EL CERRITO -- You wouldn't know it today, but there was a time when El Cerrito was known as "the biggest little city" on the West Coast, a place where adult entertainment was readily available and law enforcement seemed powerless to stop it.
"When El Cerrito was a Mecca of Gambling and Vice," the next program being hosted by the El Cerrito Historical Society, will take a look at a significant -- and colorful -- part of the city's past that has been largely unexamined at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
The program will start with a quick walking tour of various vice sites in the city, followed by a presentation and discussion at 3 p.m. at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Bayview Aerie, 3223 Carlson Blvd.
The location of the talk is appropriate, because the building that now houses the Eagles was originally the Wagon Wheel, known since its 1935 opening as the most notorious of the city's night spots and clubs.
The Wagon Wheel, operated by Walter M. "Big Bill" Pechart, was on what was then Panhandle Boulevard in an unincorporated area known as "no man's land" just outside the city limits of El Cerrito and Richmond and out of the jurisdiction of either city's police department.
Pechart oversaw his operations -- including controlling slot machine operations throughout the East Bay and operating spots in El Sobrante and San Pablo -- from his fortresslike headquarters opened in 1948 (and still standing) nearby on San Pablo Avenue.
Pechart and partner Dave Kessel, and John J. "Black Jack" Jerome, who operated the greyhound racing track known as the El Cerrito Kennel Club from 1932 to 1939, were major figures of the day, now mostly forgotten.
Others included Vic Figone of the Six Bells, the Molino family of the Kona Club, Walt and Ida Gatto of the It Club and internationally known fan dancer Sally Rand, whose name graced the former Hollywood Club from 1944 to '46.
At its height, El Cerrito was also known for attracting big-name entertainment that included the Nat King Cole Trio, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and torch singer Helen Morgan. The attractions brought well-heeled visitors from San Francisco, Oakland and Piedmont, as well as from Berkeley, which had a one-mile radius "dry zone" extending from the Cal campus where alcohol was prohibited.
In 1940, the city was even home to the Club Rio, which featured female impersonators.
The city's involvement with gambling, prostitution and other illegal activities extended back through Prohibition, when rumrunners were common, and even earlier, when taverns would serve drinks 24 hours a day and Chinese gambling dens driven out of Oakland and Emeryville found a home in the unincorporated area.
Researcher Dave Weinstein will lead the tour and talk, and invited guests will include bandleader Hugh White, who played in groups at the dog track and the Wagon Wheel, and Clyde Figone, whose father ran the Six Bells from 1933 to 1961.
"Here we had a town where the lights were blazing until 5 in the morning," Weinstein said of El Cerrito's night life heyday. "It's hard to picture now."
Weinstein hopes others who remember the city's notorious past will attend and offer their reminisces as well.
Light refreshments will be served.
For more details, contact Weinstein at 510-524-1737 or email@example.com.