History of Oceanside’s Bandshell

An Iconic Beach Landmark

Oceanside’s oceanfront bandshell and beach stadium are unique to San Diego County. Throughout Southern California there are no other similar beachside facilities like it. The Junior Seau Pier Amphitheater provides a one-of-a-kind venue and it has become an integral part of the City’s recreational and cultural amenities.

Just over 100 years ago, plans for a “band stand” on the beach south of the pier were presented to the City Council.  The band stand would “be covered over and a regulation shell formed at the back, ceiled with matched lumber so as to constitute a sounding board or a reflector as an aid when the stand is used for music or public speaking.” Local building contractor Frederick W. Rieke was awarded the contract to build a 24×26 structure in a “Mission style” with cupula and the structure was completed in the Summer of 1919.

Oceanside’s first beach bandshell built in 1919.

After its completion, it quickly became the focal point for activity and was used for concerts and events. (The beach band stand would later became known and referred to as a bandshell, due to its shape.)

On July 4, 1927, Oceanside celebrated its 4th pier. The three day celebration brought thousands of people, triple that of the City’s population. Several improvements were added to enhance the area surrounding the pier: The Strand was paved from Wisconsin to Ninth Street (Neptune Way); a dancing pavilion placed under the pier approach and other amenities including a small cafe built just south of the pier.

To modernize the look of the bandshell, (which was just 8 years old) the cupula was removed. The June 16, 1927  Oceanside Blade newspaper reported:  The remodeling of the band stand with the enlarging of the front platform and the cutting off of a portion of the high top to remove some of the Queen Anne effect and modernize it is being done this week.  

The bandshell was resituated at an angle facing a northeast position. Rows of wooden benches were built to accommodate those attending beach concerts or other festivities held at the bandshell, just below the bluff at Pacific Street. While convenient and necessary, the benches were not enough to seat the hundreds of spectators events would attract and many were left to stand.

Seating on the bluff, before the stadium seating was put in in 1937. Note bandshell placed at an angle. Circa 1930

In 1936, as part of a Works Project Administration (WPA) project, the inadequate seating on the bluff was replaced a beach stadium. The Oceanside News newspaper reported:  Preliminary work was started Monday on a new city project under WPA auspices, the stadium to be constructed on the face of the bank to the south of the pier and overlooking the broad recreation space and band shell. A crew of 14 men now is engaged in clearing off grass and other growth in readiness for construction of a rubble wall, the first stage of the cement stand. Fragments of old concrete will be used in this phase of the building. J.C. Rouse and C.O. Rowe are in charge of the new project, the former for the WPA and the latter for the city.  Both officiated in similar capacities on the new water line and building works. The stadium will provide seating for around 800 persons and greatly improve the facilities and appearance of the section adjoining the pier. The government has allocated $5200 with which to pay the cost of labor and also as a share of the cost of the constructed materials.

In June of 1937 the Oceanside newspaper reported that the stadium seating would accommodate around 2,000 persons.  However, the following day that San Diego Union estimated that nearly 3,000 persons jammed the stadium when it was formally dedicated as part of the Southern California Beauty Contest.

Newly completed stadium seating, 1937

After nearly two decades of service, Oceanside’s first bandshell was dismantled in 1948 due to termite infestation.  For two years a temporary stage was built to accommodate the annual Beach Opening and beauty contests.

While beauty contests were held at the bandshell in the 1920s, the Miss Southern California Beauty Contest officially began in 1931. It grew in popularity each year and drew thousands of people all over San Diego County and contestants from all of Southern California.  Initially the female contestants were sponsored by local merchants.  By the 1940s the contest became very popular with starlets looking to be discovered by movie studios.  

In 1947 the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce announced that movie scouts from three major motion picture studios would be in the audience. “Girls parading across the flower decked ramp will be judged not only on their beauty, but for poise and personality, by the movie star makers.  The girls selected as possible movie material will not necessarily be contest winners, and it is understood that the judges’ decisions will have no bearing on selections made for screen tests.”

According to Lil Jackson, who was a freelance writer for the local paper, this was actually a “planted” story.  Her husband, Louis Jackson, was chairman of the Beauty Contest for the Chamber of Commerce and was having difficulty in getting “quality girls” to enter the contest and getting them sponsored by merchants.  Lil came up with the idea to write the column indicating that Hollywood movie scouts would be at the event in the hopes to draw more girls and sponsors.  One particular year the ploy worked even better than hoped.  It just so happened that a movie starring John Wayne was being filmed at Camp Pendleton, “Sands of Iwo Jima”.  Many of the cast were staying at the Carlsbad Hotel and agreed to be judges and made this competition one of Oceanside’s most successful and publicized beauty contests.

In 1956, a star was born – or at least made her debut on the Oceanside’s beach stage. Raquel Tejada was the second of three finalists of the famed beauty contest. She would go on to win the title of Miss Fairest of the Fair at the San Diego County Fair.  Later she changed her name and became an actress and 1960s sex symbol Raquel Welch.

After two years without a proper event venue, in April of 1950 bids were opened for the construction of a new beach bandshell. City planners recommended that the bandshell be “relocated directly in front of the beach bleachers and adjoining the Strand.” Plans were drawn by prominent San Diego architect Sam W. Hamill, who also designed several Oceanside schools buildings.  Original plans were to include “a Mission flavor, carried out by tile roof and stucco exterior.” However, the April bids were considered too high and Hamill was asked to revise his plans, eliminating the tile roofing. 

The local newspaper described Hamill’s design: The shell is to be 58 feet wide and 19 feet deep on the outside, with the concrete stage extending an additional seven feet beyond the face of the overhead structure.  There will be steps in front of the stage on both sides, leading up to the platform, and doors to both the back and wings of the stage. Dressing rooms for men and women, complete sanitary facilities, will be included in the backstage portion of the shell, facilitating theater productions, and provisions will be made for the possible installation of curtains along the front of the stage.  Storage room backstage will accommodate stage furnishings, props and other equipment for various types of spectacles.

Richardson Brothers constructed the bandshell which was completed in June 1950 for the annual Oceanside Beach Celebration.  Saunders Construction Company laid the large 14,000 square concrete slab to be used particularly for square dancing which was popular at the time. The concrete “mat” as it was referred to, was also used for roller skating, volley ball games and shuffleboard.

Crowds gather at the Miss Southern California Beauty Contest in 1955

In 1953 the band shell and “bleachers” received renovations.  The inside of the bandshell was painted a light blue, while the backs of the bleacher seats and fencing behind it, a light green. It was common to decorate the bandshell with gladiolas and palm fronds for beauty contests and beach opening celebrations.

In 1960 the Oceanside High School began having graduation ceremonies at the bandstand or beach amphitheater to accommodate families and guests.  Although it can no longer adequately accommodate the number of graduates and their many guests, students have long insisted on holding their graduation ceremony at the bandshell because of the longstanding tradition.

During the Vietnam War the bandshell and stadium were used for demonstrations. Black Panther Angela Davis was a speaker at one such protest, drawing thousands.

Vietnam War Protests at the Oceanside Bandshell, 1970

In the 1980s concerts were revived and the bandshell hosted notable entertainers including jazz legend Lionel Hampton and Oceanside’s own Barbara Mandrell.  To accommodate such events, risers and wooden platforms were used to hold or provide space for needed equipment such as lighting, speakers and cameras. 

In 1991 the bandshell stage was temporarily enlarged to accommodate a military event: “Welcome Home the Troops” parade and celebration.  Many servicemen and women were returning from the Middle East having been deployed for Operation Desert Storm.  The Fieldstone Corporation along with Orco Block Company and U.S. Silica donated materials for the extension. The stage was extended 12 feet out and 70 feet across. 

Oceanside’s iconic bandshell was featured in a movie “Bring It On” filmed in 2000 starring Kierstin Dunst and Gabrielle Union, and can also be spotted in episodes of the current television show “Animal Kingdom”.

On May 16, 2012, the Oceanside City Council voted to rename the Oceanside Pier Amphitheater, as well as the beach community center, in honor of Junior Seau. A native of Oceanside, Seau graduated from Oceanside High School and went on to play professional football in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers and was a beloved local citizen.

The Oceanside bandshell is an historic and cherished landmark, still in use for a variety of community events including cultural celebrations, religious services, outdoor movies and concerts.

Oceanside Pier Amphitheater during Armed Forces Day Operation Appreciation 2016

The Bunker House – A Building With a Past

The Bunker House located at 322 North Cleveland Street was first owned in 1886 by Theodore C. Bunker. This two-story building is one of the first brick buildings in Oceanside and one of three brick buildings built in the 1880’s which are still standing.

The Bunker family arrived from Los Angeles and operated a store on the first floor and a boarding house on the second. Bunker also owned a single-story wooden structure next door, which served as a meat market. The Bunker House was used as a meeting hall as well as for dances and church services. 

After Bunker’s death in 1892, Ysidora Bandini Couts, wife of Col. Cave J. Couts, held the mortgage on the building and retained ownership.  The local newspaper reported that Katherine Mebach purchased the building in 1896. 

Frederick Rieke bought the brick building in 1904. Rieke was a general contractor and built many homes and buildings in Oceanside, including the house located on the same block at 312 North Cleveland Street. 

In 1923 the building was sold to by H. J. Crawford and it was subsequently deeded to two other members of his family: Thomas J. Crawford, and then to Samuel J. Crawford, a prominent attorney in Los Angeles who maintained ownership until 1945 when it was sold to George Edmond Haddox of Los Angeles. 

Renamed the American Hotel in 1943, the building, which continued to serve as a boarding house, developed a rather “seedy reputation”. Longtime residents recalled as children they were forbidden to visit or linger near the building and its use by prostitutes rampantly rumored.

Those rumors were in fact true. Audrey Wetta, a 36 year old married woman from Louisiana, became the manager of the American Hotel in about 1945. She was arrested in December of 1946 for operating “a house of ill fame, and with prostitution.” During her trial Helen E. Shepherd was called to the stand and testified that she arrived in Oceanside in June of 1946 to visit her husband who was apparently stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. She returned to Oceanside “at the suggestion of Mrs. Wetta in December, where she entertained men for pay at the American Hotel, and part of the pay went to Mrs. Wetta.”

Adeline Vincenzo also testified, stating that she too worked at the hotel “entertaining men” until late December of 1946, when the Oceanside Police Department arrested Audrey Wetta.

Police Captain Harold Davis testified that they had been notified from the Marine MP station in regard to the activities at the hotel. Captain Guy Woodward then submitted reports to the court from the San Diego county health department, “which showed they had on file two reports of VD infection, alleged to have originated from the hotel.”

Harold Davis and Guy Woodward of the Oceanside Police Department (1940)

Audrey Wetta did not deny her role as a Madam or even as a prostitute herself. She testified that “she believed correctly managed ‘houses’ were a service to men, as she had noted when she was employed in a hospital that 84 percent of the girls men picked up for immoral purposes transmitted a social disease to the men, while only four percent of the cases came from girls who were recognized prostitutes.”

Wetta told Judge D. A. Parson, “the first time she allowed her hotel to be used for illegal purposes was when a young Marine returned from a year and a half overseas to find the girl to whom he was engaged was going to marry someone else. In remorse he approached Mrs. Wetta and she arranged for a young wife in the hotel, who was in need of $10, to ‘entertain’ the remorseful Marine.”

She went on to say that after military personnel at Camp Pendleton diminished, so did her income. Wetta was $20 short in her monthly rent, and had “decided to entertain two men at $15 each, $10 of which was to go to a marine bringing the men to her, in order to raise the $20.”

After hearing her testimony, Judge Parsons sentenced Audrey Wetta to a year in the county jail.

Owner George Edward Haddox sold the hotel one week later to Ralph and Ella Rogers who promptly renamed their establishment the Traveler’s Hotel (as listed in phone directories) or Hotel Travelers (painted on building).

Rogers opened Rogers Music Co., also known as Rogers Phonograph Service, on the lower level and maintained the boarding house on the second floor.

1968 Ad for Rogers’ Phonograph Service

In 1959, Ella Rogers operated Gale’s Café near the Oceanside Pier at 300 1/2 North Strand, and in addition to his record store, Ralph Ross Rogers ran the Silver Dollar Tavern located at 312 Third Street (now Pier View Way). Rogers was described as “a goodhearted man who loved his parents dearly and was respected by many.”

Ralph Ross Rogers courtesy Ruby Rogers McCormick

True to its reputation, in 1962, there was a very public arrest at the Traveler’s, which made local papers and only solidified its reputation.  A young woman from Ohio, who had recently arrived in Oceanside, brought two 15 year old runaways from San Diego to the boarding house to exploit for prostitution. The girls told Oceanside Police Detective Floyd Flowers that they were to work in exchange for lodging, food and clothing.

Ella Rogers died in 1973, as Ralph continued to operate his music business while living in his building on Cleveland Street. On September 26, 1976 Ralph Rogers was found murdered at the Traveler’s Hotel, stabbed multiple times and strangled.

One month later an arrest was made. Joseph Shavon Whitaker, age 21, was arrested for not only Rogers’ murder, but that of William O. Clark’s in a San Diego hotel. Whitaker went to trial in 1977, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

After Rogers’ death the building was vacated and left to deteriorate. It seemed destined for the wrecking ball until it was purchased by realtor Chris Parsons in 1982. Parsons saw the potential in the weathered building and began its restoration.

While its reputation has been tainted with scandal, the building itself is nearly unchanged from when the Bunkers owned it over 130 years and provides historic charm and character to Downtown Oceanside.