The Cruising Crooner

The home today
Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

Jack Owens and His Riviera House

By MICHAEL OLDHAM | Contributing Writer

At least as early as the late 1940s, singer-songwriter John Milton “Jack” Owens was living in Pacific Palisades, with one source book placing Owens in the Palisades beginning in the 1930s.

This probable 1930s arrival into the Palisades lines up with Owens coming to Hollywood for a song writing career in the mid-1930s. This would be circa 1936, when he had a budding singing career in Chicago.

Owens was still in his 20s and the baritone had already been a regular singer on the popular Chicago radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

For Owens, it would be a broken bone that would end his job as a lifeguard in his late teens, ultimately moving him along the road to showbiz stardom.

He left the lifeguard tower behind and found work at a radio station doing odd tasks. One such task was to hold up applause signs.

But soon Owens found himself hired as a vocalist for a radio show after passing an audition. His radio career took off after he landed a spot working on “The Breakfast Club,” which starred legendary host Don McNeill.

In 1932, two years before his first of two “Breakfast Club” stints, Owens married fellow Chicago radio star Helen Streiff—his only marriage.

The Palisades home Owens lived in still stands today on Sunset Boulevard. The Spanish Revival house was built in 1927. This was just 15 years after Owens was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1912.

Owens was not only a singer, he was a talented pianist. The musician had a piano inside his multi-storied Riviera neighborhood home. Whenever Owens sat at his piano, sounds he made on its keys would compete with the noise of the busy traffic along Sunset Boulevard, where the front door of his home faced.

Still, there were other sounds inside the Owens’ residence that competed for attention: Owens and Helen would have three kids to fill the house—and there was plenty of grass on the large property for the children to play.

Today, the Sunset Boulevard home is listed as having 6,500-plus square footage of living space and six bedrooms.

By 1944, Owens did a second stint with McNeill on his “Breakfast Club” radio show. It was during this return to the show that Owens became known as “The Cruising Crooner.”

The nickname was earned by Owens from him cruising through the live broadcast audiences, mostly made up of females. Owens would sing to individual ladies while kissing and caressing their faces, all the while giggles could be heard from the seated participants of this now-outdated entertainment style.

Owens, though, is most famous for writing a couple of songs. He wrote “The Hukilau Song” in 1948 after attending a luau in Laie, Hawaii. This hugely popular song has been covered by many artists.

Earlier in 1941, he co-wrote “The Hut Sut Song,” which was made famous by big band leader Horace Heidt and his band, Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights.

Among the background of Owens’ ever-expanding entertainment fame and fortune, an event that would demonstrate the character of the man himself took place. For Owens became a hero of sorts by utilizing his old lifeguard skills.

In 1946, he jumped into a shallow lake shoreline to rescue a drowning teenager. The teen’s name was Lee D. Goldstein, and he had become paralyzed after jumping headfirst into two feet of water.

Jack Owens’ work
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

At the local hospital, Goldstein had become a local news story and several big-name celebrities came by to visit him bedside at the hospital immediately following the accident.

But, of all the people who paid him a visit, Goldstein recalled in his autobiography, “So Far, So Good” that “the visits I enjoyed most were from Jack Owens, the man who had jumped from the pier at Elder Lane Beach to pull me from the lake.”

Goldstein described Owens as a “vivid, interesting, self-made person” and “an excellent story teller.”

Owens is most famously known locally for serving as honorary mayor from 1955 to 1956.

The honorary office proved to be Jack Owens “swan song” to his beloved Palisades. Owens retired to Phoenix in 1957. He passed away in Arizona in 1982.

Michael Oldham, author of the novel “The Valentino Formula,” can be reached at hollywoodlandings@sbcglobal.net.