When bartender Forrest Miller moved from Hollywood Boulevard’s Studio Cafe to Boardner’s a few years ago, he brought with him with a sizable clientele. The patrons’ loyalty was no mystery — the big Texan comes from a vanishing stock of bartenders who multitask as psychiatrists, father confessors and life coaches. He’s affable but no-nonsense, accommodating yet never ingratiating. Today this quintessential eminence gris holds court at the Piano Bar, an improbably bright pub sporting American and British flags on a gray stretch of Selma Avenue.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)“My job is to make people feel good but also to watch them,” Miller says of his mission. “You need to understand one thing. You’ll meet a person with a certain personality, but two drinks later that personality will change. My job is to make sure it changes in the right way.”
Miller came here in 1962 as an 18-year-old refugee from the Lone Star State, where, as he says, “in those days they just hated you for being gay.” After four decades in L.A. he can spot trouble like rain, having been robbed, attacked by an eight-months pregnant crack addict and, on one night, had several shotguns pointed at him and his patrons at the Lemon Twist Lounge when the LAPD showed up at the wrong address. Yet what makes him an original is his love of a job that offers community in a neighborhood not always known for its sense of fraternity.
“The most love I saw,” he remembers, “was at the Lemon Twist when they all came together after the 1971 earthquake. It was really a strange day, you could feel it. Everyone came in quiet but they were glad they were with each other. There wasn’t the normal bitchiness about work — they were just glad they were alive. This was pre-AIDS — it was pre-everything. Ninety-five percent of my clientele from those 16 years are dead. AIDS changed everything, including bartending.”
Today he soldiers on in a world of diminishing camaraderie. Miller, who only occasionally allows himself an old-school Chivas and water, views the current retro-drink craze as more pose than love of the drinks.
“It all has to do with holding that glass,” he says laconically of the martini’s comeback. “It makes you look sophisticated.”
Miller says he’ll probably hang up his own martini shaker at the Piano Bar in a few years.
“You got to understand,” the big man says, “I’m not as young as I used to be and can’t jump the bar and take problem [drinkers] outside like I used to. We are an art form that’s dying out because the jobs are being taken over by actors, musicians and people who want to be everything but a bartender.”