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Benjamin Epstein

The 552 Club Goes Country in Costa Mesa

August 12, 1986|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Twenty years ago, a campaign was launched to expand the number of beds at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach from 382 to 552. Although plans later changed--Hoag's beds now total 471--the name of the hospital's support group stuck.

"The 552 Club was originally named for the number of beds," explained its president, Jake Rohrer, "but the principal purpose now is, that's when our events start."

The group's 10th Western Barbecue began, as it does every year, at 5:52 p.m. in the Arlington Amphitheater of the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

Once again, partygoers competed at the tortilla toss and danced to country tunes. Once again, they chowed down Pete Siracusa's scrumptious offerings at the chuck wagon, enthusiastically served up by his Rusty Pelican staff (Siracusa is chief executive officer of the restaurant chain), who in turn enjoyed Siracusa's famous watermelon rum punch.

This year, however, it was a case of "eat and stampede": The amphitheater was nearly emptied by 8:52.

"Maybe they should start calling it the 852 Club," quipped one regular Hoag supporter, who nevertheless affectionately summed up the event as "a wonderful evening of barbecue sauce under our nails, corn between our teeth and chili on our shirts."

The crowd was noticeably larger than usual. Seven hundred reservations were accepted, according to barbecue chairman Tom Riley, and more than $20,000 was raised toward construction of a free-standing center for cancer patients and their families on land adjacent to the existing Hoag facility; the new building is expected to open in early 1988.

Chairman Tom Riley is not the Tom Riley who serves on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the one seen so often at benefits around the county. Asked about the difficulty of going through life in Orange County with the name Tom Riley, the Newport Beach contractor and race car driver said, "Not too bad, since (Supervisor Riley) got a listed number.

"When he didn't have a listed number, I got a lot of crank phone calls," Riley said. "His home number's still not listed--and I don't blame him. But for a while he didn't have an office number either, and around bar-closing time, I used to get these phone calls, saying things like, 'My street light's out.' "

The Rileys in fact share more personal history.

"He was a colonel in the Marine Corps when I was a lieutenant," Riley recalled. "When he made general, I made captain. We were both stationed at Pendleton at the same time. We were both in Viet Nam at the same time. But I never knew the man till we got back to Orange County."

Al (Red Dog) Weber provided the country music for the barbecue. "More refined tonight than he was at the Chili Cook-Off," noted Mary Osterhout. Some of the dancing got pretty fancy.

"Can't do it unless I count," admitted Jean Kiger, a new 552 Club member from Corona del Mar, as she and her husband, Al, came off the dance floor after doing the Texan Ten-Step.

According to Al Kiger, the couple also knows the Two-Step and the Watergate.

"The Watergate's a line dance where you all go in one direction, then you change and go in another direction," Al Kiger explained.

After Ron Herrick won the tortilla toss, an eyewitness described his technique.

"He uses this first finger to flip it, not a thumb, and that's what gives it the spin," explained barbecue committee member Michael Nisbet. "All the guys who threw it long rolled it off that first finger."

As the crowd began to thin, Siracusa shared another of his famous recipes.

"I learned this barbecue sauce in Fetzer, Tex., at Henry's Hideaway, 'the House of a Thousand Horns,' " Siracusa said. "I can't tell you why it's called that.

"Anyway, you start with some catsup, vinegar, brown sugar, a quart of moonshine and some Coca Cola--yep, Coca Cola--chili powder, cumin, sliced Bermuda onions--it has to have Bermuda onions--and you let it all simmer for about two hours. If it's little too strong, you just add a little Coca Cola to thin. And that's it."

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