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How Petaluma's Bill Soberanes became the king of photobombing

During his lifetime, Soberanes had his photo taken with more than 45,000 people – kings, presidents, movie stars, musicians, athletes, hobos and outlaws.|

Bill Soberanes timeline

Oct. 19, 2021: Bill Soberanes is born in Petaluma, the fourth child of Edward Turner Soberanes and Margaret Rose Caulfield.

June 3, 1941: Soberanes graduates from St. Vincent de Paul High School.

1941: Soberanes joins the California National Guard. During his service, he wins the Guard’s boxing championship.

1943: After World War II breaks out, National Guard members are given the choice of which military service they wish to join. Soberanes, 22, enlists in the civilian crew of the U.S. Merchant Marine, does his basic training on Catalina Island and serves for 4½ years.

1943: While on leave, Soberanes meets a young woman named Jane by a roller coaster in Long Beach. They exchange first names but not where they live.

1950: Soberanes starts writing a gossip column featuring his photographs in the Petaluma News, a weekly newspaper.

1951: The Petaluma News is sold, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat picks up Soberanes’ column, and starts running it three times a week.

June 28, 1951: Soberanes, president of the East Petaluma Boosters Club, is honored at a dinner to thank him for his efforts to put a successful bond measure on the ballot to fund a second fire station for the east side of town.

June 2, 1954: His first column appears in the Argus-Courier. It is titled “So They Tell Me” and appears in every edition of the daily newspaper.

1954: Soberanes begins hosting a weekly 15-minute show on KAFP, Petaluma’s local radio station.

Jan. 27, 1955: Oliver Kullberg and Jack Homel compete in a wristwrestling match that Soberanes helped to organize at Gilardi’s Corner tavern in downtown Petaluma. The match is declared a draw, but Soberanes notices how much the crowd enjoyed the event and forms a committee to hold an annual wristwrestling tournament, which later becomes the world championship and is covered by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” from 1969 to 1985.

August, 1958: Soberanes helps to organize a Whiskerino contest as part of Petaluma’s centennial celebration. The contest became part of the annual Old Adobe Fiesta and was resurrected in recent years as the Bill Soberanes Memorial Petaluma Whiskerino. The 61stt annual event was held in 2019, but has since been suspended due to the pandemic.

1964: Soberanes marries Jane Edgerton Turner, the woman he had met in 1943, after a long courtship. She had moved to Petaluma after many years and was introduced to Soberanes by a friend as “the new girl in town.”

August, 1962: Soberanes begins writing what he calls “a feature version of my So They Tell Me column” in the monthly Redwood Rancher magazine.

1965: A lifelong boxing enthusiast, Soberanes is appointed to Gov. Edmund G. Brown’s Safeguards for Boxing Committee.

April 20, 1984: Soberanes becomes the second recipient of the Good Egg award, awarded to a local citizen every year in conjunction with Petaluma’s annual Butter & Egg Days Parade. He was recognized “for his contributions in bringing the history of Petaluma to the people through his daily columns.”

December, 1987: Soberanes is one of six Petalumans honored with a plaque dedicating a tree, a bench and a light fixture at the newly-dedicated Helen Putnam Plaza in downtown Petaluma. He was the only living honoree.

Oct. 7, 1988: The city proclaims “Bill Soberanes Day” and more than 400 people attend a testimonial dinner. The next day, the 27th annual wristwrestling tournament is held and a bronze statue depicting two contestants and a likeness of Soberanes is unveiled at the corner of Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard.

June 2, 2003: Soberanes dies of congestive heart failure. He was 81.

June 4, 2003: Soberanes’ final column appears in the now-weekly Argus-Courier.

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.

Bill Soberanes timeline

Oct. 19, 2021: Bill Soberanes is born in Petaluma, the fourth child of Edward Turner Soberanes and Margaret Rose Caulfield.

June 3, 1941: Soberanes graduates from St. Vincent de Paul High School.

1941: Soberanes joins the California National Guard. During his service, he wins the Guard’s boxing championship.

1943: After World War II breaks out, National Guard members are given the choice of which military service they wish to join. Soberanes, 22, enlists in the civilian crew of the U.S. Merchant Marine, does his basic training on Catalina Island and serves for 4½ years.

1943: While on leave, Soberanes meets a young woman named Jane by a roller coaster in Long Beach. They exchange first names but not where they live.

1950: Soberanes starts writing a gossip column featuring his photographs in the Petaluma News, a weekly newspaper.

1951: The Petaluma News is sold, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat picks up Soberanes’ column, and starts running it three times a week.

June 28, 1951: Soberanes, president of the East Petaluma Boosters Club, is honored at a dinner to thank him for his efforts to put a successful bond measure on the ballot to fund a second fire station for the east side of town.

June 2, 1954: His first column appears in the Argus-Courier. It is titled “So They Tell Me” and appears in every edition of the daily newspaper.

1954: Soberanes begins hosting a weekly 15-minute show on KAFP, Petaluma’s local radio station.

Jan. 27, 1955: Oliver Kullberg and Jack Homel compete in a wristwrestling match that Soberanes helped to organize at Gilardi’s Corner tavern in downtown Petaluma. The match is declared a draw, but Soberanes notices how much the crowd enjoyed the event and forms a committee to hold an annual wristwrestling tournament, which later becomes the world championship and is covered by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” from 1969 to 1985.

August, 1958: Soberanes helps to organize a Whiskerino contest as part of Petaluma’s centennial celebration. The contest became part of the annual Old Adobe Fiesta and was resurrected in recent years as the Bill Soberanes Memorial Petaluma Whiskerino. The 61stt annual event was held in 2019, but has since been suspended due to the pandemic.

1964: Soberanes marries Jane Edgerton Turner, the woman he had met in 1943, after a long courtship. She had moved to Petaluma after many years and was introduced to Soberanes by a friend as “the new girl in town.”

August, 1962: Soberanes begins writing what he calls “a feature version of my So They Tell Me column” in the monthly Redwood Rancher magazine.

1965: A lifelong boxing enthusiast, Soberanes is appointed to Gov. Edmund G. Brown’s Safeguards for Boxing Committee.

April 20, 1984: Soberanes becomes the second recipient of the Good Egg award, awarded to a local citizen every year in conjunction with Petaluma’s annual Butter & Egg Days Parade. He was recognized “for his contributions in bringing the history of Petaluma to the people through his daily columns.”

December, 1987: Soberanes is one of six Petalumans honored with a plaque dedicating a tree, a bench and a light fixture at the newly-dedicated Helen Putnam Plaza in downtown Petaluma. He was the only living honoree.

Oct. 7, 1988: The city proclaims “Bill Soberanes Day” and more than 400 people attend a testimonial dinner. The next day, the 27th annual wristwrestling tournament is held and a bronze statue depicting two contestants and a likeness of Soberanes is unveiled at the corner of Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard.

June 2, 2003: Soberanes dies of congestive heart failure. He was 81.

June 4, 2003: Soberanes’ final column appears in the now-weekly Argus-Courier.

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