GROWING UP WILD IN THE WILD WEST OF PIONEERTOWN – Circa 1974
By Lisa Morgan
Just about a quarter of a mile from Pappy & Harriet’s, down the dirt road of Pioneertown known as Mane Street, sits an old timey red saloon. They call it the Red Dog. Red Dog has had a couple of owners after opening for the first time in 1946. Only recently was it reopened after a long respite, just in time for a global pandemic. In spite of the unfortunate timing, this place has done a pretty good bit of business, especially with its ample outdoor seating. Local women gather over a deck of cards, tourists wet their whistle, and sometimes there’s live music on the big wraparound porch. I would guess that most think it’s just part of the old movie scene that was created by Roy Rogers and friends, and for the most part, they’re right. Only a few know, firsthand, the wild things that took place there in the early 70s.
Walking through those swinging doors is an entirely different experience for Gerard Noonan than it is for anyone else. Every time he sets foot inside the saloon, a flood of memories rush through his mind, whether he wants them to or not. He immediately begins to scan the old wooden bar top as he walks toward the far end of the bar, grateful that it wasn’t lost forever during refurbishing. As he slides his hand across the hundreds of knife-carved signatures, he’s in another place and time. He’s back in 1974, when a dark-haired pretty woman owned the bar, her bounty hunter sharp-shooting husband worked behind it, and 5-year-old “Little Jerry” never came home when the streetlights turned on, because there weren’t any. His body language tells you that he found what he was looking for – his mother’s name, Peggy.
To meet him, you would never suspect that his upbringing was starkly different than the average kid. It was magical in many ways, a life many a young man cub could only dream of. Freedom. Jerry had plenty of freedom. But that much freedom can be daunting to a young kid. The yard is so big and there were no fences to keep things in or out. But Noonan shares the stories of his youth with a smile, a bit of whimsy, and a sense of humor that is still intact. He loved his mom. His beautiful mom, Peggy Ellsworth, 1949’s Miss Michigan, third runner up to Miss America.
Peggy Ellsworth first heard of Pioneertown when working alongside Roy Rodgers fulfilling her duties as Miss Michigan. She loved the stories Rodgers would tell about the place he was building – like the time he overheard some guys in the bar saying that Trigger was just a show pony. She hung on every word as he told her about throwing a large bet on the bar and racing his beloved horse around the town, leaving the other horses in the dust. She was so enamored with the stories, that after touring all over, sharing her pageant approved talent, singing from club to club, she and husband “Big Jerry,” packed “Little Jerry” up in the station wagon and drove off for a life in the western town she’d become so fond of.
I sipped on the house-made ginger beer, and Noonan had a pint. “I’m not sure if it was my first memory or not,” he says, “but I remember laying in the back of that station wagon far enough back so I could see the stars through the angled glass. The stars and clouds blew my mind.”
The small family moved into the Pioneertown Motel, and all Pioneertown was Little Jerry’s playground.
“I walked up and down Mane Street every day, back and forth, just walking and daydreaming, kicking rocks, playing with sticks. I thought I was the kid in the TV show, The Rifleman. My dad…well, my stepdad, was very much like the Rifleman. I even called him ‘Pa’ like the kid in the TV show. I really thought I was that guy. Except in the Rifleman, the dad didn’t bartend at night.”
Peggy Ellsworth was an amazing woman. She’d gone to Juilliard and taught dance at Arthur Murray Dance Studio. But the only bar experience she had was from touring as Miss Michigan and singing from club to club. Granted, she sang with Louis Armstrong, but this was quite a courageous venture for her. Fortunately, she had some help. “Pappy was introduced to me as my uncle,” remembers Noonan. “But I called a lot of people ‘uncle.’ I remember thinking that Pappy was Burl Ives. To me they were one and the same; he looked like him, and he sang his songs like him. Pappy was the house band at the Red Dog back then. I would sing with him often. Harriet was always cooking and managing things. She was younger and didn’t drink as much as everyone else. I don’t think that place would have run without her. She was the most levelheaded of all of us. Even I fell off my first barstool at 5 years old!”
“People came into the saloon and sang all the time. But things would get crazy at times. One time a guy brought in a rattler. He’d chopped of its head, and he wanted Harriet to cook it for him. What he failed to do though, was cut off the head far enough back to remove the fangs. The thing was still moving around when it found a way to bite him in the arm. I remember we had to rush him to the hospital. Harriet cooked it, and we ate it, like we were getting it back for biting our friend. I learned a big lesson about snakes that day.”
“My stepdad was a lot of things; he was a retired sheriff, the Imperial Country Chief of Police at one point, as well as a retired federal agent. He’d go back and forth across the border to bring back criminals for the Feds. He’d also do trick shot demonstrations for them. He had 250 marksman medals. Even when he drank, he seemed to be able to shoot straight. He would shoot cans off my mom’s head with a 38 police special, holding it upside down and pulling the trigger with his pinky finger. He’d stand on the porch of the Red Dog Saloon, and my mom would be across the street standing in front of the Grubstakes building. He’d make the shot every time. He would also shoot cigarettes out of her mouth. I didn’t like it much at all. You proved your mettle in Pioneertown back then if you let Big Jerry shoot a can off your head. Once, he shot a plate out of my hand when my back was turned. I turned around and there was my mom, beating the crap out of him. He was chuckling while she was wailing on him, but he never did it again. The cool part was my mom owned the saloon and he worked for her.”
When asked what one of his favorite memories was, it was yet another Big Jerry, “happy and scary” memory. “The saloon was full of Hells Angels. My dad was tending bar and ended up arm wrestling the biggest, burliest guy – one of their ‘enforcers.’ My dad was strong. He’d could pull engines out of cars, and because of his stunt shooting, his pinky was freakishly strong. He had an arm-wrestling technique where he’d use his pinky to literally separate a guy’s wrist. I watched him use his pinky and saw the guy’s wrist pop. My dad started to win, and the guy stubbornly leaned in until suddenly his arm snapped. I saw it just dangling there. I was five. But even at that age, I was aware that the rest of the gang could get mad and retaliate, but they didn’t.”
“Another time, this guy came in to rob the place and one of the locals came in casually, right behind him with a shot gun in his hand saying, ‘Hey Jerry, is everything ok in here?’ My dad said, ‘Yeah, everything’s fine,’ and the guy rolled off immediately.”
With some of the extraordinary memories behind him, Noonan began to remember some of the sweeter things. “I found a lot of money those days, under the wood floors at the bowling alley and the bar. There was a little girl whose parents would bring her up here every once in a while, and I would use the money to take her on a date to have coffee at the bowling alley.”
“I probably set foot on every piece of property and every boulder around here. I wandered a lot. My mom tried to ground me because I’d be gone for days. The whole town fed me; everybody in Pioneertown had a hand in raising me. I hated boots so I always walked around in sandals. My mom would ask where I’d been and I’d say, ‘Playing.’ She’d say, ‘You’re grounded.’ I would say, ‘I don’t even know what that means!’ Then she’d go off to work and I’d be gone for another two days.”
“I slept in the desert a lot. If I was tired, I’d just lay down where I was. I loved when it rained. I would run in front of the rushing water when there’d be flashfloods and try and find a place to jump out before the water got me. One time I wore myself out so bad, I fell asleep right next to the water. My mom called the police that time. They tracked me down, and when they found me, they thought I was dead because I was just laying there, sleeping in the rain.”
When asked if there were any other kids around to play with, Noonan answered, “There was a little girl, Missy. She’s in the picture with me and Red Dog, who was named after the saloon. Harriet and Harriet’s granddaughter know her.”
“Wasn’t it hard growing up like that, Jerry,” I asked?
“I loved all this stuff. It was a great way to grow up… you know, if you didn’t die,” he laughed. “On my 7th birthday I got a rifle. I was over the moon. I was going to be a hunter. But then I shot a lizard. I felt so horrible, that I never did it again.”
“That couldn’t have sat well with your stepdad,” I responded. “Did you tell him?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What did he do?”
“Well, he tried to toughen me up. Here was a guy who had a collection of guns from people he’d hunted down and brought back from across the border, and ‘Little Jerry’ couldn’t even kill a lizard.” Changing subjects, he inserted, “Did I mention he was an amazing blues harmonica player? I remember he’d be playing it behind the bar, Pappy’d be on guitar, my mom would be singing, Harriet would be singing, and people would take turns on the piano… That’s what it was all about. If you just wanted to roll in, you could be entertained or do the entertaining. When Pappy and Harriet moved to the Old Cantina and turned it into Pappy and Harriet’s, all of that moved with them.”
Noonan is a dad to two teenage daughters now. His mom has long since passed, after pulling her life together heroic way following the drinking years. But the hole in Little Jerry’s heart is still evident. He misses his mom.
I asked Noonan, “What was the biggest lesson you learned from all of this.”
He answered without hesitation, “You never know what is going to be the lasting impression or memory you leave with other people, especially in a child’s mind, so be conscious of what memories you make for other people. That’s all I want to do with my restaurant – bring good people together over good food.”
It’s always impressive when someone makes a conscious choice to choose a positive path from all the examples put in front of them as a child. Noonan has chosen to hold on to, with hopes to recreate, those special times when music and food brought everyone together, and everyone was happy. They ate, they sang, they all watched over him, and they gave a young boy a lesson in something very powerful amidst the madness, the power of connection.
Noonan’s love for cooking clearly began with Harriet. He went on to train in Italy at the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, and hopes to open Sky High Pizza in Joshua Tree. It is destined to be a happy and unique experience, but you’re going to have to leave your guns at home.