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Known for its great chili and tough customers, Chet's Club on Edison Highway finally gives up its neon

For 35 years, the sign was believed lost.

For decades, it had lighted the entrance to Chet's Club on Edison Highway in east Bakersfield. Then it disappeared.

"After three months of detective work, quiet negotiations and persistence, the museum now has the famous Chet's Club sign," Mike McCoy, executive director of the Kern County Museum, said in a text.

McCoy believes the sign has a connection, not only to Edison Highway history, but to the Bakersfield Sound, the raucous, Fender Telecaster-driven country music that, in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s made Nashville quake in its rhinestone-studded boots.

Chet's Club served as a kind of green room for the Lucky Spot, said McCoy, who called the acquisition a "major score." Fledgling country artists like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Bill Woods, Fuzzy Owen and any number of others performed at the Lucky Spot. Sometimes they would go next door between sets to Chet's for a bowl of its famous chili and a Coke or a cup of joe.

Although the sign had disappeared, it hadn't gone far. In fact, it hadn't gone anywhere. The metal sign had lain on the roof of Chet's for more than three decades.

Originally owned by Chester Earl "Chet" Thompson, the place soon changed hands in the mid-20th century.

"By the early '50s, my dad, Herb Malouf, had purchased it," William Malouf said. "It was a booming card club, with eight card tables and a counter where you could get chili, cheeseburgers and beer."

And there was a pool table in the back.

"The place was full of colorful characters," Malouf remembered.

Lester Bliss became a partner in the business for many years. He supplied worms and other fishing supplies at a separate business he called Bliss Baits.

Hanging out at Chet’s Club was likely not for the faint of heart. Herb Malouf, who flew more than 190 missions as a P-38 fighter pilot during World War II, was said to have carried a pistol in each front pocket.

The elder Malouf’s son, William, described one regular, Paul DeLia, as "a tough, east coast fugitive who lived in a trailer behind the antique shop next door.

"He used to send me letters signed ‘your agent, Clyde,’” William Malouf recalled from his years as a rock drummer. "He always had a new 'caper' to fill me in on. Really smart man with a really short fuse."

Another Chet's Club regular the younger Malouf knew only as Barb owned a scrap metal yard and had been bitten so many times by black widows that he had become immune.

He had a raspy voice and an unexpected knowledge of classical music.

"He loved music with one exception," Malouf remembered. "He hated The Beatles. I would always introduce him as a Beatles fan, then duck!"

But Herb Malouf, the fighter pilot turned card room owner also had a soft spot. Whenever someone who was down and out — they were often referred to as hobos in those days — came in asking for something to eat, Herb would set him up.

"We never saw my dad on Thanksgiving and Christmas," William recalled. 

That's because the elder Malouf prepared and served free holiday dinners to anyone who came into Chet's Club on Thanksgiving or Christmas. It turned out the tough guy was a soft touch for people who were struggling.

After the vintage neon is restored, McCoy said, he will either include it with the museum's Bakersfield Sound exhibit or hang it in Neon Plaza below the Amestoy's sign.

Asked why it meant so much to him to land this latest neon treasure, McCoy looked into his own mind's eye for an answer.

"I see a young Merle Haggard, right out of San Quentin, sitting at the counter at Chet's Club eating a bowl of chili and drinking something without alcohol because he has to go back to the Lucky Spot and play music for another hour and a half.

The hungry, young crooner who would go on to chart 40 No. 1 hits was just starting out, and McCoy saw it as a key moment, suspended in music history.

"When I see Chet's Club," he said, "that's what I see."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.