While I was working for Merchants, I rented a tent for the summer at Tent City. I think it cost about $I0 a month. It had a thatched roof of palm leaves, with canvas wrapped around it. There was no way to lock it up, of course. Anybody could walk in, but we never lost anything. To get to work, I’d take the streetcar in Coronado, go across on the ferry, get the streetcar on the other side, and go up to the bank. I had a permanent room then at the YMCA, but Tent City was the headquarters. This was before I was married.
I met my first wife Lois in about 1917, I guess. We were in the group that used to go to dances and boating parties. There was powerboat over at the Hotel del Coronado that used to take people aquaplaning. An aquaplane was a big board about six or eight feet long, about two feet wide, very thin. It had a rope tied to the boat, and you would stand up on it and steer the damn thing with your ropes, swing way to one side, make it dive and pull up. The trick was to keep your footing while you went through the waves. Sometimes you’d put somebody up on your shoulders and try to be real smart and fall on your can. Sometimes we would go all the way out to the Coronado Islands and back. It was really a lot of fun.
I stayed very active in these years. I liked to do outdoor things. About 1919 I started rowing competitively. We had great support from the city, and the newspapers were doing everything they could to promote the sport. We had regattas up in San Francisco, Seattle, Victoria, and Vancouver. It was a big sport then because we didn’t have much else to do, though we did have amateur baseball teams. Each bank or business had its own team, and we’d compete among ourselves. I was an outfielder.
I rowed four-man crew and single. We won several championship regattas and were state champions around 1919, early 1920. I had a good chance to go to the Olympics then, but I couldn’t afford the training, the cost of going back, having to give up my job. I had a hell of a time talking myself out of the Olympics. But I really did rowing more for fun than anything else.
San Diego’s growth was pretty slow around this time. Nothing spectacular was going on. The tuna canneries were probably the main industries in the city. They were strung out along the bay, starting at the foot of Fifth Street and going south. And there was one over on Point Loma. I was just busy rowing and playing and working. I never dreamt about owning any businesses until after I took over U.S. National Bank. Then it all just followed.
Lois and I got married in 1922. We lived in a very nice little apartment at the corner of Fifth and Kalmia. We thought we were pretty smart. Actually, Lois also worked in the Merchants Bank for a while. She was a friend of Helen Rogers, a daughter of the bank’s president, and Helen and Lois and I teamed off quite often with other people.
Then shortly after that, about ’23 or ’24, I think, the Bank of Italy came in and bought the Merchants National Bank, the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank, and the Union Bank. They just mowed them down. Then they consolidated them together as the 50th branch of the Bank of Italy. They kept everybody on from Merchants Bank, and I had the good fortune of being able to manage the consolidation of all those banks. It was a great experience for me.
Armando Giannini used to be the boss man at the Bank of Italy. Up in their home base of San Francisco, they were a cosmopolitan bank, but down here they were just a neighborhood bank. Giannini would come down and visit the branches, and I used to marvel at him being able to come into the bank and say, “Well, Amholt, how’re you doing? What’s going on?” How the hell would he remember my name? Later we found out he’d sit outside in his car and have all the names of everybody, where they worked, and be coached. But he had a hell of a memory to begin with. Boy, that made great points for him with the troops, I’ll tell you. He was a great man, I’ll always say that.
After I got into the Bank of Italy, Johnny Alessio was still shining shoes and doing everything he could to make money. I was handling the banking relationships between the Banco Nacional in Tijuana and the Bank of Italy, and I knew the Banco Nacional was looking for someone who could speak Spanish and English. So I told Johnny to go on down there and apply. I don’t know if he knew any Spanish, but Italian and Spanish are similar. So I said, “I’ll give you a letter, and maybe you can get a job in the bank.” Oh, boy, his eyes went blink-blink-blink. It was heaven-sent for him.
So the Banco Nacional in Tijuana hired him, and he worked out beautifully down there. He started as a messenger and got into the bank just like I did — became a clerk, a teller, an officer.
After I consolidated all those banks for Giannini, I caught someone’s attention up there in San Francisco, so they invited me to go up to Ventura and be a manager of the Ventura branch. Jesus, Lois liked to die. She didn’t want to go up into that country and leave her friends, so I turned it down. That made the bank management very angry. So a year or two later, they invited me to come up to Los Angeles as the head of the commercial banking department, which actually handled the activity of the banks who did business with the Bank of Italy. So I moved to L.A. by myself at first and lived at the Jonathan Club, a men’s athletic club that is still there, I think.