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Mountain Charley’s: First Days, Early Days

by edhawk on June 11, 2013

 

In the early 1970s, my dad and I were driving down Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos and as we turned up Main Street we saw all sorts of activity up on the second story of the Caňada Building, both in the front and in the back. Pa wondered what was going on up there and I told him that I heard someone was opening up a restaurant in the old building. He smirked and said that a restaurant in this broken down, old town had no attraction, and second story restaurants never worked.

My Pa had started working in the high-end restaurant trade back in the 1930s in his home town of Chicago, Illinois, when the supper clubs hosted such big band names as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Cab Calloway. Through the 1950s and 60s, Pa had worked all the classy places in the whole Bay Area. He had more tuxedos in his closet than all the old-time ranchers in the Almaden Valley combined. His restaurant expertise was pretty much indisputable, his judgments were usually right on the money. However, in this case, his prediction could not have been further off the mark.

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MC office turret

The turret of Canada Building at Santa Cruz Avenue and Main Street in modern times.

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The activity we were observing were the last, finishing touches being applied to the Caňada building in preparation for the opening of Mountain Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon. When it finally did open a few weeks later, I didn’t pay much attention to it as per my father’s prediction: it wasn’t going to last. Why invest in an enterprise that was a failure even before it opened? A couple of months after the opening, I was walking down the sidewalk on Santa Cruz Avenue, right under the windows of Mountain Charley’s, and I ran into a woman, with two kids and a tall husband, who I gone through school with. I hadn’t seen her for a number of years so the kids were a big surprise to me. We did some catching up, there on the sidewalk and then they invited me to lunch, to continue our re-acquaintance. With nothing else to do, I accepted. We went upstairs to Mountain Charley’s for my first lunch there, a place which this couple owned. I had just met Jim Farwell, the great-grandson of one of the founders of Los Gatos, James Lyndon. It was the male half of this couple who had the idea for this unique and original restaurant and bar, on the second story in this broken down, dusty, old town.

As I said, my dad was just dead wrong about Mountain Charley’s. For around the next ten years, from the first opening of its doors through the sale of the business in the early 1980s, there were often long lines of people standing in the stairwells, sometimes down to the sidewalk or the parking lot in the back, waiting to have a classic “American” style dinner or a few drinks in the converted Odd Fellows Temple which housed the saloon. While I don’t remember any of the managers or employees having any sort of vast restaurant experience or expertise, such as my dad’s, but what they lacked in years of experience they made up for with enthusiasm, imagination, energy and dedication. In fact, at the time of the opening, I’m not sure that any of the owners or any of the staff were even over 30 years of age.

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reservation book busy 1973 enhanced

This is a snapshot of the reservation book on a busy night in 1973

(photo: courtesy Maureen Stover)

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reservation book slow 1973 enhanced

This is snapshot of the reservation book on a slow night in 1973

(photo: courtesy Maureen Stover)

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Though I was obviously not involved in any of the pre-opening activities, I became hugely aware of how much work a large group of young people had put into rebuilding the interiors of the two old buildings which housed the restaurant, its offices and the saloon, as well as bringing the exteriors up to code and making the interiors as accessible as possible. I’ve always thought that the reason for Mountain Charley’s immediate and intense popularity was a result of the young, enthusiastic artists and craftsmen who remodeled and outfitted the old places and who, in the end, wanted the whole world to come and see the really special place they had fashioned. They were not limited or restrained by their boss, Jim Farwell, but encouraged and inspired by this native Los Gatan, not much older that any of the rest of them. So often the young, artistic types are squelched and reined in, not able to explore and stretch out their artistic muscles and sinew to find out what they are truly capable of. In this environment, supported just a couple of blocks away by the new shopping center called “Old Town” over on University Avenue, the young Los Gatos creative genius was able to truly fulfill itself and bear some very hearty fruit.

The people who tore down the walls and rebuilt others in the Caňada Building were carpenters but they were also newly trained lawyers, musicians, athletic coaches, stained glass workers and soldiers recently returned from Viet Nam. These people were recruited by Farwell from the ranks of recent, fellow graduates of Santa Clara University and San Jose State College and others were from the families of carpenters, orchardists and shopkeepers of the old Los Gatos neighborhoods and it’s mountain side communities. And when the walls were up and floor was ready for carpeting, this same crew of young workers designed and built the furnishings for their new restaurant and saloon. And then the same bunch of diverse but dedicated employees morphed into the waiters and waitresses, cooks and bartenders of this new, unique hostelry. The musicians who had hammered nails to build the new walls, later, graced the stage and provided nightly entertainment to the hall of friends who helped build the place just months before. The comradeship and pride were thick and plentiful in what would eventually come to be known as the “Charley’s Family.” Each and everyone had much more invested in this endeavor than a simple job, they had helped to build and outfit this place of which they were so very proud. Even the draperies adorning the windows were handmade by young, local women, one of which was the wife of the owner.

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cook's picture 1975 or 1976 enhanced

Here’s a snapshot of the hard-working Mt. Charley’s cooks in 1975

(photo: courtesy Maureen Stover.  By the way, Maureen is the only girl in this photo)

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Jim Farwell and the others dug through family basements and barns to find unusual and attractive art work and memorabilia to enhance the ambiance and character of the emerging landmark which was an integral part of town even before it opened its doors. The large gang of “kids” working up on the second floor improvements had lunch in the local deli’s and restaurants. They drank their “after work” beers in the local bars and they bought their tools and supplies in the local hardware stores, lumber yards and plumbing supply outlets.

Not only were they invested in Mountain Charley’s but also in the other local businesses of town. It was a “win/win” situation, and pretty much, everyone involved was smiling, glad to see the new activity in the sleepy, dusty old town.

 

A few years before, Old Town, a Cultural and Shopping Center, had opened, drawing the first wave

Items such as this Oddfellow's poster would be framed and hung in the foyer, the restaurant, saloon or in the banquet rooms.

Items such as this Oddfellow’s poster would be framed and hung in the foyer, the saloon, restaurant or in the banquet rooms.

of artists and craftsmen to town. This activity at Mountain Charley’s reinforced and stimulated another resurgence of art and culture in town. The bar at Charley’s was built as a Master’s Thesis Project by James Bacigalupi, Farwell’s cousin. The Charley’s logo, menu and the nude lady at the peak of the bar were all done by a mountain artist know to Farwell, Marty Rice. The stained glass in Charley’s was done by Tom Stanton, who’s stained glass studio is still up in Holy City, just a few miles out of Los Gatos on Highway 17. The huge wrought iron chandelier in the Saloon was designed and built by some local whose name I can’t remember. Farwell liked to do his business and his art on a local level, and a friendly one as well. His grandfather had built and run the old Lyndon Hotel on the other corner of Main Street and Santa Cruz Avenue and our Jim Farwell grew up playing in the halls and verandas and in the bar, restaurant and lounges of the venerable old place. It was the style and ambiance of that old hotel (demolished in 1963) that Jim Farwell had tried to capture with the building of his restaurant and saloon, a place where cowboys, mountain men and loggers could rest and be entertained, in the hearty, rough-hewn style to which they were all accustomed.

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1899 - 1963 Hotel Lyndon_Hotels_2

The Lyndon Hotel in the 1930s  (photo from the Los Gatos Public Library Collection)

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With the opening of the doors, if the ones who had participated in the building of Mountain Charley’s didn’t end up working there, in the restaurant or the bar operations, they returned with family and friends as loyal patrons. As well, the curious town’s people came to check the place out and Jim Farwell’s multigenerational family and social contacts also drew in an already interested and empowered bunch. Pretty much, the place was an instant success. But the luster didn’t wear off anytime soon, and the draw wasn’t just local. Just as the Old Town shopping center drew its clientele from all over the San Francisco Bay Area, eventually, so did Mountain Charley’s. It became famous for its overly thick slices of great prime rib, grand portions of salmon, an endless variety of drinks and hard-driving, countrified rock and roll. You could leave your car in the back parking lot, go upstairs and have a great dinner and a hell of a good time rockin’ out and never leave the building until you were ready to go home. With this level of success, the members of the Mountain Charley’s family could take an even greater measure of pride in the place they had put together. Now, they had done a truly special and unique thing that lots of folks, from all over the place, had come to appreciate and partake of.

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First Restaurant Pic

This fuzzy snapshot, taken by Maureen Stover, is one of several she took

of the restaurant’s interior.  She took these photos with a cheap, simple

camera with very few adjustments to compensate for lighting or any

thing else. Maureen’s set of interior photos are the only ones I’ve been

able to locate.   If anyone should know of someone who might have some

old pictures of Mt. Charley’s, interior or exterior, please let me know.

Surprisingly, they are very hard to come by. 

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When you add to this, Jim Farwell’s constant involvement in so many community activities, it’s not hard to see why Mountain Charley’s was the hub of so many of the town’s social, political and cultural endeavors. Farwell’s famous Mountain Charley’s fire truck

Mountain Charley's         Fire Truck

Mountain Charley’s Fire Truck

was a regular feature in the Christmas Parade and his restaurant housed the fantastic ginger bread mansions built by Jock McCoy every Christmas season. He organized the first regatta up on Lexington Lake, and his Mountain Charley’s Saloon participated in the shooter scooter races and hosted the Belly Bucking tournaments for a couple of years. Charley’s was a regular host to the various service clubs in town and was often an active partner in the charitable efforts that were so often undertaken in Los Gatos. At times, the Saloon would present musicians that might usually only be seen in the more established music venues up in San Francisco. For most of the other times, the Saloon would present a host of local musicians, many of whom have become prominent members of the national music scene. All this just added a bit more to the wealth of pride held by the Mountain Charley’s family, an informal, ill-defined but supportive and loyal fraternity.

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MtCharleys_interior

The Saloon prepped for a service club luncheon

 

In fact, it wasn’t until just the last few years that I came to truly understand how much the town had really adopted and appreciated the Mountain Charley’s family in those old, special days. An old friend from the family told me that she and the other girls working at Charley’s as waitresses or cocktail maids would often have their shopping charges deferred to the end of the month. In those days, the local grocers and pharmacies were family owned, not operated by huge corporate entities. The girls of Charley’s would walk into a dress shop or the pharmacy and take their purchase to the counter to pay. Often times, they would be told that they could simply put it on account, after all, we see you all the time when we go to lunch and dinner . . . at Mountain Charley’s. This was long before credit cards were common and having “house accounts” was about the only way to avoid paying cash for just about everything you bought.

Shooter Scooter Race

Shooter Scooter Race

I had several such house accounts at the hardware stores and lumber yards but I always thought I was availed this courtesy because of my long time patronage. I wasn’t aware of how potent and prestigious the Mountain Charley’s celebrity “aura” was in those days.

When I was the general manager of the place, my department managers (kitchen manager (chef), floor manager (head waiter or waitress), banquet manager, bar manager, etc.) and I became pretty good friends but we’ve eventually gone our separate ways over the last 40 years. However, the banquet manager and I have remained good friends through all of it. It was she who told me of this “celebrity” aspect of being part of the old Mountain Charley’s family. It made me just that little bit even more proud of being a part of that great, old place and its family, during that time. We did good and we are still proud of it!

 

Jim Farwell was not a restauranteur, though he forged ahead to make his second story establishment a legend, to spite my dad’s prediction. He tired of the intensity of the business and sold the restaurant to others more interested in running hostelries. Eventually, the Saloon was sold as well. Jim Farwell died of cancer in 1992 but not before he helped the Town of Los Gatos rebuild itself after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

 

Johnny Hannegan, a long time General Manager of Mountain Charley’s Saloon and Restaurant along with Farwell’s long time friend, Chris Benson, opened their own place, C.B. Hannegan’s, in 1980. As Jim Farwell was closing his restaurant, Johnny and Chris were opening theirs. They brought the traditions and family forged at the early Mountain Charley’s into their place, where they live on to this very day.

 

In 2012, Jim’s middle son, Joe Farwell, re-acquired Mountain Charley’s Saloon restoring the family’s ownership. After months of rebuilding and modernization, Joe reopened the new Mountain Charley’s, ready to forge some new legends for a new generation. There aren’t but a few of us cowboys and mountain men left, and most of us can’t stay awake past 9:30 p.m. so Joe is going to have to find a new clientele for those night-time hours when we used to fill the saloon with great music and good-natured merriment.

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Every year, the staff of Mountain Charley’s would gather to take a “class picture.”  This one was taken a couple of years before the restaurant closed.

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9 Comments Leave one →
  1. Moose permalink

    Great Story! My Grandfather owned the bar across the street from Mt Charlie’s. It was called the Manhattan club back then. Which is now Carrie Nations

  2. Yes Mountain Charley’s Saloon is an historical art piece, celebrating a moment in history of this place, Los Gatos, CA. This article has many people asking who is Mountain Charley? It’s a good story look it up. We knew Jim Farwell and the “crew” that built this grand olde establishment. We celebrated our engagement here, many 21st birthdays, bachelor parties, Karl and my brothers spent time as a bouncers and bartenders. We gathered our Santa Clara University crew and friends for many a New Years Eve celebration with Johnny D, the Big Bopper and Bob Wilcox in the banquet room.We loved listening to music there and were told we could not dance in the bar because the building was unstable but we always thought it was because they did not want us college kids to get too rowdy. Great mountain blue grass music. Remember Shagbark Hickory? Juice Newton? I can still hear “the Devil went down to Georgia” and see the fiddle fly. We knew we were living at a special time when it came to musical talent. We celebrate the reopening of Mountain Charley’s in Jim’s honor by his son and send our support and encouragement for some good old fashioned fun and memory making in Mountain Charley’s Saloon. We have had such a great time currently celebrating birthdays and joining friends at the new Mountain Charley’s a great great place to go.

    • edhawk permalink*

      I published a book last year that was a collection of my stories about those days. One of them was about a big Juice Newton concert we put on after Juice had hit the big time. Here’s a link to that story — https://www.box.com/s/jhrjccmosicid2mg936u . As far as the dancing goes, you are correct in your suspicions. Jim Farwell and his friends who started Charley’s weren’t big time partyers. They thought that dancing would take up too much room and reduce the bar sales. So Jim made up what we call “Jim’s law” against dancing in the Saloon. It had nothing to do with safety or the town. During my tenure as General Manager, I pulled the tables back and the let the dancing start. Bar sales went up 30%. Jim repealed his law.
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      Last year we were working on having a concert in Oak Meadow Park where we’d get a lot of the musicians from that era of Mt. Charley’s back together. We had such a good responce from the guys that we decided to postpone the concert until we had more resources to handle such a large undertaking.

  3. Kit Menkin permalink

    Many bands, a great place to dance…a young Joe Sharino, what a performer! The food was very good, bar fun, and it was the place to go in its day.

  4. Steve permalink

    Great read, loved the history, pics, and fond memories you offered, Ed. Thank you.

    I worked there as a busboy around ’76 or ’77. It was my first job (I was a ‘mountain kid’ from both Bear Creek and Black Roads) and hired by Jim Farwell, his business partner Walter McTiernan(?), and Douglas Smith. They all interviewed me.

    During my interview, Douglas Smith proceeded to take me down the hallway of the La Canada building running at a full clip, demanding I hurry faster and keep up, telling me this was what work was going to be like and I would do it while balancing a full load of dishes on a tray without spilling them. He angrily asked me in a coy tone, “Is this ‘copacetic’ for you?!” I had to ask what that word meant because I didn’t know. After he explained it to me with his trademark smirky and smug grin, I said “Yes, I can do this. Uh… no problem.” It was truly a strange and bizarre test, but if you knew Douglas, it all makes perfect sense. I was hired.

    I was taught to work hard, excel, and to hustle constantly, which was a good experience for a young kid like me. It was a very demanding place but I liked it. I made a roll of small cash every night, got a free meal, and heck, there was never a boring moment. The ladies and waitresses were gorgeous and kind and sweet. I knew most of the folks there, but not all of them. Many, many folks had worked their way through Mountain Charley’s over the years.

    I do remember a popular specialty on the menu that was introduced by one of the cooks: Chicken ala Ming Dong. You may recall that. I also recall the town fathers weren’t very happy about the noise and the rowdy goings-on in the bar and otherwise shaking up the former bucolic quietness of Los Gatos. It was… well, fun! No one had seen the likes of this before.

    Jim Farwell was always a good, calm, and kind owner. He was young and handsome, an established and energetic man, and a good role model to follow, I thought. I was especially struck by how good his overall demeanor was– especially after serving in the infantry in Viet Nam. I could only imagine what that was like.

    In your 4th picture, I think the guy holding the colander was Jim (?), one of the main cooks. He died of a heart attack around the age of 35. I’m not sure, but the person to the left of him– and nearly horizontal– was one of the bakers?

    I remember some names you may recall: Sue and David Wellbeloved, Ernie and Sue Reed (a Bacigalupi), Patty Vinson, Randy Bertao, Joe and Vicki Morrelli, Douglas and Justin Smith, and Johnny Hannegan (he was a great carpenter and put in some really cool spiral woodwork in the ceiling!). Many other people I knew only by their first names.

    Ed, if you knew Douglas Smith, well yeah, you knew he was a strange and trippy guy. I liked him only because he gave me my first start and taught me well, taking me under his severely autocratic and eccentric wing of all things. No matter. If folks read this and do remember him, here’s his obituary that captures a bit of his character:

    http://www.vermonttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20150814/OBITUARIES/708149853/-1/CLASSIFIEDS&template=printart

    Ed, thank you for writing this post. It is greatly appreciated and I enjoyed traipsing down Memory Lane. Sorry so long here.

  5. Steve permalink

    Ed, I left a nice lengthy comment (with a link) and it doesn’t appear.
    Check your mail folder ‘cuz it may be there.
    Thanks, and best wishes to you.

  6. Jim Paggi permalink

    In the 4th photo, the guy holding the colander is Dennis Corradi. The horizontal guy is me, Jim Paggi. Picture takes place on roof where cooks would congregate after work to partake of some cannabis with a few waiters.

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