4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Bob Johnston's Sports Palace Saloon and the Golden West Hotel – precursors of Horton Plaza

"This is the elephant's grave, you know."

The picture taken in 1945 shows the Hollywood Theater. The marquee proclaims: “Vicki Evans The Girl in The Mitchum Case." Robert Mitchum, Johnston explains, had just been caught with drugs.
The picture taken in 1945 shows the Hollywood Theater. The marquee proclaims: “Vicki Evans The Girl in The Mitchum Case." Robert Mitchum, Johnston explains, had just been caught with drugs.

San Diego. I think it will always remain a ghost town to me, no matter how many office buildings shoot for the sky, no matter how many re-development projects tear down the old and exalt the look of tomorrow. I cannot find the pulse of this city, try as I may, except in the few old places where the past is more alive than the present, where the echoes drown out today's silences.

Every city, after all, has its own distinct rhythm. I remember back in New York, on East 14th St, the old man who was always walking along that street chanting: “Change, change, change, change. Change, change, change, change, change," he would insist. And he did well at his calling. His particular talent was knowing how to catch the beat of the street of the city, and strike a responsive chord in the people he wanted to reach.

Echo of a distant vitality in this bland town, where does it pulse from? From the years of World War II, when Broadway and G Street were so crowded you could barely make your way through them, when the scene was the desperate good-time of war-time, when the sailors who had known for too long only the measured rhythm of the waves came ashore to fine a more frenetic beat, something to warm and thicken their blood. It was, of course, just a brief shore-pass from one unreal world to another: San Diego had become a town heart and soul dedicated to catering to its deluge of hungry sailors, with entertainment, girls, food, drink, music concentrated doses of sensory stimuli, a wild neon life to counteract the spell of the somber spectre.

I pause in the doorway of Johnston's Sports Palace Saloon. Outside, the “G" Street neighborhood is porno shops promising the ultimate in a quarter movie, bars, massage parlors, dilapidated hotels, card rooms, pool halls. Inside, the collective gaze of about 20 men sealed around the bar, sizing up my intention here, hits me. At the very dimly-lit far end of this bar. I spot the lone woman in the place, and I am instantly encouraged she is smiling broadly in my direction. Later I learn that she, wordless, smiles that same very wide smile from that same barstool from morning to night of every changeless day. Of course, every bar has its souls of sorrow, and each one has his or her own story, told in countless variations, sung in utter silence. But Johnston's Sports Palace has more.

The place is immense, and its long walls are covered with photographs of San Diego's high-stepping and raucous past. This building was built in 1887; part of it was then a livery stable and the photographs date from that time. Champion racehorses, heavyweight champions, comedians, movie stars, strippers of every decade, tracing the gradual change in the stale of the art. An early ‘20's stripper: hair cut straight right beneath the ears, formality of the heavy black high heels, elaborately connected triumvirate of pasties.

A picture of Lily St. Cyr, whose career began here at the Hollywood, taken in 1948: startling nymph's body on while fur, the triumvirate utterly deposed, ruby-red lips, platinum curls as chiselled-looking as the column she leans against, her whole figure bathed in a strange luminosity, a mythical vision. And there are Johnston and his daughter at the Del Mar Racetrack with George Raft and Jimmy Durante. Bing Crosby's three kids. Dempsey. Louis. Jack Johnson who worked here for $35 a week after having been heavyweight champion of the world.

Johnston, who is now 77 years old and has owned this place for close to 50 years, points to a picture taken in 1945. It shows the Hollywood Theater, next door to the Palace and now called the Off-Broadway, which he sold just a couple of years ago. The marquee proclaims: “Vicki Evans The Girl in The Mitchum Case". Robert Mitchum, Johnston explains, had just been caught with drugs, and this girl was with him. To see her what bygone innocence the crowd is waiting five-deep in a line that winds around the block outside an already packed theater.

“That's what business was like in those days. During the war, this place was really jumping," reminisces Johnston. “Remember, there was no El Cajon, no National City, no Chula Vista. That was all open spaces. So when the sailors got off the ships, they all came here. No more."

He gestures toward his elderly patrons. “It's Saturday, pension and welfare checks just came through, so business looks good. By Monday, they'll be bumming again. You can't make any money here anymore."

I ask Johnston about the death of his Hollywood Theater. “I couldn't buck the peep shows. You can't have burlesque anymore." The romance of burlesque, gorgeous fantasy-life, all obsolete.

He shakes his head. “The mind goes blank, when you see what they show in these shops," says the man who ran burlesque for half a century. “The rottener it is, the more they like it. Rather than go that low, I sold the theater."

I wonder how he first got into the theater business, and Johnston says it is something that just happened. By this time I have gathered that he is quite fatalistic and this answer reflects his general life-view, but I ask for specifics nonetheless.

“Well. I was selling peanuts and popcorn in the theater, and I was making more money than the man who owned it. So I bought him out for $1000 and paid $5 a week rent for the theater."

The grey-haired piano-player, who tells me the piano he is playing has not been tuned in 40 years, interrupts his soft medley with a snort of pleasure. “Boss, I never heard that before. Is that right?"

“Sure," says Johnston, warming to it. “Stingy Michael McPherson, he lost his money on the horses in Tijuana. After I bought the theater from him, he became a barber."

I ask Johnston about the Horton Plaza Re-development Project, and report of their eventually tearing down this building. "I haven’t heard anything lately," he replies, “and I'm not asking. But when hey decide to do it, that’s it—I can’t stop them. No point in worrying. though what has to be will be."

Johnston ruefully explains that he thinks the move of the Union Tribune out to Mission Valley spurred on re-development plans or the whole area. "I know they want to clean up this place, but it's just not that simple. Where are all these people going to go? Are they going to move all the winos to Mission Valley?”

An old man walks by with a sailor’s rolling gait, but tilted sidewise at an angle that did not come from the seas. “He's younger than me. I never take a drink. How could I, when I see what it does?"

Johnston sits up even straighter and adjusts his dark blue tie which lies so perfectly against his immaculate while shirt, as if to further emphasize the contrast between him and them. There is no need. His clear blue eyes, surprisingly unweathered face is conspicuous here among these ravaged countenances.

Even in what he and his patrons share, this house of memories, they are a world apart. For Johnston, who seems truly at home here, it is a supportive surrounding, validation of a big-time past attested to on every inch of these walls. His customers, leaning their tired weight against this ancient mahogany bar, are no less surrounded by their memories— but theirs, of course, appear not as autographed and framed mementos but slow phantoms, visible only to each of them, moving in and out of focus now as luminous as the rubs lips of Lily St. Cyr, now fading back into memory's dim chiaroscuro.

The Golden West, just a block south of the Sports Palace, is another place where you can hear the echo, faint vibrations of a time when, there was enough life to fill this sprawling hotel of 400 rooms, now marked for reconstruction by the re-development project. It was built in 1913, designed as a comfortable, modest place rooms were 35¢ a day, $2 a week. In wartime, especially, crowds thronged through its wide halls. Now, the sign that I see as I enter tells the story: “We must clean the lobby at 12 p.m. Please cooperate." This sign is yellowed, it hangs under a steer's immense horns of the same shade, the walls seem to have been washed down with time's jaundicing, the whole scene is fluorescence-lit, and now I note that opposite the steer’s 10-foot horns hangs a huge silver-blue swordfish. Absurd counterpoint between horns and swordfish, so utterly incongruous here, so sadly misplaced.

What was that long-ago message, and can I still hear its whispering? "These are the trophies of the Golden West, this is the great richness of the land and the unfathomable bounty of the sea, so come, take it, for it is yours for the taking, for the mounting upon the walls that you will build for the housing of your plenty and your wealth…” Did it go something like that, and these somnolent men, caved in to the wooden, stiff-backed chairs, did they, all young and golden, once hear it and rise to its siren -call?

“You a reporter, girl?" startles me out of my musing. A middle-aged Mexican man is standing over me, smiling. I tell him, yes, feeling the quick guilt inherent for me in this activity, in my observing these people whose lives are so far from mine in the non-privacy of their home. But he likes the fact that I am writing about this place and wants to know what I will call the story. What would he call it, I ask.

“The unseen life of San Diego,” he promptly replies. He takes a seat and turning to me, says confidentially. “This is the elephant's grave, you know."

I don’t know.

“Yes, you know, like elephants when their time is coming, they go and find a place to die. Well, that's what this is, the elephant's grave."

Gesturing to the figures against the wall opposite us, “Look over there, what do you see? They're just waiting, waiting to kiss tomorrow good-bye.”

I look at him, his eyes so vivid, extraordinary animation. “But then what are you doing here?" The question is out before I can slop it.

He laughs shortly. “Because I am getting on the same boat.” Then, as if he had not uttered those words, “I do not live here. I am just waiting for a friend."

I nod too quickly, fix on the faded rococco tapestries that hang near the huge horns, a mix-up of myths. And I think again how strange it is that here, in this still sepulchral hall, the presence of the past should be so much more resonant, more palpable, than the life I meet when I return to the street.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Cathedral City, an artsy desert town you shouldn’t ignore

The Pelton Cottage has an upcoming open house on Feb. 27th.
Next Article

Targets: The Bogdanovich-Corman connection

It’s impossible to ignore the amount of thought and resourcefulness enmeshed in every frame
The picture taken in 1945 shows the Hollywood Theater. The marquee proclaims: “Vicki Evans The Girl in The Mitchum Case." Robert Mitchum, Johnston explains, had just been caught with drugs.
The picture taken in 1945 shows the Hollywood Theater. The marquee proclaims: “Vicki Evans The Girl in The Mitchum Case." Robert Mitchum, Johnston explains, had just been caught with drugs.

San Diego. I think it will always remain a ghost town to me, no matter how many office buildings shoot for the sky, no matter how many re-development projects tear down the old and exalt the look of tomorrow. I cannot find the pulse of this city, try as I may, except in the few old places where the past is more alive than the present, where the echoes drown out today's silences.

Every city, after all, has its own distinct rhythm. I remember back in New York, on East 14th St, the old man who was always walking along that street chanting: “Change, change, change, change. Change, change, change, change, change," he would insist. And he did well at his calling. His particular talent was knowing how to catch the beat of the street of the city, and strike a responsive chord in the people he wanted to reach.

Echo of a distant vitality in this bland town, where does it pulse from? From the years of World War II, when Broadway and G Street were so crowded you could barely make your way through them, when the scene was the desperate good-time of war-time, when the sailors who had known for too long only the measured rhythm of the waves came ashore to fine a more frenetic beat, something to warm and thicken their blood. It was, of course, just a brief shore-pass from one unreal world to another: San Diego had become a town heart and soul dedicated to catering to its deluge of hungry sailors, with entertainment, girls, food, drink, music concentrated doses of sensory stimuli, a wild neon life to counteract the spell of the somber spectre.

I pause in the doorway of Johnston's Sports Palace Saloon. Outside, the “G" Street neighborhood is porno shops promising the ultimate in a quarter movie, bars, massage parlors, dilapidated hotels, card rooms, pool halls. Inside, the collective gaze of about 20 men sealed around the bar, sizing up my intention here, hits me. At the very dimly-lit far end of this bar. I spot the lone woman in the place, and I am instantly encouraged she is smiling broadly in my direction. Later I learn that she, wordless, smiles that same very wide smile from that same barstool from morning to night of every changeless day. Of course, every bar has its souls of sorrow, and each one has his or her own story, told in countless variations, sung in utter silence. But Johnston's Sports Palace has more.

The place is immense, and its long walls are covered with photographs of San Diego's high-stepping and raucous past. This building was built in 1887; part of it was then a livery stable and the photographs date from that time. Champion racehorses, heavyweight champions, comedians, movie stars, strippers of every decade, tracing the gradual change in the stale of the art. An early ‘20's stripper: hair cut straight right beneath the ears, formality of the heavy black high heels, elaborately connected triumvirate of pasties.

A picture of Lily St. Cyr, whose career began here at the Hollywood, taken in 1948: startling nymph's body on while fur, the triumvirate utterly deposed, ruby-red lips, platinum curls as chiselled-looking as the column she leans against, her whole figure bathed in a strange luminosity, a mythical vision. And there are Johnston and his daughter at the Del Mar Racetrack with George Raft and Jimmy Durante. Bing Crosby's three kids. Dempsey. Louis. Jack Johnson who worked here for $35 a week after having been heavyweight champion of the world.

Johnston, who is now 77 years old and has owned this place for close to 50 years, points to a picture taken in 1945. It shows the Hollywood Theater, next door to the Palace and now called the Off-Broadway, which he sold just a couple of years ago. The marquee proclaims: “Vicki Evans The Girl in The Mitchum Case". Robert Mitchum, Johnston explains, had just been caught with drugs, and this girl was with him. To see her what bygone innocence the crowd is waiting five-deep in a line that winds around the block outside an already packed theater.

“That's what business was like in those days. During the war, this place was really jumping," reminisces Johnston. “Remember, there was no El Cajon, no National City, no Chula Vista. That was all open spaces. So when the sailors got off the ships, they all came here. No more."

He gestures toward his elderly patrons. “It's Saturday, pension and welfare checks just came through, so business looks good. By Monday, they'll be bumming again. You can't make any money here anymore."

I ask Johnston about the death of his Hollywood Theater. “I couldn't buck the peep shows. You can't have burlesque anymore." The romance of burlesque, gorgeous fantasy-life, all obsolete.

He shakes his head. “The mind goes blank, when you see what they show in these shops," says the man who ran burlesque for half a century. “The rottener it is, the more they like it. Rather than go that low, I sold the theater."

I wonder how he first got into the theater business, and Johnston says it is something that just happened. By this time I have gathered that he is quite fatalistic and this answer reflects his general life-view, but I ask for specifics nonetheless.

“Well. I was selling peanuts and popcorn in the theater, and I was making more money than the man who owned it. So I bought him out for $1000 and paid $5 a week rent for the theater."

The grey-haired piano-player, who tells me the piano he is playing has not been tuned in 40 years, interrupts his soft medley with a snort of pleasure. “Boss, I never heard that before. Is that right?"

“Sure," says Johnston, warming to it. “Stingy Michael McPherson, he lost his money on the horses in Tijuana. After I bought the theater from him, he became a barber."

I ask Johnston about the Horton Plaza Re-development Project, and report of their eventually tearing down this building. "I haven’t heard anything lately," he replies, “and I'm not asking. But when hey decide to do it, that’s it—I can’t stop them. No point in worrying. though what has to be will be."

Johnston ruefully explains that he thinks the move of the Union Tribune out to Mission Valley spurred on re-development plans or the whole area. "I know they want to clean up this place, but it's just not that simple. Where are all these people going to go? Are they going to move all the winos to Mission Valley?”

An old man walks by with a sailor’s rolling gait, but tilted sidewise at an angle that did not come from the seas. “He's younger than me. I never take a drink. How could I, when I see what it does?"

Johnston sits up even straighter and adjusts his dark blue tie which lies so perfectly against his immaculate while shirt, as if to further emphasize the contrast between him and them. There is no need. His clear blue eyes, surprisingly unweathered face is conspicuous here among these ravaged countenances.

Even in what he and his patrons share, this house of memories, they are a world apart. For Johnston, who seems truly at home here, it is a supportive surrounding, validation of a big-time past attested to on every inch of these walls. His customers, leaning their tired weight against this ancient mahogany bar, are no less surrounded by their memories— but theirs, of course, appear not as autographed and framed mementos but slow phantoms, visible only to each of them, moving in and out of focus now as luminous as the rubs lips of Lily St. Cyr, now fading back into memory's dim chiaroscuro.

The Golden West, just a block south of the Sports Palace, is another place where you can hear the echo, faint vibrations of a time when, there was enough life to fill this sprawling hotel of 400 rooms, now marked for reconstruction by the re-development project. It was built in 1913, designed as a comfortable, modest place rooms were 35¢ a day, $2 a week. In wartime, especially, crowds thronged through its wide halls. Now, the sign that I see as I enter tells the story: “We must clean the lobby at 12 p.m. Please cooperate." This sign is yellowed, it hangs under a steer's immense horns of the same shade, the walls seem to have been washed down with time's jaundicing, the whole scene is fluorescence-lit, and now I note that opposite the steer’s 10-foot horns hangs a huge silver-blue swordfish. Absurd counterpoint between horns and swordfish, so utterly incongruous here, so sadly misplaced.

What was that long-ago message, and can I still hear its whispering? "These are the trophies of the Golden West, this is the great richness of the land and the unfathomable bounty of the sea, so come, take it, for it is yours for the taking, for the mounting upon the walls that you will build for the housing of your plenty and your wealth…” Did it go something like that, and these somnolent men, caved in to the wooden, stiff-backed chairs, did they, all young and golden, once hear it and rise to its siren -call?

“You a reporter, girl?" startles me out of my musing. A middle-aged Mexican man is standing over me, smiling. I tell him, yes, feeling the quick guilt inherent for me in this activity, in my observing these people whose lives are so far from mine in the non-privacy of their home. But he likes the fact that I am writing about this place and wants to know what I will call the story. What would he call it, I ask.

“The unseen life of San Diego,” he promptly replies. He takes a seat and turning to me, says confidentially. “This is the elephant's grave, you know."

I don’t know.

“Yes, you know, like elephants when their time is coming, they go and find a place to die. Well, that's what this is, the elephant's grave."

Gesturing to the figures against the wall opposite us, “Look over there, what do you see? They're just waiting, waiting to kiss tomorrow good-bye.”

I look at him, his eyes so vivid, extraordinary animation. “But then what are you doing here?" The question is out before I can slop it.

He laughs shortly. “Because I am getting on the same boat.” Then, as if he had not uttered those words, “I do not live here. I am just waiting for a friend."

I nod too quickly, fix on the faded rococco tapestries that hang near the huge horns, a mix-up of myths. And I think again how strange it is that here, in this still sepulchral hall, the presence of the past should be so much more resonant, more palpable, than the life I meet when I return to the street.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Targets: The Bogdanovich-Corman connection

It’s impossible to ignore the amount of thought and resourcefulness enmeshed in every frame
Next Article

The plant-based bread schtick of Ben and Esther’s Vegan Jewish Deli

Bagels and marble rye elevate fish-free and meatless versions of deli classics
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close