Valley Relics History: The Four Jokers

Valley Relics History: The Four Jokers

It’s been a long time since I contributed an article to the Valley Relics Museum blog, but I’m excited to return! In 2015, I began archiving the museum’s collection of vintage postcards. Cheerful and often colorful, these cards have survived, saved in scrapbooks and collections, even long after the Valley motels, businesses and attractions they pictured have passed on. Click here to read my previous blog posts inspired by the postcard collection: Scandals of the 1920s and A Tale of Two Steeles.

When I first cataloged this postcard, I didn’t think it would inspire an article. A probably-forgotten musical act, “appearing nightly” at the Saddle and Sirloin, a steakhouse in Studio City. Googling “the Four Jokers” brought up results of a 1950s R&B quartet with the same name, clearly not the same artists.

"Bill! Joe! Buddy! Ricky!"

"Bill! Joe! Buddy! Ricky!"

Then, many months later, I was researching something entirely different in the archives of the Van Nuys Valley News, when I found this item from July 5, 1956:

“THE FOUR JOKERS have gone into business for themselves. And so the Four Jokers can be seen nightly at one of the places where they entertained for a long time, formerly the Saddle and Sirloin on Ventura Blvd., corner of Whitsett Ave., and now will be known as The Jokers.”

The band ended up running the restaurant? I decided to see if there was more to the story!

As it turns out, the Four Jokers were a part of the San Fernando Valley entertainment and restaurant scene for almost two decades. They were a group of “clowning cards,” mixing music with comedy. Just how funny were they? By all accounts, they were pretty ahead of their time! They were said to be pioneers of “topical ad-lib material.” Their fast-paced act also included celebrity impressions, a skit or two, and musical parodies (country, pop . . . even something called “Bopera,” which was alleged to “rip asunder and glue back together” numerous works of great opera). And I have no idea what the “Lucky Lasagna Hit Parade” may have been, but it was apparently not to be missed! In between comedy routines, they played instrumental dance music “for the shufflers.”

The Four Jokers were not originally Angelenos; the group formed down in San Diego in 1946. The original lineup was Joe Bianco (guitar, straight man), Ricky Mathews (bass, comedian), Buddy Casanova (accordion), and Bill Pettit (drums). Early ads sometimes list them as “Bill Pettit’s Four Jokers.” They performed at Melody Lane in Long Beach, the Tally Ho club on Catalina, and then beginning in 1948, seem to have struck up a deal with Arthur and David Lyons. The Lyons brothers owned the Saddle and Sirloin, a glitzy Western-themed steakhouse with locations in Bakersfield, Palm Springs, Glendale, and Studio City.

Saddle and Sirloin postcard, late 1940s. Valley Relics Museum Collection.

Saddle and Sirloin postcard, late 1940s. Valley Relics Museum Collection.

12449 Ventura Boulevard was the original and the most famous location of the Lyons’ restaurant, opened in 1947. It was a swanky spot with celebrities (including Mae West, Faith Domergue, Frank Capra, and Susan Hayward) dropping in nightly. The Four Jokers were touring the Bakersfield and Palm Springs locations since at least 1948, but made it to the Studio City spot in 1953 (probably around the date of the first postcard).

Souvenir ashtray from the 4 Jokers Club, Valley Relics Museum Collection

Souvenir ashtray from the 4 Jokers Club, Valley Relics Museum Collection

Three years later, as the Valley News reported, the group “went into business for themselves,” and 12449 Ventura became known as The 4 Jokers Club. They did not buy the building, however—the owner by then was Mae West, who had made millions with her savvy real estate investments over the years. It was apparently quite an experience to have her as a landlady! The nightclub enjoyed success and was open for six years, but during this time, the original Jokers act broke up. Bill Pettit and his wife bought the Rossmore Hotel in Palm Springs in 1958, which soon had its own “Joker Room” nightspot. Ricky Mathews moved up north and had his own TV show on a Bay Area local channel, and Buddy Casanova went solo. In 1965, he was performing at Tony’s Idle Hours in Van Nuys (13235 Victory Blvd.).

Joe Bianco seems to have been the Joker who loved the Valley (and also the nightclub business) the most. In 1962, after the 4 Jokers Club folded, he grabbed original member Mathews, a new accordion player and drummer, and took the new Four Jokers on the road. But they returned, and on December 9, 1967, Bianco became the proprietor of the Doric Mission Inn in Mission Hills (10639 Sepulveda Blvd.) and made its restaurant the new Joker Room club. (Within a few months, the motel’s name was changed to the Mission Hills Inn.) For the rest of the decade, the Four Jokers were seemingly everywhere. They entertained in their own restaurant and banquet room, and played shows in Canoga Park at the Royal Room (Canoga Park Bowl, 20122 Vanowen) and My Brother’s Restaurant (8232 DeSoto).

Mission Hills Inn postcard, early 1970s. Valley Relics Museum Collection.

Mission Hills Inn postcard, early 1970s. Valley Relics Museum Collection.

If Bianco found it a come-down to own a motel and work bowling alleys and barbecue joints, after playing to the stars in Studio City in the 50s, he never seemed to show it. But after over 20 years as a Joker, he was perhaps beginning to slow down. The Four Jokers “disbanded” in mid-1970, but reappeared at the end of the year with a new lineup: Bianco, Dick Merriss on bass guitar and in the comedian role, Vic Marrone on cordovox (a type of electronic accordion), and Wyman Bower on drums. The new group began a limited holiday engagement at the Joker Room, gave their last “swingin’” New Year’s dance, and played their final shows in the first week of 1971. One month later, Merriss, Marrone, and Bower were booking gigs as the Merriss-Marrone Trio, and what happened to Joe Bianco is currently unknown.

The Four Jokers kept people dancing and laughing, from the post-war years all the way through the Sixties and beyond. It may have helped that their philosophy, according to Joe Bianco, was just to “let it swing.” As a part of Valley entertainment history, they deserve a round of applause.

--Alison Turtledove

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Incomplete List of Sources:

“Four Jokers’ Roots in Valley.” No byline. Valley News (Van Nuys), October 4, 1968, page 95.

“Four Jokers Make Debut at Wagon Wheel, Tahoe.” No byline. Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, NV), March 24, 1962, page 26.

Harnisch, Larry. “Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Studio City Nightclubs Jazz Up San Fernando Valley.” The Daily Mirror, posted February 9, 2015. http://ladailymirror.com/2015/02/09/mary-mallory-hollywood-heights-studio-city-nightclubs-jazz-up-san-fernando-valley/

Himlin, Dave W. “Valley Ramblings” column. Valley News (Van Nuys), July 5, 1956, page 42.

McGraham, Thom. “Acts in Review.” Valley News (Van Nuys), December 25, 1970, page 38.

Thomey, Tedd. “Verdi, Bizet Are Spinning Like Mad.” Independent (Long Beach), January 26, 1962, page 35.

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