The vast majority of us can only read about the time when the name "El Cerrito" meant a wild, brightly lit, all-night carnival of illegal casinos and vice.
But there are still few people alive who experienced that era first-hand. And some of them showed up to share their memories on Sept. 30 when the El Cerrito Historical Society held a walking tour and presentation called "When El Cerrito was a Mecca of Gambling and Vice."
One was Hugh White, 83, a band leader who performed 60 years ago at the classy Wagon Wheel club, now the home of the Fraternal Order of Eagles at 3223 Carlson Blvd. where the Historical Society tour began and ended.
White recounted the chilling sidewalk killing he witnessed when he was 12 years old. It was on San Pablo Avenue at Central Avenue, in front of the city's popular Six Bells dinner club, a place for the town's nabobs to hobnob.
"Something happened there when I was 12 years old that changed my life," White told the audience who gathered in the Eagles hall after the walking tour.
Here's his account:
I saw a cold-blooded murder committed there... My buddy and I just came out of the Cerrito Theater, where we saw a matinee on a Sunday. and as we were walking up to the corner, the bus stop, we saw a couple there arguing. The man was really berating the woman and calling her names.
And a small man wearing a trench coat leaning against the wall ... walked up to him and said, "You can't talk to her like that."
And the man says, "I'll talk to her any way I want because she's my wife." And he said, "Get out of my face, little man."
The little man pulled a gun from his trench coach pocket and shot him right in the chest. ... The shooter started running down Central here, and he stopped right on the corner. The fellow who was shot – he tried to chase the shooter. It was a small-caliber gun. He made it about 30 feet down the sidewalk in front of the Little Six Bells. ... He collapsed there.
A tall peroxide blonde with blue eyelashes in a tight sweater and a fellow with her in a ... suit picked him up and carried him ... into the Little Six Bells. And about 10 minutes later, they brought him back out. He was stripped to the waist, and they laid him on the cold cement. This was a pretty severe winter as I recall.
I saw a little blue hole in his chest. And that tall, peroxided blonde with the green eyelashes, and the tight sweater, handed him a cigarette. He took a puff, and I saw the smoke come out of his chest.
Several in the audience laughed at this point, as they had at a couple of other points in the story, owing in part to White's raconteur manner and a kind twinkle in his eyes behind the facade of his dead-pan delivery.
He died about 30 seconds later. The shooter was still standing on the corner, watching all the action.
Finally an El Cerrito policeman arrived. And I ran up to him, and I told him, "My friend and I ... we saw the whole thing. We saw him shoot. The guy was six feet away from me. We saw him run. He stopped there on the corner, and you better go get him."
The cop said, "Well, I'm busy right now, son."
The cop hadn't drawn his gun in 20 years on the force. So he did something or other, and I came back up to him and pulled on his sleeve, and I says, "He's walking up the street! You can go get him."
He says, "You two kids get in the car." So we got in the car. I was scared now – he thinks I shot the guy and he's going to put me in Alcatraz for the rest of my days.
Well, a minute or two later, the tall peroxided blonde with the green eyelashes and the tight sweater got in the car and sat in between us. We took off for the police station. About half way there, she put her hand on my knee, and she says, "You're pretty cute." And she says, "How about giving me a call in about six years?" I was scared. I didn't know what she wanted. She didn't even give me her phone number.
But despite all the illegal gambling – like blackjack and slot machines in the many clubs and betting on the greyhound racing at the track at what's now El Cerrito Plaza – the era wasn't strikingly violent, said Historical Society Vice President Dave Weinstein, who led the walking tour and served as emcee of the program afterward. There were only two homicides in the entire county in 1934, one of the peak years, he said.
About 75 people showed up at the beginning of the event, which was titled, ""When El Cerrito was a Mecca of Gambling and Vice." The tour included several stops at places that are more respectable now than they were in the days when the City Attorney referred to El Cerrito as "the worst hell hole in the state of California today."
If you look closely at the building that now houses Tatami Multi Arts and SGI-USA East Bay Community Center on San Pablo between Carlson and Fairmount Avenue, you can see traces of the time when it served as a triple-doored fortress for gambling kingpin Walter "Big Bill" Pechart, whose enterprises included the Wagon Wheel. Look, for example, for the spikes sticking up from the wall that connects the building to its neighbor on the north.
Pastime Hardware takes its name from its predecessor, the Pastime Club.
Gambling wasn't the only vice. There was prostitution too. Strip-dancing and prize-fighting added color as well.
"El Cerrito was really a wide open place in those days," Weinstein said, adding the clubs were "innumerable."
Much of the vice was concentrated in the then unicorporated area between San Pablo Avenue and the Bay. It was known as "No Man's Land" since it was outside the city limits of those days and thus relatively lawless with lax enforcement from the county. During part of the era, the constable responsible for the area had his own club.
The hammer of the law began to fall heavily on the city's illicit life in 1947, when then state Attorney General Earl Warren supported a clean-up campaign that had also been urged by reform elements in the city.
One of the first-hand accounts related at the Sept. 30 event came from Bob Shaner, who was a student at Cal in early 1947 when he was recruited for $70 to serve as an undercover agent in a raid on the Kona Club. Another student the same night was sent to the It Club, which is now a dental practice on the northeast corner of Central and San Pablo.
A written version of Shaner's story can be found in the May 2010 edition of "The Forge," published by the Historical Society. It is attached to this article.
Other pieces of that colorful time can be found in a Sept. 27 article by Contra Costa Times reporter Chris Treadway, who lives in El Cerrito and has been collecting information about the city's history.