Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Green Cat, Santa Ana

Illustration from an ad for The Green Cat, Santa Ana Register, Jan. 15, 1937.
Like other felines, Orange County's popular Green Cat had more than one life. This is the story of its first incarnations in Santa Ana. A future post will tell the story of a later incarnation in Westminster.

The Green Cat Cafe started as a confectionery, lunch counter and soda fountain at 300 N. Main (at 3rd St.), in Downtown Santa Ana. It was the sort of place where office workers could get an affordable lunch, where soda jerks assembled malts and phosphates with appropriate panache, and where children stared into glass candy displays before slowly and painstakingly making their selections.
The Green Cat's first incarnation is shown on the left, 1920s.
It began in June of 1927, when Navy veteran and Kansas native Lambert James "Jim" Detrixhe (1888-1973) moved to Santa Ana from El Monte with his wife Alice and young son Billy. At the same time, he bought the Roth Drug Store at the northwest corner of Third St. and Main. He’d previously run a soda fountain and had been in the catering business for 17 years. As such, he put a lot of stock in the drug store’s fountain business and immediately invested in a refrigeration system that allowed him to make his own ice cream. The store came with seven stools, but within a year, Detrixhe expanded the number to twenty four. To reflect the new focus on treats and lunches, he changed the name to The Green Cat, and he purchased signature green jadeite glasses and dishes.

Long ago, green cats – like flying broomsticks and bubbling cauldrons – were associated with witches (a tradition that dates to at least the 1500s). In a short 1915 comic movie entitled, “The Green Cat," a presumably witchy “old maid” with a green cat plays tricks on two buffoons. A longer comedy of the same name, featuring Snub Pollard, was released in 1923 and played the following year at Walker’s West Coast Theatre, two doors up from Roth’s Drug Store. A fictional “Green Cat Café” also served as the opening setting for the play, "The Good Little Bad Girl." So perhaps one of these instances explains the name Detrixhe gave his café.
Advertisement in the Santa Ana Register, Feb. 27, 1932
In any case, “The Green Cat,” seemed to have caught on as a name for businesses, as there was also a place called The Green Cat on Rural Route 2 near Orange.

In 1931, Detrixhe moved the popular café up the street to a larger space at 415 N. Main, added a dance floor, and expanded the menu to include heartier fare. The already popular business became even more popular. Women's clubs, charitable organizations and the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce met there. The mayors of local cities gathered there to plan how to approach the County government about needed road improvements. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a meeting there to rally people against the PWA and other New Deal make-work programs. The Eddie Martin Pilots Association met there to screen films on aviation. The Republicans met there. The Democrats met there. Presidential candidates stumped there. And the County Council of Epic Clubs met there for a special dinner in 1936 with L.A. County Supervisor John Anson Ford as their speaker (after listening to a radio broadcast of FDR).
A 1947 view of the second Green Cat location, at 415-417 N. Main St.
On May 17, 1935 a banquet was held by Santa Ana’s city leaders to honor the good citizenship of Orange County's Japanese Americans and the friendship between the nations of Japan and the United States. Representatives of five local Japanese organizations attended. No one in the room could have predicted that the next decade would bring Pearl Harbor, World War II, the interment of California’s Japanese-Americans, and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. In retrospect, this evening of brotherly love at the Green Cat was a rather poignant moment in Orange County history.

W.H. Spurgeon, Jr., president of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce, acted as M.C. for the evening; Santa Ana High School football star Kiyoshi Higashi introduced a group of girls performing traditional Japanese dances; and Japanese Consul to Los Angeles Tomokazu Hori shared his thoughts on friendship and commerce.

"I am especially happy to see... hearty friendship toward each other between the Americans and Japanese,” said Hori. "World peace and harmony is largely a matter of personal friendship. As long as the peoples have friendly regards toward each other, their countries will be friends no matter what political or financial difference there may be between them. ...These two countries have every reason to stand together and work together for the peace, progress and prosperity of mankind."

Sadly, Emperor Hirohito didn’t get the memo.

Prominent local rancher Hisamatsu Tamura, Jr. gave a talk on "the growing friendliness between Americans and Japanese." Speakers lauding their Japanese-American neighbors included Postmaster Terry E. Stephenson, Judge James L. Allen, and Stuart Strathman of the Placentia Chamber of Commerce.
Banquet facilities at the Green Cat, shown in the Register, Sept. 13, 1939.
In the early 1930s the Green Cat fielded an excellent baseball team, the uncreatively-named Green Cats, which played churches, businesses, fraternal organizations, the Irvine Beanpickers, and others in the Orange County Nightball League.

In February 1936, the Green Cat Café reopened after a brief refurbishing. It could now seat 118 in new leather booths on the spacious first floor, and 250 in rooms for private parties on the second floor. (The walls on the second floor could also be folded back to create an enormous banquet hall.) New refrigeration, ventilation and a sound system were installed as well.

It was this new and improved Green Cat that Detrixhe sold to established restaurateur Stanton "S. S." Hinegardner and his son, Orval "O. W." Hinegardner in October 1936. S. S. Hinegardner had operated the Santa Ana Cafe at Sixth and Main in the 1920s. His son would now become the active manager of the Green Cat. They kept the old staff (of 22), but made a few changes, including operating the place 24 hours a day. 
Advertisement in the Santa Ana Register, Oct. 19, 1935
But selling the restaurant didn’t mean Detrixhe had given up on the Green Cats baseball team. In fact, immediately after selling his restaurant, he doubled down, starting an additional Green Cats women's softball team. This team was initially managed by “Bomo” Koral (who was later instrumental in the development of Santa Ana’s park system) and did battle with such rivals as Tiernan's Typists and the phone company's Hello Girls. Some of these Cats, like Amateur Softball Association Hall of Famer Ruth Sears, later went on to join the more famous Orange Lionettes.

Within a year, Detrixhe would uproot and run another restaurant in Santa Monica. Meanwhile, the Green Cat Café continued its popularity. They added an adjoining Kit Kat Cocktail Lounge next door, where bartender Al Crowne added a novel twist to mixology by playing musical spoons.

Despite this juggernaut of pure entertainment, the Cat was in trouble. In July 1939, the state came after O. W. Hinegardner, saying he hadn’t made a single payment into the state unemployment insurance fund since taking over the Green Cat. Even a good restaurant with customers can fall victim to poor management. On January 17, 1940 Hinegardner sold his interest in the operation to his father and closed the place.
The original Green Cat building still stands near the West Coast Theatre.
Since that time, the Green Cat's second, larger location has been torn down for the First American Title Insurance complex. But the original location has continued on as a series of cafes. In recent memory, it was El Nidito and retained the look of an old lunch room. Today, with a remodeled interior, it serves as The Little Sparrow, where a hip crowd dines on international fusion cuisine. It’s a rare case of a sparrow following after a cat. 

(Click here to read PART II of this two-bit series.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story! Can't wait to hear more!