Lifeguard, Santa Monica, California
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
Looking for work in 1928-9, Bob traveled to California, tried a musical career with a Chautauqua traveling group, washed a lot of dishes in restaurants and finally found steady day employment as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard on the beach at Venice, California.
At night he operated one of the pier concessions beside a friend of his, Bill "Slumber" Nichols, who had a small ice-milk stand, and Jack Pepper, who had the newsstand where the streetcar rails terminated in Venice at the intersection of Windward and Ocean Avenues. Jack had been a member of the Newsboy Quartet in New York and he, Bob, and others would attract customers by serenading streetcar passengers.
Bob delighted in recalling how he had entered a lifeguard competition, a race in the surf parallel to the shore from Pine Street to Cherry Avenue. He had led most of the way and finished ahead of Clarence "Buster" Crabbe of Honolulu who was shortly to win a Gold Medal for the United States in the Four-Hundred Meter Freestyle at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. (Buster Crabbe, the same age as Bob, went on to become "Tarzan", "Flash Gordon" and a western star in Hollywood.)
Our photo was taken in 1931, just before he met Leonard Slye and briefly became part of the Rocky Mountaineers. Ocean Park can be seen in the distance. The dog appears in several pictures. There were two snapshots taken at this time - this one and one of his friend, Flash Whiting, who was doing a handstand on Bob's upraised hands. At the time of the photo, Bob was a lodger at 433 Grand Ave in Los Angeles and was working as a restaurant cook. He wryly admitted to being a beach bum because he virtually lived on the beach, working at odd jobs when they were available. Except for being hungry most of the time, the life suited him. Fortunately for western music, this career was shortened by the Great Depression and he was laid off.
Bob did not talk about his experiences as a lifeguard other than to say that you could not let your mind dwell on the people you were unable to save, but on the people that you did.
It was shortly after he lost this job that Bob checked the classified section in The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and found a two-line want ad, "Yodeler for old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred. 1727 E. 65 St." Because he had worked barefoot on the beach for so long, he had no shoes good enough for a job interview and he bought a new pair. The long walk after he reached the end of the streetcar line blistered his heels and he had to remove the new shoes. That's how Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) remembered meeting him - golden tan, splendid physique, bare feet and blisters. But Bob could sing any part and yodel in harmony, too, so he was hired on the spot.