Legend has it that Lucille Ball, perhaps the most famous comedian in television history, used to sidle up to the bar at Boardner's. She was just one of a cascade of celebrities that have passed through the doors at the 75-year-old Hollywood dive, and current owner Tricia La Belle has put signed headshots of Ball and many others on the walls.
“After I had retrieved them from the attic under about two inches of pigeon shit,” she says with a laugh.
Others include Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, Donald Sutherland, Vince Vaughn, Russell Crowe, Quentin Tarantino, Nicole Kidman, Ben Affleck, John Lennon, Slash, Axl Rose, Nicole Kidman, Tommy Lee, director Ed Wood and poet Charles Bukowski.
All of them took a seat at the bar at one time or another, and the bartenders at Boardner’s had even committed to memory many of their preferred drinks. It’s also said that Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia after her gruesome murder in 1947, came here as well, as she lived nearby.
Boardner’s is by far the most famous tenant of the two-story, L-shaped Cherokee Building at 6646 Hollywood Blvd., which was designed by architect Norman W. Alpaugh in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and opened in 1927.
La Belle points out the original grillwork and Moorish detailing as she steps into Boardner's alleyway, then wonders aloud how customers used to drive right up this slim “motor court” to do their shopping at the fancy men’s stores that once ran along Hollywood Boulevard.
A Connecticut native who's lived in L.A. for more than 30 years, La Belle took the reins at Boardner's nearly 20 years ago, and has the kind of background that makes her an ideal candidate to operate an institution like this.
A well-informed booster for the Hollywood scene, she talks about the proposed new 4 a.m. licensing laws and the planned Hollywood Central Park atop the 101, then happily admits to a workaholic schedule where she splits her time between Boardner’s and her most recent venture, the Bon Vivant Market & Cafe in Atwater Village.
In the past, La Belle was a teenage model, a cake decorator, a wide-eyed explorer of Studio 54 and the New York club scene, a paralegal and an executive assistant before she dipped her toes into behind-the-scenes Hollywood nightlife.
“I was dating my boss and he was into vampires, so we started the Fang Club in Beverly Hills,” she says, rolling her eyes at the cheesy name. “We had a very bad breakup, but Bar Sinister came out of it.”
She walks down the alley to the interior courtyard with its ornate tiled fountain. “They used to empty the fountain and throw dice there,” she says.
Turns out this isn’t the only place where illegal things happened at Boardner’s.
It started life as the seemingly innocent Morrisey’s Hair Salon (probably a front for an illegal card club and speakeasy). “Cops used to get their hair cut there,” La Belle says wryly.
In the early 1930s, crooner Gene Austin opened a club here named after his massive hit “My Blue Heaven,” and it was later Padres Restaurant, Cherokee House, Club Zanzibar and Club 52.
“Cherokee House was actually a gay men’s club, and I found a load of gay porn and old movies hidden everywhere — even in the overhang above the bar,” La Belle says, pointing upward. “It was pretty tame stuff — no erections allowed in those days.”
Everything changed in 1942 when Ohio native Steve Boardner sneakily put his name over Club 52’s neon sign.
A veteran of the Hollywood nightclub scene, Boardner had a good reputation with cops and punters alike. Married several times, he was known for helping people out when they got in a jam or needed somewhere to sleep off a hangover or a private place to go with a girl.
The cops turned a blind eye to gangsters like Mickey Cohen, the Milano Brothers, and Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino, who became the most infamous regulars when they were shot to death in their car just a few hundred yards away in August 1951.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the Cherokee Building was home to clothing stores much loved by rock gods and aspiring musicians alike, but by the 1980s the golden days were long gone, especially when Hollywood became overrun with drugs, crime and prostitution.
An aging Boardner sold the place and retired to Palm Springs (he died in 2007) and La Belle ran things with Dave Hadley for a while before he opened a bar in Glendale.
In the ’90s, the riots, the earthquake and the building of the Metro station at Hollywood and Highland hit hard, but like a veteran boxer, Boardner’s never stayed down for long.
Snacking on some chips and salsa at the bar, La Belle casually mentions that Kurt Richter, a former porn producer, co-owner with Hadley and “hardcore smoker and drinker,” died at the bar on Christmas Eve in 1997. “Right where you’re sitting, actually,” she adds.
La Belle still gets a thrill out of running the Bar Sinister goth night, and a leather burlesque is in rehearsal in its separate bar. Whips, leashes and leather are much in evidence as pumping music is linked to strutting and writhing choreography.
She also mentions the ghosts of Boardner’s: an actor who is seen on the stage near the fountain, a woman who sings in the restrooms and a former regular named Al.
“Dave let him live here — gave him a job behind the bar, too. Al passed a few years ago, but all the staff swear they still hear him walking around.”
Today, Boardner’s is still very much a locals hangout, though in the darkness of the bar or the booths you can barely see who you’re rubbing elbows with anyway.
“That means everyone gets treated the same,” La Belle says.