I confess I didn’t make it to the first Spring Fling in El Cerrito (or several other events in West County) on Saturday.
The El Cerrito event was meant to showcase the city’s many upgrades designed to make San Pablo Avenue a more inviting walking and bicycling destination and the avenue does indeed look more attractive.
Additions include seating and bicycle racks, new greenery and signage, banners, rain gardens that divert and cleanse rainwater before it goes into the Bay, pedestrian crossing markings and humps intended to reduce the speed of passing traffic.
Even the fancy, high-tech pedestrian crossing at Lincoln and San Pablo avenues, which is motion-activated, was working on Saturday after a couple of weeks or so of non-operation.
Most interesting to your columnist, though, are the new history markers, 28 illustrated tiles placed in the sidewalk that explain sites significant to the city’s past. El Cerrito has even added a modern twist to the markers, with downloadable audio files that, combined, make up a narrated walking tour.
On Sunday I went by the corner where the old It Club once flourished and the marker there that lists some of the notable names that once played the nightspot.
One name on the marker stood out: Sally Rand.
Rand was a nationally known fan and bubble dancer whose risque act had been a popular attraction at three World’s Fairs, including the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40 on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, as the GGIE attraction was called, closed after one year and was replaced by Billy Rose’s Aquacade, starring a young Esther Williams.
Rand may have performed at the It Club, though I’ve yet to see an account of the time saying she did.
She did, however, have her own night club at 204 San Pablo Ave., right at the county line in El Cerrito, from 1944-46.
Rand had previously opened a night club, the Music Box, in San Francisco at the historic theater that is now known as the Great American Music Hall. The website for the music hall says she opened it in 1936 and “swanky city dwellers would dance the night away there for the next decade.”
More than a famous dancer, Sally Rand was an astute businesswoman who jumped at the opportunity to lend her name to the former Hollywood Club operated by “Big Bill” Pechart on a corner of the Rancho San Pablo property at the county line. The area had seen an influx of thousands of war workers, which assured there would be ample clientele nearby, though the area still drew heavily from Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont. During the war years most of the rancho property had been turned into an auto camp for defense industry workers.
Pechart was glad to have a known name to draw in patrons and Sally Rand’s Club did a good trade during and even after the war, as a 1946 newspaper article noted her club was “still packing them in.”
Not all of the trade at Sally Rand’s was of the above-the-table type, however, and the club was closed by the IRS in ’46 for failure to report revenue and pay taxes. It was a common fate for operators of such businesses.
The location was reopened the next year by Lu Watters as Hambone Kelly’s, a mecca for lovers of Dixieland jazz that operated from 1947-50 and remains something of a legend among music lovers.
The newsletter of the Lincoln Highway Association has a nice overview of San Pablo Avenue and its entertainment scene in the 1930s and ’40s.