Saturday, February 07, 2009

Searching for Answers: the Death of Vince Guaraldi (Continually Updated for New Info)

Perhaps this political blog isn't the best place to discuss a deceased jazz musician who was the backup artist for Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy. But since I started this discussion, I need to finish it.

Yesterday, on the 33rd anniversary of Vince Guaraldi's death, I decided to visit the site where he died and then visit his grave. I accomplished all of my goals, in spite of a driving rain and hazardous road conditions.
I programmed my GPS system and started out on the road towards Menlo Park, California and the Red Cottage Inn. Guaraldi died in his room at the Red Cottage Inn, resting between sets at Butterfield's nightclub. I knew from my research that the Red Cottage Inn was still in existence, but that Butterfield's nightclub was not. However, I hoped to find the building that once housed Butterfield's. It appeared that Butterfield's must have been within easy walking distance of the Red Cottage Inn -- that would explain how Guaraldi could leave the nightclub to rest in his motel room during 15 minute breaks (bands generally take a 15 minute break after every hour of performing).
The drive north to Menlo Park took well over an hour and a half. I played Guaraldi music on my CD player all day long -- his most famous hits as well as songs from "A Boy Named Charlie Brown." Don't be fooled by the name of the CD -- these are not kiddy songs, but excellent mellow jazz.

I turned off of Highway 101 and found the El Camino Real, drove past Stanford University on my left (where Vince once performed at half time in a football game back in 1963). A couple of miles past Stanford I found the Red Cottage Inn on the right side of the road.

The only part of the Inn that was visible from El Camino Real was the red sign. The motel itself is set back from the road, down a long driveway, where it is somewhat secluded, surrounded on all sides by fences and shaded by tall trees. I parked my car a half block away and walked into the grounds of the Inn. The Red Cottage Inn was well maintained, clean, freshly painted and inviting. It showed pride of ownership. But what about Butterfied's nightclub?

Immediately to the left of the Red Cottage Inn's sign and the long driveway leading to the motel, I found an older building that in all probability was the site of Butterfield's nightclub 33 years ago. It was a one story building that currently houses an Indian restaurant, though the restaurant was closed -- perhaps for repairs, perhaps for good, I don't really know. If this is where Butterfield's was located [later confirmed], then Guaraldi's stay at the Red Cottage Inn makes a lot of sense. He could easily walk the few yards from the Inn to the nightclub between sets.

I took several pictures of the Red Cottage Inn, thinking that, behind one of those red doors is where Vince Guaraldi breathed his last.

The building and grounds of what was once Butterfield's is now in shabby condition. The shrubbery is badly overgrown and littered with discarded paper coffee cups, wrappers, pizza boxes and other debris. The shuttered windows were full of dead flies. On the far left side of the building was a large sign that declares "Psychic Readings." I captured it all with my digital camera and left for Colma to find Guaraldi's grave.

The Red Cottage Inn, Menlo Park, California
Colma is a town near San Francisco that has more dead residents than living ones. It is the site of large, old cemeteries where many famous people are buried. Guaraldi rests in Holy Cross Cemetery on Mission Boulevard. Holy Cross is where Joe DiMaggio is entombed and where Pat Brown, former governor of California (and father of moonbat Jerry Brown), is also buried. Abigail Folger rests in the mausoleum there. She was the coffee heiress who was murdered by the Charles Manson gang, along with Sharon Tate and several other people, on August 9, 1969. However, I wasn't there to visit these people. I was there to visit Vince Guaraldi.

I found Guaraldi's grave in the Star of the Sea section, Row 40, Grave 8, just where findagrave.com said it would be. He is buried there with his mother Carmela, who was only a few days shy of 91 when she died in 1999.

The rain had stopped, but I was the only one there. There were no flowers on his grave or anything else to indicate Guaraldi had any visitors but me on the anniversary of his death. That was kind of sad. Google Vince Guaraldi and dozens of articles and websites pop up. It's not as if he were an unknown personality, even three decades later. Again, I took several pictures of the grave site and surrounding grounds. I prayed for Vince Guaraldi and his mom before leaving, imploring God to "forget the harp, let him play his piano."

The Red Cottage Inn, Menlo Park, California
A better photo of the headstone, taken in drier weather, can be viewed at this link.

It was time to go home, but first a stop at my favorite tobacco shop in Morgan Hill where I had a bottle of authentic Bavarian wheat beer and a huge cigar that cost $11.50. After that, it was home and a nap.

It was a long day but well worth the trouble. I felt that I had solved the mystery of Butterfield's location and how it fit with the Red Cottage Inn. I had seen the actual sites and now Guaraldi's last day seemed real to me, and not just a misty myth from out of time.

Update:  I received this commentary from a reader, confirming that the Indian Restaurant was indeed the original site of Butterfield's nightclub.  Here it is:
You were at the right place for Butterfields Restaurant and Bar. I used to hear Vince with his trio there. For no cover charge you could hear one of America's top jazz pianists. I heard that he came to Menlo Park to perform because he was dating the daughter of the CEO of the Heublein liquor company who lived nearby and he would stay next door at the Red Cottage Inn.
The Grave of Vince Guaraldi, Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma, California

Butterfield's had oriental rugs, Victorian furniture-sofas, and Tiffany lamps where you could sip on a drink and be thoroughly entertained. I lived locally so my friend Karen and I would go there. We got to know the bartenders. The bar had been bought by the owner from a Hollywod set. Carved oak with Victorian lamps. One night after closing following his performance I sat down at the Yamaha he used and played some improvisational music and a couple whom I didn't know was still there applauded me. I was very flattered. I hadn't played a Yamaha and didn't know how to play jazz but really liked the touch.

I moved back East for 3 years and during that time had heard that he had suddenly died. Wikipedia listed the cause of death as a heart attack but I had heard that it was a heroin overdose. In any case it was very sad. I feel so lucky to have heard him live for free!!

Butterfield Site:  View of the Interior
The building that Butterfields was in has changed hands numerous times over the years and as you say is not well maintained. If it opens again I might take a look and see if that oak bar remains.  --Lynn Huidekoper, Menlo Park, California
Thank you Lynn, for this invaluable commentary, for fleshing out the true story of Vince Guaraldi's last gig.  I envy you for having heard his trio live and in person.

Lynn Huidekoper directed me to this online photo of Gaylord's Restaurant, which was previously Butterfield's Nightclub, at 1706 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, California. The window has Tiffany glass and you can see the rich wood paneling inside. Gaylord's has ceased business and the site is vacant once again.

Vince Guaraldi and Girlfriend, 1975
Update:  I received a scanned photograph from someone claiming to be Vince Guaraldi's former girlfriend.  She said she worked at Butterfield's and met Vince there, and that they were together for a year.  She said the photo below was taken in January of 1975 in her apartment in Menlo Park.  She told me many other details and I may add them later.


UPDATE: You can view the site of Butterfield's using Google Earth or Google Maps. Go to Google Maps and enter the address of Butterfield's, 1706 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, CA.  You can view Butterfield's (Gaylord's India Restaurant in its latest incarnation) from an aerial view or also from a street view.  The street view can be manipulated so you can see all sides of the building.

UPDATE 6/30/2010:  Jim, who has spoken to Vince Guaraldi's son, sheds some important light on Vince's death.  He writes:
Guaraldi died of an aneurysm that developed in a major blood vessel just next to his heart. He had been feeling unwell for at least a day before he died, and no one, including himself, knew he had an aneurysm. It could have been removed by surgery and he could have still been living today (he would be 81).

I know this from Guaraldi's son, who read the coroner's certificate.

The only person with him at the moment of his death was drummer Eliot Zigmund, who lives in NYC now. He was playing with Vince at Butterfield's that night. When they took their set break, he and Vince went into the provided motel room to relax. Vince headed for the bathroom but never made it. The aneurysm burst mid-stride, VG fell to the floor, and since the blood flow was not reaching his brain he died instantly. JB
Update 4/18/2011:  I received the following comment from a reader at a related post.  He has a valuable correction to make:  the drummer with Vince when the latter died was not Eliot Zigmund, but Jim Zimmerman.  He writes:
Anonymous said...

Thanks for these pages, especially the Butterfields photos.

I think one of your facts is mistaken, though (about Eliot Zigmund being w/ VG when he died). This portion of the Wikipedia entry on Vince Guaraldi comports with the Guaraldi documentary "The Maestro of Menlo Park" that is included on the Peanuts 1960s Specials DVD set. It contains an interview w/ Jim Zimmerman, the drummer who was with Vince when he died:

"Guaraldi died at age 47 on February 6, 1976. The evening before, he had dined at Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson's home, and was reportedly not feeling well, complaining of indigestion-like chest discomfort that his doctor had told him was nothing to worry about. The following evening, after concluding the first set at Butterfield's Nightclub in Menlo Park, California, Guaraldi and drummer Jim Zimmerman returned to the room they were staying in that weekend at the attached Red Cottage Inn, to relax before the next set. In Zimmerman's words, 'He was walking across the room and just collapsed. That was it.' His cause of death has been variously described as a heart attack and/or an aortic aneurysm. Guaraldi had just finished recording the soundtrack for It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown earlier that afternoon."
Update 4/20/2011:  Reader Doug writes to supply another invaluable narrative on Guaraldi's death.  He writes:
One other find, from the July 1981 edition of Keyboard Magazine, which featured a VG profile and retrospective:

"[bassist Seward] McCain had played with Vince for about two years at a club in Menlo Park called Butterfield's when they began their last gig there on February 6, 1976. 'It was a Friday night, I think. We had just played to a pretty full house the first set, and it was quite good. The last song we played was Eleanor Rigby -- he had a nice, exciting version of that. Then he went back to his room with our drummer, Jim Zimmerman.'

'When Vince fell and hit the floor, Jim got me. We went back and tried to revive him, but it didn't work. He passed away.'

Few of Vince's associates suspected that he suffered any health problems. Only a few weeks before his death, he had had a physical check-up, including an EKG, and the results showed him to be in pretty good condition. 'I saw him about a week before he passed away,' George diQuattro says. 'Vince seemed really fine. The only thing I'd heard was that he had seen a doctor because he had stomach problems and was feeling ill and tired. The doctor told him it might just be ulcers, and prescribed him some dumb medecine and told him to forget about it. But it wasn't that. That's really a shame, man. That should never happen, not today.'

[The Rev. Charles] Gompertz sees Guaraldi's death in a different light, though. 'I think part of Vince's problem was that he never really took very good care of himself,' he ventures. 'He stayed out late, he smoked, and he did a whole lot of things. He tried everything. I mean, when skateboards first came out, he was the first kid on his block to get one, only as a kid he happened to be about 30. He pushed himself to the limit, whether musically or physically. He saw himself as a very youthful person, but he didn't do any of the phyisical things you have to do to prepare yourself to live like that.'

'When it happened down at Butterfield's, when the end finally came, he went the way he would have wanted to go, with the piano,' Carmella Guaraldi [Vince's mom] insists."

Update 8/11/2010:
Butterfield's has been demolished. Reader JD works in Menlo Park and has regularly checked the site. JD writes:
Found your post, "Vince Guaraldi's Last Gig Site (Butterfield's) All Boarded Up." Since I'm in Menlo Park quite a lot, I stopped by Wednesday to see if anything had changed. Oh, it has. Butterfield's is gone. Photo attached.

Had to shoot through the temporary construction fence. Looks like this is pretty fresh demolition, since the heavy gear is still on site.

And so it goes.

JD
Butterfield's is No More

Note on Comments to this Post:  Many heartfelt comments from Vince Guaraldi fans are no longer available for viewing.  In September 2010 I changed my commenting system back to the Blogger system.  I had previously been using the ECHO system, which managed to lose many of my comments in the change over.  I regret this as a great loss, because many of the comments were very touching.  I won't be using ECHO again in the future.  Feel free to post new comments on the more reliable blogger commenting system.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

i knew the girlfriend of vince..the one in the photo. she lived in an apartment with me in san mateo around 1971 or so. she called me up crying about vince's death. she said she was with him when he died. for the life of me i can't remember her name...anyone? i would love to remember!!! very pretty girl from brooklyn

Stogie said...

Anon,

The girl in the photo's first name is Gwen...not sure of her last name. She was a student at San Francisco State in the 1970's.

Stogie said...

I did some checking of old email; the girl's full name was Gwen DiGiovanni at the time she was dating Vince.

She subsequently married and divorced, and I don't know what name she goes by now.

Anonymous said...

I worked at Butterfield's and Vince for a couple years. He was a wonderful man and a great place to work. I also worked with his girlfriend.

Doug said...

One other find, from the July 1981 edition of Keyboard Magazine, which featured a VG profile and retrospective:

"[bassist Seward] McCain had played with Vince for about two years at a club in Menlo Park called Butterfield's when they began their last gig there on February 6, 1976. 'It was a Friday night, I think. We had just played to a pretty full house the first set, and it was quite good. The last song we played was Eleanor Rigby -- he had a nice, exciting version of that. Then he went back to his room with our drummer, Jim Zimmerman.'

'When Vince fell and hit the floor, Jim got me. We went back and tried to revive him, but it didn't work. He passed away.'

Few of Vince's associates suspected that he suffered any health problems. Only a few weeks before his death, he had had a physical check-up, including an EKG, and the results showed him to be in pretty good condition. 'I saw him about a week before he passed away,' George diQuattro says. 'Vince seemed really fine. The only thing I'd heard was that he had seen a doctor because he had stomach problems and was feeling ill and tired. The doctor told him it might just be ulcers, and prescribed him some dumb medecine and told him to forget about it. But it wasn't that. That's really a shame, man. That should never happen, not today.'

[The Rev. Charles] Gompertz sees Guaraldi's death in a different light, though. 'I think part of Vince's problem was that he never really took very good care of himself,' he ventures. 'He stayed out late, he smoked, and he did a whole lot of things. He tried everything. I mean, when skateboards first came out, he was the first kid on his block to get one, only as a kid he happened to be about 30. He pushed himself to the limit, whether musically or physically. He saw himself as a very youthful person, but he didn't do any of the phyisical things you have to do to prepare yourself to live like that.'

'When it happened down at Butterfield's, when the end finally came, he went the way he would have wanted to go, with the piano,' Carmella Guaraldi [Vince's mom] insists."

Stogie said...

Doug, thanks for your invaluable contribution to this article. I have posted it in the body of the article as well.

Anonymous said...

I also worked at Butterfield's and was friends with his girlfriend. I worked there until I had my first son. The Twitchell's were good people to work for. I miss Vince and everyone I worked with.

God Bless you guys,
Lori

Stogie said...

Lori, thanks for visiting. You are very lucky to have known Vince personally. Now that Christmas is here again, many people are searching for information on this great musician/composer.

FritzH said...

Terrific page, thanks. I was 15 when Vince Guaraldi died, and by then I'd already been listening to a couple of his Peanuts albums for years and years: "Oh Good Grief" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas." As it happens, I lived in Mountain View from 2004-07. To think I was that close to where he played jazz! I went looking for the "hungry i" in San Francisco, and that, too, has been demolished. (The strip club is not the same club or building.) Great to learn all this new information -- much appreciated.

Stogie Chomper said...

Thanks Fritz. Yes, the Hungry I is long gone. The owner sold the name to the strip club, don't know why the club would want it. Welcome to our fraternity of Guaraldi fans. We know how you feel. Even after 39 years, we still mourn his death.