I have my voice-mail number listed after my column to get the heads-up on parties around town, but I have to sift through several businesses that just want a plug. A business might be new, and they’ll tell me they are having a grand-opening party. I ask a few questions to discover it’s really not a party. They’re having a grand-opening sale. They might offer hot dogs in the parking lot. That’s hardly a party.
I also have authors call me about their book-release parties. I went to one at the San Diego County Fair.
Diane Welch is the author of Images of America, Del Mar Fairgrounds, and she was having a luncheon in the director’s dining room of the grandstand building during the fair. She offered me a special place to park. I was so there.
When I met Diane, I was more interested in her than the history of the fairgrounds. Since I grew up here, I’ve read all about the characters in Del Mar. I knew nothing about this artist/writer with the British accent.
Diane told me stories about her time working for Donald Trump. I had to ask, “Did you ever hear those dreaded words, ‘You’re fired!’?” She said, “No. I quit.”
She told me that she worked for Trump’s airline for three years and that he was cold, that he always had bodyguards, and he wasn’t very friendly. She said she wore a fancy uniform, but when she got pregnant, she needed something that fit better. They told her she could buy something that worked. She went to Nordstrom and bought a $300 outfit.
“That was expensive in 1989. And when I presented the manager with the bill, he was a bit shocked.”
I asked if any rich guys ever flirted with her. “Of course,” she said, and then brought the conversation back to her book.
“A lot of people don’t realize that Jim Franks is the father of the fairgrounds. It wouldn’t even be here today without him. It actually started in National City in 1880. Then the fair moved to Escondido.”
When Diane started to talk, a large crowd gathered, and I figured that was my chance to jump on the food. It was a large spread. I chose fresh fruit and a turkey sandwich. One guy had tomatoes on his sandwich, and I asked, “How did you get tomatoes on your sandwich?” He said, “I put them there.” I laughed and explained that I thought they were banned.
I saw that they had the batter-fried Australian potatoes that I usually buy at the fair. I piled them on my plate and headed to a table.
A few people at my table had books. I glanced through one of them and recognized some of the photos, such as Raquel Welch as the “Fairest of the Fair” in 1958. Diane walked by and I asked, “Are you related to Raquel Welch?” She said, “No, I’m not, or she’d be here.”
I saw a photo in the book from 1937 of a guy named Bill Arballo, who’s identified as the deputy mayor of Del Mar. I was told Arballo’s been a photographer at the fairgrounds for years and that he writes for the Coast News. He looks to be in his early 80s now. Arballo stood and told the room that he used to sell papers at the fairgrounds for a penny each. “There was a sideshow they called Little Egypt. She was a hootchy-kootchy dancer, and it cost 25 cents to see her. For an extra 25 cents she’d take you in the back room and you’d see a lot more. Well, back then it was five cents for sodas. You had five-cent weenies. They were ‘weenies’ back then. They were ‘hot dogs’ in the second generation. Those were ten cents. One of my friends asked me what I saw in that back room. I said, ‘How would I know? I’m not wasting my money. I work hard for it!’”
The crowd laughed.
I asked Arballo to tell me more about the fairgrounds in the old days. He told me about an organ grinder named Adams who drank a lot of wine. He said, “The monkey knew that when he got that way, he could just sit down and not work. The monkey, to collect money, would kiss girls or tip his hat. I know some people don’t like taking advantage of animals. This organ grinder, though, he’d drink so much...the monkey would just sit there and not do his job.”
I asked him about some of the famous people who would show up. Arballo said, “Well, the press party was great. They’d have steak and booze.”
I glanced down at my half-eaten turkey sandwich as he continued.
“Jimmy Durante did this thing where he’d tear the piano apart. It would be an old one he’d be playing. At the end, it would just be the keys and ivory. And Al Jolson...he would sing until his lungs gave out. You couldn’t get him off stage. Mickey Rooney was a good showman. Harry James played his bugle. Or, wait, it was some wind instrument. I can’t remember. It was just a free-for-all. And this would last all night long. The rule was, the bar stayed open until everyone went home pie-eyed.”
I went and grabbed a lemonade.
At this point, Welch had a crowd she was signing books for. She had four kids at the event, and I asked her daughter, who looked to be around 14, if she would ever write a book. She nodded yes. I asked her what kind, and she said, “Fantasy.”
A DVD was playing that Welch narrated and produced with her husband Paul. I had heard something about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how the fairgrounds were used to make submarines. I asked Paul about this. “Yeah, the fair shut down during the war. The fairgrounds are owned by the State of California, but...people cooperate during wartime. It was used for war production and Marine training grounds. It was sort of a boot camp, and they lived in the stables. They also had an airport east of the grandstand. It was on about 60 acres.” He went on to talk about “Bing’s Bomber Babes,” which produced the B-17 and did submarine assembly. I said, “Wow. When I see stories on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, it’s never this.”