By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
The roots of the Pine Cone Inn run deep in the Kern River Valley, and are at the very core of Roberta Piazza Gordon’s world. Gordon’s parents, Al and Eileen Piazza, had spent time separately in the valley as children. Eileen told stories of attending dances at the Miles Store, and Al would come here with his brothers on hunting trips around Old Kernville.
As serendipity would have it, the two met in the 1940s in Santa Maria and got married right before Al was shipped overseas to fight in WWII for 6 years. Upon his return, the pair traveled around for 10 years before feeling the pull of the KRV at the time the Lake Isabella Dam was first being built, Kernville was being relocated up river, and a lot of land was being sold on the cheap. So cheap, that Al was able to take out a loan against his car to afford the land the Pine Cone Inn sits on today.
A private investor in Bakersfield gave Al another loan to build the original Pine Cone Restaurant himself, a small café with just six booths that opened on Memorial Day, 1955, and Gordon was born 6 months later. “I joke that I’ve been working there since before I was born,” she says. One of Gordon’s earliest memories is of being “five years old with plastic high-heeled shoes, taking guests to tables with menus in hand.”
Initially, Gordon’s grandmother was the cook, her mother the waitress, and father Al continued building, expanding the original café to include a large deck that eventually became the main enclosed dining room. Gordon recalls, “I used to stand on that deck and watch the cowboys run cattle up Sierra Way.” In the 1960s, Al constructed the inn and classic kidney-shaped swimming pool that still exist today. “A lot of valley kids have grown up swimming in that pool,” says Gordon. Business grew steadily, and the Piazzas were able to pay off their initial loans, the only debt they ever incurred, in just 6 years.
Gordon worked there all through her childhood and high school years until she graduated at 16, even continuing part time while she attended Bakersfield College as a Journalism major. “My teacher at KVHS, Roger Benechik, who had come from a TV and theater background, told me, ‘you belong on television,’ and he guided me into it,” she recalls. In 1974, when Roberta was just 17 years old, she got her first job at Channel 23 NBC as “The Weather Girl.” “I lied to get my first job and told them I was 18. I was told I was hired because I was cute and could speak extemporaneously.”
Roberta spent three years at Channel 23 but grew restless because “I wanted to do serious news. I thought I knew everything.” So she left for Channel 29, becoming the first woman to anchor the news in Bakersfield. Unfortunately, the experience “didn’t turn out to be what I thought it would be,” so she came back home to work at the Pine Cone for a couple of summers. “I met a man, fell in love, and then he died, so I left and worked my way up the valley and up the dial.” In Visalia, Gordon worked at Channel 26, “doing newsbreaks during the MASH hour,” then Channel 30 in Fresno. At that time, Fresno was a test market, Channel 30 had big corporate backing, a lot of money was being invested in local television, and Gordon got her “dream job,” anchoring “360, The Action News Magazine,” that ran before 60 Minutes on Sunday nights. “We did long form features and hard news. It was my best, and last, job in the news business.” When the show was eventually cancelled in the mid-1980s, Roberta fielded offers from stations across the country, but none of them thrilled her, so she came back to Kernville “to think.”
Gordon ended up staying put for the next 20 years, running the Pine Cone herself after father Al passed away in 1988. Then, in 2000, Gordon found herself at a crossroads. Feeling isolated and bogged down by the demands of running the family business, she turned to an online community called “The Well,” made of up “musicians, journalists, writers, hackers and Deadheads” for advice. “I had great in-depth conversations, and I’m still friends with a lot of the people I met there.” One of those was an eBay.com programmer and moderator for the site, Josh Gordon. In 2001, Roberta traveled to visit a friend in San Francisco and connected with him. “I met her on the corner of 5th and Market, and we haven’t shut up since,” he says.
“I knew that first day,” she recalls. “I said, I’m going,” and she closed the Pine Cone restaurant after almost 50 years in the business to find her heart in San Francisco. A year and 10 days later, the pair was engaged. They soon decided to relocate to Las Vegas, “because my mother needed me, and that’s where she was.” The Piazzas had often spent family vacations in Vegas while Gordon was growing up. “My parents were small town people, and back then, so was Las Vegas. They felt at home there.” Left to her own devices, young Gordon had honed her wicked poker skills and got up close and personal with performers ranging from Elvis to Willie Nelson.
Then the Gordons got wind of a property that became available on the river in Kernville. “We had always planned to retire there, and as soon as we saw that house, we knew that was it.” For a while the Gordons split time between Vegas and Kernville. “We basically followed Eileen back and forth,” until the Pine Cone pulled them all home. Eileen Piazza took up residence at the Cone, and Gordon’s life became all about caring for her mother, while the employees helped “keep an eye on her. It was an interesting experiment in assisted living.” Eileen continued to “oversee” the Pine Cone till the day she died, at age 92, on the Fourth of July, 2012. “She went out like the little firecracker she was,” says Gordon. After her mother’s death, the Gordons began remodeling, “turning it into a real business,” and upgrading the Pine Cone Inn into a charming boutique hotel, while the restaurant evolved into a popular private event space.
Gordon still spends time managing the refreshed business that has run in her veins like lifeblood since birth, but now she has also found balance. She picked up the ukulele after her husband fell in love with the instrument while watching friends Pat and Mike Gallagher jamming one day. It started with “Moonglow,” and the Kern River Ukulele Club was born in 2010, continuing to hold friendly rehearsals every Tuesday evening at the Pine Cone. Finding music of all genres to be both invigorating and inspiring, the Gordons spend several weeks out of the year attending music camps and festivals across the state. Gordon also spends as much quality time as possible hiking the creek and riverside trails near her home with her German Shepherd, Bebe, taking every opportunity to capture her beloved valley through her iPhone’s photographic lens with her keen eye and distinctly focused perspective. Her wonderful digital photographs have been featured as “Roberta’s World” at multiple shows in noted Bakersfield galleries, and it is a world as bright, brilliant, and uniquely formed by the Kern River Valley as Gordon herself.