Wyatt Earp’s Redwood City Watering Hole

By Jim Clifford

Next year Redwood City celebrates the 150th anniversary of its incorporation in 1867, a year when much of the West was still wild. A good time to make more of the city’s link to Western hero Wyatt Earp? After all, John’s Grill in San Francisco is famous as the place where Sam Spade had dinner in “The Maltese Falcon.” There is a big difference, however.  Earp actually walked the streets of Redwood City while Spade is a work of author Dashiell Hammett’s imagination. In fact, Earp had a favorite watering hole in downtown Redwood City.

Don’t take my word for it. Simply visit Martin’s West bar and restaurant on Main Street where there is a photo of Earp at the bar. Just what was the former Deputy U.S. Marshal and victor of the storied gunfight at the O.K. Corral doing in Redwood City? Part of the legend is that he was in town to see his common law wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus, perform at the then new Alhambra Theater, the gem of Main Street, which was then literally the main street of the San Mateo County seat.

That account is challenged by Mary Doria Russell, author of the new book “Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral,” a fictional rendering of the great faceoff between lawmen and cowboys. Marcus is a central character in the book.  (For the uninitiated, the fight, which actually took place in a vacant lot adjacent to the corral, occurred on Oct. 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. Three men died, which doesn’t seem like much in this age of mass killings. Nevertheless, the gunfight took on heroic proportions.)

“Josie was long past performing at bars by the time they lived in Northern California,” Russell said. “In her late teens, she performed as a dancer, briefly. She was not a singer as the movies imply, and middle age was not nearly as kind to her as it was to Wyatt. Let’s just say she would not have been light on her feet.” Marcus was in her mid-30s when she allegedly performed in Redwood City.

There have been several movies about Wyatt Earp, who has been portrayed by Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and Kevin Costner. Hugh O’Brian, who starred as Earp in the television series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” recently passed away at the age of 91.

The 1946 movie with Fonda, “My Darling Clementine,” was directed by John Ford and is considered a classic.  The films all, of course, feature dancers in bars. In Redwood City, the story goes, Josie performed in a play on the stage upstairs in the Alhambra, at 1,500 seats billed as the largest theater between San Francisco and San Jose.

Most accounts say Earp, who was living in San Francisco’s Richmond District, visited Redwood City for the Jan. 20, 1896 opening of the Alhambra, which debuted with a performance of “Men and Woman.” However, the Redwood City Democrat had a story on Jan. 9, 1896, that said the Alhambra would open with the play “The Senator,” performed by the Frawley Company in an “attraction seldom offered in Redwood City.” There is no one named Marcus or Earp listed in the cast.

Enough nitpicking. Earp could have been in town some other time. The building was well worth the trip down the Peninsula. The structure was the last work of A. P. Brown, whose prior architectural accomplishments included the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

The Alhambra, faced with new competition from movies, closed in the 1920s and became home to the Masonic Lodge Temple. The building was being seismically retrofitted in 2001 when a fire gutted it. According to news accounts at the time, it appeared the building was a total loss. However, it was saved and today houses Martin’s West as well as offices.

We know where Wyatt Earp is but what happened to the bar? Was it destroyed in the fire? Michael Dotson, the chef at Martin’s West, doesn’t know. “When we started work on the space, nothing was in it,” he said.

The Earps made the Peninsula their eternal home. They are buried at the Hills of Eternity in Colma. The tombstone inscription reads: “Nothing’s as sacred as honor, and nothing so loyal as love.”

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Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the "Rear View Mirror" history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of "Philip's Code: No News is Good News - to a Killer," is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. "Times were good," Clifford said.