My friend Gaye LeBaron, in customarily evocative fashion, writes in today’s PD about vacation memories on the Russian River. It’s a great read, especially for locals who’ve spent July and August cruising for thrills beneath the shade of redwoods in West County. That’s something I wished I had growing up, those carefree summertime Russian River memories, and each time I stroll Johnson’s Beach or visit Rio Nido, I figure I was born a few decades too late for even the waning days of what the Monte Rio sign famously, and sadly, still declares the “Vacation Wonderland.”
As it were, my family took vacations camping in Humboldt County—incidentally, where LeBaron grew up—or when we could convince family friends to loan us their cabin, Lake Tahoe. The towering trees, the miniature golf, the outdoor calm and young summertime romance described by 1950s Russian River resort-goers in LeBaron’s column? That was King’s Beach for me, and not just because my folks liked Lake Tahoe. It was kinda also because by the time I was growing up in the 1980s, the Russian River was a really seedy place to bring your kids.
This week’s column is on the reemergence of the River Theatre in Guerneville, a venue I’d last visited for a punk show in 1991, when I was 15. The bands were Insanity Puppets, Bulimia Banquet and, headlining, D.I., who were on meth and refused to play their hit “Richard Hung Himself” until a girl in the audience showed them her vagina. It was fucked up. Punk at its best was always a little bit scary, but this was just depressing. (My parents didn’t know where I was, luckily.)
Still, I’ve always loved the Russian River, and Guerneville, and West County in general. After walking through the front doors for the first time in 19 years and interviewing new River Theatre owner Jerry Knight—who plans to host live music, plays and film—I swung by the Guerneville library and went through their incredible news archive, which confirmed that the River has long been almost a different state unto itself, if not a different country.
(I also spoke with Guerneville historian John Schubert, who set me straight about the exact location of the River Club, a strip joint owned by the Markharian brothers. It wasn’t in the River Theatre building as is commonly assumed; rather, it was just one door East of the River Theatre, as seen in this 1986 photo.)
On my way back to Santa Rosa, I made a right turn to one of my favorite places. Odd Fellows Park, a collection of riverfront houses and activity buildings virtually unchanged since its 1940s heyday, reminds me almost exactly of the resort in Dirty Dancing—there’s an outdoor theater constructed of redwood, shuffleboard courts, volleyball nets, a bingo hall, a private beach. It’s exactly the kind of idyllic summertime spot LeBaron’s column describes, and the last remaining vestige of the vacation wonderland of old. It’s no wonder that you need to have a gate code to get in.