In the autumn of 1962, Lili Schuler in Santa Barbara asked me to play at the Rondo again. Business had gone downhill. Close to bankruptcy, Lili got the landlord to agree to weekend entertainment. This time I played in the art gallery corner room where the sounds were less likely to disturb the tenants upstairs.
Then, out of the blue, Lili offered the Rondo to Caroline and me. Nothing down, we would be buying the place on time. I didn’t really want to get tangled up in a business, but was just not making enough at music to support my family. I had to do something to bring in steady income, so accepted. Caroline was both enthused and frightened. She wanted someone to go in with us. We thought of Gary Sorenson, and he agreed. Before we could catch our breath, Gary organized a painting party and started redecorating. When he began painting the outside of the building, Lusink came down on us again. Somehow Caroline and Lili resolved that crisis.
Meanwhile, I was in Los Angeles recording The Townsend Boys album. My youngest brother Tom, on leave from the army, sang high harmony. My middle brother Tim sang low harmony. I sang lead and played guitar. Don Ralke’s band provided the instrumental backup. My brothers and I sang well and the musicians were great. The first single, “Coming Home,” was suddenly on the air in Santa Barbara and elsewhere around the country in January 1963, shortly after we took over the Rondo. You couldn’t have asked for better timing.
Carrillo Street, the principal access to Highway 101, was closed for reconstruction. Traffic was rerouted along Canon Perdido Street, right past the Rondo. So we put up a lighted sign at the corner advertising thirteen-cent beer during happy hour. Gary charged ahead and I tried to keep up. With no credit, we paid cash for everything. We built a stage in the former art gallery, moved in furniture from the back—and had a showroom. We were open from 4 p.m. till 2 a.m. nightly. And I did four or five sets a night. Plus everything else, it was exhausting but exciting. Soon the Rondo was busy again, not only from our hard work and fortuitous events, but unexpected free publicity.
The DJs at Radio-KIST took a liking to us and played “Coming Home” and the flip-side, “Ocean Breezes,” as often as possible. Hal Bates plugged the Rondo and me, “the hometown boy,” in the morning. Ed Foley did the same at night. Both Hal and Ed came in after work and were staunch supporters. Then Dick Johnston, owner of classical music station KRCW-FM, started a nightly live broadcast from the Rondo with me as the sole performer. From 11:30 p.m. to midnight I could sing and play whatever I pleased, and even advertise the Rondo. The first broadcast was on February 7, 1963. Dick introduced me from the studio and played our record, “Coming Home.” Live from the Rondo I did a set of eight songs, including a few plugs. Dick recorded the program. It came off well. He was pleased and so was I.
Several KEYT Television appearances also took place. I was on Gene Forrsell’s show the day after my banjo was stolen. I performed, we talked, and my stolen banjo was discussed. Gene appealed to viewers who had any knowledge of this to call me. Soon a resident close to the Rondo called. She had found my banjo in her front yard. And it was returned—along with a lot of public interest in the Rondo and me. KEYT-TV picked the Rondo for their special, “The 10 Top Night Spots in Santa Barbara.” I was interviewed at the Rondo about our business and my music, and may have done some songs. They also took shots of the place. After that, even more people came. Word was spreading far and wide.
Then a big problem occurred. Because the beer license could not be transferred to us unless we leased the premises, and the landlord would not lease to us, we were phantom owners. The Schulers were still responsible. Discrepancies were discovered in Gary’s monthly accounting that accompanied our payment to them. The Schulers wanted Gary out. The lot fell to me to tell him. It was not a happy occasion. He was hurt, but had brought it on himself. We paid him his share and more. And we remained friends.
My brother Tim came to help, replacing Gary behind the bar. Caroline did the bookkeeping and I did the entertaining. Actually, we did whatever was needed. And there was no rest for the weary, because the Rondo took off. According to Dominic Borgialli, the Budweiser-Busch salesman-driver, we were selling more beer than any place in town. At thirty-five cents a glass our price was high, but people didn’t mind. We sold snacks and sandwiches and had a jukebox, too, that included The Townsend Boys. Tim would play our records (three by summer’s end) and sing his part from behind the bar. People were impressed. On a good night we took in a hundred dollars or more.
I was learning that you can have a business with lots of customers, sell lots of beer, have a record out, have a radio program, be on TV, be thought of as a success, and still not make any money. Caroline and I paid Tim and a waitress, bought supplies, paid the Schulers, the rent, the taxes, the regular expenses, the unexpected expenses, and had just enough left over for basic needs at home. We worked twelve or more hours every day but Tuesday, which I took off, and just barely got by. Plus, we had a kid. When I had time to think about it, I could better understand why the Noctambulist coffee house went under.
Folksingers and musicians descended upon the Rondo. So many played there, in fact, I can’t remember them all. At first we had hoots on Sunday afternoons in the showroom, charging fifty cents for spaghetti and garlic bread. I did several sets and introduced the performers. Soon the best of them began performing on regular nights.
*) The Channel Singers with John Thomas on guitar, Howard Pelky on five-string banjo, and Ernie Brooks on bass, did a wide range of folk standards. They put on enthusiastic, vibrant shows with lots of audience participation, and took a load of pressure off me.
*) Don Robertson’s silvery, agile voice often filled the Rondo showroom with dramatic songs. He helped in other ways as well, including bar tending when Tim was overwhelmed.
*) Peter Feldmann did authentic, old-time songs with banjo and guitar (later mandolin and fiddle) better than anyone around. He often assisted as MC of the Rondo hoots.
*) The Terrytown Trio consisted of Todd Grant on guitar, Phil Pritchard on bass, and Bud Boyd on guitar. Their vigorous sound featured tight harmonies and vocal solos by Todd and Bud on folk standards and humorous songs.
*) The Juniper Hill Trio, soft and sweet singers of folk songs, was composed of Ray Finch on guitar, Susie Hardie as lead vocalist, and her husband George Hardie on banjo. With a bunch of kids, the Hardies couldn’t get away to perform much, but The Juniper Hill Trio left an impression, nevertheless.
*) Kajsa Ohman was nervous and bold at the same time. She was pretty and plain, sensual and austere, serious and facetious together. Her singing was both sensitive and harsh. Her songs were traditional and also strikingly original. Using her right index finger as a flat pick, Kajsa played a nylon-string guitar. She also played the autoharp, inspiring me to take it up. I thought she was terrific.
*) Campbell Nelson got out of the air force a dedicated flamenco guitarist. A thin, intense advocate of flamenco, he tended to teach during his performances. He played so well, even the bar crowd applauded his talent and skill.
*) The Headliners were Doug O’Brien on plectrum banjo, Al Brackett on steel-string guitar, Rod Hillman on classical guitar, and Mike Walsh as lead singer. Their shows combined Rod’s musicianship with the group’s up-tempo songs, ballads, and humorous patter.
Agents from L.A. tried to get bookings for their clients at the Rondo. But we couldn’t sell enough beer in the small showroom to pay what they asked. We considered charging admission, but were dubious. Tim and I sat in the bar till dawn and decided in a non-rational manner to experiment with The Wayfarers, a nationally known group with several albums and a new single out. We called our brother Tom in the army, who loaned us the money to pay their up-front fee. We advertised widely. The posters were designed by our artist-waitress, Barbro Carlsen. Admission was about $2.00.
I first heard The Wayfarers at the Ice House in Pasadena, when Mason Williams was in the group, and thought they were one of the best folk groups I’d heard. Then they disbanded. Re-formed in 1963 with the original bass and banjo players, plus two new guitar players, their music filled the Rondo during Easter week. They were great and everyone had a good time. Listening to them inspired me to take up the twelve-string guitar. Admission charges did not cover expenses, however, so we went on as usual, eventually repaying our brother Tom.
We were lucky not to start formal entertainment, because Lusink was gunning for us. One busy night, at closing time people didn’t leave, continuing the party. Fortunately, we had collected all the glasses, pitchers, and bottles and were cleaning up when a pounding shook the locked door and imperious voices demanded entrance. Lusink and the cops charged in. Checking the now-quiet crowd, the barroom, the showroom, the back room, and the bathrooms, they found no one with alcohol and were obliged to leave empty-handed. Lusink looked angry. We advised everyone to evacuate. To be on the safe side, thereafter we closed at 1:30 a.m.
So many people came to the Rondo, and I was so busy, I can’t remember but a few. Mostly faces remain; only a few names. They were: Pancho the tree man who drank all night and worked all day; Charlie who was so obstinate it took three of us to throw him out; tall, grey-haired Slim who drank, smoked and coughed; Dan the promoter; Bob who didn’t pay his tab; Bob the dreamer; Bob the conga drummer; Steve who stared at his dwindling glass; Jerry the business guy who came across the street; Hal and Ed the DJs who were promoter friends extraordinaire; Bill the DJ who brought his tape deck; and Steve the college student who also brought his tape deck.
They were: Brad the exuberant crusader for justice; the short guy who eighty-sixed himself when the waitress wouldn’t accept a tab; Tom the generous actor; Gloria the Vermeer beauty; Rod the guitarist who requested “Rugged Reuben Rondo”; Dennis who didn’t need to request Tom Lehrer; Frank the businessman; the Swede who sat in the corner; Ed the smoking photographer; the tall, elegant couple from over the hill; the guy who chewed glass; Cathy and Sherri the two sisters who gave me a new banjo case for my twenty-ninth birthday; the short, dark-haired gal with glasses; Edmund who got married and liked “La Malaguena”; Joe the pleasant Latino on his way up; the mariachi Myers brothers; Ray the crazy, sticky, problem drunk; and Bobby the kid of Manson fame.
They were: Ed who played trombone and dogged his wandering wife; Dick and his wispy wife and a car full of kids outside; Hervie who dreamed of flying; his friend who ran the gas station; Chris the driven, pretty girl and her string of pretty girlfriends; Sunny the aggressive gal and a little crazy; the guy with pale blue eyes and twirling mustache who took up with Kajsa; Jan the pretty, dark-haired fan who took up with Campbell; exotic-looking Karin who became Oscar’s second wife, and her friend from Germany; Rick the adaptable bass player who sang great harmony on ”The Bells of Rhymney,” and Michigan wife Cheryl; Dave the harmony singer who passed the stage of sitting in with me; Randy the Minstrel who stayed for all my sets and saw “a new side of Tony Townsend.”
They were: Gordon the stand-up poet disguised as an engineer; Winnie the teacher who tended bar in the beginning; Theo who relished my mocking the old-time religion; Bill the jazz guitarist extraordinaire who died too young; Stan the smoldering volcano of creativity; Mel the lonely fraternity brother and another, Tim who brought his wife; Monty with wounded carpenter hands who trained them to play guitar; Bud the ardent artist lost in a day job; alcoholic Johnny who came lately to my mother-in-law; Elmer the long-lost father of Jamie; Blue Onion Bud who replaced him; Judy and Jim the Brooks photographers; Paula who I scared without intent; the summer Christmas tree couple who introduced me to Leadbelly; Ann and Ed the siblings with perfect bodies; Bill the TV journalist; Bill the fraternity brother and TV writer; Howard who made me a redwood guitar; my relatives; my friends; the formal few; the rag-tag bunch; and God knows all the rest who came to see, to hear, to drink, to socialize and sing, who found in our place a meeting spot, a sanctuary of sorts, a second home, and even a hideout.
I must say, after a life of shyness and anonymity, it was a lot of fun to be a “celebrity” for a while. For the first time I actually enjoyed talking with all kinds of people, and discovered that most of them were basically nice. I had a marvelous time.
Then came the release of The Townsend Boys’ second single, “Hangin’ On,” during the promotion of which I found out that I was expected to commit a crime—and refused. It was a dark day, an experience that revealed in a threatening, personal way the basic corruption of the music industry. Deeply disturbed and disillusioned, I wanted no part of it. That event and that decision sealed my fate, for I never approached the music business again with the same zest. But there was one more half-hearted try with the third single, “Passing Through.” I took a week off and went up and down California promoting it, at my own expense. And the expense was high because the trip was plagued by car troubles and staying extra nights. In spite of the interviews and hitting all the stations, I was “only passing through this land of sorrow,” as the song said. The best part of the trip was a Mideastern band and belly dancer in San Francisco who inspired me to arrange “Hava Nagila” on the mandolin.
Back in Santa Barbara, Tim had closed the Rondo early. It was Fiesta time and the crowds were crazy. They’d had a fight, somebody had broken a window, all kinds of problems, and it wasn’t worth staying open. It was OK by me; I was exhausted.
Even before Fiesta arrived that August, we were often overwhelmed by the crowds and had to hire more help. Barbro Carlsen could charm the male barroom into submission with her very presence; but too soon, she left. Caroline could escort them out by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants, but she couldn’t be there much. We hired Carola, who sweet-talked and cajoled the customers to keep them in line. We also hired Bill Thomas to tend bar. Bill was an off-season lumberjack who looked like a miniature Paul Bunyan. Not very tall, but broad-shouldered and muscular, Bill could literally throw people out the door. Tim was happy to have his support and Bill was happy to have the job. Then we hired Dee White, who could tend bar and wait tables. Trim and tough, but good-hearted, Dee was a fortunate find.
All of us were working that Sunday afternoon when the hoot turned into “the black hole of Calcutta.” Our plan to limit the number of people in the showroom failed dismally; people just pushed their way in. We had to open up the corner door to the street for air, and they came in that way, too. The noise, the smoke, the heat, the smell, were intense. You couldn’t hear what anyone said. You could hardly hear the music. Guys took off their shirts and the girls didn’t mind. People sat and lay back on the floor. Pitchers spilled; glasses broke. We couldn’t even get to the customers to serve them or clean up. But they were having a jolly good time anyway, laughing, drinking, smoking, making out. And through it all the musicians played their music on the stage in whatever space they could find, because the stage was lined with people and drinks. I got to the stage from the back room and shouted some idealistic plea. But no one paid attention. Peter Feldmann tried to calm the crowd too. John Thomas and The Channel Singers diverted them by playing music in the back room. We may have locked the front door. But nothing worked. We were overrun and out of control. I didn’t understand what was going on or why. How we got through that day without a tragedy or the police descending upon us, I’ll never know. And we didn’t even take in that much money! It was one of those times that strengthened my growing decision to get out of the bar business.
Once in awhile, as on the night when Tim and I gambled on the Wayfarers, we were the ones who overindulged. On one such night, Tim and I were both way over. When the radio program finally came on, it sounded something like this: Following a stately classical selection, the announcer Jim’s mellifluous voice intoned a dignified introduction: “With studios in the world- famous El Paseo, this is KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine classical music. (Pause.) And now we take you live and direct to the Rondo and music by Mr. Tony Townsend.” Suddenly erupted a din and my hollering: “Hello out there in radio land. How the hell are you?” Off into a raucous rendition of “To M’ Ri-de-o” and God knows what else went Tim and I like a couple of alley cats, wobbling around, knocking into things, and laughing out of context. At the end of the program, Jim’s dignified voice came back on: “That concludes the broadcast day for KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine music. (Pause) KRCW-FM is owned and operated by Richard Johnston under license from the Federal Communications Commission…,” etc, etc. Dick Johnston, good soul that he was, smiled but said not to let it happen again.
Naïve? I’m afraid so. Take Steve Smith. On the radio one night in the middle of a song, I became aware of people looking at something. Shuffling along doubled over, clutching his midsection and groaning like he would vomit or collapse right there—on the air—in front of the stage, was Steve Smith. But he kept on going and I kept on singing—somehow. After the program they told me that Steve had refused help and gone home. We got through the night and were starting to close when Steve returned, pale but recovered.
Steve Smith was a silent bar person. Night after night he looked at his glass and rarely spoke. Tonight he wanted to talk. We sat down. He told a disturbing story. He had problems before he started coming to the Rondo, he said, but they were nothing compared to the problems he had now. He had gotten hooked on drugs right here at the Rondo. We didn’t know it, but we owned the biggest drug den in town. The Swede, a blond guy with a jaunty cap who sat in a dark corner with friends, got him hooked—for free—then made him pay heavily. “You don’t know what’s going on,” said Steve, “right under your nose!”
We consulted an attorney and were advised that, unless we caught someone in the act and could prove it in court, there was nothing we could do—without asking for trouble. I was very discouraged. We just let it go. Steve stayed away. And so did the Swede. We kept our eyes open. Then Steve came back again, resumed sitting quietly by himself at the bar or coming into the showroom when there was music.
I finished my last set and went to wash glasses. I heard a crash from the showroom and saw Steve Smith come out and leave. Carolyn went to clean up. Suddenly, she returned looking ill and said, “Tony, call an ambulance quick!”
I used to sing a song called “Blood on the Saddle” that ended with the phrase—which I exaggerated for effect—“and a grrr…eeaat…biig…pudd…ddlle of bll… llood on the ground.” Precipitated on our showroom floor was that “great big puddle of blood” with some fellow in the middle of it. He looked dead. The ambulance and the police arrived within minutes. The corner door to the street was opened for the gurney. Ambulance lights flashed eerily on the ghastly scene of blood, body, broken glass, tipped tables, and chairs askew. The fellow was taken to the hospital. The police interviewed everyone. No one knew what had happened. No one saw anybody jam a glass in his face, around an eye. We cleaned up the spilled violence. We all thought Steve Smith was the culprit. We saw him in the showroom and we saw him leave in a hurry. No one told the police. I thought we should, but no one did. Steve was a regular; no one recognized the other guy. No one knew why.
That was it! I’d had enough! No more Rondo for me! We may have closed for a day, but we couldn’t just walk away. We owed the Schulers. We owed others. So, I went back and we kept on. I followed the news. The fellow recovered, did not lose his eye, but did lose his lawsuit against Steve Smith. A few employees and customers were called to testify, but no one saw it happen and nothing could be proved. Drugs were said to be involved. Steve Smith was a free man.
Life at the Rondo turned more pleasant—until another night after the music was done. Two fellows entered and went directly into the showroom. I waited, then followed. One was standing on the stage looking at the KRCW microphone and the other was looking at one of Joan Priolo’s paintings on the wall. “How’re you doing?” I said. “No more music tonight.” “OK.” Colorless, self-enclosed, poker-faced guys, they wandered around. I returned to the bar, expecting them to leave. Some time passed and I went to check. They brushed by me and left. Then I discovered what they had done: destroyed Joan’s painting by cutting it into pieces and stashing them on a shelf in the men’s room; destroyed Dick’s microphone by unscrewing the front piece, pulling the insides out, and depositing them on the floor. I was just numb. None of us knew them. None of us could understand why. It was just a random, brazen, ugly, evil act. We paid Joan Priolo for her painting. Caroline salvaged the largest piece to decorate our wall at home. We paid Dick Johnston for his microphone, or at least made the offer, and he brought in another to replace it. We carried on. We took pains to make sure there were no unattended customers in the showroom.
But it didn’t matter. The Schulers’ lease expired at the end of August. Mert Lusink—reneging on his promise—refused to renew it. He refused to lease the place to us. We looked frantically for a suitable location. Some of our customers looked, too. Several spots might have worked, but nothing had the good feel of the Rondo or the right location.
Suddenly, it was over! We had to vacate the premises by Labor Day. We rented a garage, and friends and customers helped us move. We had a lot of friends, a lot of goodwill toward us. There was much dismay over the closing of the Rondo. It was a happy gathering place for so many people. We kept on looking, but it was like the Indians’ ghost dance at the end of the trail. It was over. Caroline was full of regret. I was miserable but deeply relieved; I just didn’t have the stomach to continue.
We had a few days off. Then Dick Johnston continued my broadcast from the studio. I started performing, as did Don Robertson, at Gatsby’s, a Roaring Twenties restaurant on East Cota owned by former New York lawyer Tom Sammon. Dick moved the live radio show to Gatsby’s. Then came an additional gig with Denis Hazelwood at Chico’s, a Mexican restaurant in Santa Maria. In a short and final burst of popularity, hootenannies were exploding all over and I was often hired as MC or performer. A Rondo reunion took place in Goleta at the Nexus, the new hub of folk music in the Santa Barbara area, with John Thomas and The Channel Singers, Don Robertson, Todd Grant and Phil Pritchard of The Terrytown Trio, Hal Bates, Caroline and I, and others I can’t recall.
Cracks had opened in society’s walls and a new light was shining in. A new urgency, a militancy had come into folk music. Performers divided along lines of entertainment versus message, commercialism versus reality. Pete Seeger was performing his social commentary. Bob Dylan was storming onto the scene with biting songs about injustice and wrong living. Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were singing of freedom and justice. My music was taking a new direction as well. With a Martin D-28 from Bonnie Langley to add to my array of instruments, I was learning new techniques and songs. Playing three guitars, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and harmonicas, I was embarking on a new phase of my career. One cold autumn day, I bought a Lightning Hopkins record at the Bonnie Langley Music Company. The clerk said Bonnie was next door at Johnnie’s bar. I was sorry to have missed her, because I liked talking with Bonnie, that gruff woman with the puffy red face and tight curly hair with a bald spot showing through, who sold instruments, gave lessons, and had a marching band and a propensity for drink. I was starting to leave when Bonnie Langley came in the front door like a stranger in her own store. “Some son-of-a-bitch just shot the President!” she said.
The short, nationwide flowering of folk music approximated JFK’s term in office. To my mind, the music and the man represented the best of America: our inclusiveness, generosity, and idealism. The feeling of that time was one of freshness, of innocence. JFK inspired many people. Democracy became real—to be lived. Life was to enjoy. The degradation of fellow human beings was inimical to life. People talked, acted, and sang about it. Folk music was the natural music. It was simple and innocent. It was free. It was democratic. It was traditional and it was new. Anyone could do it. You could see the performers, good, bad and indifferent, transformed by the music. But the innocence died that day with JFK. The music went on, but the simple innocence vanished in the crush of a commercial world, a military world that tumbled on, twisting and turning, crashing and burning, too cruel and hard to withstand.
A few short years it lasted, that time when folk music enthralled the land. In spite of the struggles, those years were the best of my life.