Elegant Ethyl

A local character of the 1950s and early 1960s, Ethyl Fernbach was a housedress-wearing matron who played piano and sang the standards at Shanty Devlin’s and later at Elegant Ethyl’s, a bar behind the Red Griffin Inn, both in Cucamonga. She was the subject of one of my columns, which you can read as an extended entry below.

Anyway, she’s been memorialized on the Find a Grave website. A woman named Kym Winkler read my column and set up the page using excerpts of my column. You can view the page here.

A toast to Elegant Ethyl
(originally appeared March 14, 2008)

THE TAPE unspooled the sound of Cucamonga in 1959.

Inside a beer bar named Shanty Devlin’s, a woman plays an upright piano in rollicking style and warbles the standards: “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Carolina in the Morning,” “Sweet Adeline.”

Customers sing along energetically. It’s like a boozier version of Shakey’s Pizza.

“One more time, y’all!” the singer chirps now and then, betraying her Southern roots.

This remarkable tape came to me courtesy of Wayne Kaltenberger. The singer was the local legend known as Elegant Ethyl.

In my years here, Elegant Ethyl occasionally surfaces in oldtimers’ recollections. She was the star attraction at Shanty Devlin’s, which stood at the northeast corner of Archibald and Foothill near a bank and a small courthouse.

As I understand it, Shanty Devlin’s offered draft beer and sandwiches, never swept the peanut shells off the floor and sold beer in small buckets. Regulars had their own bucket, personalized with their name.

Not only were these stories a rich slice of old Cucamonga, but I couldn’t help but dote on the idea of a local saloon singer named Elegant Ethyl. She sounds like a Damon Runyon character.

So I put out a call for information and soon heard from Kaltenberger and his wife, Peggy, who live in Pomona.

He had been a manager at Shanty Devlin’s and the Red Griffin Inn, both owned by entrepreneur Dick Devlin and both of which employed the Elegant One.

“She was a good ol’ girl,” Kaltenberger said fondly. “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.”

Kaltenberger loaned me a reel to reel tape he’d recorded of Ethyl in action and photos and memorabilia from both bars. As I’d assumed the best I could do at this point was stitch together anecdotes, this was a treasure trove.

(You can see some of the photos and listen to a portion of the tape on our Web site.)

Kaltenberger also provided her name: Ethyl Fernbach. Knowing that, I was able to track down two obituaries to complete this documentary portrait.

“Death Stills Pianist,” the Daily Report obit was headlined.

Fernbach was born in 1900 in Louisiana and came to California from Texas in 1922. She moved to Pomona in 1928 and lived at 1307 N. Garey Ave. with her husband, Paul. They had no children.

She died July 8, 1964, at age 64 after a sudden illness.

Before she was Elegant Ethyl, she played gospel music on KOCS-AM (1510) daily. Showing uncommon flexibility, she turned out to be willing to play in saloons and bowling alleys.

She worked Shanty Devlin’s from about 1959 to 1961, and after that had her own club, also owned by Devlin. Elegant Ethyl’s was at Ninth and Baker in Cucamonga behind the Red Griffin Inn. The stone building now holds offices for Cask ‘n Cleaver.

“She was kind of raucous, banging on the piano, singing old songs and being harassed by — and giving it back to — the college kids who would come to drink beer and trade quips with her,” reader Tony DiTommaso of Upland told me.

As Claremont was a dry town, college students packed into Shanty Devlin’s and Elegant Ethyl’s. In their own way, they adopted her. One senior class at Claremont Men’s College dedicated its yearbook to her.

As the Daily Report obituary put it: ” ‘Elegant Ethyl’ had a legion of friends in the West End, from those who remembered the ‘Roaring 20s’ to the present college crowd.”

To perform, the plus-sized Ethyl wore a cotton housedress and no makeup. She had glasses with thick, frosted lenses and, as noted earlier, was almost blind.

Her fee of $15 per night included one beer, which she drank between sets.

In other words, no one mistook her for Kitty Carlisle.

“She was a pretty colorful person, anything but elegant,” DiTommaso said.

Kaltenberger no longer knows where the ironic nickname came from, but Ethyl apparently was good-humored enough not to mind it.

He drove her home after the bar closed each night.

“She’d talk about customers. Laugh and carry on,” Kaltenberger said.

Did she enjoy performing?

“Yes. Especially after a beer,” he said. “She thought you should drink one beer.”

Rene Biane and Bob Patterson remember her too. She played blues for the lovelorn, parlor songs, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes, Dixieland.

“Beer Barrel Polka,” “Mississippi Mud,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” are among the songs she played regularly, and from memory, often in response to shouted requests.

Her best-known number was “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey.”

At DiTommaso’s urging, I phoned Cask ‘n Cleaver founder Chuck Keagle and mentioned Elegant Ethyl. He knew the name instantly.

“She just beat the hell out of the piano. She was incredible,” Keagle said delightedly.

“I haven’t heard her name in two decades. You have to be an oldtimer to have even heard of her.”

Not anymore.

David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday, elegantly.

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