By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
During the long, lonely downtime of midafternoon, Manny can walk Musso’s floor like the curator of a natural-history museum and bring its empty booths to life.
“Raymond Burr would always sit at Table Number 38,” he nods to a banquette. “Never at the bar.”
“Elizabeth Taylor sat at Number 34,” he remembers. “Nancy Reagan always had Number 36, and Merv Griffin would be at 37. He’d have a glass of wine or vodka tonic. He already knew he was dying. The last time I saw him, he and a friend left and a few minutes later, he sent his friend back for a battery jump because he left the lights on his car.”
Although Al Pacino used to sit in corner table Number 28 — to keep an eye on who came in — some celebrities, like George Hamilton (“He’s a friend of Mrs. Marcos,” Manny whispers conspiratorially), simply prefer the bar.
As the faces and habits of entertainment stars have changed, so have their drinks, with Manny overseeing this evolutionary process. Contrary to popular belief, he says, drinks of yore did not take longer to make.
“They were mostly highballs,” Manny remembers. “Seven High, Screwdrivers, Moscow Mules — that’s with the ginger beer, but they don’t have that anymore. Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Whiskey Sours — drinks that are now dead.”
Still, there is one drink that connects contemporary drinking habits to the past — that avatar of the American century, the martini. It is also the drink with which Manny has become most identified over the years, and over which he is often called in to referee bruising controversies about its proper making.
Die-hard, strict constructionists maintain the best martinis are made of gin, while their implacable foes pledge allegiance to vodka. (Imagine an epic arm-wrestling match between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming.) Subtler heresies exist, however, especially among apostates favoring “dirty martinis” (which al Qaeda does not yet possess) and those who endlessly argue over how much vermouth is considered desirable.
“The old generation,” Manny notes, “used to say, ‘May I have a martini?’ That means with vermouth. Today they say, ‘Give me a martini with no vermouth.’ They demand it but I don’t care. What I do is stir it more times and I put a tiny bit of vermouth in.”
Manny, surprisingly, does not live in the past, although he’ll be the first one to tell you that his customers drank more in the 1950s and ’60s.
“People spent more time at the bar. In those days if the police stopped you they’d just take you home. They’d have one or two martinis and then go back to work. Now, it’s a soft drink only with lunch.”
“How are you doing, my friend?” Manny asks a customer.
“I’m doing good,” the man says.
Manny’s barside manner is deceptively simple. His radar senses when regulars and tourists alike want to be left alone and when they might want to share something that’s been nagging them since morning. And, even when a drinker might be lost in solitary thoughts or in deep conversation with friends, Manny knows just when to stealthily glide over to replace the man or woman’s napkin, or freshen a glass of water.
His understanding demeanor has been shaped not only by watching from behind a bar as people’s sobriety ebbs away, but from working at the Magic Castle for 33 years, as both a waiter and assistant maitre d’. Which is why his tipsier customers do not feel dissed when he calls a time-out.
“You never say, ‘Oh, you’re drunk!’ to a customer,” he says. “You say, ‘Excuse me, but you look as though you’ve had some drinks somewhere else before you came here.’” Most people pick up on the hint. If not, he’ll go a step further: “‘Please, go home, relax and come back.’”
When we think of Hollywood Boulevard characters past and present, Manny Aguirre may not come to mind in a roll call of outsized figures, but when he rings up his cash register for the last time, it’ll be a sound heard up and down the boulevard.
As another long, quiet afternoon at Musso’s slowly surrenders to the bustle of evening, a man who realizes he’s been at the bar too long gets up to leave, and Manny makes him feel at home before he’s even returned:
“Don’t take so long to come back, now!”