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The Day The Music Died In Morro Bay

As the Bay Flushes

By Neil Farrell 

Sept. 30, 2018, call that the day the music died in Morro Bay.

Starting at 5 p.m. an all-star jam of local musicians led by Bobby Santa Cruz and Billy Foppiano will perform a rousing send off for the final-final night for the Otter Rock Café.

Yes, I know, I’ve sung this tune before, last October to be exact, when owner, Jaime Parker, closed the doors in the midst of a health scare. 

That lasted about 6 weeks and she’s been open limited hours and days since then, in anticipation of selling the place.

“The [2017] Avocado-Margarita Festival just killed me,” Parker said last week in her waterfront office, next door to Otter Rock. “It gave me PTSD for the Harbor Fest. I made the decision [to close] the following week. I kept going to the doctor and he’d say ‘You’re fine,’ but stress can kill you.”

Stress likely played a part in her sister’s death several years ago, at about the same age Parker is now. “My sister’s heart skipped a beat; she died of arrhythmia.” 

Otter Rock would have stayed closed except for the City. “The City forced me to reopen,” she said. “It’s in the lease, so it’s MY fault. I got sick. The stress of the sale caused me to be physically ill.”

The sale she refers to is the pending sale of the master lease and building by Joe Steinmann, and the Otter Rock business, which are required by the City to all be sold to Cliff Branch on or before Oct. 31. 

About a decade ago, Branch also bought the Boatyard Center’s master lease and property from Steinmann, who developed it. Branch will now own the Boatyard and Otter Rock master leases, but probably won’t have the Otter Rock lease for long, as he’s already committed to selling it to Willow Markets, LLC, which has restaurants in Nipomo and Shell Beach.

As far as an “As the Bay Flushes” tidbit goes, that tale is quite the soap opera, but that will have to wait for next time…

Parker graduated from Morro Bay High in 1994 and was 25 in Summer 2001 when she took the reigns of Otter Rock. She’s basically given over her adult life to the place.

Joanne Kann and her mother Sophie Hill and the Erden Family, built the place and opened it in December 1993, on the site of an old abalone processing plant that had been closed for at least a decade. 

Otter Rock came in during a revitalization on the waterfront. Within about 5-7 years, the Harbor Center, Otter Rock, Marina Square, the Anderson Building, Wavelengths 2, and Harada’s were all built, and Dutchman’s Landing underwent an extensive remodeling and rebirth.

So the O-rock won’t quite make 25 years before it’s turned into another sit-down family restaurant. How utterly boring.

I’ve covered this waterfront for 26 years (and warmed a bar stool in Otter Rock since 1995), and I say another fancy restaurant is not what the Embarcadero needs.

What it needs is nightlife and for all these years that’s what Otter Rock Café’s true value has been — as a fun, party spot. Parker said she could see the potential right away.

“I saw it was on the waterfront with a beautiful view,” she said. “I’m a beach bum at heart, and they had live music. I’d always worked in restaurants; since I was 14.” 

She worked at the Harbor Hut at 18, and the Flying Dutchman before that.

“Paul Van Beurden is like an uncle to me. I love him. He’s one of the nicest people on the waterfront.”

She’s also worked in Hawaii where her family was living and she put her massage training to use at the Inn at Morro Bay.

“The best thing has been the music and the community,” Parker said. “I created a place for people to be comfortable and to be themselves. It made me happy too.

“I would tell my staff, ‘We’re at home and having a party, and we don’t always like everybody who’s here — just like with a family.’ It’s not just a bar.”

Her support of live music has been well appreciated by local musicians and touring minstrels just passing through town, and another endearing aspect has been Otter Rock’s hosting of Karaoke. Doc and Nancy hosted the show for nearly 20 years. They brought Karaoke to the Central Coast in the late 1980s.

Doc used to say Otter Rock was the longest running Karaoke show in the State of California and I’ve no reason to doubt him. The final Karaoke show will be Thursday, Sept. 27 hosted by Bobby Santa Cruz. 

“Karaoke nights are always busy,” Parker said. “I had to create two Karaoke nights because for about 5 years, the Cal Poly kids were coming in on Tuesdays and taking over the show. The older people who came to sing were upset that they couldn’t get their songs in. I said, ‘Fine, I’ll have it twice a week.’”

Some of those Karaoke singers are among countless regulars over the years, who’ve passed from Paradise into Heaven, though frankly, not all of the O-Rock’s regulars could be expected to get though the Pearly Gates.

“I’ve lost a lot of family,” she said, “regular customers and even employees; too many within the last 17 years. It doesn’t matter their age either, from their 50s to their 90s. We’ve held a lot of funeral parties in here. There’s a list of names as long as your arm.

“I’ve also raised money for people who lost family and couldn’t afford a funeral, so they can have a ceremony. I will miss raising money for people who need it. I love that. We have so much to give and when I would ask, everybody would come together and say, ‘What do you need?’ That touches me.”

Otter Rock has also hosted a lot of special happy occasions, too, including the wildest Halloween parties in town. I had my 50th birthday party there, and we celebrated Lorraine and I’s wedding there too, in what could possibly have been the busiest Saturday afternoon in the bar’s history.

There have been fundraisers for Hurricane Katrina and the Thailand tsunami victims; for victims of the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides; for the 4th of July Fireworks shows; and for the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation, too. 

“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this place. I loved it until about 5-years ago. The first 10 years was fun. I had an awesome crew, great musicians, the back and front of the house was awesome.”

As the past few years have passed, she’s noticed a difference in the work ethic of new hires. “The millennials are not fun to deal with,” Parker said. “It sucks when you start working with people that are lazy. The last five years have been really hard.”

She proved the doubters wrong. “When I first got this, I was told I was too young, and too dumb; I don’t know what I’m doing and I will be closed within a year.” She had people call the health department on her out of spite. “The health inspector told me, ‘You must have some haters out there.’”

Parker said she plans to travel and go back to her first love — massage therapy. “I love that. I miss that. I like making people happy. If I’m not happy, how can I make other people happy?”

The Otter Rock Café’s big send-off starts at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30. Everyone is invited to come out and say good-bye to an old friend and commiserate the day the music died in Morro Bay, as the bay flushes…

As the Bay Flushes is a light-hearted look at the comings and goings, the happenings and the scuttlebutt and scandalous rumors on Morro Bay’s waterfront. Send story tips to:

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