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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .