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San Clemente Journal

Casino San Clemente The Entertainment Jewel of So Cal

Jul 09, 2020 01:08PM ● By Larry Culbertson

The Casino celebrated their 80th Anniversary in 2017.

by Larry Culbertson

It is amazing how much we continue to learn about one of San Clemente’s most cherished and iconic structures. A 1937 article from a local newspaper recently uncovered by Historical Society president Larry Culbertson announced that construction of Casino San Clemente had begun two days earlier on June 15. That short, matter-of-fact item was stunning news to us. It is widely known that the Casino had its grand opening on July 31, 1937. That means the ornate facility was built in only six weeks. That seems impossible ….perhaps an error by the newspaper? “How could they be wrong about something that had just happened two days before the article was published?” Culbertson questioned.   

 Further research uncovered other articles which explained that a thousand craftsmen worked on the project. This was during the Great Depression when workmen were plentiful and labor was cheap. The first article mentioned that it would cost $25,000 to build. The original plan was for construction to be complete in time for a scheduled event over Labor Day weekend, just ten weeks away. They beat their deadline by a whole month. That also tripled the final cost to $75,000. 

So it was decided to have an Opening Gala. The grand event included dancing to the nationally known CBS Radio Orchestra, under the direction of Sterling Young.  In true Hollywood fashion of the day, large searchlights heralded the event, seen miles away along the coast and by hundreds of people passing by on the train. It was publicized throughout Southern California. An estimated 5,000 people swarmed into the Casino for opening night. Since there were few hotel accommodations in town then, it must be assumed that most of the partiers drove home after a long evening of dancing and drinking. 

The first planned event at the Casino was a Mardi Gras celebration Labor Day weekend. Why San Clemente celebrated Mardi Gras in September is lost to the mists of time. Another large crowd showed up, paying forty cents per person for the evening of revelry.  
Thus began years of weekend and weeknight dances. The CBS Radio Network broadcast nationally five-days-a- week live from Casino San Clemente.  Regular events included the city-wide celebration of 49er Daze. Again, we don’t know why the 49ers were celebrated locally since San Clemente is over 400 miles from the Gold Rush sites. You get the feeling they took any old excuse to kick-up their heels.
The Casino playbill ran the gamut with newspaper ads touting a Peace Officers Benefit Ball featuring “Sweet Swing That’s Torrid;” another announcing a New Year’s Eve Dance with the Caprino Sisters who had just performed nationally with fan dancer Sally Rand. An advertisement for a dance featuring the world famous Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra exclaimed “ladies pay 55 cents at the door; gentlemen 95 cents.” They apparently didn’t worry about discrimination then, or the fact they were using the ladies as bait to get the guys to show up. 
A news article at the time chronicled a visit by movie star/singer Judy Garland.  She was not there to perform; just enjoy herself. Some of the other dancers recognized her and formed a circle to watch her dance. When the tune ended, the crowd cheered and asked her to jitterbug for them. She declined, but offered instead to sing “I Cried For You” a song from her recent movie “Babes In Arms” one of many films she co-starred with Mickey Rooney. This was about the time she was filming “The Wizard of Oz.” Rooney also appeared at the Casino on another occasion. 
The happy times came to an end for the most part when World War Two broke out. The Casino’s dance floor was taken over in 1942 by the U. S. Coast Guard who used it as a spotting station for a feared Japanese attack on the West Coast.   

Following the war, the dance craze faded and the Casino fell on hard times. Several businesses were housed there including, in the 1970s, Sebastian’s West Dinner Playhouse and an alternative medicine office.   

Just as it looked like the historic Casino had played its swan song, the building was purchased by a pair of Southern California artists, Linda and Shaheen Sadeghi who had an eye for preservation. They wanted to bring the Casino back to its original purpose. “All our friends thought we were crazy,” Linda laughed as she explained it at a recent Historical Society event. It wasn’t an easy task complying with all the concerns of the City of San Clemente, the California Coastal Commission, and the Historical Society. And, yes, Linda admits, it cost way more to refurbish than the original construction cost of $75,000. But, the results have been spectacular.  
Today it is largely a wedding and event center. And, every other Wednesday evening, except during January and February, the Casino comes alive with the original music of its founding with live jazz in the west wing. For $10 ($25 if you want dinner) ladies and gentlemen can rejoin that magical era when San Clemente was new, the breezes were light and the music was cool.