In 1998, local musician Peter Thomas met Jim Beloff, who had just published his book The Ukulele: A Visual History, with the intention of changing people’s perception of the instrument. Realizing both he and Beloff were planning to attend a ukulele festival in Hayward, Thomas booked a party the Friday before to show Beloff Santa Cruz’s great uke players. But there weren’t many, so he gathered up several local string players and handed them ukuleles. He called the event “Ukulele Extravaganza.”
“At that point, everyone considered the ukulele a toy. It wasn’t even listed in the dictionary of musical instruments. There was no entry for that. It was completely dismissed because of Tiny Tim,” Thomas says.
The Ukulele Extravaganza became an annual event. After the fourth one, Thomas met Santa Cruz resident Andy Andrews at the Hayward Ukulele Festival. The two hit it off, and Andrews asked Thomas if Santa Cruz had a ukulele club. The answer was no, so the two of them decided to start their own. After all, Thomas had already gotten a bunch of locals interested in the instrument.
The first meeting was at Thomas’ house on January 19, 2002, to which 30 people showed up. The next was at 99 Bottles, and even more came. There were a few strum-alongs (“Under The Boardwalk” went over well, and soon became the club’s anthem). There were also some uke lessons, and Ukulele Dick performed. Everyone had a blast.
Since then, the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz has met nearly every third Thursday of the month—this month marks their 20th anniversary. The name was even structured to give a winking nod to our local university, when abbreviated.
“We decided to call it a club because we wanted it to be fun. We didn’t want to be like a ‘society’ or ‘orchestra’ or anything like that,” Thomas says. “And we chose ‘UCSC’ because we were the place where you could get a real ukulele club in Santa Cruz; UCSC, a place where you get a real education.”
Vincent Tuzzi showed up to the first meeting and has been at every one since. He half-jokingly refers to himself as the “Sergeant of Arms.” He’s been amazed at how much the community has taken to it.
“There are people that are playing ukuleles that have never been a musician. They don’t know what stage is like. It’s brand new for them. To watch somebody play something and all of a sudden everybody stands up and claps, they go, ‘I want to do this again. This is fun,’” Tuzzi says.
Probably the biggest event the club ever threw was Uke Fest West in 2004 at Cocoanut Grove Ballroom. It was a multi-day event with performers, workshops, vendors, a screening of “Rock That Uke” and over 700 people in attendance.
Thomas and Tuzzi attribute the success of the club, in part at least, to the accessibility of the instrument. That, and the availability of electronic tuners, which made a room full of amateur uke players tolerable.
“We used to joke by saying, ‘If this was the bassoon club, none of us would feel very successful,’” Thomas says. “But with the ukulele, when we give people those loaners, we tell them to just put your finger on that C chord and strum. When you saw the C chord come up, they could strum that.”
Countless ukulele clubs have formed in the past few decades—some inspired by the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz itself, after footage of the UCSC was used in the documentary The Mighty Uke. The club was also the subject of the film Under The Boardwalk: A Ukulele Love Story.
In the future, Thomas and Tuzzi are hoping they can lure some younger folks into the club, or at least inspire them to form their own ukulele club.
“We’re really excited about the possibility that there could be an under-40s ukulele club,” Thomas says. “Somebody to make the songs that we don’t know, the ones from the 2000s.”
For information on this month’s Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz’s monthly meeting, go to ukuleleclubofsantacruz.com.