My grandfather Jose Ancona came to the United States in 1962 looking for work. Los Angeles was a beacon of hope. After a year-long citizenship application process, he moved his young family from Mexico City to San Pedro to chase down the American dream.
He landed a career as a master bartender, eventually rising to president of the United States Bartender's Guild and vice president of the International Bartender's Association, all the while working in a restaurants and venues across Los Angeles County. His foray into Hollywood nightlife was particularly memorable.
He's now 80, retired, and based in Torrance. We sat down to talk about the music scene's “golden years” – when the drinks were strong, Hollywood was swingin' and big band music reigned supreme.
What was the fashion in the Hollywood music scene like then?
The proper attire had to be perfectly pressed without lines in your pants and your shirts, well-shaved, well-groomed, and your nails perfectly done. Women were extremely pretty, extremely [well taken care of], well dressed. It was a pleasure to see a woman well dressed. In those days, the woman took care of themselves so perfectly, it was a pleasure to see a lady in your bar, which was unusual – ladies didn't sit at the bar. I regret the fact that the first time I ever head a four-letter word in my bar I almost kicked the person out because in my bar there were no four-letter words. In this day and age the ladies are the ones using four-letter words. [Laughs]
What were some of your favorite dance halls and clubs?
In those days, Hollywood Palladium was the place to go dancing and listen to the big bands. There was another place where Chubby Checker performed, I believe it was on Cahuenga. Most of the young people went there to dance, and that's where I learned it too. There was a place called PJ's in [West] Hollywood – you could see movie stars all over the place, that was another favorite of mine, and Trini Lopez, the guitar player, became famous over there. I used to make the trip from San Pedro to Hollywood just to listen to him. The Harbor Freeway wasn't even finished. There was the Whiskey A Go Go, [where] there was go-go dancing, the twist, the swing.
What was your initial reaction when you stepped into the Palladium for the first time, having just come to the U.S.?
I couldn't believe it. First, just seeing so many people, and second, the music was so pleasant, great to your ears. On many occasions you just went to listen to the music [rather than dance].
What are some other standout locations or bars that you remember from that time period?
Scandia, on Sunset Boulevard, it was a very famous restaurant. The Hunting Horn was in Palos Verdes, in which the waiters had to serve you with white gloves – that was [real] service. That's where I gained popularity for making a drink that's my favorite drink, called a pousse-café: You build the drink in a pony glass and it has seven different colors, a highly-known drink all over the world. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a bartender in California that knows how to make that drink.
Who were some of the musicians you specifically traveled to Hollywood to see?
Tex Benneke, he was still under Count Basie, who was still number one. Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw – most of the big ones played at the Hollywood Palladium. Most every Sunday was a dance thing there. In those days PJ's was the place. I used to go with a coworker from the Tasman Sea, and he would drive because I wouldn't have a car. You got to see a lot of actors and actresses. There was no other place like PJ's. Eddie Cano, a friend of mine played with him. His name was Howard Rumsey, and he managed a nightclub that's still in existence, called the Lighthouse. We became very good friends to the point where I went to work for him at one time [at] Concerts by The Sea in Redondo Beach. It was like a nightclub to listen to jazz.
What were some of the dance styles that were most popular at that time?
I still like the swing, though I can't dance like that anymore. The ballroom dancing was still very heavy, but I never attended one nor knew where they were dancing like that. Most places where I went were swing [dancing]. Actually, if you see most of the kids these days, they swing to rock 'n' roll. I liked Latin music also, and some of the places that I attended were Mexican restaurants that had dance floors that played it. Salsa music was just coming in.
What do you remember about the end of the swing era and the transition into more modern music?
When Elvis Presley came in, it revolutionized the whole musical atmosphere. Consequently, the Beatles came up and did their thing, and everything changed. It was drastic. You could see people dancing that were crazy. To me, from the old school, dancing was a pleasure: hold your partner, dancing with you in elegance. Now, you dance with your partner three yards away from you, and you only ask to dance and that's it, that's the only time you touch their hands. The classical dance is elegance, it's feelings, it's melody. When the twist took over, the swing evaporated. It consequently came back and in this day and age, at Alpine Village on Mondays, kids come out and start swinging. I believe that one of these days the music is going to come back – like anything else in life, it has its ups and downs, everything comes back.