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What’s so funny about Pismo Beach?

For Hollywood writers, the small California beach town has long been a punchline.

PISMO BEACH, Calif. (CN) — In the 1938 radio play “The Pharmacist,” early film actor W.C. Fields encounters a robber he calls “the most dangerous, unscrupulous bandit west of Pismo Beach.”

Considering Pismo Beach’s size — even today, it only has around 8,000 residents — it might have come as a surprise to hear a well-known celebrity like Fields mention it by name. And yet Pismo Beach has long provided punchlines for Hollywood writers, getting nods through the decades from radio shows, movies, TV shows and cartoons.

“We’re famous,” said Effie McDermott, a longtime Pismo Beach resident and author of the history book “Pismo Beach.”

The question is: Why?

Why is an obscure California beach town that most can’t even locate on a map referenced so often in popular culture?

“It’s funny to say — Pismo Beach,” McDermott told Courthouse News, citing one simple explanation.

The full answer is a bit more complicated. While today’s Pismo Beach is a quaint little tourist town known for clams and surf shops, for many years it had a different reputation.

The town was a smuggling hub in the Prohibition era — attracting bootleggers, gamblers and supposedly even Al Capone himself. 

“There were some unsavory characters in Pismo Beach,” McDermott said. “There was a bad element here.”

Let’s start with the way it sounds.

“I’ve never been there, but it sticks out as a funny name,” said Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, the William P. Hobby Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin.

Even back in 1924, small Pismo Beach was already a tourist draw — but it also had a naughty reputation for vices. (Effie McDermott Archives, Pismo Beach, CA.)

Author of the book “Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy,” Fuller-Seeley has studied the way comics in the radio and early TV era used place names in their humor.

“A specific name, as they say in the books about how to write comedy, is always better than a general name,” she said.

Radio and TV legend Jack Benny often inserted Pismo Beach into his jokes. But he also regularly referenced Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.

The names of those places sounded funny and evoked images of California. “For radio listeners and TV viewers across the country, California at mid-century was this amazing place,” Fuller-Seeley said. “It was heaven [they] were trying to get to. The whole country was fascinated with California.”

With its palm trees and beaches, Pismo fulfilled that fantasy.

Still, for the first half of the 20th century, people were fascinated with Pismo Beach for other reasons.

Namely, there was its seedier side. During Prohibition, bootleggers used a cove in nearby Avila Beach to unload whiskey by boat, which wound up in Pismo Beach, said McDermott, the local writer.

With whiskey came other vices, like gambling. “It all went hand in hand,” McDermott said. “There were ladies of the evening.”

Some of the illegal liquor reportedly wound up at the Hearst Castle, roughly an hour north. There, media magnate William Randolph Hearst entertained A-list celebrities of the day, including Charlie Chaplin, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable.  

According to popular legend, many of those celebrities first stopped in Pismo Beach for some pre-Hearst fun. In that version of events, word of the debauchery trickled back to Hollywood writers. Still, Pismo’s reputation would have been known far beyond Hollywood, said McDermott, who has collected numerous clippings about Pismo vice crimes that garnered wide publicity.

In one Fortnight magazine article from 1954, H.E. Boosinger, then mayor of Pismo Beach, suggested the mafia had infiltrated the town. “Certain underworld elements have been trying to gain entry into Pismo Beach for a long time,” he warned the California publication.


Then there was the Al Capone rumor. McDermott’s book includes a photo of what appears to be the famous gangster visiting the Waldorf Club pool room in Pismo in 1927. McDermott thinks the photo, provided by the nephew of one of the pool players in the room, was taken during one of Capone’s Prohibition-era visits to California.

Pismo Beach provides excellent sunset photo opportunities. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

As mob violence escalated in Chicago, some speculated Capone traveled to California to lay low. 

“He had his hands full in Chicago,” said John J. Binder, author of “Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition.”

Others suggested he went to shake down Hollywood. But “Scarface” wasn’t welcome in Los Angeles, where law enforcement quickly ran him out of town, Binder said.

McDermott has her own theories. Based on her photo, she thinks the infamous mobster might have taken a detour to Pismo. 

Binder is not convinced the photo is truly Capone. While the photo looks like him, he said, it’s a little grainy. 

Besides, Capone has purportedly been to many places that he wasn’t. “It’s a recognizable phenomenon, almost as big as ‘George Washington slept here,’” said Binder, who has served as a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Was Al Capone here? This photo's contributor, Dave Gardner, who donated this photo to the South County Historical Society, says Al Capone is the third from the right. Gardner's uncle Grover is also pictured. The photo was taken at the Waldorf Club, which is now Cool Cat Cafe. (Photo/Effie McDermott Collection, Pismo Beach, CA, Dave Gardner, South County Historical Society)

Still, Capone was indeed in California, and Pismo Beach offered the types of activities he could appreciate. That was great fodder for wink-wink, nudge-nudge comedy in a pent-up era.

The jokes couldn’t be too overt. “Radio was the most censored of all mass media,” said Fuller-Seeley, the media expert. “Sponsors never wanted anything dirty or questionable associated with their wonderful product.”

Faced with those restrictions, writers found subtler ways to sneak in naughty references. In the 1948 radio bit “The Road to Pismo Beach,” Bob Hope questions actor Victor Moore on why he dated a mermaid.

“After two years in Pismo Beach, who cares?” Moore says to laughter.

In a 1957 Yogi Bear cartoon, Yogi asks a hunter if he’s ever been to Pismo Beach.

“Oh, heavens no!” the straight-laced hunter indignantly replies.

The jokes continued for decades. In a 1967 “Dragnet” episode, a drunk man in a bar tells lead character Sergeant Joe Friday he needs to get back to Pismo Beach. 

“Would you get a cab which knows which way it is to Pismo?” the drunk says. “Tell it I’ll drive.”

The jokes didn’t spell out Pismo’s penchant for vices, but many audience members got it. “That’s the key to a good joke,” McDermott said. “People have to know what you’re talking about.”

The biggest purveyor of Pismo humor was likely Jack Benny. The radio and TV legend grew up in Waukegan, Illinois (another funny-sounding place) and often riffed on California place names.

“Pismo got a lot of ragging from Jack Benny and his writers,” Fuller-Seeley said. When she solicited members of the International Jack Benny Fan Club for Pismo Beach references, she got more than 50 responses from the Facebook group in just a couple of days.

A bird's eye view of Pismo Beach. (Pat Pembertoun/Courthouse News)

While no one knows who actually started the Pismo jokes, they quickly spread during radio's heyday.

“All these people knew each other, and they listened to each other,” Fuller-Seeley said. “Mel Blanc had a regular job on the Jack Benny show for 20 years.”

Blanc’s best known cartoon voice, Bugs Bunny, famously mentioned Pismo Beach during an 1957 episode. After the misguided wabbit tunnels his way into a desert, he mistakenly declares it to be “Pismo Beach — and all the clams we can eat!”

After decades of debauchery, the town started cleaning up its reputation in the 1950s. Police cracked down on vices. W.W. Ward, a local developer, had a different vision for the town and owned many of the buildings that are still a part of the city’s main stip. 

”W.W. Ward deserves a large plaque,” McDermott said. 

These days, Hollywood continues to write about Pismo. The small town has been name-dropped in big movies like “Clueless,” “A Night at the Roxbury” and “The Big Lebowski” and in TV shows like “Futurama” and “Robot Chicken.”

Most current Pismo Beach residents aren’t even aware of the town’s raucous past. More recent Hollywood nods are likely just an extension of the tradition, said Fuller-Seeley, the media expert. 

Meanwhile, some local officials are trying to move beyond the sordid history. Pismo’s current mayor, Ed Waage, declined to comment for this story, instead opting to let McDermott speak of his city’s past.

“We had a colorful past,” he wrote in an email to Courthouse News. ”Now, we are writing a new chapter.”

Pismo Beach remains a tourist draw — though tourists these days are less interested in the bootleggers and brothels and are instead drawn to its annual clam festival, whale sightings and surf camps. Urban sprawl hasn’t touched this peaceful seaside community, where sunsets create postcard opportunities nightly. And that’s no joke, said McDermott.

McDermott, who has lived in the city since 1957, doesn’t ignore the city’s rowdy past in her writings.

Still, she prefers that Pismo be known for its famous clam chowder. As her book cover notes, she has both an avid love of history and an effusive pride in her hometown. 

During a week when tourists and locals watched in awe as whales breached near the shore, McDermott made that pride clear.

“I kiss the ground every day,” she told Courthouse News.

Categories / Arts, History, Travel

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