Tag Archives: santa paula

In A Word: A Classic

Few people recognize the name Danny Flores, but it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t familiar with his growling voice and saxophone – known to all from a single song: Tequila.

Tequila, the jaunty Latin-rhythmed ditty that saved Pee-wee Herman from a beating in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, went to number one on the American charts on this date back in 1958.

Both Tequila and The Champs, the group that recorded the song, have roots in the Santa Clarita Valley and neighboring areas.

The story begins with a Lancaster disk jockey and session guitarist named Dave Burgess who needed a B-side for a single he had written called Train to Nowhere.

On December 23, 1957, Burgess was working for Challenge Records recording backing tracks for another artist at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. Challenge was owned by singing cowboy Gene Autry, who also owned the Melody Ranch studios in Newhall at the time.

Also in the studio that day were a group of session musicians called the Flores Trio, which consisted of Danny Flores on the sax, Gene Alden on drums, and Buddy Bruce on lead guitar. Flores was the 28-year-old son of Mexican field workers from the Heritage Valley town of Santa Paula, California.

The scheduled sessions ended for the day and the musicians found themselves with some open recording time which they filled by jamming to create the B-side for Burgess’ single.

Flores crafted the song in three takes, tearing through the sax solos and growling out it’s single-word lyric, “Tequila!” (Since Flores was under contract to another record company, he was credited on the single as Chuck Rio.)

The song would most likely have been lost to history on its release had Train to Nowhere not flopped, prompting a Cleveland disk jockey to play the flip-side one day.

Tequila was already on the charts when the musicians decided to create a band, which they named “The Champs” after Gene Autry’s horse Champion.

Talk about getting the chart before the horse! (Sorry.)

The band never had another hit, but was successful enough touring to last until 1965. It had a revolving door lineup of members which at various times included Glen Campbell, Delaney Bramlett, later of Delaney and Bonnie, and Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts, who would re-emerge as the successful duo Seals and Crofts.

Flores left the band soon after its creation, but continued to play professionally for the next several decades before dying from Parkinson’s disease in 2006. He sold the American rights to Tequila early on and therefore never got rich off the song, but was still able to earn around $70,000 per year off of it from overseas markets.

Tequila, the one-word, one-hit wonder, eventually sold over six million copies worldwide.

Not bad for a throwaway.

(I will be conducting tours of Melody Ranch during the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival the last weekend of April. Click here for details.)

“Hollywoodland” in the Heritage Valley

Though never actually seen in the series, Santa Paula leaders lobbied for their city to be known as the home of presidential candidate Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) in "The West Wing," and the train station was said to be his campaign headquarters.

Through the years, Hollywood has modeled for hundreds of locales around the world. But ironically, when the producers of 1992’s Chaplin needed a shot of the Hollywood sign from the 1920s (which then read “Hollywoodland”), they had to travel 50 miles north of L.A. to the town of Fillmore to re-create the iconic structure. It seems that the one place that Hollywood no longer resembles is itself.

The Heritage Valley, which lies along a 40-mile stretch California 126 between Santa Clarita and Ventura, has been used for filmmaking since the earliest days of Hollywood. The valley is still covered with citrus and avocado groves that surround the towns of Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula. A ride down the 126 is a visual time capsule, and still a draw for producers needing a view of California with orchards rather than strip malls.

All of the communities in the valley have been seen repeatedly on film and television. Fillmore has appeared in recent episodes of Jericho, Big Love, and CSI; Ventura has shown up in Swordfish, Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, and Chinatown; and parts of Carrie, Joe Dirt, and 1997’s Leave It To Beaver have been shot in Santa Paula.

The Valley’s earliest documented movie was the 1910 silent film Ramona, which starred Mary Pickford and was directed by D.W. Griffith. The film was made at Rancho Camulos, near the small town of Piru, and has the distinction of being the first film in history to list its filming location in the credits. During June of this year Piru was again a stop for film crews who built the “Benzini Bros. Circus” there for the upcoming film Water For Elephants, which stars Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz. Piru has also been seen in Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Dukes of Hazzard.

Ebell Park, Santa Paula. The site of Gaston Melies' Star Film Company from 1911 - 1913.

A year after Ramona was made, the Star Film Company set up studios in Santa Paula. The company was owned by pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies, who sent his brother Gaston to California to make films in America. The company only lasted for a few months, but soon other producers moved into town.

When Warner Bros. decided to get into film production, they chose Santa Paula to be the site of their first movie, which was called Passions Inherited (1916). They sank much of their meager fortune into the film, but the only updates they got from director Gilbert P. Hamilton were requests for more money. Finally, Jack Warner arrived on the scene to find Hamilton “directing” two young starlets in his bedroom, and learned that Hamilton had spent much of the film’s budget treating himself to on a new car. Warner promptly fired the director and finished the film himself. It was the company’s first film … and their first flop. (For the rest of his life, Jack Warner was said to use the name “Gilbert P. Hamilton” as his most profane curse phrase.)

For more on the early history of Warner Bros., check out my new book Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.

Santa Paula’s “King of Cool”

Steve McQueen – the “King of Cool”

Did you hear the one about the big Hollywood star who left the limelight behind to move into a dilapidated hangar at a small airport?

The punchline? There isn’t one. This actually happened in 1979 when legendary A-list actor and “King of Cool” Steve McQueen said adios to Hollywood and moved 75 miles away into a hangar at an airport in Santa Paula, California.


McQueen was born in Indianapolis during the Depression to an alcoholic mother and a father who abandoned the family soon after Steve was born. The troubled youth spent some time in a California reform school before drifting into a series of jobs ranging from carnie to lumberjack. He joined the Marines in 1947, and after several visits to the brig, he eventually became a soldier’s soldier serving in President Truman’s honor guard. After leaving the service, he began an acting career that included such hits as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, Papillon, and The Towering Inferno. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work in The Sand Pebbles in 1966. By the mid-1970s he was the highest paid actor in the world.

The front of Steve McQueen's former "house."

McQueen made his own “Great Escape” from Hollywood, and moved into the hangar with his girlfriend Barbara Minty, along with a king-sized bed, a dining room set, and a portable TV. His new home allowed him to be near his beloved motorcycle and biplane. Later, his retirement would prove to be a bit more conventional when the couple moved about a mile from their former digs into an 1892 Victorian ranch house on South Mountain Road. Minty, who married McQueen in the living room of their new home, recently authored a book about their time together in Santa Paula called Steve McQueen: The Last Mile.

McQueen would only live on the 15-acre ranch for a few months before being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He passed away in November 1980 in a Mexican hospital. The house, near the Ozzy Osborn Par Three Golf Course (no lie), was recently placed on the market for $1.7 million.