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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Lure Of The Coastline : The Bands Played On

October 16, 1988|JAN HERMAN | Herman is a Times arts writer.

Balboa's Rendezvous Ballroom was 'a perpetual Mardi Gras' where many of the great dance names of the '30s and the '40s could be found: Bob Crosby and His Bobcats, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Phil Harris, Everett Hoagland, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Kay Kyser, Ted Lewis, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Ozzie Nelson, Buddy Rogers, Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill.

Bix Beiderbecke, the famed jazz cornetist from the Midwest, never set foot in the Rendezvous Ballroom. But that didn't prevent his fictional counterpart in Dorothy Baker's "Young Man With a Horn" from being discovered there by a big-time New York bandleader.

By 1938, when Baker's novel came out, the huge Balboa dance hall already was known across the country as a West Coast home for the Big Band sound. The place teemed with young musicians, to say nothing of the hordes of dance-hungry fans who overran its waxed wood floor.

Dubbed the "Queen of Swing" that year by Look magazine, the Rendezvous was "a mecca for pleasure-seeking modern youth"--at least according to a splashily illustrated story describing how 5,000 "cats" and "alligators" rose one June day at dawn to "cut rugs" and "kick out." One man claimed he drove 396 miles from Tonopah, Nev., to join the party. Another came on crutches.

Clinton Roemer, who was a 17-year-old gate boy taking dance tickets at the door, still his vivid memories of that particular bash.

"I stayed up all night driving around," Roemer, 67, recalled in a recent interview at his home in Sherman Oaks. "We opened the doors at 5 a.m. to let the mob in, so there was no point in trying to sleep. I had gin for the first time in my life thgat night. Got half-loaded drinking it straight out of the bottle."a recent interview at his home in Sherman Oaks. "We opened the doors at 5 a.m. to let the mob in, so there was no point in trying to sleep. I had gin for the first time in my life that night. Got half-loaded drinking it straight out of the bottle."

The big bands that played Rendezvous one-nighters were legion, their music broadcast weekly over the nationwide Mutual Broadcasting System. Throughout the '30s and '40s, the ballroom pulsed with the swinging sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Buddy Rogers, Ted Lewis, Guy Lombardo and others.

"It was a plum to play Newport," recalls Harry Babbitt, 70, who sang at the Rendezvous in 1939 with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. "There weren't many ballrooms with its atmosphere."

Bing Crosby sang there, too. So did the Andrews Sisters. And Tex Beneke. And Mae Diggs. And June Christy. And Nat (King) Cole.

The house bands were no slouches, either. Between 1934 and 1942, they included the resident orchestras of Everett Hoagland, Gil Evans, Don Cave, Claude Thornhill, Bob Crosby and His Bobcats, Carol Lofner and Phil Harris, and, of course, Stan Kenton, whose career truly was launched at the ballroom.

"We were the featured band one night in '41, and I remember Kenton doing the intermissions," recalls Beneke, 74, who played tenor sax with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and doubled as a vocalist with the Modernaires.

"Glenn was so impressed by Kenton he told us, 'Hey, watch this guy. He's going places.' "

TO ROBERT GARDNER, 77, who worked as a gate boy a decade earlier than Roemer, life at the Rendezvous seemed "a perpetual Mardi Gras." Even during Prohibition and the Depression, "there would be a sea of people on a big Saturday night," the retired Orange County judge recalls, "and everybody, as far as I could tell, was drunk."

Chances are they had done their drinking at a nearby spot called The Green Dragon, where the Rendezvous regulars hung out with the locals. "You would buy your liquor at the 'drugless' drugstore," Gardner says, using the common name for the drugstore where you could get straight alcohol for 25 cents an ounce. "Then you'd head to a booth at the Dragon for setups and mixers."

When Prohibition ended, Bill Ireland's bar opposite the Balboa Inn on Main Street--later called the Bamboo Room and, still later, Murph's--took over as the favored saloon. The dance crowd would drift over a few blocks from the ballroom during intermissions to slake its thirst with a popular concoction, the Bal-Rum-Boa, which cost 75 cents and basically consisted of five jiggers of rum.

Not surprisingly, "about 50 to 70 drunks hit the city jail every Saturday night," according to "Newport Beach 75," a history of the area. Yet the Rendezvous maintained a reputation for wild innocence--unlike the Valencia Ballroom on the main road between Anaheim and Santa Ana, which catered to a crowd as eager to fight as to dance.

By the mid-1930s, there were many ballrooms up and down the coast from Seattle to San Clemente. Some were rather famous, such as the Palomar in Los Angeles and, after the Palomar burned, the Hollywood Palladium. Some were more plush, like the Avalon on Catalina. But none was more swinging than the Rendezvous.

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