Rose Bowl History

 

“Dancing under the stars, 13 miles from cable cars!”
-early advertising slogan

 

It started in 1910 as a rustic dance head on a temporary platform as part of Larkspur’s Booster Days to raise money for fire equipment and a firehouse. By 1913 the summertime dance was popular enough to move to a permanent home – a  half acre redwood grove surrounded by a rose-covered fence. Over the next 50 years, the Rose Bowl become a Saturday night destination for the entire Bay Area. Thousands of dancers crowded onto the waxed hardwood floor to sway under twinkling lights and Chinese lanterns to the big band tunes or Erie Hecksher, Ray Hackett, and other noted band-leaders.

The Rose Bowl put Larkspur on the map, raised enough money to fund a modern fire department, and created indelible memories for countless couples. Although the old Rose Bowl site on King Street was sold off for development long ago, the venue at the historic Escalle Vineyard recaptures a bygone era. The dance floor will even be overlooked by a replica of the winking “Rose Bowl Moon” (painted by Larkspur artist Ann Langston) that was suspended above the dance floor to enhance the romantic atmosphere.

The Larkspur Association of Volunteer Firemen will be showing off their restored 1916 Model T fire engine, as the link with the firefighters is especially important. It was the volunteers who organized and operated the Rose Bowl, and their presence at the dance, some as temporary police deputies, ensured that order prevailed.

At its peak in the 1930s the Rose Bowl attracted as many at 4,000 dancers. Many came by ferry from San Francisco or the East Bay, then climbed aboard the Northwestern Pacific train in Sausalito for the ride to Larkspur Station. Some revelers would stop off at a Larkspur bar before standing in line to pay the fifty-cent admission fee for the Rose Bowl. Beer was available at a small bar in the Bowl and at intermission many dancers headed to Bob’s Tavern (today’s Silver Peso) or the nearby Rosebowl Chateau for more drinks. Anyone who got out of line would be given the choice of taking the next train our of town, or spending a night in jail (a cell in the firehouse).

An important feature of the Rose Bowl dances for many years was a spectacular “firefall” engineered by Willie Frizzi, who is described as “a one-man electrical company”. During a break in the dancing, Cap Larson would announce it was time for the firefall and the crowd would spread out to watch as Frizzi hoisted a line of “discharge candles” strung 40 feet up between two trees. Accompanied by a drumroll, the fire chief would press a switch to set off the candles while firemen lit powder that produced billows of colored smoke behind the stream of sparks. Another fireman stood by with a hose.

For many past and present Larkspur residents, mention of the Rose Bowl still evokes warm memories of music, fun and romance. Grace Hughes, who grew up in Mill Valley in the 1950’s, recalls the Rose Bowl as “the best summer date in the world.” There were many high schoolers at the dance and she remembers a real mix of young and old and a sense of security. “The volunteers kept close watch on things so there was no rowdiness,” she recalls.

Bob Collin, who grew up in Larkspur, and now lives in Sonoma, tells how his father met his mother at a Rose Bowl dance in 1923: “He took a San Francisco street-car to the ferry and the train from Sausalito after hearing about the dance in Larkspur. My mother and her girl friends lived in Larkspur and used to go to the dance all the time. My parents spied each other and met at every dance that summer. They were married the next year.”

Bill Davis, a former Larkspur resident who now lives in Rohnert Park, recalls taking his future wife Milly to the Rose Bowl on their first date in 1945. “We drove over from Berkeley in my 1936 Cadillac,” Davis remembers, “and I bought a corsage of roses from a little girl outside the dance. It was the beginning of our romance.”

The Escalle venue is especially meaningful for Larkspur resident Josephine (Jo) Maisterra, whose niece Mary Tiscornia now owns the Escalle property. “When I was 15, I came to Larkspur with my sister Tony (Mary’s mother) to visit Mary’s grandfather, Adolph Tiscornia,” she recalls. Tiscornia was a legendary attorney and investor who owned much property in Larkspur, including Escalle. His only son, Marine Captain Edward Tiscornia, Mary’s father, was killed in World War II. “Escalle was Mr. Tiscornia’s summer retreat,” Jo recalls. “I remember walking with him and my sister from Escalle to the Rose Bowl. It was very crowded, with sparkly lights and a lot of uniforms. We all danced and had a grand time.”

Although we are hosting with a slightly modern twist and updated dance band, we would be surprised if this year’s Rose Bowl didn’t create many shining memories for Larkspur residents!

 

  • Historical information and quotes from Jack Wilson, “Remembering the Rose Bowl”