II, as many knew it, doesn’t exist anymore–and I believe Charlie Nye has moved to Mexico.

Big waves brought The Reefs down:

Remembering Alves Dairy: Part III

In 1978, a few days before the famous Alves Dairy, south of Half Moon Bay, famous for its delicious chocolate milk, closed its doors forever, I had the opportunity to interview owner Ernie Alves.

Ernie Alves.

Ernie Alves was telling me how he recalled, with accuracy, the construction of a milk plant. The way he remembered, he said, was because WW II began, and he couldn’t forget that time. There were two German bricklayers working for his family and the war directly affected these men.

Ernie: They passed a regulation that any aliens–Germans, Italians and Japanese could not cross west of the white line. (The white land separated the west side of the “highway” from the east side). The two bricklayers were German and they couldn’t come to work anymore. The man who ran the bakery was Italian and he couldn’t go to work, but his sons who were born here, could.

It was a terrible when Coastside residents without American citizenship could not cross Main Street to buy groceries or eat dinner or hug their friends. Although the bitterness of those times has carried over until this very day, everyone was relieved when the war ended.

Ernie Alves said his family processed raw milk until 1946. Then, he noted, the county and state passed a law requiring milk to be pasteurized.

Drive-ins had caught the imagination of the post WWII consumer; they were novel and helped usher in the fast food conept. About 1962 the Alves family built their own drive-in dairy south of Half Moon Bay.

Ernie: That is to say, Alves explained, if you had a herd and you had your own store you could sell milk for two to three cents lower than the prices a store could at that time. The state had complete control of prices. We were open six months and they changed the law. We had to sell at the same price as the stores.

So soon they had lost their competitive edge–and that was the beginning of the end of drive-ins.

In 1941 the Alves Dairy sold milk for ten cents a quart. They could turn a profit on that–but by 1978 it had become impossible and that was a big reason why the dairy was closing down.

Ernie: We built this place and we had to borrow. We’ve been forced to lower our price per gallon,which to me is utterly ridiculous. I would like to take those people and give them our operation for six months and see what they can do. They’ll probably be slaughtering cows to eat.

Now the closing of the Alves Dairy was a few days away.

June: How do you feel?

Ernie: It seems strange but I’m also kind of glad to get away from it. I’ve got a lot of irons on the fire.

Although the dairy closed, the “Our Cows Are Outstanding In Their Field” sign stayed up for awhile longer, then it, too, vanished forever.