In East San Jose, I went looking for a lost safari at Story and White, but the French muses of memory dragged me right back downtown.
By today’s geography, the congested intersection might not seem like a place to see Wayne Newton, the Everly Brothers or Diana Ross. You probably won’t hear Mel Torme scatting with a small orchestra inside the Rite-Aid or Vito’s Pizza. But 55 years ago, somewhere in that wing of the stripmall, this zone was the musical hotspot of San Jose.
From 1962 to 1968, adjoining the Plaza Lanes bowling alley, one found the Safari Room, a rocking supper club masterminded by Paul Catalana. People dined on white tablecloths next to tiki figurines and pounded drinks while groups like the Supremes played multiple-night runs.
Catalana was the promoter who brought the Beatles to the Cow Palace in 1964 and 1965, and the Rolling Stones to the San Jose Civic Auditorium, all while operating here locally. Years earlier, he had opened El Rancho Drive-in on Alma Avenue. He was a kingpin, an impresario, a savvy operator. The Safari Room was his baby. Catalana designed it, managed it and booked all the talent.
“This was a destination,” said Bob Gonzalez, who played bass for Syndicate of Sound, San Jose’s teenage phenoms of the ’60s. “There was no place anybody else played but the Safari Room in San Jose. There was the Civic Auditorium and the Safari Room.”
This was a different San Jose, of course. The population was around 300,000. Highway 280 did not exist yet. At the northeast corner of Story and White was a humble stripmall called Lo Bue’s Plaza, owned by Victor Lo Bue, who also operated out of Plaza Lanes in a separate building across the parking lot. The Safari Room had one entrance facing outside and also connected inside to the bowling alley so the bar could serve the bowlers.
At least three different people have told me they snuck into the Safari Room underage because, well, in those days San Jose authorities didn’t want kids listening to music in the same building as adults drinking alcohol. That just wasn’t allowed. Except, of course, if Catalana was the one sneaking people in.
In 1965, Syndicate of Sound not only gigged at Catalana’s other stomping ground, a French restaurant and discotheque he owned on First Street called Les Poupees, but they also got a chance to meet the Everly Brothers when Catalana invited them out to Story and White to attend the show.
“Laws were easier to break at that time,” said Gonzalez. “He booked us into Les Poupees, and we were all underage. We successfully played in Les Poupees, and he also hosted us at the Safari Room.”
In those days, The Safari Room was a rip-roaring joint, attracting renowned nationwide acts and many that later vaulted to worldwide stardom. The Supremes gave a legendary series of shows in 1963 that people are still talking about. Mel Torme once rolled in for a week. The Righteous Brothers, Pearl Bailey, Roger Miller and Martin Denny all made appearances, as did crooner Jack Jones long before he sang the Love Boat Theme. It was exciting and new.
These days the whole plaza looks like every other dumb stripmall from Gilroy to Millbrae. In the late ’80s, the old plaza was demolished, redeveloped and expanded into a newer-fangled set of buildings. There is absolutely no trace of Plaza Lanes or the Safari Room. You can get pretty close, though. If you walk around inside the Rite-Aid, you might imagine exotic statuary or some distant clatter of highball glasses from decades past. The ghost of Martin Denny might appear with a few Polynesian dancers. Wayne Newton might walk on some imaginary tables. Diana Ross, along with Mary and Florence, might belt out “Where Did Our Love Go.” You might even hear a symphony.
Thankfully, not all tangible structures are lost, though. Back in downtown San Jose, the crumbling building that once housed Les Poupees at 30 S. First St.—most recently known as the Lido Club—is set for another ridiculous transformation. And that’s fine. No matter what happens, the ghost of Paul Catalana will be sneaking me in.