Willie, Johnny, and Patsy Were Here

Rough and rocky travelin’ led them to Bostonia Ballroom

Willie Nelson played the Bostonia Ballroom before he was a hippie.
  • Willie Nelson played the Bostonia Ballroom before he was a hippie.

“Indeed, I still recall childhood wonderment at the incredible quantities of puke and blood in front of the Bostonia Ballroom on a Monday morning.” — Michael Ryan Davis

Royal Palace Banquet Hall & Restaurant

1340 Broadway, El Cajon

It says Royal Palace Banquet Hall on the sign outside of the red-brown banquet hall on Broadway in Bostonia, a tiny suburb of El Cajon.

Even after all these years and owners, the old dance hall still looks as if an architect mated a bad forgery of the Alamo with a warehouse. Except for an imposing size, the place radiates little in the way of self-importance. There is nothing to say that this was once a reigning West Coast honky-tonk and, as such, the southernmost stop along California’s country-western music circuit. The last time anyone saw the original sign that spelled out “Bostonia Ballroom” in neon scroll, it was rusting in a field near the airstrip in El Cajon, and that was years ago. Inside the banquet hall, very little of the original ballroom decor remains. But if those walls could talk, they would tell tales of Nashville’s biggest stars headlining in El Cajon, of dancing and beer and cigarettes, of dreams gone bust, and of murder.

“Jerry Lee Lewis? Oh, yeah, my dad was so ticked at him.” Andrea Long is the daughter of Andrew “Cactus” Soldi. She lives in the same house that Soldi bought in 1954 while he was co-managing the Bostonia Ballroom with his band partner, Eugene “Smokey” Rogers.

“Right before Jerry Lee came in, my dad had the piano tuner come out. And Jerry Lee Lewis just beat the hell out of it. He used his feet on it. He broke three keys.” Lewis played Bostonia Ballroom on a Sunday afternoon — February 9, 1958. Tickets sold for $1.75. Lewis was paid $850.

Patsy Cline, and all the big country stars, played  the ballroom in its heyday.

Patsy Cline, and all the big country stars, played the ballroom in its heyday.

“Bill freakin’ Monroe. Slim Whitman. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Lefty Frizzell. Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, Hank Thompson, Joe Maphis, Webb Pierce, Tex Ritter — they all played there. But, you have to understand that back then, there weren’t that many venues.

Johnny Cash played with the Tennessee Two.

Johnny Cash played with the Tennessee Two.

“Willie Nelson played the Bostonia Ballroom back when his hair was short. Before he was a hippie. He had a hit song then, ‘Sally was a Good Ole Girl.’ He probably wasn’t the headliner. He probably came in with somebody else. When Johnny was coming out there, he was called Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. The Two were Marshall and Luther. People tell me, ‘Yeah, I remember seeing Elvis out there.’ No they don’t,” she giggles. “Elvis never played there.

“My dad and Smokey got the place about the same time they started Valley Music store [with bandmate Larry “Pedro” DePaul] in 1952. That’s when they started — 1952. They’d done a bunch of recording, and all of them got a big wad of cash and they were looking for something to invest in.”

Long says they all lived in Hollywood at the time, and just down the street from country star Roy Rogers. “The money to start the businesses [including a lease on the ballroom, a record shop, and Valley Music] came from a Capitol Records deal. They went into the studio for 24 straight hours, or longer. Someone needed music for the side B of an album. They each got checks for composing and arranging and performing. They came out of there with a shitload of cash.

“My dad was always the money guy. He was the one that took care of the receipts and counted up and ordered beer and everything. My mom sold tickets at the door. Smokey’s dad was the bartender, and his stepmom Mamie ran the popcorn stand. A lot of times, I would go out there with them and I would babysit Jim in the upstairs apartment over the ballroom where Smokey’s dad and Mamie stayed.

“After Jim would go to sleep, I would sneak out on the roof and look down into the patio and see all the sailors who had come out there. I was 12. A lot of times, if I peeked through the storeroom door I could see the stage from there. It would be pretty crowded with people out on the dance floor, standing there listening to the bands.

“I think they had the ballroom...” Long pauses to gently thumb the pages of her dad’s ledger, a leather-bound volume that smells of dust and old nicotine. “I think they had it until around ’62 or ’63. They divided the business up. Larry took money, Smokey took the ballroom, and my dad took Valley Music.”

Chris Hillman co-founded the Byrds with Roger McGuinn in 1964. Hillman grew up in Rancho Santa Fe. During his teen years, he took up bluegrass mandolin and joined the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers.

“The Bostonia Ballroom had afternoon shows on the weekend with various local and sometimes nationally known country acts,” says Hillman. “The show was run by Smokey Rogers, a local hero in his own right. The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers were asked to play on the show one afternoon, and as I was hanging around outside waiting to perform, I started playing my mandolin, sort of warming up. I felt a shadow come over me and a very large hand rest on my shoulder, and with a deep Texas drawl I heard these words: ‘Son, you sound mighty good on that mandolin. Keep practicing, and something great may come your way.’ I looked up, and there in all his glory stood Tex Ritter. He took the time, while holding his guitar and waiting around, to listen to me and give me some much needed encouragement. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live.

“Later, I found out that our steel guitar player in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Sneaky Pete [Kleinow] used to play in Smokey’s band at the Bostonia Ballroom. In fact, that was where he got the nickname ‘Sneaky.’ I have often wondered what prompted the other band members to give him that name.”

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