merle haggard bonnie owens billy mize

Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens and Billy Mize in 1964.

Photo courtesy of Billy Mize

We wouldn't normally bother to tell you about a fire at an aging strip mall in Modesto, but this one bears noting.

The Wednesday morning blaze, which Modesto firefighters say started at a nearby muffler shop on Crows Landing Road, damaged Lupita's Floral and Amelia's Fashion. A former Modesto Bee reporter tells The Californian those storefronts were once a cinder block dive bar called the Fun Zone — where Merle Haggard performed professionally for the very first time.

Last year Jeff Benziger of the Ceres Courier wrote about Haggard's stint at the Fun Zone:

"The bartender saw a guitar slung on Haggard's back and asked if he could sing. Merle strummed and sang, what else, 'Always Late.' He offered Haggard $5 and all the beer he could drink to keep singing. Merle told friend Peggy Russell (in his first autobiography) ' "The Fun Center was the kind of place where they didn't give you a glass when you ordered a beer. Just slapped the bottle down on the bar. You got the distinct feeling that it would not be in your best interest to ask for a glass either." ' Thus, Modesto made history as being the first professional gig of Merle Haggard."

No word on the extent of the damage to the old strip mall.

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