John Drehner – Island Icon

Written by Coronado Historical Association Volunteer Karen Scanlon

This article was originally published in the September 2021 Issue of Coronado Magazine. If you would like to read this article and more from Coronado Magazine, click here or the button below.

An old, beige princess phone with a curly cord is the most modern electronic in John Drehner’s North Park bungalow. Well, there’s also a TV with a chubby back on it buried in the living room among his 16,000 books.

   John emerges with great enthusiasm and memory for his affection of Coronado. “I was born there, on May 8, 1938, at the old hospital on Orange Avenue.” His recall of dates is mesmerizing and reminds us that that hospital had a short career from just 1937 to 1942.

   School years were spent on the island, too, from Tiny Tots with teacher Bunny McKenzie to graduating Coronado High in 1956. 

   John’s father, John Louis Drehner, was employed as a violinist at Hotel del Coronado from 1938 to 1952, mostly under the auspices of Spreckels Corporation. “Dad played dinner music with a quartet on the Crown Room balcony. The del gave lavish Christmas parties for employees and their families. We kids got ice cream, movies, and even a box of Whitman Samplers. The Crown Room in those days served three meals a day to guests and public, this until about the 1980s.”

   Having the romp of the balcony was always merrymaking for John. “We’d climb to the second story and go through the linen storage room and just play up there.” (To the envy of many of us today.)

   The recent restoration of the hotel’s Laundry Building reminds John that his father also drove one of its four laundry trucks through 1962. It was a late 1930-40s red panel truck with the gold lettering of the hotel. 

   “As a four-year old, I rode on top of mounds of dirty laundry we’d pick up on the island and naval base. Dad called ‘em ‘fat pants’.” Officers would take a pair of pants and stuff the legs with dirty clothes. Fat pants!

      John’s father also played his violin in the Sky Room of El Cortez Hotel. “My vision of him is always in a tuxedo,” John smiles, “even on his days off he wore a suit, tie, and hat. Sometimes I’d go to his rehearsals, but never at the Symphony or Star Light Bowl in Balboa Park. He often played the big Russ Auditorium at San Diego High School until the Civic Center was built in 1964.”

   Coronado in the 1940-60s was a great place to be a kid, John says. Trolleys running.  It was less crowded on the island. Anybody with a steady job could afford a house. “Kids had lots of places to play—football in the streets, war with soldiers in anybody’s back yard, build forts in vacant lots, it wasn’t congested. I always loved baseball, books, and movies. There were no traffic lights, only stop signs, and no one-way streets. This, of course, was way before the bridge came in.”

   “As far as I’m concerned,” John laments, “August 2, 1969 was D-Day. When that bridge opened, everything changed! If it hadn’t been for Navy SEALS and the State Park down the Strand, those high rises next to the del would have been built all the way down to Imperial Beach, like in Miami Beach. I’m ashamed of the development in Coronado. I don’t like it!”

   When John was growing up in Coronado, there were two bowling alleys, two movie theaters, a lumberyard, nursery, four car dealerships, the Coronado Department Store, five gas stations, and, in the 1940-50s, a miniature golf course. “We had a courthouse until SANDAG dictated otherwise,” John says.

   At 19, John enrolled for college at Cal Western (on Point Loma), spent a year at Ontario’s Chaffey College, and finally graduated San Diego State College in 1962. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves and fulfilled a six-year military obligation.

   John continued his career working for, what was then, the Post Office Department through its 1971 transition to the U.S. Postal Service, and served 30 years at various locations. “I worked a couple of years in Coronado as mailman.”

   Today John still owns the small house on Coronado’s F Street that his family purchased in 1929. “I visit a couple times each week, and let friends stay here. It’s fully furnished, two blocks from the water and three to the center of town.”

   John mentions that his parents, though separated much of his childhood and worked independent jobs, never ‘button-holed’ him with do’s and don’ts, that parenting felt balanced. Curiously, when asked, John’s advice to his 16-year old self is, “Stay 16!” In which case, perhaps his beloved Coronado might have remained small and intimate.

This article was originally published in the September 2021 Issue of Coronado Magazine. If you would like to read this article and more from Coronado Magazine, click here or the button below.

More Photos of John Drehner:

Drehner at 6 days old

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