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Hollywood, Straight Up 

The craps-shooting cop, the hungarian brawl and other stories from Steve Boardner's bar

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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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.

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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.“

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