WEATHER »

Of Saloons and Sipping

Repenting at Leisure


BLACK-AND-WHITE BOOZE: Ex-supervisor Frank Frost tells about when he was playing piano in a bar in the 700 block of State. He noticed that on many nights, a police car would come by and flash its spotlight into the bar.

It was in the mid 1950s, he recalled at Leinie Bard’s recent Montecito garden party for the Jazz Society. Whenever that happened, the barmaid would fill a bottle with Jack Daniel’s and hand it to the cops when the car came around on the De la Guerra Plaza back side of the bar.

Barney Brantingham

Apparently for sipping during those post-midnight long hours, Frost told me. And if the bar needed help with a fight, you can bet the cops would be there in a flash, he said. Natch, that kind of monkey business could never happen these days.

ANTI-SALOON: Which reminds me of the time when all Santa Barbara’s bars were ordered closed, and I’m not talking about when Prohibition (“The Noble Experiment”) went into effect in 1920. It was 1874, and an anti-saloon mood was sweeping California.

When Santa Barbara was incorporated in 1850, of the first 32 business licenses issued, 30 were emporiums where John Barleycorn was the drink of choice, according to the late S.B.-area historian Walker A. Tompkins. But in 1874, the California State Legislature, in all its wisdom, passed a local-option law, allowing communities the choice of going dry.

Members of Santa Barbara’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) launched into action, joined by ladies of numerous churches in the area. The dries had a motto: “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” To which jokesters cracked: “Touch my lips? No, touch my liquor.”

The campaign spread to Montecito, Carpinteria, and other towns around the county, while those who enjoyed a snort or two after a dusty walk took an amused stance at the goings-on. Nor did they take seriously prayer meetings held to invoke the help of the Almighty. Even a standing-room-only mass rally at the Lobero Opera House failed to shake their complacency.

But when election day dawned on June 1, 1874, the women’s brigade swept into action. They set up a free lunch at the single polling place at the Carrillo Adobe, lecturing hungry voters about the evils of alcohol. At 9 p.m., Tompkins wrote, church bells all over town pealed out the joyous news: The dries had won by 100 votes out of 635. The town was due to go as dry as a desert, along with Montecito, Goleta, Carpinteria, and Santa Maria.

But alas for the WCTU, the California Supreme Court soon ruled that the local-option law was unconstitutional. “Hardly had the telegraph key stopped clicking a receipt to this sensational news than Santa Barbara’s 26 operating grogshops flung open their doors to waiting and thirsty throngs,” Tompkins wrote. Our “noble experiment” was no more.

STIRRING THE POT: While some on the Santa Barbara City Council oppose having any marijuana dispensaries in town, a regional law enforcement official tells me that in some highly populated parts of Southern California, there are “an equal number of Starbucks and dispensaries.” Plus a few shoot-outs, for flavor.

SPOT-ON MUSIC: Hottest new computer thing around for music lovers is Spotify, which gives you access to 15 million pieces of music from Beethoven to the Beatles. Free with commercials, or $5 or $10 a month without.

OOPS: On opening day at a South Coast school whose name I won’t mention, in a well-to-do neighborhood, the snack table thoughtfully set out for families displayed this card: “Coffe.” (Well, as my first editor back in Chicago used to say, “Work in haste; repent at leisure.”)

JFK WAS HERE: In my recent Kulture Kwiz, I said that of the three Kennedy brothers, only Bobby spoke here (in 1968). Judy Pearce, who knows her S.B.-area history, points out that John F. Kennedy spoke at the Miramar while running for president in the 1960s.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS: As the cast of Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company took its bows Saturday night, the actors were stunned to learn that the playwright, Robert Harling, was in the audience. The hit Broadway play, and then movie, was based on his experiences growing up in the South. Lots of laughs and a few tears. It’s easy to see why it’s been produced so many times since its 1987 opening. “He said that he rarely comes to Steel Magnolias productions” because the play and its family connections are so close to his heart, Karyl Lynn Burns, Rubicon cofounder and producing/artistic director, told me. Through September 18.

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