A funky place with a big stage

The Pozo Saloon leaves its wild past behind as it marks its 150th anniversary

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMarch 20, 2008 

If you believe the stories, the Pozo Saloon was once a wild and crazy place — a watering hole where riled-up cowboys would enter with their guns pointed upward.

But a lot of those stories, said current owner Rhonda Beanway, are just lore, spread by people who like to tell stories about the old days.

"They like urban legends," she said. "They try to do a little spin on tales of the saloon, like bullet holes in the ceiling and fights every night."

Though she's not really sure what caused those holes in the ceiling, Beanway dismisses the stories — just like she dismisses tales of ghosts.

"Pozo has good spirits," she said. "I don't think it's a bad ghost if there is one."

In reality, the saloon, which turned 150 in 2008, did have a reputation for being a wild place — and one doesn't have to go back to the Gold Rush to see examples of that.

"The first few months we were open, we threw out more people than we served," former owner Flavia Ballou told the Telegram-Tribune in 1977. "So many fights."

But Beanway has reason to put a positive spin on the place: Struggles with neighbors over noise and the county over land use have made her especially cautious when talking about her establishment, which she has built into a hopping outdoor concert venue that has hosted acts such as Willie Nelson, Kansas, G-Love and Special Sauce and the String Cheese Incident.

"Many issues were worked on and worked out last year, a costly and learning time for us all," reads the Pozo Saloon's MySpace blog from last spring.

Now Beanway is hoping those struggles are in the past. In fact, as Beanway prepares to announce the saloon's new concert season in the coming weeks, any attempt to discuss problems will likely wind up with a bunch of "off the record" and "don't mention that" comments.

"You just really try to make your living how you've made it for so many years and how the business has functioned for 150 years," she said. "And you have to balance that with new people that have come in the area that don't want it."

Long history

Beanway's argument for keeping the saloon active boils down to history: It's been a place of entertainment for 150 years. Why should that change now?

This is the place, after all, where Professor Pico's String Orchestra played to a crowd in 1899.

Beanway has toned the place down, though. The saloon is only open two days a week, during daylight hours. And many concerts end before 6 p.m. At the same time, the saloon is attracting bigger-name acts — like the Black Crowes, Big & Rich and Ziggy Marley — that will draw larger crowds (up to 3,000 people).

The saloon, in the sticks southeast of Santa Margarita, dates back almost as far as the town itself, which was founded in the 1850s. When gold was discovered in nearby La Panza, Pozo became a bustling Wild West town, complete with general stores, blacksmith shops and saloons.

By 1882, the population had soared to 850. But by 1900, gold fever had subsided and more direct routes to other parts of the county didn't include Pozo, so the town's importance was diminished. And if that wasn't enough, Prohibition did the saloon in during the Roaring Twenties.

For 40 years the saloon's doors would remain closed, until Paul Merrick, a former sheriff, bought the place. It reopened in 1966.

Today the saloon looks much like it did when Merrick bought it in 1961. The building's exterior still looks like a Hollywood façade. Inside, the walls are covered with old political campaign posters. And the mahogany bar, said to have been shipped to the U.S. in 1860, is still intact.

There is one notable difference, though: In the backyard sits a 40-foot modern stage that can light up the night as well as any in the county.

Back when bands like Steppenwolf, Country Joe and the Marshall Tucker band would play Pozo, concerts were held on the old wooden deck behind the saloon. But Beanway saw a need for growth.

"We'd done smaller (shows) for so long, it kind of seemed natural," she said. "Because you can run out of the old hippie people — there's only so many of them. So you have to take the next step."

Focus on the music

Beanway and her husband, Brian, a contractor and carpenter, bought the saloon in 1984. At the time, the couple rented a home in Pozo and Beanway was working as a waitress at McLintocks.

"I was driving from Pozo to Shell Beach, and it just sounded good to have something local," she said.

Initially, the saloon was open six days a week. (The Beanways' children would do their homework at the saloon.) Music usually entailed country and Western.

Eventually, music became a greater focus. And gradually, bigger acts ventured out to the country to play the funky outdoor venue.

When Willie Nelson played the saloon in 2005, it showed the venue could attract even bigger names. Dwight Yoakam would follow, then others, including Eddie Money, Big & Rich and Slightly Stoopid. (Beanway's son, Levi, now helps present shows.)

As to why big-name acts would play a venue so far out there (band buses have to navigate the winding Pozo Road to reach the saloon), Beanway is dumbfounded.

"I don't know — they just do," she said. "When we sell out, sometimes I'm in shock."

Most acts that arrive, she said, are impressed by the beauty of the area and the history of the saloon.

"I'll say the least fascinated by the saloon have been the two people I thought would have been the most (fascinated) — Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard," she said. "They pretty much stayed on their buses."

Others, like Ziggy Marley and Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson, were intrigued by the place.

"They just loved the saloon," she said.

When asked specifics about the acts, Beanway is again tight-lipped.

Any good stories? "No." Who were the jerks? "Oh, I'm not saying."

While acts like Willie Nelson and the Black Crowes have lent the saloon credibility, the establishment has tough competition with venues like the Chumash Casino, The Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center, the Santa Barbara Bowl and Downtown Brew.

But if the saloon has an edge, it's that it is a funky place, where 150-year-old spirits — whether true or imagined — dance in the woods.

"I think once people have been here, they see how fun it is," Beanway said.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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