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Tom Marshall

By Tom Marshall

Anyone who has lived in San Clemente more than a day probably knows that Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens was originally the home of town founder Ole Hanson. Though Ole was well known from his time as mayor of Seattle, he was not the most famous Casa owner. 

That title goes to celebrity musician Fred Waring, who led bands and musical acts from the 1930s to the ’50s.

As an architectural student at Penn State University around 1920, Waring failed several auditions for the school’s glee club. So, he founded a banjo band that played at fraternity parties and dances. 

It got so popular, Waring quit school, added a choir and went on tour as Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. From 1923 to 1932, they were one of the biggest-selling bands for Victor Records. 

Their hits included “Sleep,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Button Up Your Overcoat” and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.” That led to their own network radio show for more than 20 years, then a weekly CBS network television show from 1948 to 1954. 

For several years thereafter, many TV stations signed off at night by playing Waring’s recording of “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” In later years, Waring was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian award.

Waring purchased the Casa in the early 1950s for his second wife, Evalyn, as part of their divorce settlement. They had been married since 1933.

Celebrity band/chorus leader Fred Waring bought Casa Romantica in 1951. Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Society

While he is known to have visited, Waring never actually lived there. But Evalyn did for several years. It is unclear if Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians ever performed at the Casa. 

Evalyn’s niece, Barbara Swegles Chamberlain, recalled in a San Clemente Historical Society interview, “When I was very little, I was aware that he was a celebrity. I remember seeing buses at the Casa, but I’m not sure if he ever played here.” 

Barbara’s brother, legendary local journalist Fred Swegles, was named after Uncle Fred.

Evalyn was a talented performer in her own right. 

“My aunt was a dancer. When she was a little tot, she could literally put her foot in her mouth,” Chamberlin remembers. 

Chamberlin’s sister, Valerie Swegles Mayer, recalls hearing that “Aunt Evalyn would often do cartwheels all the way to school. Wow.”

When Evalyn grew up, she became a professional dancer. While appearing in a Hollywood play, she met one of Ole Hanson’s sons. They became friends while performing in costume as respective ends of a horse. 

The son invited Evalyn down to the Casa, which began her love of San Clemente. Evalyn went on to perform in Chicago and then New York with the Ziegfeld Follies. Somewhere along the way, she met Waring and joined him when The Pennsylvanians added a dancer to the act. 

Meanwhile, Evalyn’s parents bought an Ole house at 217 San Antonio in San Clemente. So, when she separated from Fred, Evalyn returned here to be near her family. Evalyn retired from dancing. 

“She later told her own kids to never go into show business,” Mayer remembers.  

The Swegles kids visited Aunt Evalyn there often. 

“As kids, we were told that she lived there alone and the man we saw there was her gardener,” Chamberlin tells us. 

In fact, he was Evalyn’s lover and one-time dancing partner, Ramiro “Drigo” Santiago. Wow, a Casa Romantica love scandal. Makes one want to attend this year’s Toast to the Casa on Sept. 17.

Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.

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