April 28 - May 4, 2000 Hollywood, Straight Up
The craps-shooting cop, the hungarian brawl and other stories from Steve Boardner's bar
by Steven Mikulan
WHEN IT COMES TO LIFE AFTER QUITTING TIME, Los Angeles is the city that never wakes. Ask any visitor to Hollywood, a town once synonymous with dusk-to-dawn nightlife. During one recent rush hour, just below the fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine, on a stretch formerly home to the Brown Derby, Tom Breneman's and La Conga, the darkened Doolittle Theater's marquee advertised a comedy -- that had closed last year. Across the street, where the Vine Street Bar and Grill once swung with the stylings of Mose Allison and Anita O' Day, Daddy's Bar Lounge stood ablaze with neon, but its doors were locked shut.
Seven blocks west of Vine, however, the embers of Hollywood nightlife still glowed at Boardner's, a snug little bar that has survived nearly every act of man and nature to become one of the town's unsung monuments to endurance. This evening the atmosphere was wistful and chatty, for 1652 Cherokee Ave. was then two-thirds through that sacramental rite known as happy hour.
"There's a lot of history here," a man seated toward bar's end announced with awestruck reverence, as though he were considering the Map Room of the White House, or the McLean parlor at Appomattox. And he was right. This simple tavern is undeniably the site of a storied past and can, at any moment, transform itself into an oral library of booze lore and Hollywood secrets -- a volatile heritage that is susceptible to the embellishments of time and imagination.
It's been claimed, for example, that this was the last bar where Elizabeth Short drank before she stepped into the night and became the Black Dahlia; that an owner bailed out longtime customer Robert Mitchum after his famous pot bust; that a bartender once nailed the men's room door shut on an inebriated friend; that a ghost has been seen in the tiny women's room. Then there was the Christmas night when another owner slumped over dead while sitting at the bar.
These and a thousand other tales, verifiable and fabulous alike, make up the Boardner's mythos. What's undisputed are the spare engineering details of its 1927 birth, noted in the hurried longhand of city building inspectors. The bar lies at the Cherokee Avenue foot of a two-story, 122-by-76-foot L-shaped structure that hinges the avenue with Hollywood Boulevard. Designed by Norman Alpaugh, the architect responsible for L.A.'s Sheraton Townhouse and Santa Monica's Elmiro Theater, the building bears some appealing Moorish flourishes carved above a series of narrow shops with deep-set show windows; the Moroccan theme continues on the back patio, with a cruciform, tiled fountain upon which William Powell once posed with some showgirls for a clothing-store promotion.
Yet as you move from the sunshine of the street into the bar's blinding darkness, you slip into a part of town not marked on any Chamber of Commerce guides. Boardner's is not a missing link to Hollywood's glamorous past, nor will it fit into the impending tourist-friendly makeover. It's a neighborhood bar in a town without neighborhoods, a take-it-or-leave-it saloon that has more in common with rugged outlying Southland bars like Catalina Island's Marlin Club or Running Springs' Fireside Lounge than with the neo-swinger hotspots, with their martini menus and valet parking, that surround it. This is not Johnny Grant's Hollywood.
IT MAY NOT, TO THE PURITANICALLY TOLERANT American way of thinking, be particularly wholesome or practical to drink in the middle of the afternoon, but it's then that Boardner's is most easily glimpsed as the cauliflower-eared survivor it is. In the afternoon, when they turn off the jukebox so as not to attract drunks, you may be the only one at the bar, or you may have company. You can butt into any conversation, or you can sit and be left alone with your poison. You look around the worn-out red booths and the voluptuous curve of the bar, now home to occasional cockroach races, and realize that in its prime this place must've really been something. Today Boardner's has the feel of a well-worn shoe, and sometimes it even smells of old leather -- combined with empty cigarette packs, aftershave and a dash of Lysol.
"There are a lot of theme bars in this town, and sports bars with a lot of glitz," says bartender George James. "But by and large we're for working-class people who want to go somewhere quiet and talk and be among friends." Like many of the staff, George came here first as a customer and eventually moved behind the bar.
"I don't have a bartender's philosophy," he says. "I just have a George philosophy: George likes to treat people like he would like to be treated. We used to have a guy who wore a dress and had a beard, and he'd always sit right here at this corner and order a Bud. And no one would harass him."
To maintain a happy drinking equilibrium, visitors, especially newcomers, are quickly sized up in the moment or two it takes for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. "You can sense if someone'll be a problem or not," says bartender Brad McAllen, "just by the way they come in the door, the way they conduct themselves. The whole thing about being a bartender is that you stop it before it starts."
Brad has seen "it" happen more than a few times, the most memorable night coming in the early '80s, when a brawl resembling the saloon fight in Dodge City erupted between two groups of Hungarians employed across the street in competing phone-sales boiler rooms.
"I came out of the bathroom and there must have been 20 people fighting -- and I mean everythingwas flying," Brad remembers. "So I jumped right in the middle of it and got hit across the back with a chain. When we got 'em all thrown out and the dust had cleared, my shirt was ripped off. Kurt's laying on the floor, saying, 'You know, this could use a paint job down here.'" (Kurt Richter was then co-owner of the bar and is the man who -- true story -- died of a heart attack here on Christmas night, 1997.)
Such patron turbulence is rare today. Still, Boardner's is often described on slumming Web sites as a rough-and-tumble place where the Iceman always cometh. Playwright Randy James Johnson made it the malevolent setting for a recovery-oriented drama titled Whiter Shades of Pale. Wrote a reviewer for Florida's St. Petersburg Times: "Most of the action . . . takes place in Boardner's, which Johnson says is the name of a real bar in Los Angeles . . . ˆ§ It's the kind of dive where the bartender keeps a baseball bat behind the bar in case of trouble."
Boardner's' appearance in Johnson's 12-step play is somewhat fitting, as 1652 Cherokee was originally planned as a theater, only to abruptly become the Morris Beauty Parlor instead -- with, it is said, an illegal card club located upstairs. Dryly described throughout official documents as a "storage and office building," the place rates no mention as a bar until 1942. But even city records can lie, especially records submitted during Mayor George Cryer's ribaldly corrupt reign, and it's not impossible that the "beauty parlor" was an ironic front name for a gambling speakeasy.
In the early '30s crooner Gene Austin opened a legitimate club here named for his 1927 hit "My Blue Heaven." Twin doors formed the front entrance, and a frosted-pane window sporting an etched cocktail glass faced the street. The first thing a visitor encountered inside was a smiling hat-check girl stationed where the present bar sits; then came the bar, some tables, and a dance floor -- where the kitchen is now. The ceiling was two stories high, with a platform for a small orchestra that overlooked the club.
After Austin departed (he was about to become an early client of Colonel Tom Parker), My Blue Heaven became the Padres Restaurant, then a gay bar called Cherokee House, and after that, Club 52. Finally, in the winter of 1944, when "Paper Moon" and "Shoo-Shoo Baby" topped the charts, an erstwhile golf caddy from Akron put the letters of his name over Club 52's neon sign and, against all odds, not to mention modern sign restrictions, that vertical plank has remained attached to this defiant outpost of fun -- and to the legacy of Steve Boardner.
"THEY THREW ME OFF THE HAY TRUCK ABOUT noon," Frank Chambers says in the opening sentence of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. The line is familiar to readers of the period's hardboiled fiction, but it also reflects the reality experienced by many young men who arrived in Los Angeles during the Depression.
Steve Boardner and a friend rolled out of a boxcar one April night in 1932. The ride from Ohio had been free of mishaps, except for a moment when Steve had nearly fallen while jumping from one car to another, and the time in Texas when he'd gotten locked in a refrigeration car. The 19-year-old came from a middle-class Hungarian-American family named Bodnar and had enjoyed an easier life in Akron than many teenagers after the Crash, earning money caddying, shining shoes and setting pins at a bowling alley, with spare time enough to perform in minstrel shows at the Goodyear Friars Club. Steve loved the world of entertainers, and his restaurateur father introduced him to vaudeville; it was at Akron's State Theater that the boy once met Fatty Arbuckle, whom he remembers as nearly breaking a backstage bed the comic plunked down upon.
Akron bred in Boardner the traits that would stick with him for the rest of his life: a gregarious charm and a Dickensian sense of frugality, mixed, paradoxically, with a soft heart for people in need. "My mother would give us money to take to St. Vincent's," he recalls of his early entrepreneurial instincts. "I'd open up the envelope and take out a nickel or dime." But the cozy familiarity of Ohio yielded to a restlessness to see California, and so Boardner hopped a freight train West with a boxer pal, Richard Gardis.
After he and Richard got to L.A., they checked into the downtown Y and got 2,000 miles' worth of sleep, but the next day Richard suddenly decided to go back home. Steve, alone and with the then-princely sum of $20 tucked into a shoe, got his next night's sleep in the all-night Follies burlesque house on Main Street. He landed his first job waiting, busing and washing dishes at the Nickel Arcade, located at 1646 Las Palmas, a few feet south of Hollywood Boulevard, where Miceli's Italian Restaurant now stands. It wasn't much of a start, but Steve Boardner had arrived at a fortuitous moment -- the repeal of Prohibition.
"BOARDNER'S IS JUST THE COOLEST PLACE IN the world to go!" says regular Denise, who can often be spotted during happy hour with a glass of cabernet and her German shepherd, Frank. Like many here, she has her favorite Boardner's memories. "Every year, members from different chapters of the Santa Club come through L.A. before Thanksgiving," she says. "They basically wear Santa Claus suits and get shitfaced, getting off their bus and going from bar to bar, starting in the morning. Once, about 75 walked in and filled the place, drinking and telling the same old jokes they tell every year from a little stage. After a while someone yelled, 'The bus is leaving for Jumbo's!' In a few seconds they were all gone, and all that was left in the place were these 75 glasses."
Brad McAllen remembers the time when Boardner's was transformed into the proverbial winter wonderland: "My wife and I were sitting at the bar. Steve was tending bar. All of a sudden I get hit upside the head with a snowball! I said, 'What the hell?' I turn and see Steve is at the door laughing -- there was a truck full of snow brought down from the mountains. Next thing you know everyone went out and we had a snowball fight -- this place was covered with snow."
Brad has been tending bar at Boardner's since 1972. ("God, it's spooky when I think I've been here more than half my life.") After a hitch in Vietnam he'd moved from Michigan to L.A. and found work as a van driver for Starline Tours. "One day," he remembers, "I came in here and said, 'I'm tired of working for Starline,' and Steve Boardner says, 'Well, why don't you get your ass back here and I'll show you how to tend bar!' . . .
"Back then it was Sidecars and Rusty Nails," Brad continues, naming popular drinks of the Nixon era. "If you walked into a bar and ordered a 'Cape Cod,' the ˆ§ guy'd throw your ass out -- I mean, who would put a name to vodka and cranberry juice? There's so many drinks now." Many of the new cocktails are favored by a generation with a noticeable sweet tooth. "Lemon Drops is one," Brad says. "Vodka, lemon and sugar on top."
"And Stoli Vanil," adds Joe Unger, another bartender. When asked who would drink perfectly good Russian vodka with a spice extract added to it, Joe answers, "Goddamn Gen X-ers."
When Prohibition had just gone out, many of L.A.'s saloons began sporting screen doors bearing the 7 UP logo, installed free by the fledgling soft-drink company that was struggling to make its mixer as popular as ginger ale and soda water. At that time highballs were the norm, and it was unheard of for someone in a cocktail lounge to order a drink simply on the rocks -- let alone add vanilla to it.
Boardner, over the next half century, was to become a kind of Sigmund Freud of booze psychology. "This is how smart Steve was," says Brad. "Every once in a while I'd be in here on my days off, and the place would be packed. Steve would get me in the corner, slip me a $20 bill and tell me to buy the house a drink. Back then drinks would be about 75 cents, maybe 50 cents for beer. So I'd go back to my chair and say, 'Steve, set everybody up!' And he'd say, 'All right, you're all drinking on Brad!' Then somebody else would say, 'Well, it's my turn, Steve. Give us all a round here.' And somebody else would say, 'Steve, give us a round.' Pretty soon you'd have a drink-buying frenzy!"
TODAY OUR IMAGE OF THE DEPRESsion comes mostly from grim WPA photographs, but for Steve Boardner and other new Californians, Hollywood was an explosion of light and music, a place where lifelong friendships were instantly made and moonlighting jobs easily traded. The 1930s and '40s were the era of the great American sidewalk and the all-night ballroom, when a nation of restless rhythm and purpose moved in immense collectives, whether as big swing orchestras, insurgent labor unions or massed military formations. Above all, it was a time when people sang -- in bars, on assembly lines or walking down the street, just because they felt like it. "Hell, nobody wanted to go to bed," Boardner says of that time.
Although Hollywood was a film-studio town, it was also very much a Runyonesque diorama of athletes, jockeys, promoters, sports announcers and refs. Boxers and members of the minor-league baseball clubs, the Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels, were the rock celebrities of their day, and mingled in the bars, sandwich joints, gyms and ad hoc clubs that rose and fell around them.
Boardner, a former high school athlete, swam easily in this sea of male bonhomie, from the Olympic Auditorium downtown to Hollywood's American Legion Stadium on El Centro, befriending along the way L.A.'s legendary fight matchmaker George Parnassus. Los Angeles was then a major boxing town, and everyone in the fight game seemed to pass through to meet Parnassus and to pay a call on Hollywood. One such person was an old Akron buddy of Boardner's, boxing promoter Suey Welch, who brought with him the Negro fighter Gorilla Jones, a former middleweight champ. "One day," Boardner says, "the Gorilla drove up in front of the Dutchman's Inn with a lion in the damn backseat of his open car!" (Trained lions, in fact, were part of theatrical ring entrances for Jones, who would soon end his career and spend the next 40 years as Mae West's bodyguard.)
The Dutchman's Inn, which stood across the street from the Nickel Arcade, near where the Las Palmas Newsstand is currently situated, was a beer-and-wine joint owned by an ex-pug named Gus Singer. He had hired an underaged Boardner away from the Arcade and set him to work pouring beer. It was here that Boardner frequently helped down-and-out actors by slipping them lunch. It was also at the Dutchman's that he served preferred customers shots of bourbon he'd poured into old vinegar bottles kept behind the counter, ensuring a small secondary income.
In 1937 Boardner filled in for a vacationing bartender at the Jade Room on Hollywood Boulevard. Owner Larry Potter ruled a small empire of supper clubs that ran from Melrose Avenue to Ventura Boulevard and up into Burbank. Boardner was Potter's kind of man: personable, honest with the till -- and charming enough to pull in four times as many customers as the vacationing employee. Soon he was earning $37.50 a week, with a $5 bonus for every $100 he made for the bar. "Steve, come here," Potter once called. "I want you to listen to this girl sing -- see what you think of her." The striking blonde from North Dakota didn't look a minute older than her 17 years. "Does she drink?" Boardner asked. It didn't matter. Peggy Lee won her audition and began a job that paid, tips notwithstanding, $2.50 per night -- with 50 cents kicked back to Larry Potter.
TODAY BOARDNER'S DOESN'T HAVE live entertainment, but it has, over the years, experimented with a range of deejayed music nights, held on its patio and in the adjoining Casablanca Room, which was acquired in 1991. Presently Thursdays are given to hip-hop under the moniker Respect, while Fridays alternate between Prototype and Dyna Groove. Saturday is Goth night, when Bar Sinister takes over and the bar pours out red Vampire wine to a black-clad clientele. ("The worst patrons," says the bar's promotions director, Tricia La Belle, "are the ones who believe they really are vampires.")
Still, it's not as loud and boisterous as it was during the late '80s, when the thrash-rock explosion, fueled by Guns N' Roses, swept L.A. and weekends meant elbowing your way to the bar past tall, skinny guys with sprayed-up hair and leather pants.
"It was the first Hollywood bar I felt comfortable enough to go to by myself, and it was where I learned to love to drink," Liz Garo, then an A&R exec with Restless Records, remembers of that time. "We took the Brit band Jazz Butcher there and stayed for what seemed like three nights straight drinking. Their sound man devised a terrible concoction called a Life Sentence -- half vodka, half red wine. The waitress only rolled her eyes when we ordered it."
Like all bartenders, those at Boardner's have their gripes, most of which revolve around patrons accusing them of short-pouring drinks or trying to get free ones.
"What really irritates me and every other bartender," says Brad, "is when people pound their glasses on the bar when they want refills. I use the same line Steve used to use: 'When I get down there, there'd better be a dead bug under that glass!'"
BY LATE 1942, WARTIME RATIONing and the militarization of industry had caused many consumer goods to virtually vanish; even the color green disappeared from liquor-bottle labels and cigarette packs, since their aniline dyes were required to produce olive-drab pigments for the military. When the owner of the downstairs bar at the Crossroads of the World offered to swap his ABC license for Steve Boardner's '41 Pontiac, Boardner jumped at the offer. His Crossroads in the Crossroads, as the bar was known, immediately caught on, and in no time he made his money back and got another car, which he freely loaned to soldiers on leave. (Boardner himself didn't serve, because he had a bartender's flat feet.)
Part of the Crossroads' success came from its busy Sunset Boulevard location. It didn't hurt that the bar was downstairs from the ever-thirsty Screen Actors Guild, and the place was even popular with the clergy next door at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church -- one Father McCoy (Scotch and water, as Boardner remembers him drinking) was a regular customer who would later baptize Boardner's son. But another factor was the enormous good will Steve Boardner had cultivated in the dozen years he had served Hollywood its liquor. Still, he couldn't get a lease out of the Crossroads landlord, and in January 1944 he decamped to take possession of Club 52, located two blocks north.
The Boardner's of today looks basically the same as it did after Steve first reconfigured 1652 Cherokee. He took out the hat-check room and moved the bar into its place. The front entrance narrowed and lost its street windows; banquettes with telephones were installed, a kitchen built, the ceiling lowered and a "penthouse" constructed around the old orchestra platform. This penthouse served as Boardner's office, command post and home away from home. It was the scene of many all-night card games, and it was where his friend the car-painting magnate Earl Scheib and his entourage would come after carousing at meetings of the Vikings of Scandia at the Sunset Strip restaurant.
Boardner became a pillar of the community, marrying and remarrying, and joining the benevolent clubs men joined in those days: Masquers, Saints and Sinners, Sand and Sea, and the Hot Stove League. By the 1960s he appears as a Zelig-like figure in black-and-white photographs, standing next to Nick Adams or Pat O'Brien here, or holding a silver-plated spade with Walter O'Malley there, at the Dodger Stadium groundbreaking at Chavez Ravine.
It was a 20-year golden age for Steve Boardner and his cocktail lounge, a time when former Tommy Dorsey singer Jack Leonard (Scotch and water) would regularly drop in, as would Errol Flynn (beer), and members of Xavier Cugat's band after playing at their boss' club. Another big presence was Boardner's longtime friend, the singer and bandleader Phil Harris (coffee and anisette), whose routine was to say goodbye to his wife, Alice Faye, after the two dined at Musso & Frank, then head over to Boardner's for a rendezvous with his mistress. East L.A.'s lightweight contender, Art Aragon (Heineken), would visit, and so would George Gobel (Scotch). Even that quintessential California eccentric, Death Valley Scotty, put in an appearance. One day in 1946, regulars W.C. Fields and Wallace Beery were seated in a booth and ordered Coca-Colas. "Coke?" ˆ§ Steve joked. "Why, that stuff'll kill you." Within the year Fields would be dead.
Death became another customer the following year -- Elizabeth Short (beer), later known as the Black Dahlia. "She'd always have two or three sailors hanging off her arm," Boardner remembers. "She'd come over here from Bradley's Five & Ten, which sold short beers for a nickel, longs for a dime -- and shots of bourbon for 15 cents." (Contrary to local urban legend, however, Boardner's was not her last call before immortality.)
Boardner affectionately calls the many drinkers who passed through his bar "rounders." One regular was tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney (bourbon shots with water chasers), who is still remembered by boulevard old-timers as a mean drunk quick to pick a fight with anyone in sight. But even he got his comeuppance when, one night, a wrestler friend of Boardner's named Dutch Holland was in the bar. "Larry came in and got a little huffy," Boardner says. "So Dutch come over and stood him on his head! Told him to shut up. So Larry goes to the phone booth and calls the cops -- the first time he's ever called the cops when someone was bothering him!"
CARMEN MICELI HAD BEEN IN THE Army since Pearl Harbor, and was wounded four times fighting Germans. When he came home to Chicago with his Purple Hearts, the recuperating vet found the Midwestern winter too cold for comfort, so in December 1946 he thumbed his way west, getting good rides all the way to Hollywood and Cahuenga. "It was such a beautiful city, pre-freeway," Miceli, 78, says today. "The pace was slow, and when you got up in the morning you could smell the oranges in the air."
Miceli scrambled at busboy and waiting jobs at Ciro's and Rand's Roundup, saving money along the way to set up his own restaurant two years later on Las Palmas Avenue. "Every time I'd earn 8, 9 or 10 dollars I'd go out and buy a two-by-four or nails or something," he says. One night, around 4 a.m., he stood in the alley next to the restaurant he was putting together and saw a tall, dark figure coming toward him -- a tall, dark, drunken figure. It was Steve Boardner.
"He said to me, 'What are you doing?'" Miceli remembers. "I said, 'I'm trying to build a restaurant.' And he pulls out four $100 bills and gives them to me. You know how much money that was in 1948?"
The gesture was pure Steve Boardner, who, despite a reputation for stinginess (he'd dent vegetable cans in stores and then ask for a damage discount), was generous to a fault whenever he met a guy in need -- especially one who was building a restaurant on the site of Boardner's first Hollywood job. The two became lifelong friends, with Steve placing an arrow sign on his end of an alley reading "Miceli's This Way," while Carmen put up one on his end pointing to "Steve Boardner's That Way."
Boardner's generosity wasn't confined to handouts and loans. He also took Emmett Ashford, a black baseball umpire working at USC, to a 1949 dinner at the Hot Stove League, which catered to local athletes. Those athletes, however, were white, and several were outraged. But Boardner, who was so much a believer in civics-class democracy, remained friends with Ashford, who became the major leagues' first African-American ump.
Boardner was always, in fact, either opening doors for people trying to get ahead or helping them out of trouble, although, contrary to one bar legend, he did not bail out frequent patron Robert Mitchum (gin martini) after his 1949 marijuana arrest -- he bailed out his brother, Joe Boardner, who had been busted along with Mitchum.
"THIS IS THE LAST OF THE NEIGHborhood bars," says longtime customer Bill Earl Knight. "Here, they call me a cab instead of kicking me out the door when I have too much to drink."
"You don't get treated special in here," says Tricia La Belle, "whether you're a movie star or a bum in the street, which is kinda cool."
Bob "Tulsa" Greeson agrees. He first started coming to Boardner's in 1961, about the time he worked as the window dresser for Pickwick Books on the boulevard, then the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi. It was at Pickwick's that Greeson came up with the idea of displaying opened copies of Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl next to a pink bikini -- a strategy on which the author complimented him. Greeson would eat his supper at Boardner's twice a week, a testament to the now forgotten fact that the joint on Cherokee was a popular eatery as well as a bar.
Brad McAllen remembers how, as late as the mid '80s, the lunch-hour line would stretch down the block, with the bar packed three deep. "Lohman and Barkley would come in all the time," he says of the drive-time radio jocks, as well as Hanna-Barbera animators and the crowds from KMPC and the Don Martin broadcasting school. Bobby Pompey and Jim Ault, hair stylists at the Las Palmas Barber Salon, recall phoning in, during the 1970s, for lunch and Salty Dogs (salt-rimmed Greyhounds), which were boxed and delivered.
Afternoons in Boardner's today are a decided change from those frenetic lunch hours. There are times when you'll be the only person in the bar until a regular or some German or British tourists wander in and join the bartender in watching old Bonanza episodes on two TVs, a ritual broken by the occasional phone call.
"Does anyone want to talk to someone named Velina?" asks a bartender, holding the phone.
"Is she good-looking?" someone asks.
"Does she have her own teeth?" inquires another.
STEVE BOARDNER TICKS OFF A ROSter of long-vanished boulevard bars as though they were still open: "Pickwick Books used to be a bar and restaurant called the Circle, where Lena Horne got started," he says, unaware that even the famed bookstore is now a distant memory. "Bob Perry's Brass Rail, on Vine and Hollywood, had singing waiters and sawdust on the floor. There was a place on Las Palmas called the Swing Club. You'd rap on the door and they'd let you in. It got changed to the 1710 Club and was only open after-hours. The Iron Horse in the Valley was where Gene Autry used to go to get his martini before breakfast. Yes, he was a pretty good rounder."
But there were other rounders who frequented Boardner's, men who were neither sports figures nor entertainers, who nevertheless thrived in the shadows of Hollywood and Santa Anita. These people were, to be sure, also Runyonesque, but not exactly in a Guys and Dolls way. There were, first, those sportsmen who bet on games and races, then the bookies (often ex-pugs) who laid out the odds and took their bets from those convenient banquette phones. And around these grew up informal card games played at the bar, where winnings were disguised as "change." Then came the cops who made money looking the other way at these proceedings, or who participated in them. And, looming above them all, were what Carmen Miceli describes as "heavy, heavy guys."
"They'd all hang around at Steve Boardner's. That was the place to meet people," Miceli says. "I could name a hundred guys -- Mickey Cohen, the Sica brothers, [Jack] Dragna. And the kids who got killed here on Yucca, the Two Tonys, who were sitting in a car when someone put bullets through their heads."
These and other names associated with Boardner's form a Who's Who of L.A.'s postwar mob culture. Joe and Fred Sica, for example, were indicted in 1950 for running L.A.'s largest heroin-smuggling outfit. (They beat the rap when co-defendant-turned-snitch Abraham Davidian was murdered before their trial.) The mere presence of any one of these characters would be enough to attract the attention of the law, but as a veritable gangster clubhouse, 1652 Cherokee drew even closer scrutiny from the Alcohol Beverage Commission and the LAPD.
By any account, however, the establishment led a charmed life, operating as it did under the benign protection of Lieutenant Harry Fremont, a vice detective from the LAPD Hollywood station with a uniquely laissez-faire approach to police work. The Chicago-born Fremont (vodka and tonic) had begun his long and varied career in 1934 as a constable on Catalina Island before donning LAPD blues on the mainland, where he would distinguish himself by playing a part in the Black Dahlia murder investigation and, later, as an indicted defendant in the "Bloody Christmas" beating of six Chicano prison inmates. Over the years Fremont developed a hate-hate relationship with Chief William Parker, and it became his mission statement that he would one day piss on the chief's grave, a goal he eventually achieved.
Steve Boardner often took the lieutenant to ball games or the races, and he became a fixture in the bar. Harry Fremont stories tend to run on the tall side and are inextricably entwined with Boardner's legends, like the time a squad of cops swooped down on some men throwing craps in the patio's fountain, which had been drained expressly for that purpose. At least one of the gamblers was a familiar face to the officers.
"Lieutenant Fremont -- what are you doing here?" asked a bewildered cop.
"Get the hell out of here," Fremont thundered. "I'm losing!"
Colorful or not, Harry Fremont did not impress Boardner's friend Carmen Miceli. It didn't help that one night the pair got into a fistfight in the bar after, Miceli claims, Fremont alluded to his Italian heritage one time too many. "He was a corrupt son of a bitch is all I can tell you," Miceli says, claiming that Fremont made sure his restaurant was kept under a microscope for years after their altercation. "I personally didn't like him because I didn't like his reference to me as a 'wop,' 'dago,' 'guinea.'" And yet Fremont and his freewheeling methods had been the norm throughout the LAPD's history, even deep into the 1950s, and the lieutenant is affectionately remembered in Daryl Gates' autobiography, Chief, as a hard-drinking but dedicated professional who sipped his coffee from a cup and saucer instead of a mug.
Likewise, while Boardner's was no ice cream parlor, it was probably no more conspicuous a gambling den than, say, Yee Mee Loo's in Chinatown, which, according to Vincent A. Carter's memoir, LAPD's Rogue Cops, had three of the city's top detectives -- two inspectors and a captain -- on the take. It is worth remembering that only 50 years ago gambling in L.A. was divvied up, by mutual agreement, among the three superpowers governing vice -- the Mob, the LAPD and Eugene Biscailuz's Sheriff's Department. Nor should we forget how pervasive a part of urban male culture gambling was at that time, when nearly every corner newsstand was connected to a bookmaking operation. Finally, while we tend to think of the police, the Mob, gambling, sports and drinking as separate concepts, in reality they continually overlapped and merged in places like Boardner's.
That is why it was no big deal for Fremont to call Boardner to warn him that a man from the state ABC was sitting at his bar, or for Boardner to let another ABC man use his Hollywood apartment for trysts with his girlfriend. Even the bar's penthouse, according to Boardner, served a business purpose, a place where drunken off-duty cops could sleep it off.
Although Boardner never smoked ("I'm in training!" was his lifelong explanation), he was a drinking bartender and ran a string of DUIs driving from the bar to his Studio City house. One night he'd almost made it home when he saw the flashing lights from two police motorcycles. Boardner literally played the Fremont card that evening, showing his interceptors his license -- along with Harry Fremont's business card. Suitably impressed, the bike cops let Boardner off with a warning, but then he threw the car in reverse, and into one of the motorcycles. This gaffe required more than one of Fremont's Get Out of Jail cards, and so, about twice a week for the next year, whenever Boardner heard a pair of motorcycles pull up in back of his bar, he'd yell to his cook, "Put on two New York steaks!"
LONG AFTER HOLLYWOOD'S NIGHTlife began its decline with the end of World War II, 1652 Cherokee continued to be a meeting place for entertainers. "One day, about 1956," Boardner says, "Johnny [Carson] came in and wanted to tend bar. I used to flip empty Lucky beer bottles up in the air by the neck and toss them in the case they came in. Well, he tried it himself and a goddamned bottle hit him right in the eye!" (Carson, through an assistant, demurs that he's never heard of Boardner's bar, and that this must have happened to someone else.)
No-budget director Ed Wood (Scotch and water) was a Boardner's regular, as was Alan Hale Jr. (double Jack Daniels). And athletes, great and obscure, retired and active, still made pilgrimages. Mickey Mantle (bourbon and ginger ale) once dropped in, as did Joe DiMaggio. But eventually the bar, like Hollywood itself, began to lose its luster. In the late 1950s and early '60s, KNX entertainment broadcaster Tom Hatten (vodka and beef-broth Bullshots) was an actor appearing in The Billy Barnes Revues at the nearby Las Palmas Theater, and he'd go over to Boardner's with his friends ˆ§ after rehearsals. He remembers the bar as "kind of dank and tacky, but fun. Most of us didn't have much money, and Boardner's had good steak sandwiches."
Depending on who you speak to, Hollywood's nightlife was killed by "hippies" and panhandlers who scared away foot traffic, or by the proliferation of topless bars and porn shops, as well as by the presence of more desirable restaurants in Beverly Hills and La Cienega Boulevard's Restaurant Row. Although the new Hollywood suited one Boardner's regular, poet Charles Bukowski, just fine, Steve began closing the bar down earlier and earlier, until it never stayed open past 10 o'clock. He was in his late 60s, he suffered from gout and he never did get a lease for his place, for sometime in the 1950s the building was purchased by Naim "Sy" Amber, who would only rent to Boardner on a monthly basis. And besides, he was going blind.
"WE KIND OF BOUGHT BOARDNER'S to be a meeting place for people in the adult-entertainment industry. Steve was interested in getting out, and he sold it to me." An affable man who wears a large pinkie ring, Dave Hadley, 59, sits at his desk in Steve Boardner's old penthouse, which today resembles a frat room in dire need of a spring cleaning and a new carpet, if not a new floor. Centerfold posters cover the walls, and stacks of Hustler are piled on one of the many cluttered tables mined with mousetraps. Hadley, who says his family has been traced back to the Crusades, was born in New Hampshire and raised in North Carolina; his rolling, double-bourbon voice sounds like Robert Mitchum's. Not long after leaving the Navy in 1967 he arrived in L.A., which he found "kind of seedy."
Still, he decided to give the town a try, and got a job repairing equipment across the street at Don Martin. ("One Halloween," Hadley recalls, "someone actually painted a crosswalk between Boardner's and the school.") By 1977 he and some associates, including a former porn producer named Kurt Richter, created TVX, which duped and distributed the first X-rated home videotapes, which they sold from a store called Video City, located across the street from Boardner's. They spent time at the bar -- a lot of time. "We thought it would be a good place to meet and not have to buy our own drinks," Hadley says, recalling how he and Richter got the idea to make Steve Boardner an offer to buy his place.
By then Boardner was ready to deal, his spirit broken by a series of incidents beginning when a friend, who'd lost a lot of money betting on horses, also lost a court judgment and was ordered to repay about $6,000 to the brother-in-law from whom he had embezzled to cover his debts. Boardner arranged to get a loan, at $1,000 interest, from a circus-ringmaster friend who lived in his apartment building. Unfortunately, the gambler died, sticking Boardner with the note. He was forced to lay off his night bartender and work double shifts himself for half a year. He sold to Hadley in 1980 and moved to Palm Springs two years later.
If Hadley and Richter had conceived of their ownership of Boardner's as a party guy's dream come true, they quickly found themselves employed solely as saloon keepers when TVX and Video City folded. Hadley says the place has seen some lean years since he acquired it, thanks to what he calls the Three Catastrophes -- the 1992 riots, the 1994 earthquake and the Metrorail construction on Hollywood Boulevard. Then again, 1652 Cherokee is continually rediscovered, and it has become a favorite place to hold wrap parties and to shoot films. (Ed Wood, L.A. Confidential and Beverly Hills, 90210 are among many movies and TV shows filmed here.)
Hadley says he receives regular offers for Boardner's, but some technicality always seems to queer the deal at the last minute. One daunting challenge facing any new owner is the fact that even modest remodeling of the bar would expose him or her to an array of building codes that have been grandfathered into suspension over the years. Loyal Pennings, who owns the swankily renovated Las Palmas Restaurant nearby, says he is first in line to purchase Boardner's, and claims he would only restore the place to its original luster.
And so for now Boardner's remains under Hadley's helm, assisted by a staff that functions more as a family than do many families, helping each other out in times of money problems, going on group camping trips, playing in charity golf tournaments in Mexico, providing turkey lunches for people with no place to go on Thanksgiving, and throwing Christmas parties for local kids in the Casablanca Room, complete with bartender Brad McAllen dressed as Santa.
"D'YOU HEAR ABOUT THE STRICT vegetarian? The son of a gun wouldn't even eat animal crackers!" Steve Boardner always greets visitors to his home in Palm Springs with a joke.
His friend Phil Harris, who died a few years back, can be credited with leading the postwar exodus of Hollywood entertainers into the desert, an exodus that eventually included Gene Austin, who had opened the first legit club at 1652 Cherokee. "He used to shoot these goddamned roadrunners," Boardner says of Harris. "Phil loved doves and would leave hamburger out for them, but the roadrunners would eat the hamburger before the doves could. A little while ago I heard a roadrunner hollering at something, so I whistled at it and it stopped."
Even if he were disposed, like Harris, to shooting roadrunners, Steve Boardner would not, because his eyes can only make out shadows and outlines. ("I can tell if the sun's out," he says ruefully.) If, in a home filled with photographs of his glory days, this seems like a torment, he doesn't let on. He'll be 87 in November, but seems as sharp and buoyant as when he warned W.C. Fields about the dangers of drinking Coca-Cola. He is still married to his fourth wife, Bea, although she has lived for the past year in a nursing home for Alzheimer's patients.
Even in the jogging outfit that is the uniform of the elderly, Boardner cuts an impressive figure, with his shock of rippling white hair. These days he mostly confines his alcohol to an occasional can of Old Milwaukee, although he began his drinking career as a bourbon man, graduating to a lifelong affair with Scotch while working at the Jade Room. "Peggy Lee and her friend Mary Norman," as he recalls the historic moment, "had two or three drinks in front of them -- tall Scotch and waters with lemon twists. They said, 'We can't drink all of this -- here, have some.' That's how I first learned to drink Scotch."
Boardner's home seems like a museum of furnishings from the 1960s and '70s: shag carpeting, an oversize stereo that he no longer uses (he gave Carmen Miceli his record collection of hundreds of 78 rpm albums when he sold the bar), a well-worn sofa, and a TV on which he listens to Judge Judy in the afternoon. There is also a glass table salvaged from the Sand and Sea Club, where Boardner played volleyball with actors Van Johnson and Frank Lovejoy, and where his son was taught to swim by lifeguard Strother Martin. Mentioning the table, he remembers driving home from the club one afternoon in his '47 Cadillac convertible. He was heading down Wilshire, approaching Normandie, listening to Peggy Lee on the radio, when he spotted the singer coming out of her dentist's office. Boardner blew the two air horns mounted on the hood and yelled out, "Hey, Peggy! Need a ride?"
With Boardner, one story leads into another -- about long-forgotten wrestlers and fight announcers, how married film actor Wayne Morse would borrow Boardner's apartment for a date with a girlfriend, the time the Dutchman introduced him to the boxing great Jim Jeffries, and how his own young son was amazed, upon meeting Joe Louis, to find his skin was brown. And there was the night when a cop wouldn't stop drinking, so Lieutenant Fremont called Boardner and had him drive the officer's black-and-white back to the Hollywood station. Running throughout all these stories, in which men are invariably described as "classy," "great rounders" or "good-looking kids," is a sense of friendship and shared good times, and not a trace of melancholy.
There is, in a room in which he keeps the mementos he cannot see, a photograph taken in January 1943, in his first bar at the Crossroads of the World. There's a captured Japanese rifle hanging above the bar, and he looks boyish and a little mischievous as he pours a Pabst for his pregnant second wife, Betty, who's holding a cigarette while her girlfriend shares a laugh with the two. Today we look at a picture like this and laugh aloud, though mostly for the benefit of our contemporaries, at the idea of expectant mothers drinking and smoking. Then come the questions that pictures of the past always pose: Were people happier then? Were they better off?
But perhaps these are questions that only bother a generation with a sweet tooth, one that never had to hop a boxcar or pinch nickels from a church collection, and besides, it almost seems rude to think them in Steve Boardner's home. He wouldn't have traded those times to be young in the here and now. "Have you ever had a honeymoon salad?" he asks. "It's with lettuce alone and no dressing!"
HOLLYWOOD HISTORIOGRAPHERS tend to fall into two camps: the Walk of Famers and the Hollywood Babylonians. The former cling to a Chamber of Commerce view of golden yesterdays populated by movie stars and kindly producers sharing sundaes at Schwab's. The latter are inspired by Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon and a century of scandals, overdoses and cover-ups; they are obsessed with decay and corruption, and find the shadows of Philip Marlowe and Norma Desmond everywhere.
Each group claims to be both guardian and inheritor of Hollywood's dream past -- one side seeing in it a tourist gold mine, the other a validation of its coffee-table noir chic. But the town they obsess about is extinct, a Jurassic landscape that has, bit by bit, evaporated into thin air. The studios have relocated, and their constellation of superstars has vanished. The Cohens and Dragnas have also long departed, their nightclubs and haberdasheries existing now only in the tar pits of archive and memoir. The American Legion Stadium, the scene of many a bloody pounding, is today a froufy Bally health spa, and Boardner's' patio fountain, where William Powell once posed with showgirls and Lieutenant Fremont threw craps, now bubbles with dry ice when the place becomes a Goth club.
And the garrulous founder of the place on Cherokee Street, Steve Boardner, lives a desert away, whistling at roadrunners and occasionally talking to friends on the phone, next to which he keeps a memorial notice for Harry Fremont. Yet while the Hollywood he was part of may be gone, his bar endures. Step into Boardner's on any afternoon, when it's neither wholesome nor practical to drink, and, after your eyes adjust to the dark, you'll begin to glimpse a place where legends got drunk or placed bets, and a time when people sang as they walked down the sidewalk, just because they felt like it.