Five Orange County Haunts That Kickstarted Steve Martin’s Career

Steve Martin and Disneyland both arrived in Orange County in the same year: 1955. And the transitioning county–then shifting from rural agrarian farm country to the idyllic travel poster for suburban sprawl–has never been the same. As Orange County grew, so too did the theme park and Martin’s career.

The A-list actor, author, comedian, magician, and musician was born a Texan, but Orange County is willing to look past that and claims him an honorary native son. It was his family’s move from Waco to Garden Grove (by way of Inglewood), that Martin says in his autobiography “enabled me to place my small hand on Opportunity’s doorknob.”

We’re not entirely sure where within this fair county is that magic doorway he found was, but if we were to venture a guess, it wouldn’t be too far from one of his old “hometown” haunts. Here are the first five places we’d look. 

(Courtesy davelandweb.com)

Disneyland

Steve Martin and Disneyland go way back; as in almost back to day one, for both of them. The Park in Anaheim opened in 1955 and that same year marked one of the first times Martin donned a costume in public for pay; he wore a gay nineties style costume and passed out souvenir books at when he was 10 years old. He started his career telling folks about Disneyland as a 10 year-old passing out guide books and it’s a role he’s maintained for several years; he plays host to a short documentary Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years, which was shown dozens of times a day at the Opera House on Main Street. 

Disneyland would serve as a playground and set the stage, as it were, for the young actor and comedian-to-be. (It’s said he even picked up the exaggerated catch phrase, “Excuuuuussseeeee mmmeeeeee” from a co-worker at Disneyland.)

He donned several costume and role changes while he was employed at the park. From the more well-known job at the Disneyland Magic Shop where he learned the magic and prop skills he’d later incorporate into his live comedy routines (arrow-through-the-head, anyone?) to the earlier and lesser-known jobs in the storage room at the early Tiki Tropical Traders shop in Adventureland to rope trickster on the streets of Frontierland. 

It’s within Frontierland where Martin first informally studied under Disneyland legend Wally Boag, a star and co-writer of the 28 year running show at the Golden Horseshoe Revue and great inspiration to Martin. Boag “plied a hilarious trade of gags and offbeat skills such as gun twirling and balloon animals,” Martin explained in his auto-biography. He ravenously studied and memorized Boag’s lines but also delivery and timing, fantasizing about being an understudy for Boag. Martin’s own use of prop comedy helped him stand apart. 

Martin’s Garden Grove High School senior portrait (Public domain)

Garden Grove High School 

Though Martin started high school years at the then relatively new Rancho Alamitos High School (opened in 1957) in Garden Grove, a re-districting had Martin graduate from Garden Grove High–the home of the Argonauts.

Martin would occasionally receive banjo lessons from classmate (and fellow Disneyland cast member) John McEuen, founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John’s older brother Bill McEuen was Martin’s first manager and producer of Martin’s early albums and films. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (billed as the “Toot Uncommons”) were the backup band for “King Tut” in 1978. 

Kathy Westmoreland and Martin met on their first day of senior year, in September of 1962. Westmoreland (later a touring backup singer for Elvis Presley whom the King affectionately dubbed “Minnie Mouse) was an early collaborator and close friend to Martin. In his autobiography, he describes her as “the first indisputably talented person I’d ever met,” and says she sang “like a Swedish Nightingale.”

The duo were on the Garden Grove High cheer team together and would perform at local clubs as well as the Bird Cage Theater at Knott’s. Which leads us to…

 

Bird Cage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm, circa 1954. (Courtesy the Orange County Archives)

Knott’s Berry Farm

Martin worked at Knott’s in Buena Park from the time he was 18 to 22 years old. He’s best known for his work at The Birdcage Theater. He did performances of “Our American Cousin” (the play old Honest Abe was watching John Wilkes Booth pulled the curtains on the president in Ford’s Theater). Martin recalls he was paid 2 bucks a show and performed 25 shows a week. 

He’d perform with both Kathy Westmoreland and her sister Melody. But it was with Kathy, performing skits they co-wrote that would run after the official Knott’s play productions, that made the duo a local comedy smash hit. It became such a success the pair branched out to local clubs around town. The first of which was….

The Prison of Socrates

“The Prison” as the cool kids called the Balboa coffee shop, was owned by Greek immigrant Ted Nikas, brother of George Nikas who owned the Golden Bear in it’s heyday. The Ancient Greece-themed beatnik hangout is the stuff of early 1960s hipster lore in Orange County. Helen of Troy may have been the face that launched 1,000 ships but the Prison of Socrates launched more than a few careers: Tim Morgon, Steve Gillette and, of course, Steve Martin. It was here that Martin & Westmoreland first performed for crowds after their breakout routines at Knott’s. Martin would later incorporate the death of Socrates into an iconic comedy skit. Inspired by his many late nights performing at the Prison? Who knows?

The Golden Bear

Martin performed multiple times at this legendary, gone but not forgotten venue that once stood on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach. Martin and Westmoreland would try out their act on audiences at the Golden Bear. Colleen Hansen, the bookkeeper at the Golden Bear from 1963 to 1974, remembered in an interview with the Weekly earlier this year, witnessing the budding comedian working on his act. “I got so sick of those damn balloons!” Hansen said with a chuckle. “He’d be doing it offstage, in the kitchen—it drove me nuts!” He may have agitated her at the time, but he still made her laugh as she remembered it, even half a century later. 

Martin–donning his then-signature rabbit ears–also opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the venue in 1974, featuring John McEuen. The dueling banjo players and still work together; McEuen produced and played on Martin’s Grammy Award-winning album “The Crow”, released in 2009. 

And Martin can still be seen plucking banjo here in Orange County. Though it’s a far cry from a 300 person capacity club like the Golden Bear, Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers and comedian Martin Short will be performing at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Friday. And maybe, if we’re lucky, Martin might just open opportunity’s door knob–from the other side this time–and allow the audience take a peek into his life growing up in Orange County started his wild and crazy ride. 

Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin Short with Jeff Babko perform at the Pacific Amphitheatre as part of  the OC Fair’s 2018 season on Friday. Tickets available as of press time from ticketmaster.com. Show starts at 7:30 p.m.

When not running the OCWeekly.com and OC Weekly’s social media sites, Taylor “Hellcat” Hamby can be found partying like it’s 1899.