Friday, September 16, 2022

The Blinking Owl, Santa Ana

The building that housed the Blinking Owl bar is now Cafe Cito. (Author's photo)
Over the years -- even before the name was borrowed for Santa Ana's Blinking Owl Distillery -- I've received questions about The Blinking Owl, which was a bar at 312 N. Birch St, in Downtown Santa Ana. Rumor has it that a it featured "a mechanical sign of an owl with a moving eyelid that went up and down." But I've never found a photo of the place (or the sign) from the years The Blinking Owl existed: 1971 to about 1976.
Those nondescript doors in the yellow building (right) would become the entrance to The Blinking Owl about a decade after this photo was taken. (Courtesy SAPL)
The best we can do, so far, is a photo like the one above, which was shot circa the 1960s, nearly a decade before The Blinking Owl moved in. This view is from the middle of 4th St, looking south down Birch. You can see the corner of the beautiful West End Theatre on the left, the lush foliage of Birch Park in the background, and the yellow building (with two doors) that would eventually house The Blinking Owl.

The building itself (which has been made to look like it's part of the larger building facing 4th St.) had a second story added to it in 1910. Beginning with King's Coffee Cup in 1930, it served as a number of cafes throughout the Great Depression. From at least 1939 through at least 1967 it was a bar called The Marquis Club. And in late 1970 it was Chick & Whiteys, owned by Chick Stober and Hollis J. Stober. Very little is known about The Blinking Owl bar that moved in after Chick and Whitey moved out.

Same view today. The building's a similar color, but partly obscured by a tree.
Therese Galvan, who grew up in Santa Ana, recalls visiting the Owl after a wedding reception at the adjacent Veterans' Hall: "It was a trip. Every corner and shelf was covered with hundreds of ceramic owls lit up with lights or candles in them. As you were drinking it felt like the eyes were following you. The bartender was a cool crusty old dude wearing a vest and a carnival-type straw hat with a lace garter around his arm."

Flash forward: The new Blinking Owl Distillery (no direct relation to the bar) opened not far from the Santa Ana municipal water tower and Barrio Logan in 2016. According to the distillery's website, "Brian and Robin Christenson, longtime Santa Ana residents, had heard stories of the midcentury (sic) 'Blinking Owl Bar' on the corner of Birch and Third Streets, known for an iconic owl sign that would blink. Inspired by the craft cocktail movement, the farm-to-table food movement, and current thriving craft distilleries, the husband and wife team saw an opportunity to bring a local distillery to the neighborhood, paying homage to the history of Santa Ana."

Naturally, the success of the distillery has only added to the public's interest in knowing something more about its namesake.  If you have memories, stories, photos, etc, relating to The Blinking Owl of the 1970s, please drop me a line.