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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.