The Pass Club – Santa Susana – History & Research:
Sitting high up on a hill not far from the diving line between Ventura and Los Angeles counties, accessed by a somewhat scary, winding road, the old Pass Club has been a place of mystery for many who grew up in the Simi Valley / Chatworth areas. Not so much because it has a sordid history, but because of its inaccessibility. This very inaccessibility and air of mystery led to tall-tales and rumors of gangsters, murders, stolen loot and even claims that an old slot machine found not too far from the property was from a robbery gone bad.
The truth? Well, considering that this was a card club with legal gambling, gangsters did probably make an appearance now and then. Murders? There have been a few in the general area, but so far nothing connected directly with the club or anyone who owned it or worked there. The fact that this was part of the old stage coach trail, and that the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez used to stomp around in that area makes it likelier that any murderous deeds would have been attributed to him or one of his fellow bandits, or even to the Spaniards who rolled through on their path of conquest. Stolen loot is also more likely due to Vasquez and his bunch. The old slot machine most certainly did not come from a bungled robbery of the Pass Club. They didn’t have any slot machines. It was illegal to have them and would have made it very easy for local do-gooder brigades t shut the club down. The slot machine most likely came from the old western sets at Corriganville. An article in the Los Angeles Times newspaper, dated 29 August 1951 states….
“Movie and television star Ray (Crash) Corrigan is to appear in Justice Court here tomorrow to answer charges of possession of slot machines at his movie location ranch in Santa Susana.
A misdemeanor complaint has been filed by the Ventura County District Attorney after Sheriff’s deputies reportedly found the shells of slot machines in a storehouse on the ranch.
Corrigan said the shells of the slot machines without the inner works were kept on hand for movie scene “props.” Sheriff’s deputies said, however, that reports of gambling at the ranch had been received.
Dist. Atty. Roy Gustafon said, “It is my interpretation of the law that any part of a slot machine is a slot machine.””
What most likely happened here is that one of the local do-gooder brigades, and there were a few, learned that many at the studio ranch would go up to the Pass Club for a meal and a bit of card playing, and they decided to cause trouble for ol’ Crash Corrigan to teach him a lesson. I can only assume that the spurious charges were dropped, as I can find nothing further on this case.
The entire history of this location remains lost in time. Old records of deeds are sometimes not available or cannot be located. We do know that the Pass Club sits on Twilight Canyon Trail, which is its actual, if not post office recognized, address. The old stage route through Santa Susana used to run through Twilight Canyon, and then make a terrifying descent to the old stage stop below, once situated where the current train tunnel is located at the east end of Corriganville. The Pass Club property actually encompasses the acreage on the south side of the railroad tracks.
Paul Coons, a transplant from Illinois, was a partner in an auto painting business in Los Angeles called “The Beauty Shop.” His other partners were James Dudley “J.D.” McCraken, and a name known to most of us who grew up in southern California, Earl Scheib. When Pal gave up on the idea of painting cars cheaply he and Earl parted ways. Earl became a millionaire with his cheap car painting business.
About 1944 Paul Coons bought the undeveloped hill from Frank H. & Blanche Irene Bell, who were land speculators. To date information has not be found regarding who the Bell’s purchased the land from, but there is a high chance that they bought it from Lewis Mortimer, who had been trying to develop the area into country retreats.
Soon after Paul Coons obtained the property he purchased a gambling license. The parcel contained 40 acres, and Paul had hoped to also build a horse racing track, but that dream never came to fruition. Paul soon got to work leveling the mountain by himself, and by 1950 the first club, a simple square structure, was built. Paul also built this with his own hands, with lumber purchased from Elmwood Lumber.
The Pass Club started out doing pretty well until they came up against a local church group around 1953, who reported them for staying open after 2:00 am, which was against local city ordinances. The club was forced to close it’s doors while they fought a battle to re-open. A new partner was found to sign for 20 percent of the business, which would allow the club to reopen. Sadly, Paul would not live to see the reopening of his business.
On November 24th, 1954, Paul, wife Millie, and friends Stephen Glover, Miss Jean McGinnis and Miss Joan Banks, went on a fishing excursion to Paradise Cove, near Point Dume. When the fog began to roll in they decided to take the boat back to shore. About 150 feet offshore they ran out of gas. While Paul attempted to refill the gas tank a wave crashed into them, capsizing the boat. Stephen made attempts to save Paul, but was unable to do so. The Los Angeles Times reported the accident on November 25th…
“A Burbank man was drowned yesterday off Paradise Cove near Point Dume when an outboard motor boat capsized. The victim’s wife and three other persons swam to safety.
Paul W. Coons, 47, of 921 Clark St., Burbank, died despite the efforts of a companion, Steven Glover, 20, of 14535 Hart St., Van Nuys, to keep him afloat.
Mr. & Mrs. Coons, Glover and two women, Miss Jean McGinnis, 24, of 6939 Lubao Ave., Canoga Park, and Miss Joan Banks, 24, of 14535 Hart St., Van Nuys, took the small boat out from Paradise Cove yesterday morning to go fishing.
However, as they were off Point Dume, a bank of fog rolled in and they decided to return to Paradise Cove. Half-way back their engine ran out of gas about 150 feet offshore and Coons, the survivors said, was attempting to fill the tank from a reserve can when a wave capsized the small craft.”
Accounts vary from family members about what happened to the roll of money Paul had on him, as well as some of the factual data. He had exactly $600 on him at the time of the accident, which disappeared. A number of theories and accusations have been put forth by family that either the friends with them stole the money, or the rescue crew did. It is believed that the rescue crew were the most likely culprits.
After Paul’s death his wife Millie takes over operations and manages to reopen the club, thanks to a sympathetic judge.
In 1959 disaster strikes again. A fire burns the Pass Club completely to the ground. As to what caused the fire, accounts and theories of living family members are many. Family members of Paul & Millie state that cult leader CharlesManson and his followers visited the Pass Club restaurant on a number of occasions, but were finally told to not come back because they came in barefoot and dirty. Family lore is that the Pass Club may have been burned down in 1959 by Manson and his people out of revenge. This is very unlikely, as at that time Manson may have already been in New Mexico or Texas when he fled California while on parole. Since the exact date that he left the state is not known there is a very small chance that he had something to do with the fire. It is also possible that members of the WKFL cult, led by Krishna Venta, paid a visit to the Pass Club restaurant, sans shoes or baths, as they were located in Box Canyon, the entrance of which is just across from the Pass Club road. However, on June 2nd, 1959, the Los Angeles Times reports that a fire, sparked off by a freight train with a hot box, was rampaging through the Santa Susana Pass area, and the article further states that the only building threatened by the blaze was the Pass Club. This may have been the fire that burnt it to the ground. Another family member states that some believe a disgruntled employee set fire to the club.
A lack of funds to rebuild forces Millie to take a loan from Howard Kingsley at the rate of 18% interest, which also effectively made him a part-owner in the club. In May of 1962 Millie had a whole new club built, even bigger than the first one, and ready to open for business. But, the battles were still not over as local church and community groups continued to find ways to shut the Pass Club down. Having Kingsley as part-owner caused legal problems as well, with the county trying to close her down because she was no longer considered the sole owner., thanks to a law passed in 1958 that disallowed the issuance of any new gambling licenses. The club was closed for 60 days in 1965, when Millie finally had Kingsley’s name removed from part-ownership. However, because of the help of Kingsley, his friends and Millie’s determination, the club continued to thrive. Sometime between 1962 and 1965 Millie married Joseph James Sekyra.
An article in the Los Angeles Times, dated July 22nd, 1962, provides us with some insight into how the club operated, and how some people viewed its existence…
“Said the Rev. Earl S. Barnett, pastor of the Community Methodist Church: “Some of us breathed a sigh of relief when it burned. There had been a certain amount of indignation over the club, but not enough to start anything, It was far enough away I guess.”
“Said Capt. T.B. Stephans, area sheriff’s commander: “I’ve worked this area since 1943 and we’ve never had any trouble with the club. I was afraid it would give us fits when it started, but I was wrong. We’ve checked in a lot and there was never any big crowds.”
“These sentiments were echoed by William Goff, chamber president; Ralph Jakubowski, Simi Valley Homeowners Assn. President, and Sheriff Hill.”
“Community leaders and law enforcement officials, interviewed by The Times, gave the Pass Club a clean bill of health for its past operation.”
The article goes on to quote a source close to the owner, Millie Coons:
“No liquor is served because we don’t think it should be allowed where people gamble.”
“When you say poker people think its a nasty word. People think of gangsters. But we don’t want a man struggling for a living to come in here.”
“We’ve hired men here who know Gardena, so we can keep the gamblers out. We’re going to keep these games as clean as we can. The waitresses here are to wait on tables, and that’s all. We want to erase the public’s bad attitude on poker.”
“We want sheriff’s deputies on our premises at all times, if possible.”
“And we don’t want big gamblers because we don’t want anyone to get hurt and cause trouble.”
The article also explained how the club operated. Eight tables were in operation, the Ventura County limit. Eight persons were the maximum allowed to play at each table. There was no house dealer. The only income the club received was $1 per player per hour, which included use of chips and cards. The ante per game was 25 cents, with a $2 bet limit, except for the final bet, which had a ceiling of $4. Low Draw and Pan, a game similar to Rummy, were played, but never High Draw.
In April 1965 three marshals of the Moorpark Camarillo Judicial District were forced to give up their part-time jobs at the club as guards because of public criticism. During the early to mid-1960’s many members of law enforcement took on extra jobs because their wages were not adequate to make ends meet.
In November 1971 Millie applied for a five year extension of her license. Some of the city council members opposed this extension, citing problems with prostitution at the east end of Simi Valley, which they tried to blame on the presence of the Pass Club. Councilman David Sigmon disagreed, and viewed this opposition as a form of harassment of Millie and the Pass Club.
Not long after this, due to health issues, Millie & Paul’s daughter Betty takes over running the club until Betty’s death in 1976. From this time on Millie and Paul’s other daughter and her husband Carol & Al Garziano take over.
Mildred Julia “Millie” WILLIAMS Coons Sekyra passed away on March 12th, 1980, in Los Angeles County.
In 1981 the city and county finally manage to close down the Pass Club, and a few years later it is sold to a doctor, who turns it into a private residence.
The Pass Club makes the news again, briefly, in 1983, when three old men in dark shiny suits and sunglasses came to town, claiming to be connected with “the big boys” in Chicago and Vegas, bragging that they were coming to pay a few bribes to get the Pass Club reopened. Carol & Al Garziano assisted the police in the take down of Ben (Yummy) Phillips, 62, Irving (Buzzy) Rivkin, 68 and Willard Lasky, 57. Also taken down in this scheme were an Oxnard attorney and a used car salesman. The case went down in history as the “Bumbling Old Fools” case, aka “the Gang that Couldn’t Bribe Straight.” The Los Angeles Times article of Mar. 6th, 1983, is well worth a read if you want a good chuckle. If you have a library card you can access the article online through the e-library.
Info from James Anderson, great-grandson of Paul & Millie, son of Jan…
I have info from the inception of this place…lots of details but here it is in a nutshell..Paul and Mildred husband and wife…Paul has previous businesses beauty shop etc but wants to invest in something to make more money..through a series of ideas he ends up buying the property in Santa Susanna ……pours the slab and builds property for club…does pretty well..club gets closed due to staying open after 2am city ordinance …gets a partner to sign for 20 percent of the business to help re-open but before that happens he rents a small boat with wife Mildred two twin girls Jean and Joan and their brother Steve..friends from the beauty shop to have a day out on the water…boat capsizes and Paul drowns ..the others barely escape the same fate..Mildred does come back and gets a judge that allows her to re-open the club…in 1958 or 59 a disgruntled employee sets fire to the place ..Mildred can not rebuild..so she gets a loan from from a man named Howard Kingsley for 18 % which is unheard of at the time…the county wanted to close her again because she was not the sole owner ..she eventually gets his name removed and keeps the club open..because of Mr Kingsley’s friends and Mildred’s perseverance the club is successful again …because she has health issues Mildred has her daughter Betty take over the club and managed it until her death in 1976…then Mildred’s other daughter Carol and her husband Al took over..Mildred passes away in 1980 …Carol and are told the county is trying to take the club again and after a year they finally sell the club …to a Dr…and now it is where it is with the new owners.
I have so much more details of the in between time…how Paul was friends with Earl Scheib the millionaire car painter that started his business because Paul gave up on that idea of painting cars cheap so he could build the Pass club…the church is the reason they closed the club because they said the club was opened after 2 in the morning which was a violation.
When Paul’s body was recovered by the coast guard he had no money and they knew he had hundreds on him. They never did figure out where the money went.
Info. Directly from Al Garziano, son-in-law of Paul & Millie Coons….
The “Beauty Shop” was the name of the auto paint shop he was part owner in with Earl Scheib. (Sp?) There was another guy…I think JD McCracken…in on that shop. The reason Paul Coons even got into a poker room was to buy race horses. That was his passion. He wanted to buy and train thoroughbreds. The original plan for the 40 acres was to someday have a race track.
Millie had nine miscarried pregnancies between the births of daughters Betty & Carol.
More about Paul’s drowning, according to Al Garziano, as relayed through daughter Cathy. Garziano…
Millie couldn’t swim…not for her life…There was only one life preserver in the boat…The way all four survivors explained it was the motor stopped…and Paul was trying to start it…and noticed the wave about to hit them as they had drifted towards the beach…he told everyone to watch the boat if it tips over and don’t hit your head…the wave hit and everyone flew out…the life preserver, somehow ended up UNDER Millie! Paul hit his head on the boat, but Steve saw it and went under to get him…the twins and Steve actually had Paul on the upside down boat, but he had white foam coming from his mouth…Then another wave hit and they lost him. Then they noticed Millie struggling and helped her into shore. That’s why Steve felt guilty. Michael kept picking this up.
According to Cathy, the family referred to the property as The Hill. She says to remember “3 of Clubs,” but she doesn’t know why. After invo… 3 of Clubs was nickname of three-legged dog called Tripod, according to Al Garziano.
On July 12th we conducted a prelim at the Pass Club, which included using Ovilus III, Ghost Radar and a number of other devices used to encourage communication. These devices display words, sentences and names during an investigation. For any who are on the fence about the usefulness of such devices, here is what came up as personal names, and the confirmation of WHO these people were. This information was provided by Cathy and her father Albert, who was the husband of Carol, daughter of the original builders, Paul & Millie Coons.
Johnson – Johnny JOHNSON was head of security
Ethel – ETHEL was Millie’s sister? Haven’t found a sister of Millie’s named Ethel.
Paul – Most likely PAUL Coons, the original builder.
Pat – PAT Monte was a chip runner who worked at the club from its opening until its closing. Census records indicate that he was born in Los Angeles on 13 June 1928. His father was born in Italy, his mother in RUSSIA.
Jim – James “J.D.” McCracken
Jane – JANE Hanks was the restaurant manager from the opening of the club until it closed down. Jane was born Jane Frances Benedict on 22 July, 1930 in Los Angeles.
Dave – DAVE Booth was the valet, from the time the club first opened until its closing. May be the Dave A. Booth born in Washington in 1928, and living in Los Angeles in 1930 with parents.
Dick – DICK Jones started out as a player at the club, and then became an employee.
This leaves only three names unidentified…Tom, Carlos & Becky. It is conceivable that they are connected with an earlier time, possible back when this area was part of the stage coach route, as well as a popular hide-out for bandits.