Willie Nelson played the Bostonia Ballroom before he was a hippie.
“Indeed, I still recall childhood wonderment at the incredible quantities of puke and blood in front of the Bostonia Ballroom on a Monday morning.” — Michael Ryan Davis
1340 Broadway, El Cajon
It says Royal Palace Banquet Hall on the sign outside of the red-brown banquet hall on Broadway in Bostonia, a tiny suburb of El Cajon.
Even after all these years and owners, the old dance hall still looks as if an architect mated a bad forgery of the Alamo with a warehouse. Except for an imposing size, the place radiates little in the way of self-importance. There is nothing to say that this was once a reigning West Coast honky-tonk and, as such, the southernmost stop along California’s country-western music circuit. The last time anyone saw the original sign that spelled out “Bostonia Ballroom” in neon scroll, it was rusting in a field near the airstrip in El Cajon, and that was years ago. Inside the banquet hall, very little of the original ballroom decor remains. But if those walls could talk, they would tell tales of Nashville’s biggest stars headlining in El Cajon, of dancing and beer and cigarettes, of dreams gone bust, and of murder.
“Jerry Lee Lewis? Oh, yeah, my dad was so ticked at him.” Andrea Long is the daughter of Andrew “Cactus” Soldi. She lives in the same house that Soldi bought in 1954 while he was co-managing the Bostonia Ballroom with his band partner, Eugene “Smokey” Rogers.
“Right before Jerry Lee came in, my dad had the piano tuner come out. And Jerry Lee Lewis just beat the hell out of it. He used his feet on it. He broke three keys.” Lewis played Bostonia Ballroom on a Sunday afternoon — February 9, 1958. Tickets sold for $1.75. Lewis was paid $850.
Patsy Cline, and all the big country stars, played the ballroom in its heyday.
“Bill freakin’ Monroe. Slim Whitman. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Lefty Frizzell. Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, Hank Thompson, Joe Maphis, Webb Pierce, Tex Ritter — they all played there. But, you have to understand that back then, there weren’t that many venues.
Johnny Cash played with the Tennessee Two.
“Willie Nelson played the Bostonia Ballroom back when his hair was short. Before he was a hippie. He had a hit song then, ‘Sally was a Good Ole Girl.’ He probably wasn’t the headliner. He probably came in with somebody else. When Johnny was coming out there, he was called Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. The Two were Marshall and Luther. People tell me, ‘Yeah, I remember seeing Elvis out there.’ No they don’t,” she giggles. “Elvis never played there.
“My dad and Smokey got the place about the same time they started Valley Music store [with bandmate Larry “Pedro” DePaul] in 1952. That’s when they started — 1952. They’d done a bunch of recording, and all of them got a big wad of cash and they were looking for something to invest in.”
Long says they all lived in Hollywood at the time, and just down the street from country star Roy Rogers. “The money to start the businesses [including a lease on the ballroom, a record shop, and Valley Music] came from a Capitol Records deal. They went into the studio for 24 straight hours, or longer. Someone needed music for the side B of an album. They each got checks for composing and arranging and performing. They came out of there with a shitload of cash.
“My dad was always the money guy. He was the one that took care of the receipts and counted up and ordered beer and everything. My mom sold tickets at the door. Smokey’s dad was the bartender, and his stepmom Mamie ran the popcorn stand. A lot of times, I would go out there with them and I would babysit Jim in the upstairs apartment over the ballroom where Smokey’s dad and Mamie stayed.
“After Jim would go to sleep, I would sneak out on the roof and look down into the patio and see all the sailors who had come out there. I was 12. A lot of times, if I peeked through the storeroom door I could see the stage from there. It would be pretty crowded with people out on the dance floor, standing there listening to the bands.
“I think they had the ballroom...” Long pauses to gently thumb the pages of her dad’s ledger, a leather-bound volume that smells of dust and old nicotine. “I think they had it until around ’62 or ’63. They divided the business up. Larry took money, Smokey took the ballroom, and my dad took Valley Music.”
Chris Hillman co-founded the Byrds with Roger McGuinn in 1964. Hillman grew up in Rancho Santa Fe. During his teen years, he took up bluegrass mandolin and joined the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers.
“The Bostonia Ballroom had afternoon shows on the weekend with various local and sometimes nationally known country acts,” says Hillman. “The show was run by Smokey Rogers, a local hero in his own right. The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers were asked to play on the show one afternoon, and as I was hanging around outside waiting to perform, I started playing my mandolin, sort of warming up. I felt a shadow come over me and a very large hand rest on my shoulder, and with a deep Texas drawl I heard these words: ‘Son, you sound mighty good on that mandolin. Keep practicing, and something great may come your way.’ I looked up, and there in all his glory stood Tex Ritter. He took the time, while holding his guitar and waiting around, to listen to me and give me some much needed encouragement. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live.
“Later, I found out that our steel guitar player in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Sneaky Pete [Kleinow] used to play in Smokey’s band at the Bostonia Ballroom. In fact, that was where he got the nickname ‘Sneaky.’ I have often wondered what prompted the other band members to give him that name.”
Boyd Rogers (no relation to either Smokey or Roy) and his twin brother Bernie, from Shamrock, TX, first came to San Diego in 1945 courtesy of the U.S. Navy. The brothers would spend most of their careers performing in the same western swing bands.
“We’ll be 87 in September,” says Boyd in a gentle drawl. “Bernie, he’s ten minutes older....
“In 1948, we played New Year’s Eve at the Bostonia,” says Boyd. “That place was packed. If I remember correctly, we had 1200 people. My wife sold tickets just that one time....
“The Bostonia Ballroom was the place at that time. Smokey had his TV show on KFMB every afternoon for three hours. It was called Smokey’s General Store. He’d have different people come on and play, and he’d tell stories and do commercials, this and that. The Bostonia Ballroom got highly advertised. Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins were the two biggest draws out there. It was like New Year’s whenever they came on. People came from all over to see them.
“I think it was in 1952 or so that Bernie worked with Smokey Rogers, when he had the Western Caravan band. Later on, we played there with a group called the Buckshots. We played the ballroom Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening. Buck Wing was the leader. Buck worked at KSON. Radio and TV was his bag. He had an outstanding voice. When he talked, he came across as the most sincere, best friend you ever had.
“They had just about everybody from Nashville, all the big stars playing there at the ballroom at one time or another. We’d play the first hour, and they’d play the second hour. A lot of ’em didn’t have bands, so we’d play behind them. George Jones — he had a little rift with Buck. Buck was strict on taking our intermissions on time. But by the time Jones came on and sang a couple of songs, it was time for us to take a break. George was just warming up. He got a little out of humor on that.”
“There were three physical fixtures of my childhood in Bostonia,” says North Park author Michael Ryan Davis. “The Aero Drive-In with a hole in the fence that was the equivalent of a free movie pass; the Bostonia Store built in the early 1880s, and the shake-rattle-and-roll ballroom, where on Monday mornings we had to hop-scotch over puddles of vomit and, too often, blood. Smokey Rogers was the local celebrity. He had a TV show for a while, and every kid at Bostonia Elementary had met him at one time or another. My parents’ musical tastes ran to Frank Sinatra, not Spade Cooley, so I was unaware of the legendary place of the ballroom in the history of western swing. By sixth grade, moreover, girls wouldn’t speak to you unless you were a rock-and-roll fiend. No one would admit to liking cowboy music, especially in a neighborhood where we seethed under the stereotype of being hicks and okies.”
Sometime during 1960 or 1961, Ed Douglas, now 84, started the Blue Guitar in Loma Portal and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers.
“We played the Bostonia Ballroom one time. Just once,” says Douglas. “We played there for Smokey Rogers. Well, Smokey got cancer, and they had a benefit out there for him. And we were invited to play at this benefit. It was in the early ’60s. Probably ’61 or ’62, something like that. I played bass in the Squirrel Barkers. Kenny Wertz played banjo, Gary Carr was guitar player and lead singer, Larry Murry, dobro and front man, and a kid named Chris Hillman on mandolin. He was 17 then. Bernie Leadon [who would eventually co-found the Eagles in Los Angeles with another member of the San Diego folk-rock scene named Glenn Frey] was never a Squirrel, but he was always an associate. He’d fill in whenever Gary got too drunk. At that time, we were about the only bluegrass band here. No fame, nothing like that, just, we did it for the fun of it, mostly. We thought that was quite an honor when they invited us to be onstage at the Bostonia Ballroom. We got to play with Tex Ritter, Joe Maphis, Rose Maddox, and a little 15-year-old girl playing steel guitar and saxophone. Her name was Barbara Mandrell.”
Guitarist Bob Ryan of the California Rangers calls from his home near Oceanside.
“You know the place was dark for a while, right?...
“When I played there at the Bostonia Ballroom, it was called Zoo Country. Must have been in ’89, ’90, ’91. There was a whole circuit of clubs that featured country music then. Down the street was the Circle D nightclub. After the band Country Casanova retired, my band Sundown became the house band, and we played Zoo Country quite a lot. It was real popular, right before the drunk-driving laws changed. But Zoo Country was short-lived. They might have only been there for three years. I think they came too late to a scene that was already diluted by so many other country clubs. They spent a lot of cash to re-open, but it was bad timing.”
Ralph Keyes wrote one the few existing accounts of the dance hall’s demise in his article, “What Ever Became of the Bostonia Ballroom?” published in San Diego Magazine in May 1971.
By the time Keyes talked to Bostonia Ballroom owner Mickey Whalen, tastes in country music had shifted and Whalen was keeping the 11,000-square-foot dance hall open at a loss by running it as a neighborhood bar. Whalen rented the property out to a junk dealer soon after, and the once-famous ballroom became an eyesore.
Buddy Jansen, 87, was in the catering business when he bought the ballroom.
“I don’t remember the actual date, but I bought the Bostonia Ballroom on the courthouse steps in El Cajon from a banker named Barney Curley and Mickey Whalen....
“Yes, the place was in bankruptcy.” He thinks the year was around 1976 and that he paid $250,000 for it; Jansen owned the property (and would attempt to sell it three times) over the next 37 years.
“‘We’d be glad to sell it to you,’ Whalen and Curley told me, ‘but first you have to get the Chinaman out of there.’ The Chinaman was Andy Ham.”
Andy Ham was in the salvage business.
“He rented the ballroom and put a fence around the parking lot. He had junk inside and out. There were eviction notices wadded up under his desk. It took us 22 months to clean up and remodel. The Chinaman didn’t do anything to the place. It still had the old popcorn stand where they’d make popcorn and hand it through a cubby hole.
“We put the country music back in the ballroom. We had a band there practically every night of the week. A lot of the big names that played in San Diego would come out there and play, too. We had 12 to 14 bouncers on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. It was one hell of a place.
“One Halloween night, we had 1500 people. This was in the newspapers — a guy was killed there that night. That’s why I got out of the business. It was during a battle of the bands. Everybody wore costumes.”
Jansen remembers giving last call on stage at around 1 a.m. “And some guy came out of the bathroom, and I saw blood on the floor. We chased him back into the bathroom, and we found another guy dead in the stall. There was blood everywhere. It turns out the dead guy in the stall had hit the other guy with a beer bottle and cut his nose. So he broke off his own beer bottle and jammed it in the guy’s neck, and he bled to death right there.”