How Petaluma's Bill Soberanes became the king of photobombing
Bill Soberanes’ most unusual accomplishment – and a source of great pride – was his photo collection. He claimed to have been photographed with more “famous, infamous, usual and unusual people than anyone in the world.”
During his lifetime, Soberanes had his photo taken with more than 45,000 people – kings, presidents, movie stars, musicians, athletes, hobos and outlaws.
For 49 years, Soberanes wrote about his “fascinating world of people” in the Argus-Courier, accompanied by photos showing him meeting interesting people from all walks of life.
Over the years, Soberanes developed an uncanny ability to get into places that others could not. Armed with information, confidence, a press pass and an occasional friend in the right place, Soberanes managed to get through gates and security to meet and be photographed with thousands of famous people.
“It was unbelievable. He could get into anywhere,” longtime friend Jimmie Payne, a former Mr. America, said to the Press Democrat after Soberanes’ death in 2003.
In a 1977 interview with the Argus-Courier, Soberanes said his photographic hobby was not done out of vanity.
“It’s part of my occupation,” he explained. “I do it because I enjoy meeting people. When I’m writing a story or column, all I have to do is look at the picture I took on that occasion and I immediately get total recall.”
Soberanes was a boy when he ordered a Brownie camera with a coupon from a cereal box in the 1930s. When the camera arrived in the mail, he didn’t know how to work it at first, so he got in the habit of asking someone else to take the picture for him. He wrote notes on the back of each photo so he would remember the person and the location.
“My idea was to get in front of the camera instead of behind it,” he said.
Little did he know then that getting in front of the camera would become an integral part of his columns and features for the Argus-Courier and that he would eventually be photographed with so many people.
Over the years, Soberanes met and had his photo taken with presidents Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon; entertainers Frank Sinatra, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Rooney; Mafia boss Joe DeCarlo, baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and Lefty Gomez, boxers Joe Louis and Max Baer and thousands more.
One of his greatest photographic coups was a photo showing him standing on a podium next to the Beatles at a press conference in San Francisco in 1964. The Fab Four were scheduled to play a concert at the Cow Palace. After arriving at the airport, Soberanes found out that they were staying at the Hilton Hotel downtown and sped over in a cab, arriving just as the Beatles were going inside.
“The place was wild,” Soberanes said. “But the security guard at the hotel recognized me and I just kept walking and I went in right behind the Beatles and up to their room.” When the Beatles appeared at their press conference, the security guard took the photo.
When Jayne Mansfield came to Santa Rosa to promote an auto show, Soberanes persuaded the statuesque actress into putting on her bikini and posing with him.
When Jimmy Carter came to San Francisco in 1976 while campaigning for president, Soberanes went to the airport with George Davis, an attorney friend of Carter’s. The two were detained by Secret Service agents, but after calling their headquarters, the agents gave Soberanes and Davis clearance to meet Carter. Soberanes got a ride in one of the campaign cars to downtown San Francisco. Upon arrival, Soberanes held up Carter’s arm in a victory salute and a photo was taken.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Soberanes said of his uncanny ability to talk his way in to meet famous people. “People accepted me.”
For many years, the Hideaway bar displayed a selection of his photos in the “Bill Soberanes Room.” Later, McNear’s Saloon & Dining House devoted a section of their upstairs room to a display of Soberanes’ photos.
Unfortunately, Soberanes photos have not been collected in a single location. A few family members have kept some of them in storage along with other memorabilia. The Petaluma Museum, which curated a Bill Soberanes exhibit in 2014, has some photos as well.
After Soberanes’ death, the late Bill Hammerman spearheaded a volunteer effort to scan Soberanes’ photos, transcribe his columns and catalog them to put online. The effort was successful, but the website is no longer active. However, the data was recently located and might be made available online again. Meanwhile, many of Soberanes’ photos can be viewed by entering a Google search of his name.
Chris Samson is a former Argus-Courier editor.