FAIRFIELD — The raucous laughter spilling out of the Becker-Balmer room of the Fairfield Civic Center Library last week was business as usual for the nine septuagenarians.
The men — Emil Bautista, Bill Cupp, Gary Drummond, Mike Green, Keith Hayes, Bob Lozano, Gene Thacker and Bud Tonnesen — are part of the Pizzarino Boys, a group of fun-loving student-athletes at Armijo High School in the 1950s. Tom Hannigan, a longtime friend of the group who attended Armijo rival St. Vincent’s in Vallejo, was also in attendance.
The origins of the Pizzarino Boys are a bit unclear after a half-century. Some believe the name was coined at Joe’s Buffet, owned by Bob Lozano’s father, and others at a spaghetti dinner at the home of Pete Andronis, whose parents owned the Airline Café.
The meaning? No one knows.
Defining what exactly the Pizzarino Boys were is a bit tricky, too. They were not exactly a club and certainly not a gang, with the connotations that word has today.
“At Armijo in the mid-to-late 1950s, pretty much the center of every sports team, most of student government and almost every rowdy story you may have heard involved this group of guys and other folks like ‘Hooligan’ here,” Gene Thacker said, pointing to Tom Hannigan. “There was another local group called the Hay Buckers, who were Future Farmers of America guys and one of them, Ray Simonds, had ‘dual citizenship.’ ”
“It was all about camaraderie and friendship,” Bob Lozano said. “There were no requirements, just a loose group of friends.”
A caricatured rendering of the Pizzarino Boys in front of Armijo (now the Solano County Courthouse on Union Avenue) was created by member/artist Mike Green in 1957. Because of obligations or geographic distance, many of the 19 men depicted could not make the library interview, some such as Bill Cupp joined the group after the picture was made. Three members — Pete Andronis, Dick Overturf and Jim Alexander — have died.
With many of the members outstanding athletes, Armijo crushed opponents in numerous sports including track and basketball. Their 1955 football championship remains the last time Armijo captured that honor. A frequent victim was Tom Hannigan’s school, St. Vincent’s.
“They kicked my butt and that’s why I’m sitting here silent. I have nothing to tell,” Hannigan said.
Armijo football’s archenemy back then was Benicia. Emil “Tools” Bautista got his nickname from an incident involving the rivalry.
“We had a night game at Benicia and we had duffel bags with our pads and coach walked by and accidentally brushed against Emil’s bag and it made a metallic, clanking sound,” Gary Drummond said. “He asked what was in there and Emil straightened up and said ‘tools.’ It was a tire chain and machete.”
Which leads to the infamous pranks of the Pizzarino Boys.
“Bob Lozano was a man of few words, but one day I came out of school after a long meaningful conversation with him which was just him delaying me while the rest of my good friends took down the fence around the tennis courts, moved my car onto the courts and then put the fence back up,” Mike Green said.
The Pizzarino Boys all agreed there was no real leader of the group, but that the prank ringleader was definitely Drummond. Some of the pranks included:
Some pranks were simple while others were more elaborate.
“I once had trespassed and shot a deer out of season. I told Drummond and a few other guys about it and a couple of weeks later I received a letter from the Department of Fish and Game saying a farmer had complained and I had to go to a hearing,” Green said. “I told my parents and got into all kinds of trouble. I told the guys about it and they burst out laughing. Turns out Drummond had stole some stationery with Fish and Game’s letterhead and sent me the letter.”
Because Green had spilled the beans to his parents, phase II of the prank was not realized.
“At the old courthouse, the public bathrooms had a waiting room with a sofa and a table and we made a ‘Department of Fish and Game’ sign and were going to have Mike come there for his hearing, but it didn’t get that far.”
Recalling their exploits, the Pizzarino Boys laughed hard. But, back then, it was not a laughing matter to the school administration. After a number of warnings and suspensions, Drummond was expelled.
“I left a note on the table at home saying I had been expelled and not just suspended and that I was going to a basketball tournament,” Drummond said. “I came home late and went to bed and the next thing I remember is my mom shaking me and asking me what branch of the service I wanted to join. That afternoon I was in the United States Marine Corps.”
Besides sports and pranks, in 1957 the group started a tradition at Armijo that continues to this day — homecoming.
“Up until that time, we had no homecoming and the Pizzarino Boys organized it, sold tickets and it came off beautifully,” Lozano said. “But we weren’t sanctioned by the school so they took it away from us.”
After graduation — or expulsion — the young men found their separate ways in the world but always kept in touch. These days their get-togethers are called the Pizzarino Boys Film Festival because they have dinner and then view bad movies. Past features have included “The Terror of Tiny Town” with midget cowboys and “Attack of the Killer Shrews” with dogs dressed as the mutated mole-like mammals.
In 2008, the group collaborated through email on the Pizzarino Chronicles, which compiled their exploits. While the statute of limitations on their pranks are long past, the several-inches-thick document remains classified.
Most of the group are retired now. Lozano worked for PG&E. Bautista would need no machete today against Benicia as he is 9th Dan black belt Kajuekenbo Grandmaster. Cupp went into the Army and later civil service. Tonnesen worked at the State Board of Equalization and owns his own business. Hayes worked at Fairfield Grocery and later as a teacher. Thacker was a mailman, then an Exxon senior supervisor. Green taught art, was the design director for Nut Tree and later CEO of the Dixon May Fair. Hannigan joined the Marines, was mayor of Fairfield from 1972-1974 and was a California Assemblyman from 1978 to 1996.
And in the Last Laugh Dept., Drummond, the expelled rule breaker, has been a lawyer since 1971.
Reach Tony Wade at [email protected].