Seal Beach Yesterdays: Marina Palace thrilled kids, irritated adults

This was originally written as part of a series of articles celebrating the 2015 Seal Beach Centennial. I have changed it slightly to nail down some dates (changing “Last year” to 2013, for example.)

2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the actual naming of Seal Beach (changed from Bay City in August 1913), and 2014 marked not only the 150th anniversary of the founding of Anaheim Landing, but also the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Marina Palace, the legendary rock and roll hotspot located in the two Quonset huts on PCH just across the Long Beach line.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, the Marina Palace hosted such headliners as Ike and Tina Turner, Alice Cooper, the Seeds, Van Morrison and almost every local band trying to get a break.

The Marina Palace was surrounded by controversy from its beginnings, not surprising since its owner was William Robertson, the most controversial and divisive figure in Seal Beach history.

Robertson was a Los Angeles police detective, overseeing the force’s hotel division. He supplemented his income by “employing” (over $100,000 worth) a number of Ballard Barron’s gambling operations in Seal Beach in the late 1930s.

Los Angeles PD investigations motivated him to abruptly resign his job in 1940. Within a couple of years, soon after Seal Beach gamblers shifted their operations to the developing Las Vegas Strip, he began operating gambling clubs in Seal Beach. Most of these were bingo halls bit there were some back room card games.

When post-World War II changes made things tough for local gambling, Robertson conceived a plan which would eliminate gambling on Main Street but establish a gambling zone on a strip of state land just north of PCH at First Street. This parcel was reclaimed from Alamitos Bay when the San Gabriel River channel was created. The gambling was limited to one operator —a “non-profit” operated by Robertson who, with Glide ‘er Inn owner Jimmy Arnerich, had also obtained a lease on the land.

Through judicious donations and free meals in the months prior to elections — and the power of publishing the town’s newspaper (he purchased Seal Beach Post & Wave in 1943), Robertson got the gambling zone and his Airport Club approved by the city council. But it led to a backlash and a four year campaign which in 1953 led to the banning of gambling in town.

Robertson tried multiple times to revive gambling, but as more and more middle class families moved into the new homes on the Hill and occupying renovated Old Town homes and apartments, the new majority voted him down time after time. By 1961 he was using the Airport Club site as a boat sales operation.

Beginning in January 1962 he tried to turn his Quonset huts into a dance hall. Surf guitarist Dick Dale (probably acting as a front) applied for a permit to operate “the proposed Marina Palace” as a dance hall but was denied, in part because of protests from the town PTA and the Baptist Church whose spokesperson, Mrs. Stanley Olson, said the dance hall would be of no positive benefit economically and would attract an undesirable element (i.e., surfers and bikers). Finally Robertson leased the building to the American Legion who did obtain a dancing permit. When the Legion could not make a go of it, Robertson took over the grandfathered permit in early 1964, and began booking rock and roll acts in the building.

His son,  Bob Robertson, stated that at one point that there were plans for the quonset huts to become the first of the Cinnamon Cinder clubs run by KRLA radio disc Jockey Bob Eubanks, who before he became even more famous as host of TV’s Newlywed Game days was a top Los Angeles radio personality and the man who brought the Beatles concerts at Hollywood Bowl to LA.  The Eubanks deal fell through — although Eubanks did build a Cinammon Cinder on the Traffic Circle in Long Beach — so the Robertsons began booking top R&B acts at their new venue — Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, Ike and Tina Turner, and a 14-year old Little Steve Wonder who had just taken the pop music world by storm with his hit ” Fingertips, Pt. II).  Unusual for the time, Robertson targeted an under-21 crowd, the original hours were 8pm to midnight on Saturday nights only, and usually most of their flyers and handbills were crude hand-drawn affairs. A frequent attendee was a reserve navy crewman stationed at Los Al Navy Air Base by the name of Bobby Hatfield, who would soon become famous as one of the Righteous Brothers.

When the rock era started, the Palace booked Alice Cooper, The Seeds, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Humble Pie,  Yellow Balloon, and Van Morrison.   Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, the younger Robertson asserts that neither Jimi Hendrix nor the Doors ever played the venue.   A long-time house band for the Palace was a local group called Things to Come whose lead singer was Steve Runolffson.  Other house bands were Long Beach’s Small Affair, as well as the still-active Emperors and Elm Street Band.  Sometime after 1966, the Palace quonset huts were painted a psychedelic collage and the venue earned a reputation for its free-wheeling counter-culturism (i.e., use of pot and other mind-enhancing chemicals). Turntable stages allowed one band to finish its set while another would rotate around to start its.  Bands recall the denim-clad Robertson telling them, “Get off the stage Senator.  You’ve had your shot.”  In modern facebook postings, the older Robertson is almost remembered as a father figure by the venue’s regulars.  These same postings also confirm the Palace’s reputation as a haven for inappropriate activities which included sex, drugs and underage drinking.

It was these reports that motivated Seal Beach City Manager Lee Risner to suspend the Marina Palace operating permit in early 1970.  Or was it?  Some on the council felt that Risner and councilmember Lloyd “Pops” Gummere (from Leisure World) were making policy without a council consensus, and that their ultimate agenda was to build new apartments on Robertson’s land. (Risner had fostered development of the Oakwood Apartments, the apartments in the Seal Beach section of Rossmoor and floating ideas about high-rise apartment buildings on the Electric Avenue strip — which is now the Greenbelt.  

Whatever the agenda, Risner was soon fired by a 3-2 council vote which set off years of political strife, recalls, accusations of bribery, acrimony, heightened verbiage, and lawsuits. 

While the Palace’s inappropriate activities were a legitimate concern, ultimately the Palace controversy was an early battle in the war for the city’s soul between those who wanted big development and those who didn’t.  It also confirmed the adage that politics made strange bedfellows.  Wealthy pro-development entities like S&S Homes and the Bixby Ranch Company funded recalls against the pro-Robertson forces who, more importantly, were perceived as anti-development. Robertson, glad to exploit the division, funded legal costs for these “anti-developer” forces. 

Ultimately Robertson was exonerated by the council majority and in March 1971 he re-opened the club and not only operated normal hours but also tried some after-hours operations under the revived Airport Club name.  But within four months those council members were all recalled.  The new anti-Robertson council quickly passed new dance hall regulations — including a dress code and lighting requirements — but Robertson managed to keep the Marina Palace open through 1974 — making rock and roll memories as well as new enemies.  

Larry Strawther, the author of Seal Beach: A Brief History, likes local history. His email is and his book and other articles are available at

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