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
People who visit Mussoand Frank Grill for the first time make two pleasant discoveries: a restaurant/bar that forms a bridge to Hollywood’s golden past, and bartender Manny Aguirre, who provides a more personal link to that history. Manny, who’s been at Musso’s since 1989, is not the establishment’s longest-serving bartender currently working there, but he’s become its unofficial ambassador and an acknowledged black-belt martini master, a familiar figure in a red jacket and gold-rimmed glasses.
Manny can be tolerant and understanding with drunks and windbags, but knows when to draw the line. On one recent afternoon he was seen chasing — albeit in his trademark courtly style — a rather shabby-looking woman who seemed intent on walking out on the tab for her single Budweiser.
“Sometimes,” Manny charitably says with a faint Ecuadorian accent, “people will walk out — they’ll say, ‘I’m going to have a cigarette’ — and never come back. But we don’t have that kind of clientele.”
“Manny — I’m going out to have a cigarette!” pipes up a smart aleck at the end of the bar.
This year sees a triple milestone as Manny turns 75 soon and celebrates his 20th year at Musso and Frank — which itself turns 90.
Manny came to Los Angeles in 1953, when Fletcher Bowron was serving his last days as L.A.’s four-term mayor, Eugene Biscailuz was sheriff and Chavez Ravine still thrived as a semirural barrio. Manny had taken a banana boat from Ecuador’s Guayaquil to Tampa, and soon caught a westbound Greyhound from New Orleans.
“When I was young,” he recalls, “I saw everything through Hollywood.” The movies, he says, made everything in the city seem “so beautiful.” But the L.A. he saw upon arriving downtown was not the glamorous city he’d imagined.
“‘This is Los Angeles?’ I thought. To be honest,” he says, “a week later I wanted to go back to Ecuador. I was kinda disappointed.”
Manny’s first job was at El Poche Café, a fairly well-known Mexican restaurant in its time out in the wilds of San Gabriel.
“It was like Siberia in those days,” Manny says of the San Gabriel Valley, which he reached by taking a couple of buses from his shared apartment on 22nd Street and Normandie. But he was feeling exiled for other reasons, too. Despite having moved to a city with a huge Latino population, he remained isolated because most of the Mexican-Americans who dominated it back then refused to speak Spanish if they knew English.
“The pachucos and pochos didn’t want to,” he says. Manny tried to enlist to serve in the Korean War but, again, the language barrier blocked him. Even Mexican food was alien to him.
“I was very unhappy,” he says. “For breakfast at the restaurant we used to eat frijoles, beans, with eggs. I was kind of shocked — in Ecuador for breakfast you’d have a French roll with a piece of cheese, ham, and milk and coffee. The first time I ate tortillas was right here in the United States!”
Bit by bit, though, Manny was won over by his adopted town. The people on street cars were uncommonly friendly. He made a ritual of dining at Clifton’s cafeteria on Broadway and loved riding the electric Red Cars — even the Go and Stop arms that moved up and down on traffic signals grew on him.
Getting work in the restaurant business was easy — and it all led upward — from places like Tips, Dublin’s Food and Fun, Nickodell, Scandia and, finally, Musso and Frank. (Of these five, only Musso’s remains.)
In 1955 he bought his first Ford and was working downtown at the Statler Hotel, which was being used for a movie shoot one day. After the shoot, one of the actors, sitting alone in the middle of the hotel’s cavernous Pacific Ballroom, politely asked Manny if he could bring him a cup of coffee. One of Manny’s co-workers was the brother of Mexican tennis great Pancho Segura, and he took Manny aside.
“That guy’s James Dean!” he told Manny; he hadn’t recognized the young actor, who weeks later would die in a car accident.
Dean would be among the first celebrities Manny would serve over the years, stars including Bette Davis (whiskey sour), Kirk Douglas, Harrison Ford (who talked to Manny’s grandsons on a cell phone), Drew Barrymore (champagne), Francis Ford Coppola, who wanted to know why Musso and Frank didn’t serve Coppola wine (the very next week, Musso’s did), and Keith Richards, who’s known to stop by Musso and Frank when he’s in town. And he never fails to laugh when recalling how the cast and crew of Happy Days would drink at Nickodell — except for the underage Ronny Howard, who had to make do with sodas.