Mexicali Rose, Stop Crying!
A Tale of a Tune and a Town
By June Summers
Who was Mexicali Rose? Jack Tenney, ex-California legislator and composer of that timeless Spanish waltz he named Mexicali Rose, said you would have to go back to the early days of Mexicali to answer that question. The dry laws of prohibition in Mexicali´s twin city of Calexico began in 1902—20 years before prohibition began in the rest of the United States.
The following newspaper story was circulated on the American side of the border, and with an imperial County dateline: “The saloon is not wanted in the new town of Imperial, in that part of the country once known as the Colorado Desert.” There had been two or three “floating” saloons in and out of Calexico (emigrant wagons with bountiful supplies of whiskey). These floating saloons were ordered to move on. Finally, at the urging of Imperial Valley citizens, PROHIBITION came to Calexico in 1902.
So the thirsty men crossed the border into Mexicali and it became a boomtown. The Cactus-Patch town that Mexicali was then had a bar. Business was conducted on a mesquite-plank for the purpose of dispensing mescal and tequila, as early as 1902. Nearby California towns emptied their undesirables into Mexicali. Gamblers, “soiled” doves from the red-light district, horse-racing entrepreneurs, and “finish” boxing matches- all outlawed in California, came to Mexicali.
The town flourished with the patronage of men working on the cotton plantations. When the Southern Pacific Railroad´s branch from Imperial to Calexico was completed in 1904, Mexicali became the playground of the valley. The rougher element gathered weekly for boisterous drinking and carousing. Then the Mesquite tree jail where prisoners were tied and chained to the tree became equipped to handle the problem.
The Owl Cafe and Dance Hall finally came to Mexicali in 1913. It was run by Marvin Allen. High rolling was barely under way at the Owl when the June 1915 earthquake leveled the place. It was quickly rebuilt and called The Owl Theater. It was a gambling hall par excellence. Men crowded around and blackjack tables, and the air was thick with smoke…the drawling voices of the dealers, “All bets down, gents.” The rattle of the little ball and the girls dancing with whoever asked them. The men paid $1 a dance and the music was good.The town was a growin´ the money was a flowin´ and the boys were throwin´ it around.
In 1920, when prohibition was about one month old there was a devastating fire. People poured in from every vantage point to watch the club burn. But before the ashes cooled, plans for a new building were drawn up for a bigger and better new Owl. It was 1921 when Jack Tenney was offered a job playing piano at the New Owl. The club was complete with dance floor, and orchestra platform and a seven-piece band. Tenney became not only piano player but leader of the orchestra.
Not long afterwards business slacked off and Tenney went to work at a place called the “Imperial Cabaret.” It was there he wrote his famous melody which he called “The Waltz.” The song was written without lyrics. It eventually was called “Mexicali Rose.” People came to believe that the song had been named after one of the dance hall girls with a dubious reputation, who was the inspiration for the song. Her name was Rose Erskine. Jack Tenney always denied this assumption.
Later on in his career, Tenney insisted that the naming of his lovely “Waltz” was a joke. “There was an old lady who ran a boarding house in Brawley. Every 30 days when the railroad men were paid, she came to Mexicali. We´d play the waltz for her, and she´d sit around drinking and crying. She must have been 50 or 60 years old and weighed 200 pounds. I don´t know what her name was but Jack Hazelip, my saxophone player called her “Mexicali Rose.” I already had the tune and we started fiddling around with the words as a result of watching her cry.”
Mexicali Rose, stop crying,
I´ll come back to you some sunny day.
Called-every night you know that I´ll be pining,
Every hour a year when I´m away.
Dry those big brown eyes and smile, dear
Banish all those tears and please don´t cry.
Kiss me once again, and hold me.
Mexicali Rose, goodbye.
In the years that followed the writing of the song, movie stars made “Mexicali Rose” famous. Bing Crosby made a recording which put it on the “Hit Parade.” Barbara Stanwyck starred in a movie of the same name. It was also the title of a Gene Autry movie in 1939. Then, Mexicali Rose and Jack Tenney took very different paths. Tenney went to law school, became a lawyer and in 1936 was elected to the California State Legislature.