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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Lost Gardens

By Eric A. Carlson

"He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden."

--Genesis 4:22

ON THE SCRAPPY east side of Willow Glen, nigh onto the Bears Cocktail Lounge, condominiums rise over the bones of a hallowed San Jose landmark: the Hawaiian Gardens nightclub. Grizzled old San Joseans might remember when the club was named Lo Curto Gardens--in the 1930s. At some point, it was renamed Hawaiian Gardens and remained so until 1966. The last incarnation was Italian Gardens, a banquet hall specializing in weddings and Lockheed Christmas parties. All that remains is an outdoor lava grotto--or so I have been told.

I was informed of the grotto by Mr. P, who has been haunted by Hawaiian Gardens ever since purchasing a faded Hawaiian Gardens book of matches that boasted of the world's largest collection of trained frogs--with daily performances. Mr. P was stuck and confused on the concept of trained frogs. I was a bit curious myself. I drove to the site, in search of the grotto and answers to the frogs. I was assuming the matchbook claim of trained frogs was a jape. What I found out would shock me to the core.

First stop was the Bears Lounge for a Bud and directions to where the Gardens used to be in relationship to the bar. The Bears, 220 Alma Ave., is a 50-year-old classic dive sporting an unusual curved front bar. Jill was bartending and indicated with her thumb that Hawaiian Gardens was (once) next door. I felt compelled to ask her if the Bears had any association with the Chicago Bears. Jill said there was no connection; the etymology of the Bears is lost in time. I moved on to ramshackle Little Orchard Street to look for the last grotto.

Lo Curto Gardens opened for business in 1933, at 1500 Almaden Rd. Owned and operated by rancher John LoCurto--one building on nine acres of orchard. As time passed, it grew to be the largest nightclub between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with up to four major shows a week--not counting frogs. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy played the joint, and many other big names. San Jose historian/newsman Harry Farrell recalls that it was one of the few places in San Jose large enough to accommodate large gatherings. Harry related an incident that occurred one evening in 1964 during a dinner that included many of San Jose's glitterati. A local singer was performing The Star-Spangled Banner, and when she hit the ultimate high note, a waitress stumbled and dropped a tray of six plates of food. "I know this is true," Harry told me, "because I was there." In Harry Farrell's great San Jose opus, Swift Justice, there is a reference to Hawaiian Gardens, and a reference to Alviso as well: "The community's illicit gambling took place mostly at Lo Curto's Gardens, a resort on Almaden Road, and at a hotel, so-called, in the easy-virtue enclave of Alviso." That is beautifully told.

In April 1966, the LoCurto family leased Hawaiian Gardens to Lenny J. Macchiarella Jr., who replaced the Hawaiian Gardens sign with one that read, "The Losers--North." The club was to be run as a "tasteful" go-go center. A 1966 Mercury News story by Mark Wright records Lenny describing the changes that would take place: "All that Hawaiian stuff is coming out of here. Every bit. We'll modernize this place so you'll never recognize it." Lenny then explained that the club would be named after famous losers: "You know, losers like Nixon, Napoleon, Caesar and, in the current trend, Joan Baez."

A fruitful afternoon spent in the California Room at the San Jose Public Library studying old news clippings revealed much about trained frogs. Mr. P's matchbook did not lie; there really were frog performances at the Hawaiian Gardens. Actually, they were bullfrogs. The bullfrogs were trained to climb small ladders and, on cool summer evenings, were placed into outside lava grottos to croak out love songs to couples strolling through the gardens.

Hawaiian Gardens was a favored gathering spot for the Italian community, especially those living in the old Goose Town section of San Jose, below South First Street. And where else could one sample galantine of suckling pig Polynesian?

Final Note: Photo is of actual wooden tikis that graced the walls of Hawaiian Gardens (courtesy of Don Feurbacher).

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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