By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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 everything was 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 . . . a 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.