Better hurry to the if you want to catch a glimpse of what life was like on the Peninsula in the Roaring 20s, a time when the county was dubbed “the most corrupt” in California.
Tell ‘em Carmen sent you.
Carmen Blair, who, along with curator Dana Neitzel, spent months putting together “Broads, Bootleggers and Bookies,” a collection of Prohibition era artifacts that range from flapper dresses to stills that churned out bootleg “hooch.”
Visitors literally step into the past, crossing a threshold where they are met by video interviews that tell of local capers, including one interview with a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who recalled seeing rumrunners operate by moonlight. There’s a sense that one is in a speakeasy, an illegal saloon where a customer had to whisper the name of a mutual friend, as in “Joe sent me, “ in order to be let in.
The exhibit, which opened Feb. 17, just happened to coincide with the popular Ken Burns’ PBS television series about Prohibition, the nation’s so-called “noble experiment” that banned alcohol from 1920 to 1933.
Blair, the museum’s deputy director, isn’t sure Burns’ work helped increase attendance, mainly because there’s no way to find out how many people specifically came for the Roaring 20s exhibit.
“Overall, we have had a good response with a lot of commentary on the slang of the 20s and 30s, as well as people interested in the location of specific speakeasies,” she said.
In addition to more obvious slang, such as “speakeasy, rum runner, and moonshiner,” Blair found less well-known terms, particularly for women. A “whisper sister,” for instance, meant a female speakeasy owner. A “ladylegger” was a woman bootlegger while a “crumb” was an unpopular girl.
Flappers became a symbol of the 20s, but most females did not adopt the short skirts, bobbed hair and heavy make-up of the flapper, according to Blair. Still, she concluded that women did grow more independent.
“Higher hemlines, smoking and drinking became everyday occurrences,” said Blair.
Determining the location of a speakeasy was probably not too difficult, considering many morphed in to respectable restaurants. The Moss Beach Distillery on the coast boasts a fabled flapper ghost; other spots known for their shady past include the Miramar Beach Restaurant, called the Miramar Hotel during Prohibition. An imposing private residence in Pacifica, dubbed the “castle” for obvious reasons, was a well-known speakeasy. Farther inland, what is now Van’s Restaurant in Belmont was owned in the 1930s by Elsie Smuck, whose services included gambling as well as liquor. Rumor had it that there was also a bordello.
Blair said prostitution was not illegal, but some spots, such as the Princeton Inn, were closed as a public nuisance.
She noted that the Ocean Beach Tavern near Half Moon Bay had a ten-room bordello, adding that the San Pedro Hotel, located at the Sanchez Adobe, was the locale for “secretaries” to be interviewed by “employers.”
One of the more interesting reminders of the Gatsby age is an abandoned railroad tunnel on the coast near Shelter Cove. The entrances were blown up by “prohis,” the slang term for federal prohibition agents, to keep rumrunners from using the tunnel to store liquor, much of it brought in from Canada. However, there’s nothing to see except what looks like the aftermath of a mudslide.
And just who said, “San Mateo County is the most corrupt county in the state?” It was Hillsborough mobster Sam Termini. He should know.
Blair wrote an extensive piece on Prohibition in the latest edition of La Peninsula, the magazine of the county Historical Association. She reports that even when police managed to chase down lawbreakers, judges gave light sentences.
The La Peninsula article recalled the story of South San Francisco police officer Augustine Terragno who pulled over a car that ran a stoplight and found the vehicle contained 25 gallon containers of alcohol. Terrago said the judge fined the culprit for running the light but made him return “the booze back to the Buick!”
The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students. Children 5 and under are free.