I’ve walked these streets a hundred times or more. Probably a lot more. And yet here I am, finding myself learning about new features I had never before noticed. I am here in Old Town Pasadena for a walking tour organized through the Pasadena Museum of History. The tour is focused on “saloons and speakeasies,” but covers aspects of Pasadena’s storied history that are tangential to the plying of alcohol, the banning of alcohol, or the drinking of alcohol. It is a special feeling to be walked through a place I think of as home-adjacent, and to be told stories I’d never known and be shown things I’d never seen.
Our tour begins in a shady alley (Pasadena is full of alleys, some of which have even been used to portray other cities in films) across the street from a pub called The Blind Donkey. Here our group of fifteen or so meets Julia Long, our guide for the next two hours, and we are treated to our first fun story. Apparently, any drinking establishment with a name of Blind (Animal) has its origins with a concept called “blind pig.” During Prohibition (1920-1933), it was illegal to sell alcohol, not to imbibe or possess it. So an intrepid bar owner would charge a fee for patrons to adjourn to the back alley behind his establishment (wherever it was) to see his famed blind pig. To commemorate such an auspicious event, they would be served free alcohol. (Julia related that there was also a concept called a blind tiger, where money and drinks would change hands without either party seeing the other.)
Just down the alley is Pasadena’s Speakeasy, a remnant of the traditional Prohibition establishment. We don’t go in (it is 10am after all), but Julia relays today’s password in case we want to return after the tour. This particular bar wasn’t around during actual Prohibition times – none of the places the tour talks about have lasted the decades – but it still gives us a taste of a back alley private entrance.
As the tour progresses, I find myself in awe of our guide and her depth of knowledge. Julia is a freelance guide who grew up here in Pasadena, but has also designed and led walking tours of downtown Los Angeles. But while her storytelling style is compelling, and her demeanor is confident and poised, her passion is more the research than the tours themselves. The result is one-off tours like this one, the first of three monthly tours Julia and the Museum will be conducting, each with a different theme. And her research is ever ongoing, with promises to have even more offerings in months and years to come. (This is only one of her hats. Julia Long is also a freelance museum exhibition curator, and working on a book or five. She keeps busy.)
As the tour winds its way through Old Town Pasadena, more stories are told. We learn of Jerry Beebe, who defied Pasadena’s early attempts to be alcohol free in the 1880s by opening a very popular saloon. (It is possible that a mob organized at his saloon – though the exact location is unknown – that ended up chasing Pasadena’s original Chinese community out of this part of the city following a fire at a laundry in 1885, an event that came to be known as Black Friday.) While he won that early battle, Pasadena ended up outlawing saloons in 1887. In 1891, alcohol was allowed in the city, but only with meals, in an effort to cater to the winter tourists seeking the California sun.
On the corner of Union Street and Fair Oaks Avenue, we pass by an old mosaic tile welcome mat of sorts for what was once the Owl Drug store. Even during Prohibition, alcohol was allowed with a prescription, so places like this became very popular, offering doctors ready to sign a form and drinks to imbibe. (Walgreens had huge growth in the 1920s, and while they claim it is due to the introduction of their milkshakes, nobody really buys that.)
We pass the “ghost” marquis of Clune’s Theatre, where Sylvia Pankhurst spoke in 1911 just after the place opened, talk about the Carver Hotel, the first black owned hotel in the city, and hear stories of raids on the Marcell Inn in 1923, an illegal bar where the sheriff was said to be a regular. The two hours pass quickly, even in the heat, although Julia does her best to stop in the shade as often as she can.
There is something cool about exploring a city on foot, and even cooler when one does so with an incredibly knowledgeable guide sharing her stories and secrets. These tours are $25 per person, proceeds of which go to both Julia and the museum. For two hours of learning, that is money well-spent in my opinion. While sadly I will be missing the next two tours in this series (one on Art Deco buildings and the other on botanical Pasadena), I look forward to catching on with another soon.
If you are interested in Julia Long, please visit her new Instagram page here.
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