Clairemont’s Greatest Pickup Bar

Moonglo Cocktail Lounge match book cover (Chaz Garland collection)

Middle-aged and overweight, Shelley Winters, a blonde bombshell in her prime, was asked her opinion of pornography and famously answered; “I think nudity on the stage is disgusting, shameful and unpatriotic. But, if I were twenty-two with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive, religious experience.”

When it comes to bars, I fear that I’ve turned into Shelley Winters.

Recently, my wife and I entered the wrong door of a Clairemont restaurant only to discover we were in the bar. It was Happy Hour, so the hostess politely suggested we should eat in the bar to take advantage of their food and drink specials. We sat in a booth. Nobody at the bar looked particularly happy and nobody was talking.

There was a time when bars were full of smoke, stale conversation and desperate people. As 2:00 AM approached and drunks were looking for one last drink, desperate men with short-range goals were looking for desperate women.

Former New York Yankees Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel wisely noted, “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

Few people search for true love in a bar at 2:00 AM; even fewer find it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, gender roles were narrow and women’s inhibitions were liberated by alcohol. Clairemont boasted some rollicking bars that served broken dreams, broken hearts and broken marriages on the rocks. None had the reputation of the Moonglow (Moonglo) at the southwest corner of Clairemont Drive and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

Only Clairemont could have a main drag that runs back into itself a few blocks away. Was the map of Clairemont laid out by a drunk searching for the Moonglow?

In 1958, Horatio Velha was granted a cabaret license for his original Moonglow Cocktail Lounge. It was an instant success. The patrons shared mixed drinks and mixed messages. It was a classy place to find women and quickly became known as a place to hookup with “Westpac Widows” – lonely, young sailor wives whose husbands sailed away on six month deployments to the Western Pacific.

Chaz and Charlene Garland (Bill Swank photo collection)

Chaz Garland and his wife, Charlene, hold glasses and t-shirts from the Moonglo and Stardust. Charlene is sitting on a bar stool from the Moonglo. Her husband was a bartender at the second incarnation of the Moonglo from 1978 to 1990 after the “w” was dropped from “Moonglow.”

Prior to that, he tended bar at the Stardust from 1964 to 1969. The Stardust, near the Clairemont Bowl, was more of a supper club with a popular piano man, Tony VanSteen, and a more genteel patronage.

Chaz recalled a time when a naked woman walked into the Moonglo. A waitress went to the door to check on her. The young woman claimed to have been raped. She led the waitress to the rape scene where her clothes were found neatly folded and stacked on the ground. The waitress told her to get dressed… and get lost.

“When Horatio Velha owned the Stardust, he would count the cars in the parking lot to gauge business. The bottom line is to make money,” said Garland, “And Horatio was a good businessman.”

Ashtrays: (upper left) Horatio’s Moonglow Cocktail Lounge, (lower left) Moonglo Cocktail Lounge, (upper right) Stardust Room, Clairemont Quad, (lower right) Stardust Room at the Quad in Clairemont designed by Chaz Garland (Chaz Garland collection)

“The Quad Room was more popular with the younger crowd,” he continued, “But as the music changed, the crowds changed.”

Bartenders are aware of problems, but seem bound by a Hippocratic Oath. They don’t kiss and tell.

“Bobby Brown, who played bass with Gary Puckett’s band, ‘The Outcasts,’ at the Quad Room, was always getting into fist fights in the parking lot with the drummer after their show,” laughed Garland. “The bass player and drummer with the Jimmie Nixon Band (at the Moonglo) were always fighting about the beat.”

If there’s a band, there are people who drink other people’s drinks while they are on the dance floor. “When I’d catch a guy doing that, I’d make him buy a replacement drink and throw him out,” said Chaz. “I wouldn’t let them come back.”

He remembers a little, old lady who turned into a rattlesnake with alcohol. She wanted to dance and caused a commotion. Chaz called a cab, but the driver knew the woman and refused to take her home. The police came. “She tried to dance with the cop and he danced her out to his car,” said Garland. “I didn’t want her arrested. I just wanted her out of the bar.”

“Guys show up around 1:00, never buy a drink and look for drunk women to pick up. I called them the nighthawks.”

“There was another regular at the Moonglo I called ‘Cough and Drop.’ He was drunk and started coughing. His pants fell off. After that, everybody called him ‘Cough and Drop.'”

“I’m not saying this because Chaz is my husband,” said Charlene, “But he was an excellent bartender.”

“Don’t print that,” Chaz ordered.

Garland doesn’t feel the wild reputation of the Moonglo is warranted. “We always had a doorman. Funny things happened, but we were so busy working that I can’t remember them. If you’re working in a beer bar, you can bs with the customers, but when you’re mixing drinks in a nightclub, there’s no time for that.”

“It got to the point you wondered if they wanted a cocktail or a joint. We had to throw people out for doing lines on the table. If I smelled dope, out they went. We were selling alcohol.”

“When massage parlors became popular, we seldom saw the vice squad after that. If I figured out a woman was a prostitute, I’d throw her out. We didn’t want trouble.”

Moonglo Cocktail Lounge match book cover (Chaz Garland collection)

Finding wild stories about the Moonglow and the Moonglo proved to be a challenge and, unlike Shelley Winters, the Westpac Widows aren’t talking.

Most of Clairemont’s hotspots from the 1950s and 1960s have been leveled by new development. The barflies have flown.

Besides, if you are a typical reader of this column, you show your ID for senior discounts and not for entry into a bar.

Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.