By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
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?” a 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.
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