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.
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.