Bill Cattaneo was 8 years old when news of the Japanese Empire’s assault on Pearl Harbor reached San Luis Obispo.
Bill, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, was the grandson of Carlo Cattaneo, who emigrated from near Como, Italy, in 1920. To improve his English, Carlo took a job as a janitor at San Luis Obispo’s Carnegie Library. Bill chose that site, now the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, for his marriage to his beloved Marsha in the late 1990s.
Bill’s deep understanding of the history of our region made him an ideal contributor in the early days of this column. His articles on the history of the Blues baseball team provoked endless breakfast and barbershop conversations. His piece on Swiss-Italian polenta feasts briefly overtaxed the supply of the proper cornmeal flour at Muzio’s Delicatessen as readers tred the old wooden floorboards.
Bill was best known for his twice-daily Our Town radio broadcasts on KVEC. He was also the spokesman for Cold Canyon Landfill’s television spots on their new recycling program. In that capacity, Bill introduced San Luis Obispans to the notion of “co-mingling” disposables in the proper container.
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The news of the attack on the Hawaiian Islands reached San Luis Obispo early in the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. Visitors to Camp San Luis Obispo and Camp Roberts were quickly ushered off those bases without explanation.
Residents then received the news over the radio and with a succession of “special editions” of The Telegram-Tribune. Shockwaves enveloped the community, but there was also a recognition that America was in for a long struggle and that life would have to go on.
On Dec. 5, 1989, Bill remembered for his listeners on KVEC:
“Shattering as that day was, our Cattaneo family still followed a time-honored Sunday night tradition. We went to the Obispo Theatre, and after the movie, we stopped by Freitas’ bar at 686 Higuera Street, where George Freitas served up the usual: a cold beer for my father, and Cokes and Planter’s peanuts for my mother and me.
“Leaving George Freitas’ Saloon around 11 o’clock that historic night, and bound for home, we witnessed an eerie sight. Standing alone on the darkened corner of Broad and Islay streets was a newsboy selling special edition newspapers headlining the Pearl Harbor disaster. There was not a soul around, just the dark night shadows and that nameless newspaper boy.
“I recall that day and night in unforgettable detail. But last week, I realized there was one thing I could not remember — the name of the Hollywood movie playing that night at the Obispo Theatre.
“I walked to the second floor of the San Luis Obispo City Library and searched through the microfilmed Telegram-Tribune newspapers looking for the Dec. 7, 1941, movie listings.
“The Obispo Theatre listing rolled up on the screen and there it was — we had watched a first-run movie that would later become a black-and-white film classic: ‘The Maltese Falcon’ starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.”
I am a great fan of “The Maltese Falcon.” Liz has indulged me by sitting through at least a dozen showings of that classic. But I can thoroughly understand Bill’s better recalling the lonely newspaper carrier standing at 11 p.m. at the intersection of Broad and Islay.
I wish Norman Rockwell had done it for a cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
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As part of the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival, free showings will be held in San Luis Obispo, Atascadero and Nipomo on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of a compelling documentary film, “From Swastika to Jim Crow.”
The movie explores the complicated, culturally rich interaction of German Jewish professors, who had been fired by the Nazis, with their students at black colleges in the Jim Crow South, beginning in the 1930s. Many of them continued to teach there into the ’60s and ’70s, joining with the black community in helping plant seeds that developed into the civil rights movement.
This important film needs to be seen by all Americans.
Catch it at 10:30 a.m. at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art; 1:30 p.m. at Keast Theatre in Atascadero; or 4:30 p.m. at The Monarch Club, 1645 Trilogy Parkway in Nipomo. For more information or to reserve a seat, visit www.jccslo.com.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.