The beautiful Palomar Ballroom, on Vermont Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Street, was built in 1925 and was billed as "the largest and most famous dance hall on the West Coast." The building featured a large mezzanine, a balcony, and a seventy-five hundred square foot patio. The dance floor could accommodate four thousand couples.
Admission was 40 cents for gentlemen and 25 cents for ladies. On Sunday nights, a special dinner-dance ticket cost $1.25. It included a reserved table in the posh palm-lined Palomar Terrace for the entire evening, a seven-course dinner, a floor show, and dancing until 2:00 AM. Valet parking was fifteen cents extra.
Opening night was attended by 20,000, including many of Hollywood's silent screen stars. The bright kleig lights illuminated the minaret structures on the roof and formed dramatic silhouettes against the sky. It soon became a prime venue for the big bands that were rapidly gaining popularity. On August 21, 1935, Benny Goodman began his first Palomar engagement that marked the start of the Swing Era. During the last two weeks in 1937, box office sales exceeded 50,000.
The ballroom hosted popular orchestras including those led by Clyde McCoy, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Ted Fio Rito, Dick Jurgens, Glen Gray, Isham Jones, Will Osborne, Jimmy Dorsey, Kay Kyser, and Buddy Rogers. Nightly radio broadcasts on local station KFLJ attracted large crowds to the "Dining, Dancing, and Entertainment Center of the West." An aircheck from a Charlie Barnet broadcast is included in the LP "Radio Rhythm" (IAJRC 14). The famed structure was the backdrop for several major Hollywood films that included "The Big Broadcast of 1937," made during Benny Goodman's return engagement, and, "Dancing Coed," which starred Lana Turner and Artie Shaw's band.
By 1939, the Palomar had been re-modeled. A modern cooling system was installed, cocktail lounges and soda fountains were added, and the dance floor was enlarged. The exotic Moorish decor was not changed. An advertisement announcing the gala re-opening predicted "A premier audience of more than 20,000 persons - the expected attendance to be on hand for the gayest of all openings!"
Charlie Barnet's booking occurred during the peak of the swing craze. It was shortly after he had recorded Billy May's arrangement of "Cherokee," which became a mega-hit and firmly established the Barnet name. Radio personality Al Jarvis, heralding the Palomar date, played Barnet's popular Bluebird recordings daily on his program, "Make Believe Ballroom."
The band, making their first appearance to the West Coast, attracted six thousand people when they opened on August 23, 1939. The attendance topped all previous figures except the record established by Artie Shaw a few months before.
"I ran in. The bandstand was full of flames. I jumped up on the bandstand and grabbed my old Italian bass - it was burning, and I grabbed Johnny Owens' trumpet and Charlie's mouthpiece, and I ran out. There was a gas station right across the street on the corner and I used the hose to put out the fire. I carried the smoking instrument back to the Palomar parking lot - and played "Throw Another Log on the Fire." Everyone got a kick out of that. Soon, we watched the roof collapse! The Palomar was burning furiously - and finally the fire engines came. They had gone to 3rd and Fremont - instead of 3rd and Vermont!"