The life and times of John King

May 2, 2011


(Editor’s note: This is the first in a three part series about the history behind developer John King’s start in San Luis Obispo County and the financial challenges he is currently facing. Part 2Part 3)


Love him or hate him, it is indisputable John King’s ventures have in many ways helped restore the aesthetic glory to downtown San Luis Obispo and molded the local hospitality industry thriving today.

But in these economically challenging times even the King himself could possibly face financial collapse.

King, who often refuses to speak to media, sat down with CalCoastNews in a rare opportunity for a series of interviews about his life and the tremendous financial hardships he is currently facing.

The color of King’s hair is telling of his life of many stories. From firefighter, actor, restaurateur to real estate mogul, now 70 years old, King went on to become one of San Luis Obispo County’s largest employers.

But his rise to the top has recently been overshadowed by litigation and battles of bank foreclosures—more on that to come.

Like most life stories, King’s is not one without its share of color. Born in Prunedale, Calif. it was not unusual for King to spend his weekends as a youth attending cock fights.

He eventually left the sleepy town, and in 1960 enrolled in Cal Poly as an engineering major. While he failed to graduate it did not, however, curtail his success.

But first King took the scenic route to Hollywood where he joined the likes of other aspiring actors and became a stand-in for Max Baer – Jethro – on the ever so popular “Beverly Hillbillies,” as well as a regular fill in riding horseback on the “Wild Wild West.” For King, it meant afternoons sharing meals with celebrities like Sharon Tate and the stars of “Petticoat Junction.”

Baer, King’s close friend, was able to land them both a new gig—this time acting roles on “Return of the Seven.” To King it seemed he was about to make it as an actor. That was until his hillbilly sidekick and then roommate, Baer, had a run-in with the legendary Frank Sinatra.

King tells a tale of a time Baer was a guest at one of Sinatra’s birthday bashes. Baer, the “life of the party” was receiving the bulk of attention when an agitated Sinatra poured a cocktail down Baer’s back.

Several drinks later, King says Baer responded to the singer’s antics and dumped an ice bucket filled with frigid water and frozen cubes on Sinatra causing his toupee to slip off his head.

Angered, Sinatra told Baer, “You are going to regret this day.”

John King, actor Jim Brolin, Rob and Steve Rossi in 1989 at the Santa Margarita Ranch

King says it was not long after Sinatra’s birthday soiree that he and Baer were permanently escorted off the “Return of the Seven” set during wardrobe preparations. It was apparent at that moment, King said, that Baer had been “blackballed.” The duo later learned it was Sinatra’s revenge as they came to find out Sinatra owned Mirisch, the show’s production company.

Shortly afterward, King received an offer for a role in a television show, but decided to return to his home in San Luis Obispo where he usually spent weekends with his wife, now of 50 years, Carole King.

“I tell people I came home because Carole wanted me to, but I think I was afraid the show might not make it,” King said.

Following his Hollywood days, King began his life in construction. In 1968, he remodeled 11 buildings in downtown San Luis Obispo which helped change the city from boarded up buildings and warehouses to the thriving center it is today.

Three San Luis Obispo projects King says he was particularly proud of are the transformation of the old cigar factory into the Cigar Factory Restaurant, the creation of the Network mall from an old National Dollar store and the restoration of the historic Railroad Square building, all projects he partnered with local entrepreneurs Cliff Branch and Jim Smith.

At about the same time, Branch asked King to remodel his chain of Stereo West retail stores.

With his knack at tapping into the youth market, Branch had an idea—one that they soon learned would make them millions—rich by the standards of the time.

Branch wanted to place an advertisement for his new mail order division of the stereo company in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. But holding up his marketing strategy was the fact that Branch owed King money. So he made King an offer.

Branch told him, “I want to do this ad. If I do it, I can’t pay you but you can have a chunk,” according to King’s account of the conversation.

John King on left and actor Ben Johnson on the right in the 80s

“We invested in each others companies because we figured at least one of us would make it,” Branch added.

The ad gave readers a double take displaying a photo of a very slender and topless woman surrounded by the employees of Warehouse Sound Co.

“We got a lot of ribbing,” Branch said. “She was attractive by today’s standards but then she was petite.”

She may have been a little too petite for the time—a subject of the teasing. King said the camera’s angle produced a photograph that exaggerated her thinness and her ribs.

“Not that many girls in SLO would do a topless ad. It was a tongue and cheek ad,” Branch said.

After the racy ad followed by a feature story in Rolling Stone magazine, it was just what they needed to launch the San Luis Obispo company off the ground and take its sales skyrocketing. The national attention also landed the partners an offer they couldn’t refuse from CBS Corporation which ended up buying Warehouse Sound Co. for $4 million in the late 60s.

The young businessmen along with their other partners, Tom Spalding and Smith, had an uncanny ability to make business sexy. Between King and Branch, each credits the other with the ideas that worked.

Following the restoration of the old cigar factory, which currently houses Novo restaurant in downtown San Luis Obispo, King said he was hoping to bring in the Chart House chain.

After a series of events the Chart House deal fell through, but King was not challenged to open Cigar Factory Restaurant in lieu and once again used “sexy” to make it famous hosting the second “wet T-shirt contest” in the nation which soon became a regular event, according to King and Branch.

“We kicked ass,” at least “stopped traffic,” white haired King recalled of his youthful days in business when he at one time owned 12 restaurants.

Branch was also not known for shying of public opinion, once paying $45,000 to place an ad in the national edition of USA Today just to speak out about the war in Iraq.

Branch, reflecting on the advertising campaigns of his early companies, admits their racy marketing schemes would be “politically incorrect today.”

Immediately following the Warehouse Sound Co. buyout, the duo embarked on another venture that went big.

Once again partnered with Branch and Smith, King built a 60,000 square foot sales and manufacturing complex and took 10 percent of their next company, California Cooperage, which sold redwood hot tubs.

More “topless” women helped market the spa company to remarkable success. At the company’s first major industry convention at the Cal Palace in San Francisco three women walked over to their California Cooperage exhibit, stripped down naked and hopped into their hot tubs, and despite pleas from security refused to leave. The crowds and racket that followed nearly shut down the convention.

Branch admits to CalCoastNews, California Cooperage hired three actresses to perform what turned out to be a very successful publicity stunt.

Within years of the company’s creation it was bought out by the Coleman Company for more than $10 million giving King yet another boost.

However, the question remains—will one of the county’s most renowned businessman see his lifelong climb to success take a sudden fall or will the man they call King maintain his reign?

Read part-two, “Princess Palms and beheadings: high times turn hairy,” on CalCoastNews Tuesday.

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Speaking of employment: when you regard that era, which TQ was probably not around then, anyone who created and provided jobs was considered pretty cool in SLO county because there just weren’t enough government jobs to go around!! I was fortunate to have many talents and do well here, and quite honestly John helped some of that along now and then unwittingly. But, seriously, private sector jobs weren’t just important around here they were HUGE. Maybe TQ can no understand why many people might appreciate John and his efforts. As for Textron, it is a bit blurry about who zoomed who unless TQ has facts unknown to the rest of the professional community. Just remember: jobs, lots of jobs, lots of payroll, many careers started by those jobs that were created by innovation.

I was around then. Not all of King’s ‘ventures’ have been bad. I don’t believe he’s the devil. I just don’t trust him. He has screwed over a friend of mine. But at this time can’t stand what he’s doing to the Five Cities. This will be an economic drain and it will ruin life as we know it in our little community and King has shown his true colors by not really caring about what he’s doing to such an amazing place just at the chance that he might make a few bucks. I also don’t like that during this economic depression he’s losing money right and left and yet he’s making the terrible decision to build more in an area that doesn’t have the ability to support more. Most of us know now what foreclosed properties do to a neighborhood. I’ll bet the businesses around the high rise that he recently lost in Fresno or the hotel that he lost in Morro Bay (not to mention the lenders) aren’t happy that he’s investing more money in developing again and in an area that most likely will also fail. One of his partners in the Price Canyon developement started this project 5 years ago and hasn’t been able to sell one developed lot,,,now they’re going to build hundreds more in the same area…great!

I think the only person that is impressed here is Karen Velie. King is no different than any other developer in this area that over financed and paid to much for some of his properties then walked away. Just after the first of this year the Pacific Tower building in Fresno owned by King went to auction. He purchase it for under 1 million but owed over 5 million five years later at the time of auction. I’m sure his partners in this venture saw this coming as they got out well before the auction. I bet Karen didn’t interview them. But don’t believe that he is down and out, he is working on a new venture The Monterey Bay Resort in Sand City. He even got the City Council to help pay for some of the EIR expenses. Some things never change. Live I said….I’m not impressed!

You mean there is actually someone that’s not impressed by money and this fluffy one-sided article, wow. I’m not going to bother with the rest of this fluffy series, the authors were just enamoured with the subject and lost all objectivity and unfortunately many of the people that post are easily swayed by what they read in this forum.

To Typoqueen….

With respect to saying negative things about John King you stated….

“I could go on and on.”


Your negativity is baseless, circumstantial, speculative, unfounded, slanderous, rude and annoying.

Why can’t you leave just ONE innacurate hateful comment and leave it at that!

And by the way you are correct in that you DON’T know John King very well.

The truth can be painful.


Your hatred for this man seems obsessive. What is the source of this pain you feel?

What has he done to injure or hurt you personally?

Do you now, or have you ever, worked with him? What makes you an authority on his business?

It appears Karen has interviewed him. Have you also interviewed him, or on what factual basis to state your claims?


I don’t hate him.

Yes Karen interviewed him. Unfortunately she didn’t seem to interview any of the people that he owes money to or any of the people that have had problems with him. When Bob McDonald from New Times brought up his financial issues King yelled at him and then hung up on him. I guess that you can’t ask pressing questions to get an interview like this with him, it’s just easier to be friendly and fluffy. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps one of the next interviews will be with one of his creditors that he owes money to or some of the tenets in the building in Fresno or perhaps the Coastal Commission regarding the boulders that had placed illegally along the bluffs at one of his hotels.

You speculate – you know no facts. Seriously doubt if you have ever spoken to John King.

The fact is the City of Pismo issued a permit for the placement of the boulders; it was only later that there was a legal issue. You must not have lived in SLO county very long.

Please take to heart the comments from ApathyWillKillyou. Your comments are SOO negative and unfounded.

Get the facts first – if you don’t KNOW, don’t BLOW!

I certainly was around then and have been for a long time. The City of Pismo thinks that they have authority over the Coastal Comish but they don’t and King knows that. And it wasn’t later that they had legal issues, they had those issues while the bolders were being placed, the

City knew that it was wrong and so did King.

He’s been married for 50 yrs to the same woman…that should count for something.

But the shameless exploitation of women…not my cup of tea…but it’s sure made John & Carole rich!

Would you give it a break and stop making women sound like a bunch of helpless, ditzy, bimbo’s? I could easily make the arguement that those women know how to take advantage of a man’s wiring. Now who is being exploited?

I also don’t like when women allow men to exploit them and I don’t appreciate the men that exploit them. There is still a glass ceiling for working women, pregnancy in girls is getting younger and younger and things like this don’t help. I can’t stand those Carls Jr. commercials where they show women on cars with next to nothing on dripping sauce on thier b@@bs while I’m sitting with my children watching a family show. It takes a village and by showing ads like this it sends out the wrong message to kids. For the parents that care about what’s going on in today’s society and trying not expose their kids to garbage, ads like that set us back. If a women wants to be an exotic dancer or a prostitute then fine but don’t do it in public.

You’re just too funny. I usually agree with the majority of your posts and when I don’t agree, I usually understand your side of the issue and where your coming from. Like in this case, I agree about those foolish commericials but John King was advertising in Playboy or live at conventions and he was using paid models, not drug addicted street walkers. So the objections here (on this blog), about King’s choice of advertising simply doesn’t apply.

I find it amusing that his detractors spin anything he does or had done, because they don’t like a project. There have been a few people that I didn’t like in the past, as in, I really, really didn’t like them. I probably would have done the same thing in a public forum. That doesn’t right, though.

No Cindy, I truly feel this way about sexism. At the risk of sounding like a prude, since having children and experiencing sexual harassment I’ve become very aware of the effects of exploiting women in this way. I really don’t like it and that would pertain to anyone, not just King. I love the band Aerosmith but when my kids were young I would never let them watch the videos.

Granted, I did read the story wrong, I thought that it said that it was advertised in Rolling Stone but after reviewing it I see that I was wrong. From what I first read it was advertising for Playboy which does make it more acceptable. But IMO due some pretty nasty experiences I still don’t like the porn stuff ie Playboy or portraying women as simple sex objects.

“No Cindy, I truly feel this way about sexism.”

Yes tyopqueen, but we are now off topic!

Take a close look at our dialogue. It has nothing to do with King, which is my point.

My kind regards on this issue……

Sorry typoqueen, watch old NBA games from the early 80’s.. guys wore short shorts back then. I know it looks odd to us now but I have family pictures of my brother looking the same. Ain’t fashion fun! I have a few pictures I wouldn’t want shown around now.

Hey, I’m not saying that we didn’t dress weird and tacky back then but I do believe that those shorts are short for even back then. But hey, as already shown I could be biased,,I can’t stand what the guy’s doing to our community so I’ll admit to picking on him.

Yes, those shorts are mighty short. I’m surprised that he didn’t have to go around constantly checking himself. I guess if I were 70 and had a picture that showed my hot legs from years earlier, maybe I wouldn’t care about my trashy paisley daisy-dukes with the camel toe!

what’s a camel toe?

That an alternative lifestyle thing?

“….maybe I wouldn’t care about my trashy paisley daisy-dukes with the camel toe!”

Come on, Cindy….this is the internet!

Pics or it didn’t happen! LOL

LOL back at yah, It happend but you’ll have to take my word for it.

I’m with you on your assessment of Cliff Branch, seniorcit. I’m glad someone commented on it.

“John King, actor Jim Brolin, Rob and Steve Rossi in 1989 at the Santa Margarita Ranch”

I believe that should read Rob Rossi.

And many of the stories that paint these men as the devil are drummed up by those who do not know them as people but wish to only stop one of their projects or would stand to profit from the leaking of the rumors.The negative tabloid stories are the fodder of the curious and sleazy…

Rob Rossi and John King are Calpoly students who have built many great projects bringing tax dollars and work to this county, and have been very benevolent to the many groups in need.

Our family has done business with Rob Rossi and we like him, he’s always been fair and honest. I’ll betcha Rossi wouldn’t do business with King, at least not now that he knows him better. Rossi is a good man and King has scr*wed over many a good man,,,and not a scr*ing in the good sense of the word. Notice how old that picture is of him with Rossi is. I’d be surprised if Rossi would even build a Lego house with that guy.

Perhaps if you tell King’s creditors what a great guy he is they’ll excuse the millions that he owes him.

Rob Rossi and John King still own a lot of properties together. And they built the Apple farm within the past 10 years. They are also still friends. The sad thing is, your allegations are ridiculous to anyone who knows Rob or John.

I know both,,not close friends but I do know them both and I’m not alone in my feelings. I strongly believe that Rossi wouldn’t presently do business with King.

That’s not saying much — who would do business with a developer on the edge of bankruptcy?

R.Hodin, he’s already fell off that edge.

I never heard of this guy until a few weeks ago when he was in the press for co-ordinating an effort to bring the Iron Man race to the Central Coast. I don’t know why people are calling him names like sleazy, so far I don’t see anything “sleazy” about him at all. Playboy and the like has been around since I was a child and the woman posing made those decisions to do so and embraced that profession for themselves. When are we going to start taking responsibility for our own actions? If the man that pay’s the models to run around naked is a sleaze then so are the woman who take the money and all the red blooded American men that buy the magazines, the redwood hot tubs and the rest that goes with it.

As for those daisy-dukes, I have to admit that he looks like a girly man in them.

Cindy, he is a sleaze, you don’t know enough about him and from this article you will only get his side of tainted reality. I have hope that Karen will print about both sides of King in the following articles.

This is a man that doesn’t pay his bills. As property is being foreclosed he is busy buying new property. He hides under different LLCs so he doesn’t have to pay millions to creditors. This man is now attempting to ruin Pismo beach with a huge disgusting developement that will ruin Price Canyon and all of the Five Cities area. King is trying to convince people that he’s not involved in the Price Canyon project, but he’s just hiding his assets. He will take peoples property to fulfill his greed. I have talked to homeowners that he’s scr@wed over. There are lawsuits from employees. Business partners regret getting into partnerships with him. He wines and dines city officials to get what he wants. I could go on and on.

I guess you can tell that I can’t stand the man and look forward to the day that his house of cards tumble down around him.

John King’s partners are few, unlike some developers and I can tell you I can’t think of a single former partner who he is not still friends with. He is a man of life long friends. Yes he has been in foreclosures and having money problems, which many people are currently.

If you have proof that he still owns the Pismo Project prove it. You don’t want the project built so you knock the man who planned it. I like the project and think it is smart building with mostly open space and small clusters of homes on small lots.

28 hole golf course, hotel, 400 homes give or take a few, 10,000 foot convention center, 5,000 foot ‘wellness’ center, wine tasting room, building when the population of Pismo has decreased in down economy with water shortages on roads that are already over burdened,,oh yeah that’s smart growth. How about if they sell the 68 lots that have been sitting there for 5 years first (they were the precursor to that developement). What is smart about that developement? It absolutely can and has been be proven that he’s still part owner of that developement. Anything that’s been scaled down on that project wasn’t cut out because of King, it was scaled down because of the county. King will build that place out as much as he’s allowed without caring about what the current residents want.

If I owe money I don’t go out and rack up more debt. Your friend King does, guess he’s entitled.

Is he still friends with his buddies at Textron? I can name people that regret doing business with him but I don’t know if it’s my place to name them or if they would appreciate me telling you their names. There are plenty people that regret doing business with him including one major one that recently passed away.

WOW, Yes I can see that you surely do not like this man. I think that people have a right to expect builders to follow the laws that protect all of us. Law’s like zoning ordinances, open space allowances, the CEQA, reasonable esthetics and all the protections that the gov codes afford the public as over seen by our Planning Commissions and staff. When development goes wrong, it is the gov who I blame for poor oversight and maybe even for some closed door agreements.

Property owners DO HAVE A RIGHT to the use and development of their land. It never ceases to amaze me that people think they can tell someone else what they can and can’t do with their property after the fact (that they have purchased it development rights)! It’s mighty “nervy” for folks to think they can force someone to sit on raw land and lock up another man’s legitimate investment because they want to enjoy the open space at someone else’s expense.

I’m sure you have your reason’s for dishing this man, but so far, I haven’t heard anything but accusations and “seeming” unreasonable diatribe?

That land is zoned ag by the county that is why King is trying to get it annexed into the city of Pismo. People do have rights regarding what gets built up around them even if its not their property. People do have the right to fight urban sprawl.

If I buy a house next to an airport then I shouldn’t complain about the planes. But if I buy a house next to land that’s not zoned for an airport and they then decide to put one in then I have the right to fight what that property owner plans to do with his property.

While I agree 100% with your second paragraph, it is your opening paragraph that I take exception with. What proof do you have that John King still owns this property or is doing any of things you claim? The last I heard, that property is owned by Tetron, a group down in LA including some particial holdings by a bank. King has nothing to do with it, so unless you have some sort of proof, I think your anger is mis-directed.

No no, Textron took back the land that he defaulted on but he still owns other parts of that area. I’m sure that they would like more of his holdings but right now it’s tied up under different LLCs. I can’t really say why we know that he still owns property ie the Godfrey property, but I’d welcome some type of record of sale. SLOJoe, how much has he sold ANY property out there for or did he just give it away, you seem to know about what’s going on with King? It’s amusing and amazing that some believe that he simply ‘gave’ away his property to a firm down south and that he is just attending the meetings, still has attorneys and land managers on retention for the Price Canyon project, paying for studies, working hard at his expense to attain water all out of the goodness of his heart. His latest claim is that he’s simply acting as a ‘property manager’. Times are tough but somehow it’s hard to believe that his new job is as a property manager and that he spends thousands and thousands dollars of his own money to help the new owners develop that land.

I believe that Textron is back east. I’ve spent a lot of time on this, my anger isnt’ misdirected. But to tell you the truth, I’m not really angry with King, although I don’t care for the man it’s the City of Pismo that I am peeved with. Development is fine in the appropriate area at the appropriate time and it’s the city that is pushing this.

Well, considering that this is a three part story and the Pismo development sounds like a major source of contention, I guess the history and current status of the project will be/should be addressed.

Let’s see what Karen came up with during her investigation, that is if she did investigate any of it. If she holds true to form, I bet she will address it or add a part four to this series.

@Cindy, I don’t believe that this series will be very objective. King has a way of wooing certain people. But he didn’t woo Bob McDonald at New Times. I’m not sure if you read Bob’s cover story on the Price Canyon project but he also reported on King, it was a good objective story.

While I have no doubt many of the stories about John King are only reality in the minds of those who wanted to disparage a seemingly successful man. I can confirm he is a sleaze. When he was personally notified of on going sexual harassment at one of his properties he turned the cheek and let the travesties go on. It led to many lawsuits and eventual firings. So now he is realizing that what goes around comes around.

OMG, it was never fashionable for men to wear daisy-dukes,,I only hope I can get that vision out of my mind.

Leave it to King to be so sleazy as to use half naked women to make money off of. You can’t buy class.

I hope that Karen fact checked everything that King said,,,he’s not known to be the most honest guy. He wants to build a Beverly Hillbilly casino with Jethro. Most of the population in the Reno/Carson area think his buddy Jethro is also sleaze ball. They make a great pair!

Now this umm, better not call him to many names,,,,now this ‘man’ is attempting to ruin Pismo Beach. No thanks, don’t want you King, go back to Hollywood.

I think it is funny that you know what most of the population thinks of Max Baer. You have knocked John King and one of his proposed developments in blogs for some time. It amazes me how people move here from out of area and then fight against change and paint anyone who develops land as evil.

As a county native, I can tell you John King made a huge difference in downtown SLO. He has employed a lot of people and taken this county forward in so many ways. Ask someone who has lived here for 60 years and you will find out how several guys in their 20s found success.

Also, it was Cliff Branch who was the person behind the marketing with the topless girls. Are you calling Cliff Branch and Jim Smith sleazy? In stead of calling a 70-year-old man names, if there is something he did that bothers you articulate it. While the shorts are funny, men did wear short shorts back then.

Remember for years he was one of the county’s biggest employers and when you have thousands of employees someone will complain. I am sure he doesn’t oversee every detail of every business and every employee. Micro managing doesn’t equal success.

Regarding Jethro, I just go by the people that I know up there and what the newspapers say,,,he’s popular in northern Nevada,,but not in a good way. If I get a few minutes I’ll post some of the crazy things that Jethro has said,,he’s a pompous wacka doodle all the way. I don’t know how everyone feels about Kelly Gearhart but from what I’ve read about him and what I’ve heard people say I can assume that he’s not well liked in this area.

You have no idea how long I’ve lived here.

So just because of Branch being involved in the sleazy ad makes it okay?

I agree about the employee issue, any employer is likely to get frivolous complaints so I’ll admit to being biased in believing that he’s bad employer. BTW, in the one case that I found the courts ruled against King. So knowing what I know about him and the outcome of that case also makes me believe that he’s a bad employer.