You wouldn’t have found Semisonic’s “Closing Time” in any of the Smog Cutter’s smeared vinyl songbooks. But it’s likely someone tried to sing it anyway above the din of the venerable karaoke bar’s last call this past Sunday, Oct. 29.
Nita Sevikul, known to her patrons and bar family as “Mama Nita,” has owned the Smog Cutter since 1988 — the last time the Dodgers went to (and won) the World Series. The bar itself has been around for “at least 77 years,” according to Mama Nita, whom I first met when I started coming to the Smog Cutter in 2004. She’s carbon-dated it through the antique cash register that still sits at the center of the bar, beneath the Buddhist shrines to her ancestors who have presided over generations of devoted regulars and karaoke adventurers in Virgil Village.
Stripped of their annual lease since 2015, the Smog Cutter has been subsisting month-to-month under the threat of eviction from the building’s owner, Kourosh Malekan, according to Mama Nita. After several failed efforts to negotiate a longer term solution, and what Mama Nita describes as threats that she would be forced to pay for costly renovations, she finally relented and decided to give up the space. (Malekan did not respond to requests for comment.)
Just shy of 30 years as the Smog Cutter’s owner, Mama Nita doesn’t have it in her to keep fighting the tide of “redevelopment” in the neighborhood. After savoring a long goodbye with her staff and regulars, she’s chosen for now she’s chosen to rest in her heartbreak.
Before she scraped up the money to buy it herself, Mama Nita bartended at the Smog Cutter when she emigrated to the United States from Thailand in 1972. A young mother with meager resources, she first entered the workforce at sweatshops downtown until a friend suggested she might earn a better living wage at a little bar between Silver Lake and Thai Town, then owned by a woman they called “Mama K.” Nita describes Mama K, the first female owner in the Smog’s matrilineal genealogy, as a “geisha from Little Tokyo.”
In the 1970s, the Smog Cutter functioned as a “hostess bar” of sorts, with beautiful women like Mama Nita slinging stiff pours and light lagers and offering an ear to the hardscrabble, hard-swilling men who were regulars, many immigrants themselves from places like the Philippines, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The casual accoutrements, like crispy, salty snacks — potato chips, homemade pork cracklings, or even paper bags of deep fried smelt from local Filipino joints — made them feel at home.
In accounts of what makes the Smog Cutter special, these guys are rarely mentioned. The Smog’s casual explorers from near and far inevitably showed up because they heard Charles Bukowski used to hang out there during his deepest, darkest binges. Fueling this legend was the watering hole’s appearance in the opening title sequence to Barfly, the 1987 film based on his writings.
Everybody else came to the Smog Cutter for karaoke.
A gregarious Filipino regular by the name of Pete Gonzalez made karaoke the Smog Cutter’s marquee amusement.
To its final day, the Smog’s posse of wizened regulars, at least those who are still alive, arrived early, before karaoke started at 9 p.m. They wanted to settle in before the weekend crowds of newbies, Westside looky-loos and recent East Coast transplants clogged up the joint with hackneyed renditions of “Sweet Caroline” and lesser cuts from the Spice Girls oeuvre.
Karaoke became the Smog Cutter’s staple in the early 1990s under Mama Nita’s watch. According to her, and some of the regulars from that era, “some white guy got it started for a couple of months” (no one seems to recall his name). Then a gregarious Filipino regular by the name of Pete Gonzalez took karaoke to the next level. Soon it was the bar’s marquee amusement.
Renee Mangalindan, a loyal Smog patron since 1993, describes the early days of karaoke as “wild and packed to the gills.” The recreation was fairly new to the United States in that era. As at most karaoke joints that cropped up on the West Coast, the earliest adopters were Asian or Asian-American. Many were crooners of the Great American Songbook, like the dearly departed Eddie, whose last name remains a mystery to everyone I asked. Eddie was a Japanese-American gardener who always kept the world on a string, even when latter-day Bohemian Rhapsodists changed the mood.
Speaking to me in Tagalog, Mangalindan — a striking figure with his signature white jeans, white tank top, gold chains and abundant mustache — says he doesn’t know where he’ll go after the Smog shuts down. “I guess I could go to one of the Filipino places around. But I like that there’s a mix of people here, even though I think some of the newer ones can be scared off by how loud the bartenders get.”
I first met Mangalindan and the generations of “loud bartenders” and KJs (karaoke jockeys) when I started coming to the Smog in 2004. Their names — Sunshine, Bonnie, Jan and Joanne — should be emblazoned on one of those T-shirts with roll calls of championship teams.
They’re cognizant of their place in local lore. Joanne appeared in Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘n’ Nite” video, which was partly shot on location at the bar. Others have become confidantes and pals of some of the well-known TV actors who occasionally show up on low-key weeknights. Each, except for Joanne, has moved on, their legends looming large over the Smog’s wood-paneled walls, dusky red lighting, arcane karaoke machine and a songbook that hadn’t been updated since Michelle Branch had her big moment in the aughts.
The lack of bells, whistles, reverb and sometimes even ventilation mattered little to those of us who became a part of Mama Nita’s family through the years, even after a little hazing from the Smog Cutter’s deep roster of matriarchs. It took me repeated visits to earn the trust of these powerful women and learn the bar’s unspoken edicts of decorum: Don’t be pushy, don’t forget it’s cash only, tip the KJs, tip your bartenders, and always buy a drink in return if another regular, or a member of the staff, buys one for you (which happens more often than you think).
Over the course of 13 years, Mama Nita and her crew always took great care of me, even plying me with snacks of cold hot dogs and American cheese (or whatever they had behind the bar) if I seemed too tipsy on any given night.
The Smog Cutter nurtured our ambitions and cradled our failures. It fêted our birthdays, engagements and promotions. It served as our sacred space of mourning when we lost Michael, Whitney, Prince, Bowie and too many others in our lives both real and imagined. We rehearsed for love, victory and heartbreak through its sticky songbooks and tricky repertoires. And now, for its last act, the Smog Cutter is teaching us the difficult lesson of letting go.