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Iconic Tagus Ranch on Highway 99 drew big-name entertainers

The Tagus Ranch restaurant and motel along Highway 99 near Tulare, once a popular night spot where famous entertainers performed, was razed in 2014.
The Tagus Ranch restaurant and motel along Highway 99 near Tulare, once a popular night spot where famous entertainers performed, was razed in 2014. Fresno Bee File Photo

Q: I would like to know if the old Tagus Ranch restaurant and hotel buildings are still standing. In its day it attracted some well-known entertainers.

Mary Westrick, Fresno

A: The original Tagus Ranch restaurant off Highway 99 between Tulare and Visalia was built in 1950 on land once part of the 7,000-acre Tagus Ranch developed by Hulett C. Merritt. The adjacent 60-unit motel was built in 1962. It is still standing.

“Sadly, the Tagus Ranch restaurant was torn down in December 2014,” said Chris Harrell, executive director and curator of the Tulare Historical Museum. The iconic Tagus Ranch sign was saved and is in storage.

An “Ask Me” column that ran on March 3, 2008, dealt with the history of the ranch, at one time described as the largest ranch and biggest producer of peaches in the world. The ranch land was sold off in the 1950s and 1960s. A $300,000 fire heavily damaged the ranch packinghouse in 1963.

In its heyday, popular entertainers including Ray Charles, Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis preformed at the Tagus Ranch.

Merritt died in 1956. The restaurant was gutted by fire in 1958. It was rebuilt a year later, destroyed by fire again in 1967 and rebuilt a second time.

In its heyday, popular entertainers including Ray Charles, Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis performed at the Tagus Ranch. The motel was sold in 1964, and the restaurant was sold in 1975. The new owner opened the Tagus Country Theater and booked concerts by Tanya Tucker, Mickey Gilley and others.

Q: I know dance marathons were popular in the 1920s, but were there any notable dance marathons in Fresno’s past? Did Fresno pass an ordinance about them?

Paul Caetano, Fresno

A: Dance marathons, where couples danced nonstop until the last one standing won the prize money, were held in Fresno in the 1920s. An editorial in the Fresno Morning Republican on March 27, 1929, decried a dance marathon that ran over several days at the Fresno Civic Auditorium on the northeast corner of Kern and L streets. “There are certain aspects of this present performance that should be inquired into,” the editorial said, adding the contests were not beneficial or healthful.

The marathons began about 1923 throughout the country as light-hearted endurance contests, building on the fad of endurance events such as flagpole sitting. But by the late 1920s and early 1930s dance marathons had morphed into exploitative theater. The often-rigged contests that fed and sheltered dancers increased in popularity during the Depression.

The marathons, also called “walkashows” or walk marathons, were organized by promoters who moved from city to city where marathons hadn’t been held in order to attract new audiences. The judges and emcees who ran the events were hired by the promoters, and the events were sometimes stacked in favor of professional marathoners who mingled with contestants.

In 1928, the now-defunct New York World wrote, “Who knows the ultimate effect that it will have on these couples? Nervous collapse, depleted vitality and badly injured feet seem highly probable with insanity perhaps as quite possible.” Dancing couples were required to dance 45 minutes of each hour. Cots were provided for rest breaks and dancers typically were fed 12 meals a day. Nurses were on duty to treat injuries.

Cities and states began to condemn dance marathons. After the attempted suicide of a woman who was eliminated in a 19-day marathon in 1928, Seattle passed an ordinance banning the events.

By 1934, Fresno had a similar ordinance in force, according to The Bee, and the California Legislature made dance marathons illegal in 1935, also prohibiting “running, skipping, gliding, rolling” exhibitions.

Today dance marathons lasting less than 24 hours are held as charity events in some cities.

More about: After a call for memories about Art’s Grubsteak was published in the Sept. 25 column, the son of the owners and two former customers shared more information about the restaurant.

Paul DeBuck of Visalia called to say his late parents, Art and Madeline DeBuck, opened their restaurant at Blackstone and Barstow avenues in November 1964.

DeBuck said he worked at the family-run business as a boy. His parents offered a large menu that included hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, malts and soft-serve ice cream.

An advertisement in the 1967 Hoover High School yearbook says Art’s was open from 9 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, closing at 1 a.m. on the weekend. Other menu favorites were touted: “Featuring Fabulous pastrami sandwiches, fried chicken, shakes and frostys.” The ad included a telephone number students could call for discounts.

DeBuck said his parents opened another Art’s Grubsteak in Hanford at 10th Street and Grangeville Boulevard in 1967. The Fresno restaurant closed in 1971, and DeBuck recalled that the Hanford location closed before then.

Barbara Bennett of Fresno, who graduated from Hoover High, recalled eating at Art’s in the late 1960s. “We went there all the time,” she said. “It wasn’t too far from Hoover. That area was still pretty rural and kind of on the edge of town. They had the very best corn dogs in town and had a devoted corn-dog-lovers following.”

A Valley man remembers the kindness of Art’s Grubsteak owners before he shipped out to Vietnam.

Wes Parker of Kingsburg wrote to share “a really pleasant memory” of Art’s.

“I had been serving in the U.S. Army in Germany and came home in March 1967 on a 45-day leave before being deployed to Vietnam,” Parker wrote.

“While on leave my future wife and I made many stops at Art’s Grubsteak for hamburgers and fries,” he said. “For someone trying to get by on a meager soldier’s salary, Art’s offered one of the best deals around and the burgers were really good.”

Parker said he often chatted with “the gentleman who worked there,” who DeBuck said was probably his father: “He liked to talk to customers.”

Parker recalled, “The night before I shipped out, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be coming around for a while because I was on my way to Vietnam. When he brought my order, he said it was on the house and wished me safe passage home. I’ll never forget that.”

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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