The press release warned there would be a bouncer at the door. “If you’re not on that list, you’re not getting in!” it said. For an open mic night—a ukulele-only open mic night with a $10 cover—it sounded like wishful thinking.
But there Rudy Leon was, Friday evening, clipboard in hand, standing outside the Backstage Lounge on Soquel Avenue checking names and turning people away from Club Uke. The place was stuffed to the gills with men in Hawaiian print shirts and panama hats and women in zebra print and sequins, all toting miniature guitar cases. What little extra room there was in the aisles was comandeered for dancing when the music started.
Rhan Wilson, local performer, managing editor of Santa Cruz Uke News and Ukelist.com and cruise director for the evening, introduced each act. There was some Elvis, of course; Ukulele Dick and Jamye Kelly Curtis performed the Cole Porter tune “Let’s Do It;” and a few contemporary covers landed in the mix, notably Jason Mraz and the Plain White Ts, courtesy Leon (an elderly man with thick-framed Mr. Magoo glasses and a bucket hat covered the door).
In a town where impromptu ukulele gatherings can attract hundreds, Santa Cruz Uke News exists to keep everyone up to date. Wilson sends out an email twice a week about, well, nothing in particular. “Anything, anything anybody wants—I’m playing a gig this night, so I put it in the calendar, somebody has a uke for sale, I put in there, and it goes out to about 350 people at this point,” Wilson says.
The most established uke gathering is the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz. Started nearly a decade ago by Andy Andrews and Peter Thomas in Thomas’ living room, now it routinely draws hundreds to the monthly meet-up at Bocci’s Cellar. And every Saturday, rain or shine, 100 or so people calling themselves “the sons of the beach” congregate on the beach in front of the Crow’s Nest for a uke sing-a-long.
Why has Santa Cruz embraced the uke? Wilson has a theory. “Well, we’re as close as we can be to Hawaii without getting in the water,” he says. Geography aside, Wilson adds, “It’s mellowest and the most musical and creative town.”