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 2, Part 3)
By LISA RIZZO and KAREN VELIE
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.”
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.
“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.