In the 1940s and ’50s Riverbank was a growing town. With the ammunition plant and cannery providing jobs, the city had a workforce with money in their pockets. On a Friday or Saturday night, they wanted to spend that money and one place in town they could so was The Riverbank Clubhouse.
The Clubhouse and the roller rink provided the main musical venues in Riverbank. Located on Sierra Street between Second and Third, the Clubhouse was owned by John McDonald and attracted major country music stars in its brief history – until violence and a revived religious fervor brought that era in Riverbank to an end.
Originally, the Clubhouse building housed a movie theater that went out of business with the opening of the Del Rio Theater a few blocks away. The very front of the Clubhouse was distinct with the words “KEEP OUT” written in large letters with the smaller words underneath “IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HAVE FUN.” On an average weekend night, the crowds attending would enter through the front doors on Sierra Street while the entertainers would enter from the east side where John McDonald would greet them and show them to their tiny dressing room.
Once ready, the star of the evening’s show would be introduced by Elroy “Yosemite Sam” Cordray, by day a worker at the cannery, by night emcee of the Clubhouse. The band would perform on a tiny stage no more than 15-20 feet in width in front of a crowd that would be officially numbered at 300; that was the building’s capacity but the number sometimes could reach seam-busting number 2,500. Acts ranging from The Maddox Boys and Rose, Hank Williams Sr., local favorite Chester Smith, Ernest Tubbs and Johnny Cash graced the tiny stage, putting Riverbank on the musical map.
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Crowds inside were well-behaved, though one attendee, who would make his money picking grapes and peaches, was often noted for sitting right up on the stage to listen to the performers. At the age of 14 he went up to Chester Smith and told him it was his dream to be a country musician. Eventually Merle Haggard did achieve his dream, a dream that began in the Clubhouse.
While the venues in town were turning profits, in the late ’50s John McDonald got out of the businesses. The Riverbank police department of four officers was overwhelmed every weekend with the violence that became a part of the shows. In 1961, more than a quarter of the 223 arrests in Riverbank were made at either The Clubhouse or the roller-rink (Modesto Bee, Sept. 18, 2006). According to the same article, “The Rev. Lee Archer called the Clubhouse dance hall a public nuisance and a threat to local youth. He was joined by the PTA president and the local leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.” A shooting in November of 1961 and the passing of ordinances against shows in town brought music in Riverbank to an abrupt end.
Changing hands several times, the Clubhouse had one last moment in the sun when on May 5, 1984, a last concert was held outside, drawing 1,500 fans to see Rose Maddox – who had made her musical debut in Riverbank at the age of 11. She was awarded the key to the city and the day’s events were once again emceed by Yosemite Sam Cordray. The dilapidated building was torn down in 1986, eliminating a reminder of the brief era when Riverbank was an important stop on country musician tour dates.
McAndrews is a docent at the Great Valley Museum and a community columnist. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.