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An institution gets one more night

MUSIC: Dick Dale and other surf music legends revive the glory days of Balboa's Rendezvous Ballroom.

March 26, 1999

By OLIVIA HAWKINSON
The Orange County Register

Rendezvous

Ballroom Reunion

  • Where: Hard Rock Cafe, Fashion Island, 451 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
  • When: 3:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: Sold out
  • Call: (714) 960-3483 for more information

There's just a plaque where the Rendezvous Ballroom used to rock the coast. The bronze tribute hides behind a blue trash can, shrubs and beach grime at the corner of Oceanfront and Washington, two blocks from the Balboa Fun Zone in Newport Beach.

A handsome apartment building now fills the block between Washington and Palm, where the seaside city built a big-band palace in 1928. In-line skaters and cyclists speed past on their way to the Balboa Pier, unaware they cross the hallowed ground where the likes of the Righteous Brothers, Dick Dale and the Surfaris once came to play.

The Balboa Peninsula home of the "Big Dog" surf bands in the early 1960s must live on only in the memories of musicians such as the Bel-Airs, the Nocturnes and Dean Torrance of Jan & Dean.

The venue's heyday flared bright and fast — the place burned to the ground in 1966 — and the bands moved on to fame or obscurity. The sandy surf town's music fans gave way to tourists, and the ballroom era faded away.

Some of the band members haven't seen or talked to one other in more than 20 years, but they say they owe their special style of music to those hot summer days at the Rendezvous.

The musicians will reunite Sunday afternoon at the Hard Rock Cafe for one more night, in tribute to the ballroom and to raise funds for the International Surfing Museum of Huntington Beach.

Most of the guys are in their early- to mid-50s and look like respectable adults, but they break into wicked, teen-age grins and their eyes twinkle when they talk about the Rendezvous.

The place lured teens from all over Southern California — even from as far as Santa Barbara. Most kids had no driver's license or car, so they hitched to pay homage to the hot bands of the day.

"It was just rowdy, teen-age kids," recalled Tracy Longstreth, 53, a drummer who played with several bands, including the Righteous Brothers. "It was a place where you could go be a surfer. It smelled old, and you could smoke back then."

Longstreth started playing the ballroom at 16, while he attended Santa Ana High School. His band, the Rhythm Rockers, backed up Bill Medley at the Rendezvous. Playing the greatest teen draw in the county meant you had made it, he said. The rush was undeniable.

"There I was, 16 years old and 20 feet in the air on the stage, playing to 500 dancers," said Longstreth, who still plays and lives in Newport Beach. "I was afraid my girlfriend would fall in love with Medley. I was so worried about that."

A PLACE FOR A NEW CULTURE

Surf music took off about 1960, when Dick Dale & The Del-Tones was the house band at the ballroom. Inspired by Dale and South Bay's Beach Boys, Orange County high school students tinkered with Fender guitars and amps in their garages and came up with that wiry guitar sound so associated with the style.

Most groups got their start at parent-chaperoned dances such as those at the Tustin Youth Center, then at the Rendezvous' "battle of the bands" shows.

"We're so used to having music everywhere now," said Paul Johnson, 53, who played the ballroom with the Bel-Airs in 1962. "Back then there wasn't a band on every block. It was special to have a place kids could identify with.

"The feeling in that place was electric," continued Johnson, who hitched rides from Redondo Beach to get to the ballroom. He now lives in Carlsbad.

"It was kind of dark in there — it was adventurous. There were fights. The surfers and the hodads would clash — they had leather jackets and greasy hair, the Fonzie-type guys."

Still, some dancers made more love than war.

Guitar player Bob Spickard met his future wife, Kathy, there one Saturday night in 1964. His band, the Chantays, was taking a set break, and Spickard was strolling across the wide, wooden dance floor to the snack bar. He was 17 and hot on the charts for co-writing the surf instrumental classic "Pipeline." She was 15 — and had just moved to Costa Mesa from Edina, Minn., and was friends with a Chantays groupie. The first thing Spickard noticed was Kathy's long blond hair.

"I saw this girl across the room," said Spickard, 53, of Huntington Beach. "I did a double-take, and she did the same. It was a love-at-first-sight thing, and we've been married 33 years and have three grandchildren."

Many Rendezvous veterans remember the ballroom as a dancing haven — a place where any guy could get a gal to dance with him. The boys wore jeans, T-shirts and Pendleton wool or Madras shirts. Girls wore knee-length skirts and sweaters. Band members took the stage in suits and ties.

"Most of the people who frequented the dance halls looked like the kids in 'American Graffiti' ," Johnson said.

It was a barn of a building — a two-story dance hall, much larger than the remaining Balboa Pavilion. Rendezvous faithful rocked the house with a dance called the surfer's stomp — pounding each foot hard, twice. More than 2,000 dancers — stamping their heavy Mexican sandals, huaraches and tire-tread soles in time to the music — could seemingly shake the very foundations.

"The Rendezvous was bigger and more important in the emerging culture than any of the acts who performed there," said Randy Nauert, who played bass with the Challengers. "One hardly paid attention to the band on the stage — it was only a question of if the song was good to dance to."

The classic surf music era died right about the time the Rendezvous was destroyed. The British invasion and emergence of the San Francisco psychedelic scene grabbed music fans' ears and hearts, and surf music would not rise in popularity again until the 1980s.

The Rendezvous celebration Sunday may look more like a high school reunion than a music revival. But the musicians say they're hoping to help the surfing museum and recapture a precious piece of their past, if only for one night. On other days, there's the plaque.

The spot was dedicated by the city and Orange County Historical Commission in 1986: "The music and dancing have ended, but the memories linger on."

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