“In Memorium” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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Death happens. And once or twice a year I get the call. Whether it be a burial or cremation, there are times when a memorial service or after-service gathering takes place at home. Family and friends meet in a more natural setting, the environment in which the person who passed once lived. The feeling is warmer and more relaxed.

I usually know beforehand what I’m walking into, especially with this type of get-together. I step into the home with an energy of quietude, moving slowly and looking for the person in charge, the client. This was in October of 2008 in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles just off of Sunset Blvd., which is basically the zip code right next door to Beverly Hills.

I met the daughter who was taking care of everything, and found out later on that it was her mother, entertainer Edie Adams, who passed away. Though she was a star of stage, screen and TV, Edie was best known for her sensual delivery in pitching Muriel Cigars in ads and commercials in the 60’s with her come-on line “Why don’t you pick one up and smoke it sometime?”

Edie was previously married to comedian, actor and writer Ernie Kovacs, and West Coast jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli, who played with the big bands of Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown and others. He was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 along with his jazz trumpeter brother, Conte, who with his many musical credits including Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, was also a member of Doc Severinsen’s NBC Orchestra on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

It was only a gathering of 40-50 people expected to show, so the two of us, myself on the bar and Desiree on the floor ,was all that was needed to assist in the food and beverage department. Desiree and I showed up on the street to park just about at the same time. It was a very steep incline of the road. I was on one side of the street and she was on the other. We walked in together.

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From what I heard, there was a service elsewhere earlier in the day, so we had a call time of 3:00 pm for a 4:00 pm start. This is smart timing for family and friends because it beats most of the rush hour traffic early on, and ends with people leaving around 8:00 pm, back in normal traffic. Unfortunately, with L.A, it’s one of those timings where it’s always better to figure in for guest considerations. It was also on a weekday, which helped the ease of everything.

Nice and mellow was the play of the day for me at the bar. Not sad, nor cheery, just somewhere comfortably in the middle. At this stage of performing the work for so long, one could safely say that I’ve earned a masters degree in human relations (or guest relations in my case) with a minor if not double-major in psychology. No classroom studies required when you’re working with humanity, the real thing gig-in and gig-out in elements outside of a closed room in an office on the 15th floor of a high-rise building. Next to bartenders as someone to talk to with discretion, people usually like to spill it to shrinks. It’s easier than talking to their spouses. But the bartender position is #1. And there’s a reason. Shrinks cost hundreds of dollars an hour, when bartenders simply appreciate a generous tip, with no paperwork or billing of insurance. It’s just too bad I can’t find a way to put the sensory overload of my eidetic memory to a better, more valuable use in terms of financially productive gain outside of the bar.

That’s the one bummer with how education is set-up in this country, is that you can earn OJT (On Job Training) credits in high school when you’re also working a job, but it doesn’t continue on when you’re out of school and in the real working world, so I can’t use the decades of experience as college credits toward a degree on paper, where I could enter those occupational fields mentioned. I would have to take all the other questionably meaningless-to-the-role side courses that are always part of the scholastic mountain to climb, all in the name of rounding out the curriculum, and of course for the universities to make more money! It’s much like a bill that goes to the senate floor for a vote, but by the time it finally arrives, all this other pork belly shit is added and/or hidden into the bill that doesn’t really belong there.

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The bar is set-up in the covered patio outside in back, near the screen door that leads into the main dining room. Perfect, outdoors, nice day, though a slight chill entered into the evening. The beverage inventory delivered was filled with everything needed for a full bar, with all the basic spirits and mixers, liqueurs, juices, sodas, waters, fruit, and a nice wine and beer selection. And I can make a few classic and specialty drinks if so requested.

It’s nice to not have the bar product so trim to the point where I can barely make anything memorable. There’s been a few times where that sort of thing has happened in the past when it comes to spirits and cocktails heavily minimized, making it a difficult limitation which can sometimes lead to all of it running out quickly when there’s not a wider selection to please the range of people’s drinking interests. If I don’t have their preferred spirit and mixer, they may end up choosing just a wine or beer. But you never want the guest to have to settle for a different category of drink if you can avoid it.

As I get the bar organized and chilled down, the restaurant deli caterer drops off the variety of small munchies and desserts in large tins for Desiree to transfer over onto some of the nicer kitchen plates, Lazy Susan turntables, and large bowls, along with condiments and silverware, all placed attractively on the long cleared-off dining table, just eyeshot of the bar area.

My gears are always set to go with the flow, high or low. The invites of family and friends began arriving. I can see them way down on the street below the raised property, as it was to my back outside where the bar was. The home was a very cool 60’s-ish dig, not as big as your typical sprawling estate for the neighborhood. Though, I’m sure it had a floor below or partial above way in back not easily noticeable from the inside. That’s the thing about curious floor plans. They beckon one to explore the mystery of the layout and the history of who’s lived there before.

I got busy with some drinks for guests and greetings at the bar, a few of them grabbing a smoke at the same time, while Desiree comes out to the side of the bar to grab a few cocktails for other guests inside hanging out and chatting, many of them catching up with old friends or past business associates they hadn’t seen in quite a while. That sort of strange time distance between hookups can happen when you live in such a big, spread out area like Los Angeles where many seem to live so far apart from who they know, not to mention work drives. You have the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Downtown, over the hill in L.A. proper and Hollywood, Santa Monica on the west side, the beach areas, Malibu and the Palisades. That’s a lot of territory!

With this sort of low-keyed event, I initially prefer to have the guest engage with me when at the bar instead of myself being forward with anything else beyond a hello and what can I get you to drink? If it’s a comfortable place in the conversation, I can offer my condolences to them for their loss, but it’s also not the type of thing you want to end up making a habit of repeating too much either when you’re in my position. In these cases, less is usually better, light and easy. However, I also don’t want to come across morose all through the evening. Again, it’s finding the balance of how best to communicate in any situation, given the combination of event, mood and personalities attending. There were a few kids in the mix of adults who came to the bar and ordered Shirley Temples. There are many times when I’m behind the bar almost anywhere I work and at times don’t realize that I have audible sound effects going on when making drinks until someone notices. The children start to laugh and get a kick out of it, like being mesmerized by a magician with movement and creation. It’s a nice accidental way to keep their spirits up.

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Desiree and I were only there for five hours total. It was a short and sweet get-together of individuals both mourning their loss and celebrating the life of their dear departed friend. And I kind of feel the emotion of it when I’m there too. It can’t help but permeate a little when it’s all around you. It certainly makes you think about your own life and the ones you love a little deeper in that moment in time.

It got dark out soon enough, and the patio lights were turned on, keeping some shine on the bar to the degree I prefer, without it being so bright where I would have to put sunglasses on. There’s nothing worse than a badly lit bar. It has to be just right to produce a certain visual look and appeal both close up and from a distance. With Desiree coming out to the bar for more drinks, my work was a pretty easy cruise to just stay put behind the bar and keep company with those who were outside talking close by.

This was one of those gigs where even though it wasn’t a high-energy event, the time moved by fairly quick mainly due in knowing that we weren’t going to be there a sixth or seventh hour, which is the norm most of the time. I love these short gigs though. You’re in and out in a snap. And it’s great for Desiree too, as she has another job modeling with her identical twin sister. Sometimes, the easier the gig, the better!

Guests started to fade little by little after hanging out for a few hours. I began trimming the sails of the bar in a way where no one quite notices, and Desiree was inside doing a slow wrap and clean-down. Her and I, like others that I work with, get a feel for when we need to hit our end time on the hour. We went through some product at the bar, enough to the point where there was only a couple boxes full of still-sealed goods left for the beverage service to pick-up the next day for client reimbursement.

Edie’s daughter came outside to settle up with us soon after the last guest had left. Everything went well as expected, no glitches and nothing broken! I grabbed my bar kit and off we went, back into the city at night.

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“Blessings of the Pipe” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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There are days where I work events outside in the summertime and it’s hotter than hell, like Western desert heat, deep desert where the prehistoric thunderbirds hide! The weather patterns for Southern California shifted say over the last five years to where both the hot/cold are more noticeable now instead of gradual, no longer the eye-to-the-sky mystery it once was. It’s more like Nevada in the summer and Seattle/Pacific Coast in the fall and winter. Gone are the days and nights of expected perfection in temperature during seasonal changeover, when it has a harder time deciding which way it’s going to turn.

Nestled in the mountains up off Kanan Road on Mulholland Highway in Malibu is the Saddlerock Winery & Ranch, part of Malibu Family Wines, that grows 60,000 vines on 65 acres, producing six different reds, four different whites, a rose, a port and a sparkling wine. It also doubles as a venue for weddings and events, with four different settings; The Garden, The Oakgrove, Camp Cabernet, and The Vineyard, a quaint octagonal stone house called Chateau Le Dome, located on a hillside overlooking the vines and the property overall ,to accommodate guest counts from 50 to 2000. The ranch complete with horses, zebras and where the buffalo roam is quite a beautiful site, facilitating many parties and gatherings of all kinds.

I love the place, but working there in the heart of the summer is a different story. There’s only parking down below in the lot and you have to be shuttled up to the hilltop. It’s always a bitch for me in particular because my bar kit of preferred and comfortable necessities is so much that it takes two trips to complete, as opposed to just driving my truck up for the drop off and then park back down below and take the shuttle back up empty-handed. Either way, it all takes extra time and effort, so arriving on-location earlier than my scheduled call time is a must, and with it being scorching out doesn’t help matters when you’ve already broken a sweat before you even start setting up the bar.

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I lived in Arizona for many years where you get used to a certain degree of high temps, but working in it is different than just lounging or playing in it, where you can go in and out of it, taking breaks. I think I’ve slowly been spoiled with weather more to my liking since moving to California in 1985, therefore decreasing my interest in being out under the blazing sun for hours on end. Outside on the job from June through September, I’m always longing for dusk if it’s an early afternoon start.

It’s gorgeous up there no doubt, but the grounds surrounding the geometric house on the hill are a bit uneven in several areas, so staging the wedding and reception in regards to placement of the tables, the bar, the dance floor and the DJ vs. confirmed guest count is important so it all looks nice and is spread out properly to fit everyone. And there’s always a photographer and/or videographer at weddings, so it’s important that any hung lighting for the night is attractive and nuanced with a wattage of bulbs that doesn’t make it too bright or too dim, for them, the guests and for us who are working the event. This is why I always have my Velcro-adjustable finger lights with me, so if the bar has some dark areas I can happily make up for the loss and make cocktails with them on, of which the guests get a big kick out of, as they’ve never seen them before. I can see their minds spinning with the ideas of their use.

The maximum you can have up there comfortably is no more than 100 people. This gig that happened in the summer of 2008, we had about 75 guests, which in my opinion is even better. Anymore and it stars getting a bit tight. With catering, you’re bringing the food and kitchen line set-up as well, that’s on the other side of the house, so every department has its own mise-en-place. Some of the bar product, red wine especially, had to be kept in the unused kitchen area in the house to keep cool. The 50lb. ice bags are in the long igloos, but it still melts as if they were laid up against a tree. It’s like any situation, you just do what you can and hope for the best.

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At the end of my set-up, I’m soaked, so I shuttle down to the truck to take a breather, towel myself off, change clothes and have a smoke before, yet once again, go back up in the shuttle. I get back behind the bar and do some final rearranging of tools, tubs and expanded product chilling while shape-shifting my mood for customer service with me alive and kicking, more close-up and personal than real bar establishments. There’s less technicality and management oversight with it, more loose and fun with the only camera on me being the eyes of the guests.

So I’m hanging out and ready to rock with guests arriving shortly, and I see this guy with really long hair walking with a woman in the distance, slowly getting closer and closer. My sunglasses are on, so no one can see exactly where I’m looking, just a general direction. And low and behold, I knew who they were. The last people I expected to see there, my sweat lodge leaders, Wolf and Lisa Wahpepah. We greeted, as it had been a year or so since the Malibu sweat lodge on old Piuma Road up on the property of the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, had closed due to new fire hazard code. This was an amazing property at the top overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

This lodge happened on Monday evenings, a perfect day off to participate in the Native American Indian ceremony of purification, the first stage of the Red Road experience, of which I did once or twice a month for a couple years. It was great to see them, but I was surprised as to why they were there, aside from them potentially being invited guests of the bride and groom. They were licensed to officiate the wedding and perform the marriage ceremonies. Who would’ve thought? I had no idea they did this on the side. All the sudden I felt like I was back with my tribe. If the bride and groom hired them, they must be doing sweats too. A comfort came over me and I was set for the night.

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Guests poured in by shuttle drops, so my activity making drinks and serving wine and beer was occurring in rushes and waves. It was warm, so I knew what was going to happen, a quenching of the thirst for an hour until everyone was present, and then the announcement of the ceremony about to begin, which took place down at the end of a forty-yard narrow, overgrown path that opened up to a flat lawn space for seating, where the vows are exchanged beneath a fallen oak tree arch entwined with grapevines, a very cool setting to be one with nature.

Wolf and Lisa even performed the pipe ceremony in the middle of the service. The bowl is made of a red stone called pipestone, and the stem is made of wood. The bowl, the female part, from mother earth, receives the stem, the male part. With this unity, it becomes very strong medicine. Lisa begins the pipe-loading song, and the pipe is loaded with red willow bark and prayers. The prayers are said to the seven directions; East, South, West, North, Below, Within and Above. If the bride and groom wish to smoke from the pipe, they take one puff without drawing the smoke into the lungs, then they gently blow out so the smoke sends the prayers to the wind and the spirits, and that completes the connection, as the prayers are spoken by Wolf.

The ceremony lasts about 30-40 minutes. I took a breather to regroup my bar needs and stock up to start fresh again for the reception. I have glassware for the adults and plastic cups for the kids. I serve everyone. I dig making Shirley Temples for the kids just so I can see the look in their eyes. It’s a treat for them. They love being able to belly up to the bar at an outdoor event like a grownup. Once they realize that I’m basically a kid at heart too, then they relax their initial apprehension when ordering sodas and juices. I’ll even make them special no-alcohol concoctions if I have the right stuff of selection to play with. The adults have cocktails, the kids have mocktails. I aim to please!

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As the ceremony ends, the waiters are ready with their trays of appetizers to pass as the guests walk back up to the main area. And here I go again, getting busy with some serious cocktailing, slowly hit by everyone this time. It’s always a challenge to go in and out of high gear for hours. But I’m used to it after thousands of events to keep the energy rolling at the bar, the fun spot to hang out, with my position being the first direct and reoccurring contact point with the people. I have to be on my best, cheerful behavior at all times.

The DJ starts the musical engine for everyone to catch a groove of enjoyment, while Wolf and Lisa make it up to the bar for a spirited libation after a glass of water or lemonade at the spigot jar self-serve station. It was nice to see them in a different setting where they weren’t conducting the lodge gatherings or anything, where they had a seat at a table like every other guest. And for them to see me do what I do was probably a bit strange for them as well, in and out of each other’s elements. But hey, after a couple drinks, who cares?

It turned out to be a beautiful evening once the sun set over the highest peak in the distance, and the lights turning into a night party, with the blessing of a mild, cool breeze crossing bodies in silent relief. Dinner was served at its scheduled timing following the post-ceremony reception of about ninety minutes. The DJ took over as Emcee during the last half of dining for the usual activity of giving the microphone over to the parents of the bride and groom, and eventually anyone else in the crowd of family and friends who wanted to say a few words to the new couple.

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Meanwhile, I’m hanging out behind the bar trying to stay busy and occupied with whatever, though I sometimes will take a bottle of red and white with me and go around to the tables, mostly at Pierre’s request, even though there are bottles already on the table, it just feels nice to go out and mingle a stretch, and then disappear, like I’ve never been gone! My work is my favorite energy mode to be in, which is probably why I still like to do the job to this day. Making drinks for people and talking with them is fun, no stress. You learn to take it all in stride.

Following some after-dinner relaxation with walking around, the guests are ready to party, and the DJ kicks up the dance floor with some great music from the 60’s to 90’s mainly, very fitting for the crowd, and myself. I’m busy again with more drinks, but a steadier pace this time with no hurry of thirst.

There’s a point in any private gig that I do where dinner is served, like this wedding for example, where at the beginning I’m buried during the initial bar set-up and then the reception hits the bar heavy right after the ceremony, which is why I’m usually the first floor staffer to arrive and many times even the last one to leave at night. So there’s a middle period during guest/table sit-down where the bar gets a short respite and slides into a cruise control when it picks back up.

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This is when the floor waiters and food really gets rolling into their high-volume phase with its three courses and sometimes more, depending on if it’s plated or buffet style. This lull was welcomed not only to catch up behind the bar, but to have a chance to chat with Wolf and Lisa when they walk up for another drink. At other venues where the grounds of the event are more spread out, I may have to switch from a bar in one area to a bar in another area, which means I have to uproot all my bar gear and schlep it over with me and lay it all out again. That’s a drag!

This venue location is truly beautiful, but it’s a bit trying and stressing on the mind and body in the summer heat. All goes well with another event pulled off with excellent execution. It’s funny, all the events and parties I do basically being a touring bartender all over L.A., into the thousands now, and with the bar being the number one spot that guests love to frequent and hang out at through the night, which by the way includes a lot of communication gig after gig, but when it comes to my own life, I don’t even know how to go out anymore and hang on that side of the bar as a guest or customer. It’s just a weird “fish out of water” feeling for me. It’s hard to have much interest or care about going out or to a bar when I already spend so much time behind them.

I break down the bar here on the hill, gather my gear once again, get my paperwork for the next gig from the caterer and take the last shuttle down. It is quiet when I arrive, and silent when I leave. All these moments in time just passing by and passing through . . . the lives of others.

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“The Sicilian Connection” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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In 1995, I was called and asked by Tony, one of the Bellissimo brothers, to come and work his bar at the Café Bellissimo in Thousand Oaks, off of Moorpark Road and the 101 freeway. It was a great building and property along with the interior, and with its volume potential, I couldn’t say no.

However, it did require me to drive 15 miles to work as opposed to just walking to work at the original Café B on Ventura Boulevard near my home in Woodland Hills, between Shoup and Fallbrook Avenues, where I started with the family. I’ve only been in three situational proximities of walking or riding my bike to work in 30 years, and when you live in L.A., not having to drive everywhere is a sweet thing, and not easy to give up.

But my truck was young then, and with the opportunity to make more money as both bartender and bar manager, it had to be a yes. It also had easy parking in back which is something I always pay attention to, not like Hollywood where it costs you and then you still worry and pray it doesn’t get broken into after hours when you get out after 3:00 am. I have a phobia about that because my truck has been vandalized five times, but has never been stolen. I prefer to keep it that way.

Of course, this meant having to go back to doing inventory and ordering of all the bar product, like I had done at other gigs in the past where I handled both roles, and once again created my own inventory sheets and system to make it as easy and quick as possible. But I also wanted to help Tony out with putting it all together, from the bar end.

We took over a pre-existing restaurant establishment, so the bar was already in place, it just had to be cleaned thoroughly in and out along with re-arranged placement of certain things; bottles, glassware and all cooler stock with more efficiency of expected usage, especially with an occupancy rate of close to 200, plus eight seats at the bar, serving food along with drink as well. Luckily, the kitchen and bar were only separated by a wall, making it close to get to, drop off an order, and get back into rhythm.

We even had a wine cuvee to make by the glass easier/quicker to pour with less moves involved. It was a 4+2 model, chilled for white wine and room temp for red wine. It was mainly designed for 750ml bottles, but I was able to find a way to extend the tube-in-bottle by fitting a certain inch-length of clear plastic tubing on the end of the cuvee’s main tube for 1.5 Liter bottles, as it would make it all the way down to the inside bottom of the bottle, making each bottle last twice as long before it had to be changed.

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One of the top focuses for Tony was to assemble the waiter talent. After all, this was a singing-server restaurant, just like the original one I started at in Woodland Hills the year before, 1994. So the job description was of dual task, yet of equal importance. With many auditions, things started taking shape. I on the other hand, was not required to hit the stage. It was more of an option.

And we had a centered stage in the main room. It wasn’t off in some corner of the floor plan. As part of the audio for the sound system, Tony acquired this special rack CD component with many features, including one that would remove the lead vocal track on any music CD you put into it. This made it so the waiters/singing servers didn’t have to rely on or be limited to the use of cassette tapes from those mini-mall karaoke stores. You don’t want talent hindered by a watered-down musical cheese version of a song when you could have the real deal sound production instead. Tony paid his ASCAP entertainment fees, so why not!

We don’t know where he got the machine, but it was a brilliant move and allowed for the ultimate in flexibility with unlimited musical choice and range. My guess is it had to have been a high-end special order from out of the country, that no one knew he had, as there was no way to tell just by looking at it. You had to actually utilize the component’s functions by finger to know, of which we did.

Along with all of this, we had a variety of musician accompaniment almost every night of the week. I remember Alan who used to be the touring guitarist with Johnny Rivers. The retired fireman and his band. The major touring band side player we had, Johnny our Harley-riding acoustic singer. And the regular musician that was at Café B in Woodland Hills, who pulled double-duty at our place initially to start things off when we opened. These were guys who could play and sing a wide swath of music real well.

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Tony was our leader and became one of the showmen too. This period of time was back when (okay brace yourself as this might hurt a little bit) the “Macarena” was hugely popular. So along with singing “That’s Amore” and other good guy favorites like “New York, New York”, Tony also took the reign almost every night and nailed the “Macarena” to the wall. Every once in a while early on in the song’s worldwide rise to fame we’d all catch one another clapping and singing to the song, then the waiters and I would go into a temporary hiding in back for a minute until the tune was almost over, realizing what we had done. Just kidding!

If you hear a song like this too many times, of which by the way followed the heels of the whole country line-dancing craze that I had just left with Denim & Diamonds in Santa Monica, hundreds over the course of a year, it’s very possible one may have to enter a mental institution for an undetermined length of time for what could only be termed as an audio exorcism. Even today, if by sheer strange occurrence I hear it blasting out of some distant loudspeaker or broken boombox, I find myself saying “No, no, please, please don’t, I can’t listen to this, no really, I’m serious”, all the while forming a crucifix with my fingers and pulling my beanie down over my ears like a dog hearing an endless siren or some high-pitch freak out. Bringing up that memory from the archive feels like it will never go away. Yes, the “Macarena” burnout was that bad!

The place got cleaned up inside and out, the kitchen crew were put into motion and trained on the menu, and everything seemed to be in place. The wine selection was finalized for both glass and bottle, along with popular domestic micro-brews of the time, and the basic spirits that fit the bill, nothing fancy, product that moved, not sitting around gathering dust on an upper shelf for six years. And this was Italian/Sicilian food, so the wines didn’t have to be super high-end to be good and acceptable, like one might expect in a fine-dining establishment. They’re not as snobby as the French! Café B had an old-world style and charm to it that only the original owners, Tony and Emilio, could duplicate. It was family oriented, therefore avoiding stuffiness in trade for all to have a good time.

There was even an older couple who worked at both Café B’s, where the husband created balloon animals for the kids, while the wife was a palm reader who had a table just inside the front entrance of the restaurant, for customers who were waiting for a table to open. So with this Carnie meets the Supernatural within the walls topped with live entertainment, a magical suspension of belief had been created, like a stationary traveling circus without a tent that never left. Intoxicating and addictive. For several hours we would take the mind away from all life’s troubles, like walking into an improv movie musical that lasted for a night moon, and having dinner in the middle of it while it was being shot.

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At its busiest period, it was crazy and chaotic, a runaway train where everyone got caught up in the emotions of the good and bad of what happens on any given shift, even some of the customers. About a year after we had opened, Tony had got underway with a major wraparound outdoor patio construction that turned out gorgeous when it was completed, and added even more seating and volume to the business. It was a lot to handle for me as one bartender when it was packed, like a heated race to get to the finish line. The rotation of glassware, ice fills, all the drinks from over the bar and all of the waiters, product preps, fruit stock, food orders, it was nuts. Sangria preparation also came in later on with Tony’s nephew, Luigi, who put a large batch concoction together, that was very tasty. I still use that recipe today whenever I have a need.

The waiters – Jerry, Michelle, Camille, Zamora, Christine, Matt, Amy, Daniel, Stephanie, Georgina – were a great collection of singing interests with some incredible voices. There were others during that whole stretch of business, but one can only remember so many names. Jerry was the Neil Diamond king, Michelle sang sweet songs and movie themes, Camille was already an impersonator doing Cher, Carmen Miranda, Liza Minnelli, Ethel Merman, and Marilyn Monroe for birthdays. Amy was a young, great blues singer, Stephanie was a musical theater major, Daniel sang in a variety of genres, Christine and Zamora sang classic rock and pop tunes, Georgina was pop and Broadway, and Matt was a legitimate operatic tenor who wowed everybody. Matt and Stephanie did “The Phantom of the Opera” to some amazing applause.

After it bleeding on me enough, I finally started to get into it as well. I knew I had a good shower voice, but never pursued it before. This was the perfect avenue to enter and sweat it out till I got it right. It took a while to lose most of the shakes, but then I gained more confidence, which then helped my voice relax into the microphone’s amplification. I just had to stay with it, but I had the best support and instruction around me so, it was the best of both worlds, singing on the job!

Eventually, after doing many songs solo with just a guitar or piano to accompany me or the use of my own music CD’s, I was asked to perform duos and songs with multiple harmonies, which I found was very natural for me. With Christine, I did “Leather and Lace”, with Matt and Alan we did a three-part harmony to “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, A bunch of us guys got up and shared verses and harmony to Don McLean’s “American Pie”, and I ended up singing lead in a five-part harmony to the Eagles “Best of My Love”. Zamora and I perfomed “More Than Words” by Extreme, Alan and I performed an acoustic version of the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” with him on guitar and me on vocals, and I sang Poco’s “Crazy Love” with the fireman’s four-piece band. On my own, I went in a jazz direction with Michael Franks and Charlie Watts Quintet, the British pop/rock of Paul Weller, as well as Journey, Kansas, Boz Scaggs, Lyle Lovett, Stone Temple Pilots, Dan Fogelberg, and the Doobie Brothers. My musical choices were all over the place. I was good with variety. It was great fun. But memorizing lyrics was a bitch, some easier than others. It would usually take me a half-dozen times singing the song before I got it down,. Yet if you don’t sing a certain tune for awhile, one could slip and forget a line. I sing here and there today with a lot of new songs that I jam on that weren’t out twenty-plus years ago, and I’m still with good voice in the shower, where steam on the throat and vocal chords is the best medicine.

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Tammy and Travis were our young seating hosts, and they both got up to sing at some point too. Travis was hilarious and a really smart kid. Him and I would play lounge lizards behind the counter when nobody was looking, putting our own lyrics into songs. He also had this short dancing jig that he would do once in a while that was off the wall, yielding gut-wrenching laughs from all of us watching. I wanted him to do it on the stage to a banjo song from the soundtrack of the movie Deliverance, but the moment was never found. We had our jobs to do. It was crazy!

There were a couple stretches of time during those four years I was there where I was gone for a few weeks at a time. One was for three weeks when I took a temporary acting and touring gig as the set-up man and referee in a Foxy Boxing and Oil Wrestling show with a friend of mine, Dave Robinson, who was both the Emcee and tour lead for a company out of L.A., where he would do this a few times a year for awhile. We basically had 15 shows in 18 days that started in Wyoming and ended up in Pennsylvania before we headed home. It was interesting doing these shows in states like Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Indiana. I was also the night driver. We were in a big, long van with him and I and the four gorgeous girls towing a U-Haul filled with equipment. One of them was supposedly an ex-wife of original member and guitarist of the band Heart, Howard Leese. I never really investigated as to its truth, but she was a very beautiful woman.

Most of the places we were booked in were not fabulous. They were bars and clubs, some seedy, some not so, but they all felt like strange environments when you’re there for a one-off show and then you’re gone to the next. In the ring, I would referee the girls boxing in sexy outfits they would wear, and even less so with the oil wrestling. I remember being clocked in the face a couple times with the girl’s misguided punches. Though the gloves were soft, it didn’t necessarily feel that way when it clobbered your jaw. Guys would pay to get in and wrestle with them, and they had a bidding contest, it was nice entertainment and borderline sleazy as you would expect.

The ex-wife and I chatted on the tour and I remember her and I going to have breakfast one time at a restaurant nearby after we arrived in the early morning snow of Colorado to do the first of three shows in two different towns. One night during a show, I was on the outside of the wrestling ring leaning down and sort of officiating but staying out of the way. She sneaked over to the corner on her knees when I wasn’t looking. I turned around and she plopped a big, juicy kiss right on my lips. That’s what I get for not paying attention. I should be aloof more often! It probably wasn’t the best thing for her to do in front of an audience, and it didn’t continue on.

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But it was all in fun, it was a good show, and we all made good money, had hotel rooms and food so, I just said what the fuck and went for it, got paid to see some of the country, and was exhausted when I got back. The road home back across the country was a long one. I didn’t mess around with the girls, as much as the appetite may have been there. Opportunities presented themselves on a few occasions, but it was best to keep it clean, in case I wanted to go on another tour in the near future. I didn’t want the word to get out to the wrong person and get nixed from any consideration down the road, possibly without me even knowing.

The other time I was gone from Café B was that of an emergency. I was getting ready to go to work at the restaurant, it was a Friday in July, and a few minutes before I was going to leave the house, I got this collapsing pain in my side that wouldn’t go away. I was in great shape and had no idea what was going on. I called work and rushed to the emergency room with the aid of a friend. It was impossible for me to drive. They sedated my pain and started doing tests, finding out far after that it wasn’t my appendix, but a couple polyps had perforated in my colon. They were leaking out. I had Diverticulitis, which is an acute case of Diverticulosis. But they didn’t know or diagnose that at first. It just came on.

Early the next day I was on the operating table for what I thought at the time was going to be short repair and a couple days in the outpatient. I woke up from what ended up being a 6-hour surgery to find out that they had to do an exploratory on me. Luckily it was in the ascending section that they could sew up and put me back together without leaving any skin and tube holes open. I was in for seven days with no food, no drink, and no sleep due to that nasty NG tube being so incredibly uncomfortable through the nose and down my throat. I had tubes and vein lines everywhere, even in a place I would have never guessed as necessary. And that was all too creepy getting pulled out!

I had lost 20 pounds of weight that I couldn’t afford to have removed from my body, when I barely had any fat percentage to begin with. It was brutal and exhausting, not to mention the morphine giving me hallucinations in the middle of the night from no silence and peace in the rooms with the nurses and intercom system calling doctors through the ceiling speakers in the hallways. All I wanted was “shut the door and turn off the lights”. The first couple days after surgery the morphine drip made me feel “More Fine”, but during day three I had to cut it loose and get off it. It was getting me too numb and a bit dreary, too far in the fog. After all, it was morphine for pain, not pleasure.

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When I got home, I had to eat very easy foods to digest, though I was hungry as a horse. I had to really teach myself again. Now I have a nice big zipper in the middle of my stomach, along with the one they cut for the appendix. I got the 2 for 1 special! All is good though, with my internal engine running even better than before. That’s what happens when you get cleaned out and overhauled at the same time as the cut, remove and sew, or as the doctors called it, a dissection. It was three weeks before I got back to work, nice to return and resume the normal activities in my life again. But I had to go slow until I built up the stamina again. Everybody was wondering what the fuck happened to me. It was too debilitating of a situation in the hospital bed to have visitors other than my mother. So I filled them all in on the medical details and drama with the doctors mandatory “Filet of Kyle” final report in short form and got it over with.

For the next couple years the restaurant stayed nice and busy, packed on the weekends, and our first couple New Years Eves were sold out, as well as other holidays. We developed a lot of regulars that loved coming in just for drinks and appetizers and to see the musical entertainment, as every night it was a little different with something new. And no cover charge at the door.

One of the regulars was this older guy who came in early after we opened and sat at the bar. We got to know each other over a period of time, and he eventually let me know that he was a retired CIA agent, spending half of his career time in and out of South America. I didn’t make it a point to inquire too deeply, but did make him aware that I was intrigued and was hoping to hear more. He mentioned a couple assignments he had in the past and went into a little detail. He noticed my keen observation skills as a natural, and mentioned that if I was ever interested in becoming an agent, I would have to learn three specific other languages – Russian, Gaelic, and one other that still eludes my memory today, but it very well could be Spanish. One other strange piece of Intel he told me was that in the Thousand Oaks and surrounding area, where the restaurant is located, had the most densely populated group of retired CIA agents and retired MOB bosses than anywhere else in the country. It’s hard to ever find out if that’s a true fact, but given the mostly beautiful weather year-round, I wouldn’t be surprised. I guess they still keep an eye on each other. And there I was, working in a Sicilian restaurant!

Dr. Laura Schlesinger was a regular at the Café B in Woodland Hills, and when Tony opened up ours in Thousand Oaks, her and her husband came out to dine there too on occasion. And the parents of Ron Goldman (O.J. Simpson murder case) came in once in a while after that whole legal debacle and the terrible loss of their son. That crime happened in 1994, just a year before the Thousand Oaks Café B got going. So hard to believe it’s been almost 25 years already since that horrific tragedy.

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All in all, we had a lot of fun during the time of the restaurant’s existence. But by 1998, business volume started to tail off at a concerned degree. The prices got hiked with some of the dinners on the menu a couple times in that last year, and I started to see the writing on the wall that maybe it was time to move on. Tony’s girlfriend, who would sometimes sit at the bar and have a glass of wine, mentioned to me that she heard that the nightclub Provence, on the property of the Westlake Inn up the street in Westlake Village was looking for a bar/nightclub manager. So I went over there to Human Resources and put a resume in. I was called in for an interview within the following few days, got the job, and gave my two-week notice to Café B. The plus is that it was five miles closer to home. The minus is that I had to get used to putting in 50-hour work weeks, on an acceptable salary. Initially, I was just happy to make a smooth, quick transition from one job to the next, and thankful to the boss’ girlfriend for the tip and hookup.

I worked with the Café B family for close to five years in total, along with picking up other bar work whenever Tom needed me at The Gardenia on nights I had off. But this is how it goes in the business. Establishments rise and fall. So I always have to keep an eye and ear open for when it’s time to make that shift whenever it comes around and shows itself as a necessary next move. There are some places of work where you really don’t want to leave, but you also need to avoid getting caught under the bridge.

It was a good run . . .

“Chelsea Behaving Badly” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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Punk’d is the only word I can come up with what happened, or at least what it ended up to be after the smoke cleared.

Back in 2004 I was working all over at the time, a couple years after I left Lakeside, including gigs at the Palladium. One of the bartenders I worked with often there was Marie, who was a regular combination of angel and devil. So each time behind the bar with her could either be fun or a scene of sensitive communication during the shift. My goal – keep her in a good mood and enjoy her great breasts whenever she brushed them by my left upper arm back and forth while getting draft beers from the tap, which was usually on my side, strategically positioned!

The easier I made if for her, the better. She was like a tough, sexy street girl with some incarnation of bad ass, combined with a bit too much pull towards religion and politics going on in her head, all the while being another struggling actor in Hollywood. Let’s just say that with questions of attitude, getting along has a lot to do with making it in Tinseltown. And still being a rebellion in your late 40’s doesn’t quite cut it for the temperance that needs to be practiced to have success in the big picture, and a shit load of quality connections built up over years.

Some people are more comfortable remaining stubborn instead of embracing change, as though they have something in a dark past to uphold and drag around like a ball and chain, of which most of us have at some point or another in our lives until we just say “Fuck it, I’m Me”. But this surrendering of “I can’t carry it anymore” is exactly what’s needed to slowly ease the hold and let things go. To forgive, to apologize, and say goodbye to weighty, negative things of all kinds so they fall away to the past, where they belong, in an archive deep in the mind’s library. Forward out of the cave is forward, and that direction is one-way.

I remember for some time trying to help her with what she even admits and acknowledges about herself, of which I admired and respected about her, as we had fun together too, Marie had a nice side as well, it was just the stern edge of an undercurrent that needed to disappear. But it could sustain brutal outcomes at times when it wasn’t necessarily called for.

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I get a call from her one day in the middle of the week, asking me if I want to tend bar with her at a gallery showing in the Artist’s District of Santa Monica. It was just for a few 3-4 short hours. My minimum is usually 5 hours. I had to think about it for a minute, because if another gig came up for the same date where I’d make more money, then I’d be stuck. Luckily it was on a Thursday evening, lessening the chance of a double-booking, so I went ahead and confirmed to do it with her. The money was okay enough to make the trek over the hill from the valley, taking Topanga Canyon through to Pacific Coast Highway, then PCH to Santa Monica, avoiding the 405 freeway altogether.

Our friendship/relationship was that of a title from the Led Zeppelin song “Good Times, Bad Times”. The day of the event she calls to let me know that something came up on her end and she wasn’t going to be able to do the event with me. She mentioned there was a replacement for her, so I would be walking into another mystery gig hoping all would go well, with or without her there.

I arrive in the parking lot early, so I hung out listening to Tom Leykus on the radio while taking a couple drags of a cig and got my bar kit ready to schlep over my shoulder, yet once again. Walking into the building with first eyes on where the bar was set-up, I introduced myself to someone that looked like they might know what was going on. The lady, named Chelsea, than introduced me to the other bartender, Melissa. She was a nice, young cute girl with I’m guessing some Filipino in her. I get there to find out the bar was limited to select wines and micro brews and just a few choice spirits, sodas and juices, making it easier and quicker to throw together in ready mode.

Soon I found myself standing around for a while before guest arrivals of the artsy type, kind of up my alley actually, except for the potential snob factor. Then all the sudden I began over-hearing a distant but audible freak out session happening in the back room. Chelsea in charge came out and was heading directly towards me. Where’s my disappearance switch when I needed it?

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Face-to-face, she told me an artist was not going to make it in with a final painting to fill a big, open naked spot on the wall that I could see from the bar clear as day. The question followed:

Chelsea:   Kyle, I have a big favor to ask of you, have you ever painted before ?

Me:   No, not really, but I have an artistic background with other things I’ve done.

Chelsea:   Well, I have a 24×36 canvas in the backroom with someone’s color palate of paint and a couple brushes. Can you fill it up with something/anything will do, just so I can hang a piece in that spot for now until the showing is over. We only have about 20 minutes. Can you please, please do this for me?

Me:   Ahh, ugh, yeah, umm, I’ll do what I can for you. Bring out the stuff so I can see what I have to work with.

Chelsea:   Oh, thank you, thank you so much, you’re a lifesaver.

Touching my shoulder, she walked away to the back room to gather what was needed. I went to work, quietly, but ever curiously. Intuition works best in those with free, silent minds, and something was knocking that door, a signal trying to come in, while I was occupied with the acceptance of this impromptu task at hand. Whenever I commit to doing something, I prefer to get to the finish line if I’m going to put the time in at all. This painting was no different. It was a bang-it-out job, that’s all, a piece in an overall wall puzzle to fill a void. But still, I tried to do something special with it, given what I’m given to work with – life’s designed limitations !

I mean, how much heart could one put into the art with less than a half hour to work with. It’s not like I was commissioned or anything. But effort is effort, however racing the pace was. With the colors I had to work with, the end result was like a sky blue inner-outer background with white clouds peeking through, centered more or less with yellows, greens and reds, orange and browns, like tulips in a spring wind or a chili pepper soiree. I wasn’t going for that or anything in particular, just following where it was taking me. It’s interesting to paint with nothing in mind, little care, not much concern, but you don’t want to produce total shit either. I was just hoping for a passable piece that I wouldn’t turn away looking at it myself, once it was mounted next to the real works of art.

So I thought . . .

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Chelsea came out of the back room as I was finishing up, though with a painting, it never really feels done. It can be endlessly tinkered with until you run the possibility of screwing it up altogether, where you scrap it and start all over. But I didn’t have that luxury. There is a point moment when you have to drop the brush and let it dry, surrendering to whatever is.

The Artist’s Life Nightmare – The suffering for perfection while attempting to settle for excellence. Most people would love this life . . . but as a leisure hobby . . . not to survive off of it. I clean my hands and get back to the bar. Chelsea takes the easel and materials in back and has the painting hung on the wall just in time for the doors.

Melissa arrived back behind the bar that I really preferred to work alone since Marie made a clean exit elsewhere, so we engaged in some mild conversation sharing the same space, but you can’t create your own individual vibe of presence as much when working alongside another, especially a rookie stranger from another generation. This always leads to several “get me out of here” moments, but I do my best to maintain a sense of professionalism that others around can be oblivious to position or concern. It made me curious of her in the form of further investigative observance while I was there on location.

Guests arrive like a slow, staggered platoon getting dropped off by a bus. A line had gathered outside unnoticeable from the inside with the glass of the door’s tinted. Greeting and drinking took its first turn around, and after the initial rush to the hosted spirits, you then become the casual observer of event activity, like the suited bald guys in Fringe. With the guest count of this event, I could have worked the bar solo, but since there were two of us, it made it easier. Too easy! Melissa was cool, but I was also happy when she would leave the bar for short periods. Otherwise, the time would go by slower.

The discipline of an enlightened master lacking need or initiated interest to speak at all – internal peace in the middle of chaos, serving with the kind silence of responding gestures instead of words.

The walls get busy with eyes gazing at the works from the various new contemporaries. The petite femme fatale hip-hugging me, nudges and points with surprise as a few gallery goers hover and chat with Chelsea around and underneath my freshly-fucked painting. She is there to sell and make a commission. Her motivation was strong. Though a humorous grin peeked at the possibility, I didn’t take it seriously at all. And then it all changed into the high drama nightmare.

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A couple minutes go by after some happy commotion at a distance, and Melissa decides to walk over and catch Chelsea as she was walking to the back. She comes back to me with the news. Out of all the art work, Chelsea sold my painting first, for $10,000. Hard bargain to swallow, much less believe. I stood and watched it play out but was too far away to hear specific words. I asked myself “Had it even fully dried yet?” My bar girl was looking on my stoic stance, and then says to me “You know, she plans on keeping it all for herself, including your commission, and giving you nothing”. “Really” I said “I didn’t know I was supposed to get something . . . though I wouldn’t say no to receiving”.  But all the evidence wasn’t in yet.

When Chelsea came to the bar with a frontal assault of the sale, that’s when my passive shifted to aggressive. When something is put in your face like that, you may as well bark and defend, hell, it’s almost being requested of me. Delivering with no armor, I engaged in a verbal joust with Chelsea that started with medium body, all the while Melissa was standing there offering encouragement for what she thought was rightfully mine, a cut fair and square. Chelsea played it off like a shark clamping to the money bone, happy with her expanded chunk, sufficient with her reasoning, than slowly walked away with the guilty smile of a bitch in high gear.

With the entire crowd of invitees hanging out and talking amongst themselves over art, drinking and eyeing plates of finger food not in arms reach, I walked out from behind the bar and went to the center of the main floor in the open room, and proceeded with getting everyone’s attention for a minute.

Watching Chelsea’s jaw drop from the corner of my eye was sweet to behold, at the same time I sent Melissa into OMG! Status as she stood behind the bar alone. Out loud it poured from me.

“Can I get everyone’s attention for a minute, please . . . thank you . . . Hello, my name is Kyle, I’ve been your bartender for this evening. I wanted to let you all know what just happened here. Before you arrived, I helped the host of this gallery showing . . . I’m sure you all know her, she’s right there. She was in a jam with an artist not showing up with a painting to fill a space on the wall. I painted a canvas on-the-fly for her. Well, that painting sold just a few minutes ago for $10,000. That’s not the problem, though. The issue is to let you know that she plans on keeping all the money, instead of just her commission, so as the artist, I get nothing for helping her out in a pinch. I don’t know how you feel about that, but I thought it only fair to let you know. I’ll leave it up to you to decide . . . but I feel I should get something. Thanks”

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I walk back to the bar and stand next to Melissa. A couple minutes later, a slew of once invisible crew walk over to the bar, including Chelsea, to let me know in no silent treatment “Kyle, you’ve just been pranked on Girls Behaving Badly!” That’s when I just put my arms in the air, walked out from the bar and surrendered with relief and laughter.

Getting punk’d didn’t bother me nearly as much as knowing that Marie made money off of it, while she was gone as a participant from a distance. She got a good laugh at my expense. But over the years, I took that money and more back out of her pocket in ways she doesn’t even know about to this day. She’s one of those individuals that can dish it, but can’t take it. There are some times where an eye-for-an-eye is fitting punishment as return volley. Knowing Marie and her capability for vengeance, if I would have done such a thing to her, she would have exploded in anger like a scene from Scanners.

The whole time, I was on the fence with taking all this as being real and true, than knowing at a certain stage of the evening that it couldn’t have been, which is why I made my final curtain call at the end in an attempt to even the score, just in case. I had nothing to lose at that point.

Months later, I was contacting them to get a VHS copy of the segment or episode for myself, but I can only pull teeth for so long. Eventually, it showed up in the mail. I shoved it into the player just to find out that whoever the editor was cut out the good stuff and made me look like an ass instead. I never watched their program, so maybe that was simply par for what they do. It could have been, in my opinion, so much better entertainment, but they weren’t about to air my grandstanding of turning the table and calling Chelsea out.

Oh, by the way, the then Chelsea I’m speaking of . . . is the now famous Chelsea Handler.

One final note. I did end up getting the painting as a parting gift. I have it in the garage at home.

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