Introduced to the world by his parents as Milan Oreb, Johnny Bananas – with the realization he had a limited future in professional boxing – opened the Tumble Inn with a partner in 1934.
Located on the corner of 6th and J Streets, the still unsettled debate is whether Bananas’ place or Old Ironsides on 10th and T was the first legal “cafe” operating in Sacramento following the end of Prohibition.
They both opened the same day, so it might be a matter of which establishment was the first to receive a liquor license.
On the ground floor beneath a “sporting” house, the Tumble Inn became the Torch Club when many of the working women from above would call out for torch songs to be played.
The Dreamland Dance Hall was built on the same block by Ed Kripp, the San Francisco gambler and owner of a Sacramento minor league baseball team who bought and tore down a church to make way for the hall.
Sacramento Characters Galore
Kripp was a successful enough businessman so that when charged with homicide after killing a man in a duel he could afford a lawyer good enough to convince the jury that the deceased had actually committed suicide.
A patron of the dancing arts, Kripp scheduled symphonic performances at Dreamland until the depression, with the building then converted to a dime-a-dance venue where even “good” girls would dance for money to help support their families.
Dreamland was eventually operated by fight promoter Michael Campanella, who also used the hall as a gym.
This is where lightweight contender Joey Lopes first learned to box.
Frankie, Rex, born Romeo Cerniglia, replaced Bananas’ original partner a few years after the opening.
Rex, a former prizefighter himself, was by then managing and promoting boxers, and also owned a stable of horses as well as the Royal Café, a card room on 7th Street.
Rex was described by Sacramento Bee columnist Bill Conlin as having “been around Sacramento almost since Johann A. Sutter,” referring to the 1850s Gold Rush, meaning a long time.
He maintained a fairly low profile – rarely mentioned in newspapers unless his heavyweight Newsboy Millich was drinking at the Royal and would physically express his dissatisfaction with a local citizen.
The exception to Rex’s general seclusion was his death, with one attendee of his burial noticing “more overcoats, homburgs, and flowers than a mafia funeral.”
Torch Club Under New Proprietorship
Bananas and Rex sold the Torch Club to Frank Texiera and Al Quintella when it relocated to 8th and L, making way for the seemingly endless waves of urban redevelopment. The whole block was being demolished, with one old-timer saying, “Dreamland was quite a place.”
Former dancer Aggie Carlson admitted the new construction would probably “be very nice,” but that “another link with the past is gone.”
That’s the problem with refurbishment; if you are not careful, history can be pushed into the forgetful corners of the past as you throw the good out with the bad.
This did not happen with the Torch Club as it would have a resurrection of sorts, not losing the connection to its roots.
Quintella was to make payments to Rex from profits earned, and when Quintella asked about an interest rate on the loan being fronted, Rex responded that friends don’t charge friends interest.
Texeira, who, like Rex, was involved with horses and boxers, reportedly bought into the Torch because his son Ron was employed in law enforcement (as a finger print analyst for the Department of Justice) and the father hoped to “straighten his son out.”
Medrano Didn’t Pan Out
Helping Texeira and Quintella was Al Manfredo, who retired from an eleven-year boxing career with a record of 74-23-8, which included fights with Barney Ross, Eddie Booker, Henry Armstrong, and Ceferino Garcia.
Manfredo was stopped only three times – twice by Armstrong and once by Eddie Frisco on a cut.
Texeira managed the hard-luck Sacramento lightweight Al Medrano, who was not much more than a journeyman by the time he decisioned former Olympian Harry Campbell over ten rounds in 1961.
Medrano won the rematch, too, fought a couple months later, and would accompany Campbell to St. Luke’s Hospital, where Campbell would die following surgery for a brain hemorrhage, never having regained consciousness.
Campbell’s death took a toll on Medrano, not just in the short-term, with doctors having to prescribe sedatives so Medrano could sleep, but for the remainder of Medrano’s haunted life, which would include more boxing.
The pieces of a puzzle that need to come together for a successful boxing career would never fit for Medrano. He broke an ankle in the second round against Henry Salcido, taking a loss only a few months after stopping Salcido the first time they fought.
Hoping to become a local force with the retirement of Joey Lopes, Medrano was matched with the world contender when a year of retirement proved to be more than enough time away for Lopes.
Having sparred many rounds together, with Medrano at least Lopes’ equal in the gym, Medrano had high hopes regarding their fight.
“I‘ve worked out a lot with Joey and I know his style well,” Medrano, said. “After I beat Lopes I have a choice of going to Italy or Japan for a fight.”
But Lopes won by a first-round KO, and Medrano’s career would soon end with a loss to future champion Raul Rojas.
He drove cab for a while, before attending and graduating from the state university in Sacramento, and was employed by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board until his life began to unravel.
Taking a disability retirement, Medrano drank too much and used other drugs, suffering from what is now known as pugilistica dementia.
Bill Barnaby had been friends with Medrano since childhood, and Barnaby would occasionally loan Medrano money to visit his daughter in Texas, with Medrano always – and this was important for Barnaby to note as he remembered his friend – repaying the debt.
Aware of what was happening to him, knowing it was only going to get worse, Medrano told Barnaby that he wished he had never boxed. Barnaby eventually lost touch with Medrano as he drifted away from his Sacramento history.
Dimming Of the Torch
The late 1960s through 1982 were prime years for the Torch Club and, maybe not coincidentally, some of Sacramento’s best years for boxing, too.
This era circumscribes Pete Ranzany’s rise and fall.
The new location at 8th and L was a fortunate site, close to the Greyhound terminal and the Berry Hotel, where rooms could be rented by the hour.
Across the street from Frank Fat’s, a higher-end Chinese restaurant that catered to political operatives once the office-hours portion of their working day ended at the capitol building two blocks away, the Torch Club served “players, politicians, and prostitutes.”
One bartender who worked at a different lounge but drank at the Torch said, “It’s pure culture here. Every variety in every walk of life there is.”
Brad Evans, one-time aide to state senator John Schmitz, described the Torch Club in one word.
Seedy Space In the City
“Seedy,” adding, “As a seedy individual myself…I naturally went to the first seedy place I could find. And the Torch has fulfilled for a year now my seediest expectations.”
On the second floor above the Torch was O’Leary’s Gym, so the pugilistic world mixed among the politicos, including, occasionally, the governor.
Fight figure Will Edgington tended bar there, as well as making matches for promoter Don Chargin, and Texeira at one point considered building an office for Edgington within the bar.
Yellow Cab driver Stan “The Man” Cameron, who found his nickname before Musial was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, would breakfast most mornings at the Torch Club on Bloody Marys, then snack on breakfast food throughout the day.
Cameron was a fixture at the Torch, one of the better sources of information about betting prospects on boxing, baseball, or horse racing – the three sporting activities in Sacramento for many years.
Cameron was the man to see if you were new in town and wanted to lay a bet, or just get laid.
Generous with his money and his time, he would provide the working “girls” free rides when they were low on funds. When one woman became disabled, Cameron always made sure “she had a place and a meal.”
On days when Cameron had a big breakfast, he would often allow his fares to drive the cab where they needed to go.
Stapleton Talked A Good Game But…
O’Leary’s Gym is where Pat Stapleton, the alleged heavyweight champion of Ireland, trained for a few days before his fight with Sacramento’s Bill McMurray.
Stapleton was accompanied by middleweight Mike Pusateri, acting as Stapleton’s manager following the death of Allie Colombo in a workplace accident.
Colombo, who had been Pusateri’s manager as well, was the childhood friend and assistant trainer of Rocky Marciano. Colombo is who connected Marciano to manager Al Weill and trainer Charlie Goldman. From that arrangement, history was made.
Pusateri was a tough, durable competitor who always provided value. He cut easily, though, and against better fighters would usually lose due to bleeding.
He had fought in Sacramento a few times and become friends with Texeira, who handled Pusateri’s affairs on the west coast. Although Pusateri was not going to become a world champion, he was a fan favorite.
He agreed, in 1971, to having the ringside physician suture his cuts between rounds of a fight. “I owe it to the Sacramento fans to give them more than four or five rounds of action,” Pusateri said.
Stapleton, however, was less concerned with the paying customer. His primary talent, it became clear, was self-promotion.
He had purportedly written an autobiography which was published in a highly circulated British newspaper, about “an Irish farm lad turned strong-arm man.”
He claimed to have worked as a bodyguard for gamblers and night club owners.
Bee columnist Marco Smolich wrote of Stapleton as having “a mod hairdo and a mixture of Irish brogue and English accent,” and “a background that lends itself to Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and maybe secret agent 006 ½.”
McMurray had fought but not beaten some of the world’s best heavyweights and Stapleton, although unknown except for his self-promotion and professing to be undefeated, arrived in town as a 7-5 favorite.
His first couple days at O’Leary’s Gym only widened the spread, as Stapleton exhibited prodigious punching power on the heavy bags.
Matchmaker Edgington had trouble arranging sparring partners for Stapleton, wondering if rumors about Stapleton’s power were too intimidating.
But Olympic champion George Foreman, preparing for his first professional fight, agreed to travel from Oakland to give Stapleton a few rounds.
Foreman’s handler, Charles “Doc” Broadus, was interested in Foreman being featured on future Sacramento cards.
He was doing promoter Chargin a favor, of course, but a favor that he hoped would provide benefits down the road.
Pusateri described Stapleton as being “a carbon copy of Rocky Marciano” with his power. “I’ve been sparring with him for the last month,” Pusateri said. “It’s like stopping a tank.”
But Stapleton looked rather hapless in the ring with Foreman and, intimidated by Foreman’s power, barely went two rounds. The betting spread narrowed after this, but Stapleton remained the favorite.
“I know what my fighter can do,” Pusateri said, explaining the couple rounds with Foreman was exactly the workout he had been looking for.
“We could have had somebody else and Pat would have looked like a world-beater,” Pusateri explained, adding that Stapleton was a “poor” gym fighter.
The match was well-attended by a disappointed Irish fan base.
The last hour in the dressing room before a fight can be emotionally grueling, and this must have been especially so for Stapleton, thinking that if he was no match for a kid like George Foreman with no professional experience, the nearly fifty-fight veteran McMurray could well end his life.
Convinced With Tough Talk and Firearm
Stapleton was so unnerved he refused to enter the ring until Chargin threatened him at gunpoint, and then followed Stapleton to the ring holding the gun to Stapleton’s back, covered with a towel, of course.
The “fight” lasted 62 seconds, Stapleton laying down at the sight of McMurray’s first real punch.
McMurray, the new “heavyweight champion of Ireland,” was as shocked as anyone, walking around the ring with a “what happened” look on his face.
Shameless but not shy, Stapleton made his way to the post-fight festivities at the Torch Club, sporting a black eye.
When asked where the shiner had come from, because Stapleton certainly didn’t get it from McMurray, Pusateri admitted to providing a little locker room justice.
“We had to get our purse, man,” Pusateri said.
Not long after this, Pusateri would tell Bee reporters, “Pat and I aren’t friends anymore.”
Texeira retired to the race tracks of Southern California, passing the Torch to his son Ron, and died in late 1981.
New Address For The Torch
Another phase of urban redevelopment forced the Torch Club to move again in 1982, to 16th and L. This was a far enough walk from the Capitol to reduce the political traffic.
The relocation was a sad affair. With the move from 8th Street, Ron Texeira said, “Maybe the time for this kind of thing has passed.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen has been credited with calling the Torch Club “Sacramento’s only San Francisco bar,” but it’s more likely that Caen picked up the line from George Moscone, who, before becoming mayor of San Francisco was a member of the California State Senate, and a regular at the Torch when in Sacramento on business.
Even in those less politically correct days, some politicians were leery about being seen entering the Torch Club.
Not Moscone, though.
Having played basketball for the University of the Pacific before attending law school, and a strong advocate for the dispossessed throughout his political career, he was comfortable associating with the entire cross section of humanity.
It was this sense of advocacy, along with an after-school snack found in all grocery stores, that contributed to Moscone’s 1978 murder.
The NBA’s Kansas City Royals moved to town and, when a new arena was built for the basketball team, Memorial Auditorium on J Street – which had been the home of Sacramento boxing for more than half a century – was conveniently determined to no longer be earthquake compliant.
Flavor Change in the Fight Game Scene
Which meant it was no longer available for boxing cards.
This, and the eventual move of boxing shows to the Native American casinos, the casinos assuming much of a promoter’s risk by providing the venue for fights as a way to attract gamblers, ended downtown boxing activity, and much of the boxing presence at the Torch.
Decreased boxing coverage in local newspapers was symbolic of what was happening.
Ron Texeira and his father might have been the “faces” of the Torch Club, their disposition and temperament defining the personality of the club, but Franks’s wife Mabel and Ron’s wife Evelyn were the infrastructure of the Torch, providing the stability and counsel necessary to maintain what was at times a madcap business. The Torch Club’s success was a family affair.
But Evelyn died in 1996. Another forced move in 2000 made room for new government office buildings, and Ron died in 2009.
By this time, boxing was a part of the Torch’s history, and it is now known as more of a blues club operated by a third generation Texeira – Frank’s granddaughter Marina, who functions as both greeter and businesswoman.
But the Torch Club still displays memorabilia from its past as a sign of respect for its roots.
The original bar countertop and exterior neon sign have made each move along with the Texeira family.
Photographs of past heavyweights, both pugilistic and political, line the walls.
Stan Cameron’s ashes are maintained in a place of honor, as they have been since his death in 1983.
Author Note: I would like to thank Marina Texeira and Bill Barnaby for their contributions to this article.