Brian Jackman – Book Fair


What better place to hear about mobsters, gun battles, prostitution, booze, gambling and all other sorts of debauchery than the City College Book fair? That’s right folks, on Thursday September 30th the City College Book Fair hosted Paul Vanderwood, author and professor of history at SDSU, who recently published a fascinating book called, Satan’s Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America’s Greatest Gaming Resort. Vanderwood delighted a modest crowd of students, teachers and various other literary fans in room D121 with a collection of excerpts and vignettes from his informative and exciting book.
Vanderwood’s story delves into the history of Tijuana’s famed resort and casino, Agua Caliente, which opened its doors in 1928 and closed them soon after in 1935. The reading began with Vanderwood describing multiple stories about the resort, from the politically connected “barons” who owned it, the workers who built it, the gangsters who taxed it and the Hollywood movie stars and American socialites who gambled their money, drank the alcohol and lived it up for as long as the resort was open. Interestingly, Vanderwood tied America’s experiment with prohibition to the building of the resort, suggesting it was built primarily to take advantage of the fact that American’s could no longer drink legally in the late 20’s. The “barons” therefore created an escape for thousands of American’s who could enjoy the taste of booze, gambling and whorehouses without consequence.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the reading came when Vanderwood talked about a robbery that occurred involving Agua Caliente guards while they were transporting money out of the casino. A group of robbers intercepted the delivery of money and receipts and brutally murdered the guards by machine gun after the guards fired pistols at the robbers’ car in defense. Fascinatingly enough this heist occurred on the streets of early day San Diego, and was the first ever report of machine gun use in Southern California. Vanderwood went on to explain that the result of the attack lead to a sensational and highly publicized investigation and trial, which convicted the robbers and also uncovered a huge conspiracy exposing the casino owners as the ones who planned and helped execute the robbery.
The reading concluded with a Q and A session which many participated in, then Vanderwood thanked the crowd and received a loud and well-deserved applause. Vanderwood’s reading was very captivating, and had my pockets not been so thin that day, I would have bought a copy of his book. I must say though, one beauty of such an event as the City College Book Fair is that you don’t necessarily need to buy books to learn something, and you don’t need money to have a good time. With events like Paul Vanderwood’s reading, one can enjoy the entertainment of seeing and listening to a great writer at no cost. The best things in life really are free.