1950s: Half Moon Bay’s Famous Spanishtown Dons

pose on the Capitol Steps, Washington, D.C.dons.jpg

The Spanishtown Dons
By June Morrall
[I wrote this in 1993. Gives a bit of insight into HMB’s famous precision drill team champions.]

Coastsiders were so proud of the Spanishtown Dons that they planted their name in huge cardboard cut-out letters on a hillside for all to see in the 1950s.

There was so much to be proud of–as the Dons, a precision drill team, had their many successes splashed across the front pages of the Half Moon Bay Review. Drilling before thousands of spectators at hundreds of exhibitions, they were repeatedly rewarded with national and state championship titles.

Drillmaster Manuel Sousa, once honored as San Mateo County’s “Man of the Year,” organized the Dons in 1947. Attired in colorful “Zorro” style outfits with sashes and sombrero hats, the Dons responded to commands in Spanish, researched and brought back to Half Moon Bay from Mexico City by Belle Vallejo, a teacher and prominent Half Moon Bay resident.

Once you witnessed their precision performance the Spanishtown Don were hard to forget.

In 1949 the Dons logged 4,000 miles, including an exciting trip to Chicago, courtesy of the Half Moon Bay Lions Club. That year their expenses totaled $4,700, most of it budgeted for buying uniforms. These were not insignificant figures almost 50 years ago. The team was supported by generous donations from Coastsiders. The Dons also worked at fairs and sold tickets to dances to raise money for their expenses.

The owner of the Palace Miramar Hotel gave the Dons $10 for every $100 worth of tickets they sold for the popular “Mid-Winter Dance.”

By 1951, the Dons had won their 100th award. They became so well known that Ed Sullivan invited the group to appear on his television show, “Toast of the Town.” They also turned up as guests on Art Baker’s “You Asked For It.”

Each spring they made their annual appearance in a Half Moon Bay benefit appearance for th American Cancer Society, honoring Gasper Intoschi, a former member who had succumbed to the horrible disease.

In August 1954, the Dons traveled by Greyhound bus, driven by Coastsider and Greyhound employee Kyle Bowman, to Milwaukee, site of the competition for the prestigious national men’s drill championship title. Without previous experience, Bowman agreed to be their flag bearer.

dons2.jpg (Photo: L-R: Larry Hewitt, Chairman, Spectacle of Music; Jean Bradshaw, Don’s Banner Girl; Captain Manuel Sousa; Patsy Speer, Majorette; Delores Mundrich, Don’s Banner Girl and Dean Potter, Mayor, South Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Accompanied by the talented majorette Patsy Speer, who also won a first place trophy, the dons easily retained their title. As they marched before 100,000 onlookers, they also scooped up the award for the best drill team in parade.

That evening in Milwaukee, the Dons were the featured group in what was billed as “The Annual Spectacle of Music”.

The confident Dons returned to Half Moon Bay to enjoy the adulation of Coastsiders at the Annual Don’s Night held in the Half Moon Bay Union High School auditorium in November of 1954. Local politicians would not dream of missing this opportunity to be seen and heard; the speeches of Congressman J. Arthur Younger and Supervisor Alvin Hatch were followed by a comedy routine demonstrating how not to march, performed by, in that no so sensitive or politically correct era, “The Wetbacks.”

The show also featured Patsy Speer and her magical baton, while music was provided by the Weldonian Show Band. A San Francisco television personality and ventriloquist entertained the crowd with this friend called “Freshie.”

In early 1955 the Dons Drill Fours, including Bob Edwards, Ken Garinio, Jerry Bradshaw and Louis Tomberlin, Jr. were featured at Governor Goodwin J. Knight’s inauguration ceremony in Sacramento, a ceremony which was also televised.

After all the years of success and exhilaration, trouble set in, according to newspaper reports. Patsy Speer took up an offer she could not refuse and left the Dons. She could now be seen twirling her baton on a Saturday night tv show.

In July 1955, the Dons returned to Half Moon Bay after having been crowned National Champions in Drill competition before 125,000 people in Milwaukee for the seventh straight year. It was to be the Don’s final victory. A homecoming reception was planned for the Dons on the IDES grounds.

The need to economize became urgent. They sold their panel truck and reduced the number of members from 30 to 21. Money became so scarc that it was feared the end of the Dons was imminent. Members were now told that they had to pay their own expenses.

In desperation, the Dons asked San Mateo County for funds. In March 1955, the County issued the famous group a $4000 grant. But it wasn’t enough and the Dons were unable to recapture the glory of their colorful past.

The Spanishtown Downs ceased to exist in the 196os. Today they remain a memory of another time.