This is Johnny Perry: musician, raconteur, unofficial historian, and proprietor of the NAPA auto parts store (which also doubles as a museum of local artifacts) on the main drag of Guadalupe. Walk around and behold not just a good supply of auto parts, but an 1840 adobe brick, old photos, posters and bumper stickers, even the plaster paw of a Sphinx from Cecile B. DeMilles' 1923 production of The Ten Commandments. Of course the best attraction is Johnny himself, still handsome and dapper at 74, and a veritable fount of information about life in Guadalupe, especially the good times.
There’s a photograph of a teen-aged Johnny wearing a striped serape and playing the sax alongside three other musicians at a Mexican Independence Day parade in the 1950s. “These celebrations pre-dated Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days,” he tells us, adding that they were so big folks would miss work the next day. He revisits the photograph, noting the name of the woman watching from the curb and that of a young sombrero-wearing boy in the foreground. He points out that the musicians are standing on the bed of a 1928 Chevy pick-up, and recalls that the song they are playing is probably Celito Lindo. He has that kind of memory for detail.
Johnny’s fondness for music goes back to his boyhood days at the family ranch at Oso Flaco, in particular to a record he heard being played there. “Over and over it was Doris Day and Sentimental Journey. Tenor sax. So I thought: I’ll learn that.”
And he did. From the school band in 4th grade, he parlayed his talents to playing at dances, eventually becoming part of a band called The Biscaynes, who opened for Jan and Dean in Pismo Beach and were the lead band at the Beach Boys' first concert on June 2, 1966.
In a display case at the store there's a 45 rpm vinyl record of the Biscaynes’ biggest hit, Church Key, and Johnny’s son Eric turns on his computer, finds a sound clip, and hits play. So there we are in this auto parts store surrounded by old movie memorabilia, fading photos, curios and figurines, and suddenly the air fills with a classic surf tune of the early 60s--guitar, drum, organ, and Johhny’s sax in an arrangement so lively, you want to dance...or drive along the California coast...or simply stand there grinning. (What can I say? It's one of those "I love my life" moments.)
“We never made no money at all,” says Johnny. “…just bright lights and braggin’ rights.”
And wonderful memories too. To hear Johnny tell it, Guadalupe was a place for dancing and partying all night long, and he was happy to participate. “In one place was western music,” he recalls, “over there was Russian, down the street around the corner they had mariachis. Those three blocks...people walkin' back and forth...then everybody closed at two, and they’d go an' fill up all the restaurants...People would come from Santa Maria, Lompoc, Arroyo Grande…”
I interrupt for a quick backtrack. “So you mean 2 a.m.? People were going to the restaurants at 2 a.m.?”
“Oh yeah,” says Johnny. “You get hungry after dancing all night. People would be leaving the restaurants at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. We used to play the Rose Garden in Pismo, and we got our pay…I dunno…twenty bucks, something like that…well, most of it went for breakfast right after. Then you go home and give your wife ten dollars.”
Johnny’s shop is housed in the old Druid Temple building. (“It’s a good thing I own it,” he says, “’cause I couldn’t afford the rent.”) In addition to serving as the lodge for Druid business, the upstairs area at one time was used for Mexican rosaries and wakes, where people would take shifts sitting with the deceased, praying, and drinking Tequila. It was a tough job carrying a coffin up and down those stairs, especially post-Tequila, and Johnny early on decided he would discontinue that use of the building.
Back here at ground level, where the auto parts shop/museum is, there was at one time a post office, whose mail slots and signs (DROPS, MONEY ORDERS, STAMPS) are still preserved in one corner of the store. Later, briefly and incongruously, the place served as a skating rink from which Johnny says he was once kicked out for having too much fun and elbowing another skater.
A block or two down, you’d hear music coming out of the Vet’s Hall, where dances were held. (“Girls would be on one side, guys on the other…”) And across the street, there was the theater, open 7 days a week, and a genuine melting pot experience. “Weekends, Monday, and Wednesday, they’d show American movies,” Johnny recalls. “Tuesday and Thursday, it was Mexican, and on Fridays it would be Japanese, Filipino or Chinese. We even liked to go to those because it was fun to hear the way they talked. Then we’d run over to Snappy Lunch and have our cheeseburger and fries.”
Kids today, upon hearing about the rink, the theater, the dances, and the seemingly nonstop fun sometimes ask Johnny, ‘Why don’t we have stuff like this anymore?”
It’s a good question.