In the fall of 1923, Mickey Gillette went to San Francisco to play with Paul Ash at the Granada Theater. I was playing with Lee’s Merrymakers and was offered the job that Mickey was leaving … in Young’s Cabaret on Second Street.
Anyone knowing my parents would know how much they did not want me to take the job. But some way I talked them into it and played there from 8 to 12 p.m. seven days a week while attending Arcata High School. I had just passed my eighteenth birthday. Two years before, I had worked my summer vacation in the woods at Crannell, and six years before I was the only non-Indian boy on the Hoopa Reservation, except when the Mortsoff boys were home.
I started on a Sunday night and got initiated quickly. There were about twenty-four girls working, a 3-piece band, a bartender, and the proprietor and his wife. The cabaret was in the rear of Young’s restaurant. Directly behind the bar a window opened on the alley and when the pitcher of “moonshine” on the sink ran dry, the window opened and an arm came through with a full pitcher, the arm withdrew and down would go the window. In four months, I never saw the owner of that arm!
Now, back to the Sunday night I started work. There were two girls who decided to give me a rough time.One was Maxine, a blond, and her pal, Frenchie, a brunette, who wore very low-cut dresses. The two would come up to me and say how innocent I looked and in explicit terms tell me how they would like to further my education.
After a time I couldn’t stand it and, interspersed with the best logging camp profanity I knew, I stood up, took my sax apart, burst into tears and said, “I’m going home. I never heard women talk like this. My folks don’t want me to work here anyway.”
Then Pansy Minor stepped in and told my tormentors that she would give them a bad time if they ever gave me a bad time gain. The proprietor stepped in and soothed my feelings. (I should have asked for more money then as I was the only sax player they could get.)
Pansy Minor was a sweet character in a somewhat tawdry place. She and her husband had been a star act in vaudeville. He died, or was killed accidentally, and without him her star descended and she drifted to Eureka and made it from day to day, not caring. She played beautiful piano and spelled Cecil La Chapelle when he was away from the piano. She had known many of the great stars of Broadway and told me many stories of celebrities she had known. Years later in San Francisco, I met people who had known her in brighter days and everything she told me was the truth.
Cecil La Chappelle was the finest piano player I ever worked with. Every musician who worked with “Cec” was a much-improved musician from then on. He was from Marshfield, Oregon, and came to Eureka and either formed, or joined, the Bay Novelty Orchestra, a fine group of that day. He later went to San Francisco and played on the Blue Monday Jamboree with Meredith Willson. He bought a plane and was killed when it crashed. I lost a true friend.
There was a bootblack who came into the Cabaret and to the music of “Runnin’ Wild” he did a dance around the floor, picking up speed until he seemed to be a blur. Also, a singer came in occasionally. His specialty was “Melancholy Baby.” He had a fine voice.
The girls all sang, if you could call it singing. Their job was to separate the customers (mostly woodsmen) from their money. Business picked up as the week went along and Saturday nights the place really jumped. The woods boss waited at the train Sunday afternoon to pay the fare back to camp for any logger who had gone broke over Saturday night. The cabaret girl’s measure of success was the new clothes she could show on Monday evening, after a day’s shopping, after a Saturday night.
One night the place was raided. The boss’s wife was carrying a loaded tray of drinks when the swinging doors burst in and a figure, dressed in a floor length black coat, black hat pulled away down, and dark glasses, went darting across to the bar. The tray crashed to the floor, the bartender and the invader struggled for the pitcher of moonshine, the bartender won and the evidence went down the drain.
The officer was “Bally McKay” of the District Attorney’s Dry Squad. He took the bartender to jail, booked him, the bartender returned to Young’s, the window went up, the arm came through with the pitcher of moonshine, and business went on as usual. Then Mickey came back from San Francisco and sold every would-be sax player in Humboldt (including myself) a sax mouthpiece for $10 that he said had been given to him by Chester Hazlett, Paul Ash’s star sax player.
I found out later that Mick bought a raft of the mouthpieces for $2.50 per. Each of the buyers got a mouthpiece used by the great Hazlett, given personally to Mickey and sold to us for $10, because of Mickey’s great liking for us and “don’t let anyone else know that I let you have it.” Strangely, mine was a good one and I used it for years.
So my trips back and forth across the marsh from Arcata to Eureka every night ended. The faithful Model T with the broken isinglass in the flapping side curtains that let in the rain. The lights that ran off the magneto and dimmed as you slowed, and brightened as your speed increased. The windshield with no wipers that fogged up so you had to lean out in the rain and use the side of the road as a guide. Going to sleep with my head on my arms in Mr. Ham’s late history class.
All this ended. Yet I was never late for work or failed to get home or missed a day in the four months that I worked in Young’s Cabaret on Second Street in Eureka fifty years ago.
The story above was originally printed in a 1972 issue of The Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society, and was then reprinted in the Fall 2019 issue. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.