Ice Cube Confidential – Why the Science of Clean, Clear Ice matters to Beverages and your Health

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Consider buying fresh bags of clear, clean ice cubes at the store from now on in place of using the freezer cubes from your refrigerator. Here’s why.

For those who use the ice cubes from the refrigerator freezer that happen to be cloudy white and not clear, don’t forget to change your water filter every six months or sooner, depending on frequency of usage. Many factors are involved with keeping the water clean from rust, sediment, bad odors and other impurities such as sodium (salty cubes) that after melting/diluting in your drinks and killing carbonation, can cause health issues like weight gain, high blood pressure or hypertension, water retention and heart strain over time, all from not making ourselves more aware of these little, yet important parts that end up in our diet. Easy to overlook.

Cloudy ice cubes also melt up to 5x faster than clear ice cubes because the pure ice cube is harder frozen. Also, quick-rinse your ice cubes so you don’t have any freezer frost in your drink. It’s also the water you drink from the refrigerator tap as well. Same thing, just liquid not frozen. Dissolved air and dissolved minerals cause the white cube as it freezes from the outside-in, concentrating to the center. Clear ice cubes are from special ice machines that freeze the ice in layers from the inside-out. There are also the differences between filtered water > distilled water > and boiled water = more clear, clean and pure ice cubes.

If you have a frig with a single evaporator, that means air moves between the fresh food and freezer compartments, and carries odors with it that gets in the ice cubes if not cleaned and kept up with baking soda boxes in both areas. A dual-evaporator refrigerator are compartment-dedicated so no air passes between the two spaces.

Cubes not forming the way they normally should? The water line may be slowly getting clogged without the normal run of water making it into the cube trays.. Dissolved gases, mainly nitrogen and oxygen, can get trapped and forced into micro-bubbles during the freezing process. Dissolved minerals, generally calcium and magnesium, can be present in the form of bicarbonates and/or sulfate.

Contaminates. A high level of TDS – Total Dissolved Solids –  can cause misshapen ice, resulting in a freeze up of the machine. Water high in dissolved sodium can taint your beverages. A high concentration of iron in the water can cause slime and bacteria that also gets on the ice. If there is chlorine in your city’s water system, the ice can give off a swimming pool taste and odor, and as it melts in the drink, the chlorine is released, therefore ingested during the consuming of a beverage.

Hard water states like Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Texas and Colorado end up using treatment systems in their homes, such as sodium chloride (salt) water softeners, potassium chloride salt-free systems, or filtration systems that remove the chlorides from softened water.

But this water is throughout the house – you drink it, you cube it, you water your plants and garden vegetables with it, you cook with it, you coffee and tea with it, glassware out of the dishwasher is spotty and filmy, you wash your hands and shower with it where you end up having a slimy feeling on your skin, the water comes out of the faucet or shower head too bubbly, as though in a carbonated state to save water, regardless of the temperature.

And then turn around and wash clothes with it, where after a stint in the dryer, they don’t feel soft. It’s all tainted with salt of the soft-water system. There may be no way to get around it in these states mentioned, unless of course you have the money to install a complete clean, clear fresh water system throughout the entire house.

I’ve worked parties in a few private homes here in Los Angeles that have such a system in place, where the shower water is just as identically clean and pure as the drinking water out of the faucet. It’s costly in one direction, but saves on your plumbing and house water fixtures in another, not to mention your health.

Until then, maybe that filter-less shower water is part causation for your hair-thinning and graying over years of the same usage. Dry or irritated skin maybe? Thoughts to consider.

This is not all there is to learn about the science of ice, more importantly, clean water for clear cubes, and general usage of water throughout the house. If interested, go online for further information to read up on in whatever specific areas you’re concerned with.

And by the way, there are plenty of How-To make clear ice cube videos on YouTube. I only put a couple of them here in this post as quick examples, but I would seriously suggest checking a variety of them out to choose the favorites that help you the most. Some are 5 minutes in length, some are 15 minutes.

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Interview – with Mario Castillo, Research Scientist of Token Bitters – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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Flavors Produced to Date

Strathcona Orange ~ Ritchie Cherry ~ Calder Chai ~ Whyte Lavender ~ Garneau Grapefruit ~ Meadowlark Mocha ~ Montreal Maple ~ Saskatoon’s Berry ~ Cloverdale Cedar ~ Stampede Caesar ~ Hawk’s Ridge Hops & Hemp ~ Muskoka Smoke

They also have an original sampler set of 4, a new flavours of Canada sampler set of 4, and an Orange, Spice & Everything Nice set

Founded – 2016

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Bitters Hub – What was it that motivated you, along with Cam, Keenan and Jamie to get started in the world of bitters production?

Mario Castillo – I’ve always been fascinated by the different flavours, textures, and colours in foods and drinks that detonate a series of sensations in your body. And bitters aren’t an exception! Bitters bring food and drinks to a whole new level. Average consumers and bartenders at home don’t get that full experience by mixing rum and coke, and that’s a shame because with a few drops of Ritchie Cherry bitters you can get pretty close to a drink made at a high-end cocktail bar.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field of study, that gave inspiration to delve into the now-popular craft of bitters products?

MC – I’ve been cooking at home since I was a child -and by cooking I mean experimenting in a playful way- so being in the kitchen has been my favorite hobby from childhood. It’s not surprising that I ended up studying 2 additional years of a 4-year bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science in University. I was done with my program but I felt the need to learn more about food engineering, sensory science, consumer science, functional foods and nutraceuticals, and making bitters requires me to utilize the knowledge and skills I obtained in school.

BH – Are you originally from the Edmonton, Alberta area?

MC – I’m originally from Mexico City actually. I was born and raised there and I moved to Edmonton 11 years ago to get married, to have a family, and to study -in that particular order haha- but that’s a whole other story!

BH – Can you tell us a little about your process of maceration?

MC – The maceration process is very straight forward. I steep the desired biomass in high proof ethanol at different temperatures, some of our recipes have a maceration process in cold (between 32-50°F) and others at room temp ( 68-77°F). Temperature plays an important role in our process because it has a significant impact in colour and taste of our bitters as it aids with the selective extraction of tannins, anthocyanins, polyphenols, and terpenes, naturally present in the biomass.

BH – I love how you’ve named all of your bitters flavours after Edmonton neighborhoods and streets as a nod to your great city. Are all of you guy’s idea masters as a collective and who came up with that one?

MC – That was a brilliant idea that Jamie had. We collectively matched the flavour profiles with the neighborhoods’ vibes to represent them accurately.

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BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything, knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor?

MC – The demand is large and growing, however, the nature of bitters in the beverage industry imposes a lot of challenges to meet the demand with the current supply. Cocktail bars, mixologists, and bartenders at home are becoming more popular than ever due to a cocktail ‘renaissance’, but the general consumers don’t know what bitters are or how to use them, hence bitters are not the best sellers in conventional liquor stores which discourages distributors to add bitters to their portfolio. Despite that, our sales continue growing organically, more local businesses are requesting more custom flavors, and the popularity of our craft bitters in international markets keeps on growing and growing.

BH – Do you mainly use organic gentian as your bittering agent, or do you use others as well?

MC – Yes, that’s correct. We use organic gentian root as the main bittering agent in our recipes.

BH – In regards to handling the various tasks of the job when it comes to getting things done so it all comes together, who does what exactly in department?

MC – Keenan steers the ship as our CEO, Cam has taken an advisory position in the company so he is not actively involved in the operations for the moment, Jamie is our business developer/ public relations/ support staff whenever we need him, Richelle is our community manager/sales manager, and I’m the product developer/ head of production/ QA, QC/ and export manager. We have a lot of flexibility and fluidity in the company that allows us to fill in for each other when needed.

BH – What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in your city/community in regards to support with your various products? And do you have pretty good reach so far with sales from your online presence?

MC – That’s a very interesting question! I used to see the city and the community completely different before bitters came into my life. I always loved the city and its people, but I never had the chance to connect with business owners that are known for their contributions to the city and their exceptional products/services. Now I’m connecting with them at a level I never thought would be even possible. For example, since I moved to Edmonton in 2018, I always admired the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald for its beautiful architecture and history. And it was until I joined this project that I had the opportunity to go inside the historical building and get to know the people dedicated to keeping the place running like 100 years ago. It was an incredible experience to go behind the curtain to get all the insights and the inspiration that later translated into a bitter flavour .

-Ohh what a nice transition! I didn’t see that the next question was about the Fairmont hotel-.

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BH – I noticed your brand has partnered with the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel Macdonald located in your area. How many bars and bartenders do they have there? Did the bar staff get into the usage of your bitters in a serious way?

I ask this because the industry as a whole from a standpoint of GM’s, Beverage Managers and Bar Managers in various establishments, especially hotels, bitters brand owners have had a bit of a time convincing the culinary importance and word-of-mouth benefit that can be gained from the bar and staff mastering the practice with having a large array of bitters flavors behind the bar to essentially game-up all cocktails across the board. How is it all working with them so far?

MC – It’s been great! They had been using our bitters in their menu for a while before we started working with them but I didn’t know that. When I met with the general manager and he mentioned that they were using Token Bitters in their bars, it was a no brainer to offer them a custom flavour which then sparked the idea of giving their menu a ‘facelift’ with the new custom flavours. I work directly with their general manager, their bar manager who is also the head bartender, and their other two bartenders. The flavours I made for them were inspired by the history of the building, my admiration for the place, the bartenders’ needs, and the consumers’ experiences.

BH – What is the facility like in which you create your bitters?

MC – Well, in the beginning we shared the space with Hansen Distillery but as we both grew, the operations got complicated to coordinate in the facility. Then I started experimenting with different extraction technologies at the Bio Processing Innovation Centre (BPIC, a government research center in Edmonton) with small batches before moving into our current facility, the Mercer Warehouse (can find more about the building  here ) The office space is on the second floor and the production area is the basement of the building and has the layout and settings of an industrial kitchen with lots of extraction vessels, beakers, graduated cylinders and jars. The facility is not visually impressive but what goes down in there is for sure!

BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters in Edmonton? Do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go for you?

MC – Yes, there are legal requirements and approvals we need to go through to produce bitters. First, we need to obtain a federal and provincial alcohol user’s license that permits us to buy high proof ethanol in bulk, store it, and use it in our production process. Second, the ethanol we purchase with those licenses can only be used in approved formulations. Every single recipe (flavor) must be tested by a government lab to ensure that the ethanol present in our end products is denatured (chemical analysis) and tastes gross enough so people wouldn’t drink it on its own (sensory analysis). This represents a challenge for me in the process of formulation because the bitter must taste strong and bitter by itself, and it must taste great when diluted in drinks.

BH – What are your storage and temperature necessities that you feel equate to the best results for your bitters?

MC – Room temperature is suggested. Even though the temperature during the extraction step varies from recipe to recipe, the product should be stored in a dry, away-from light, space at room temperature. The flavor should continue its maturation with time but it’s very unlikely that you will notice that difference in flavor because you will finish that bottle before it significantly changes in flavor.

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BH – How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, flask-style etc.?

MC – We test sample bottles that suppliers send us, we pay more attention to functionality rather than looks. For clients in bars and restaurants we use dasher tops since bartenders have a better notion of dashes as a metric unit and can leave bottles uncapped on their counter tops , while for the general consumers we use graduated droppers that make it easier to measure drops or mL when they are following cocktail recipes in a book. The bottle must be amber to filter light that can induce and propagate photo-degradation of sensitive flavor compounds.

BH – How did you determine the best bottle sizes to use for your brand?

MC – We gather feedback from customers. Some people prefer to purchase 4-15 ml bottles of different flavors (sampler sets) over a 100 ml bottle of just one flavor, they want to try as many possible. We also had to switch to 100 ml bottle size because we were getting a lot of suggestions from people who wanted to take bitters in their carry-on bags.

BH – I love your bottle label design and packaging. Such a colorful, yet solid look to them. Who’s in charge of that creative endeavor?

MC – That’s the work of Lauren Berkman, our marketing director on the other side of the company (Token Naturals).

BH – What were the deciding factors in your flavor choices of bitters to produce?

MC – Requests from clients and formula approvals. I have formulations that are not commercialized, and I make for friends and myself.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. I recently received your sample sets, and that Muskoka Smoke is an incredible blend – what is that, like a Charred, Mesquite, Barbeque, Hickory combo? Just amazing!!! I love the woodsy stuff too so, looking to get a bottle of your Cloverdale Cedar as well.

MC – I’m glad to hear that! The first test batch of smoke tasted so much like well-edged whisky and I knew it wouldn’t be approved because it tasted so good, so I had to get creative in extracting all the smoke notes from hickory wood. The wood was treated with heat at different temperatures and times to achieve those rich charred notes that resemble mesquite and other more subtle vanillin notes as well.

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BH – What are the most samples and least samples of trial and error testing you had to go through to get the flavor profile you wanted with a couple of your bitter’s releases?

MC – Three samples is the most I’ve gone through. Saskatoon berry took me three trials to get the right flavor profile, it was hard to balance the sweetness of the fruit with the spiciness of the caraway seeds and the bitterness of gentian. Some recipes like grapefruit have been the easier ones that get approved with the first trial.

BH – When you retire a flavor, what all goes into the decision-making for that consideration?

MC – Production cost is the bottom line. If the flavor is not selling very well and its production cost is high, the decision is very simple. However, we have retired flavors for other strategic reasons and the decision is hard to make because people constantly ask “Why did you retire that flavor? I loved it”.

BH – Any other flavors you’re thinking about creating/producing down the road?

MC –I just finished the formulation of an umami bitters for our biggest client in Japan, and it was quite a long and challenging process. I’d like to take a break or least not think of creating a new flavor for now. When the time comes, it will happen in the most natural way without even thinking.

BH – What kind of feedback do you get from professional bartenders, and do you wish that more bartenders would get involved in regards to upping their game with bitters usage?

MC – The most common question I get from bartenders is “Do you have any flavor like Angostura bitters?”, which is sad for me to hear because that indicates that they learned their cocktails in a very generic way, just memorizing old recipes that call for Angostura bitters. When I get that kind of question, I have to do a little bit of explanation that the cocktail-making process shouldn’t be like that. It should have a base or backbone from which you can build off with different ingredients and techniques, and the bartender’s voice should also be present. Often bitters are the medium for that voice.

I wish that bartenders would approach the cocktail-making process differently, instead of being told what to use and how much to use, they should find those answers on their own by testing and tasting!

BH – Mario, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. I’m sure the visitors here on Bitters Hub will appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating Token and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be a multi-task master of your brand. Cheers!

MC – Thank you, Kyle, for showing your interest in finding out more about the work that goes into making bitters (an ancient practice) in this modern era, and for sharing this interview with your followers.

Website – http://www.tokenbitters.com

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“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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“A Glass of Cabaret” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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Only a very small percentage of establishments in the food & beverage industry and entertainment business survive the test of time. Most go for a few years and disappear for a variety of both legitimate and suspect reasons that individuals like myself, are all too familiar with seeing in the world of hospitality and nightlife. They can be here one day and gone the next.

The Gardenia Room has been my occupational hub away from home off and on, in and out, for close to 30 years now. A length of tenure unexpected of me. With working the bar at the club, it’s allowed me the flexibility to also work with many other establishments and outfits, practicing and expanding what I do, which included a 10-year stint writing for the industry magazines, and now being the creator and site runner for the online global directory of all things Bitters. I’ve entered into the world of apothecary !

I guess I’ve grown and come to some sense of maturity over 37 years in this field where I’ve learned to accept and let it go more than contend and repair. A relief for me of sorts, when your mind is a creative castle of ideas and production, it became a necessary outlet. A metabolism built for speed finally paces itself into cruise control for the long run.

Of course, that was the main reason and /or problem for any early arguments that Tom and I had back when we were younger, of which were mostly my fault. I was still growing and getting used to LA. Well, that and just a few unnecessary dramas. It’s the restaurant business. Scuffles and mistakes exist and happen when juggling the many moving parts. Tom and Bruce, the owners of the club have always kept the door open for me, even at times when I didn’t know it. We’ve seen each other go from our late 20’s and 40’s to our late 50’s and 70’s, employers and their employee.

At times, Tom would come and sit at the bar, just after the doors open when the bar is set-up and the room/floor is ready for another night, as he hands me the bank to count into our 1944 “old school ching-ching” National cash register, the caught glimpse silently saying to each other “We’re still here”. After so many years, we could run the place sleepwalking. A surreal quality haunting the hallowed ground created 38 years ago. The same goes for Nichole and Leonel who’ve been on the clock for a combined 40 years, those numbers also easily qualify. It’s a small room. The less staff come and go, the better.

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The Gardenia is the longest-running Cabaret Supper Club in the United States. It deserves some recognition for its staying power. The credit goes to Tom and Bruce. They could have cashed out long ago and made life easier on themselves, but sometimes it’s better just to have something to do than to exist with too much open everyday time, unless you have a large garden to tend to at home. I think it was the right move, for dual purposes of longevity and keeping a rare art form alive. Today it’s gained even more in popularity and trend over the last decade.

The room has become a club of legend, with numerous luminaries of Hollywood, stage, film and television having frequented the venue many times over the years. The four decades of shows and performers at the club are more than likely in a ‘lost count” status, though I believe Tom has kept all the annual performance/reservation date books and has them in a safe place, in case the history channel calls for a Chasen’s-style documentary. One time he mentioned that he had an offer some twenty-plus years ago from the studios to have a television show produced about and in the club itself, but declined for reasons unknown.

It’s one of those old style places with the ambiance being that of classic and period, not modern, so when you walk into the room it takes you back in time. If you’re not initially hip to that, than it may take a little getting used to. But after a great cocktail or two, you’ll be fine and fit right in, even if a celebrity icon is sitting at the table next to you, or in my case, at the bar, where I’ve served many who’ve simply preferred to lounge back in the very comfortable, cushioned raised seats and become unknown, since they’ve already achieved the opposite status. I enjoy serving the ones who prefer to disappear.

Holding only 60-70 people, every seat is basically an orchestra pit. But we can get some persnickety individuals wanting this or that table for various reasons, without realizing that when it’s a packed house the choice becomes limited due to the deuces, three and four-tops of reservations that more-less design the seating arrangement so that everyone fits with no seat open and empty. Not an easy thing to do in an L-shaped room of this size. But we still try to accommodate all that we can, especially for some of the more regular supporters in the Cabaret community. We just can’t always guarantee anything and everything.

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If you consider the numbers over this journey of time, we’ve had well over a thousand singers through the room, and ones that still perform here today into their own decades-long careers. The art of the intimate performance; it’s like saloon singing, but without the high stage. And you never know who’s going to be in the audience, so it’s always good to hit it out of the ballpark. After entering the club, the eyes adjust to the lighting on low, and the mind is soon transported into your own musical film noir where one can turn into any character they so desire for the night. Welcome to the town of make-believe !

The Gardenia is also home to the longest-running open mic night in Los Angeles, now in its 20th year. This gives newcomers a chance to feel welcomed into the Cabaret community, where they can gain equal footing and confidence to sing their craft and build a show of their own all the while experiencing and hearing other singers, voices and interpretations. A camaraderie into the art of the song.

This is the venue where Michael Feinstein got an early start, along with Andrea Marcovicci, and Maude Maggart, who’s younger sister is Fiona Apple. Barbara Brussell early on as well who recently performed this year back at the club after many years away. These are just to note a few of the too many to mention. Then you had already established legends like Margaret Whiting who performed at the club way back many years ago, as well as Julie Wilson before they passed. Janis Paige and Neile Adams did shows as recent as a few years ago, and they’re in their 80’s and 90’s, respectively. You’ve got to hand it to the older Hollywood gals, they just keep on rolling!

And there’s one that still stands out in my mind that I remember from back when I started working behind the bar, and that was actress/performer by the name of Clare Peck. She only played the room a couple few times and then disappeared, but she always packed the place. Her son is soap actor, Austin Peck. Another that recently popped into my head that performed at the club years ago as well, and that’s Phillip Officer. I never know when the past will come up to greet me again with other singer memories.

The biggest supporters of the club who live in the area are just too many to mention, and I know I’d accidentally leave a name out and feel bad about it, but you all know who you are and are on my personal FB page as well as the Gardenia FB page. Not to mention all the club goers who come in to see shows of all kinds who are not performers themselves, as well as ones who work in all the other areas in back of the cameras of the entertainment business, but don’t do Cabaret. Scotty Bowers and his wife, Lois, before she passed, had been coming into the club for many years. Scotty, a bartender way before my time, is the author of the recent New York Times Bestseller “Full Service”, sharing his experiences doing what he did in Hollywood for over 60 years.

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The one great thing that separates The Gardenia Room from other like-venues across the country is that Tom kept the club open out of the passion for the art as an environment for new talent to grow. This has to do with his own previous career as a dancer, singer, actor and choreographer on Broadway. He also worked at New York’s famous Latin Quarter that was owned by Barbara Walter’s father, Lou. He was on stage with Lauren Bacall in “Applause”. He auditioned Rita Hayworth. He choreographed Ann Margret’s Las Vegas nightclub act. Tom has told me many of his stories over the years. Why he never wrote a book/memoir of his own is beyond me. And I asked him to. We’re also the only club of its type that doesn’t take a cut of the performer’s cover charge.

Cabaret is like the nicer sister, with Burlesque being its naughty twin!

Though it started out more just as a restaurant for lunch and dinner in the very early years, it included a back patio for afternoon seating. Industry types running businesses in the area known as the Hollywood media district would walk down the alley between Sycamore and La Brea and turn right up into Tom’s lunch patio. In fact, the original chairs used to be corner-stacked up against the fence and brick wall of The Guitar Institute next door, out in what used to be the patio, now weathered by rain and rusted from years of non-use.

The Record Plant Recording Studios are right down the alley from us. Down Sycamore just walking distance one block South at the corner is the old Howard Hughes art deco building that he acquired shortly after it was built in 1930, and was used as the main headquarters for his company’s movie/film division. It has always been kept in pristine condition, and has recently been submitted for landmark status. Down the boulevard heading West one block is the famous and now newly reopened Formosa Cafe. And right up La Brea a couple blocks near Sunset is the now Henson Recording Studios, but used to be A & M Records owned by Herb Alpert, and before that is was the historic Charlie Chaplin Studios. The Gardenia is surrounded by Hollywood history.

Change happens over this length of time, and links to the past can be hard to let go of, when you don’t quite want to say goodbye yet. As you get older, memories can seep in deeper in the mellow attempt of holding on to what’s already gone. The youth in the mind still remains. Knowing me, I’d be the same way, for building good experiences makes for lasting memories later, creating a never-ending smile inside from participating in something historic for the record books. There’s a sentimental feeling with being the boy behind the bar at a place of note for so long. When you have the same original owners, and the staff’s low rate of turnover, we all know each other well. We come in and do our jobs. We don’t have to be told what to do.

I remember when I first got hired. It was in 89’or 90’. I was looking for more work in the yellow pages after checking out the want ads, as I also liked calling establishments that weren’t necessarily hiring at the moment. I lived in Burbank at the time, and drove up Olive Ave. into Hollywood to fill out an application, not knowing if they could really use me or not. But I had just left a downtown gig that I couldn’t stand anymore, on 444 Flower Street right across the way from the Bonaventure Hotel, so I needed to fill my work schedule out as quickly as possible to avoid a financial nosedive.

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Tom and I talked, along with his manager at the time, about me actually coming in to start shifting behind the bar with a beginning schedule. Poof, I was in. But what I had gotten into, I had no idea at the time. It was a weird period of adjustment for me at the onset, getting used to the vibe and my place within it. And I had to cool my energy down to fit in to how the room rolled from the beginning to the end, finding my place in the script. Tom was the director, and took a chance on me as the young bar actor. The position carried with it a center of attention as the opening act. It took me awhile, but I learned how to control it and ride the wave to shore.

The reservation books dictate to a large degree of how busy a night is going to be, and they wanted me behind the bar on some slow nights too, of which there was a slight misunderstanding at first until I figured it out, that sometimes included calling in to see if they needed me, or them calling me, as the numbers in the books can and do increase day-by-day up until a performer’s show date. I was a newbie to this rare kind of venue in Los Angeles, as anybody would be with this few and far between theme, so it took me a while to adjust to the life of activity in the room before I settled in with everything I needed to be aware of in my overall job description, which included being in charge of the house music and volume, the phones, coffees and waters, and disappearing into the shadows of the bar when the show starts.

One of the odd things that happens every night unlike anywhere else is, when it’s show time at 9:00 pm, after full seating and dinner and drinks have been completed, the room goes dark except for the stage lights, the bar is dimmed, and I’m the only one left out on the floor (behind the bar) being quiet as a mouse, even to the point when making drinks during the show, all martinis have to be shaken during the applause so the sound doesn’t interrupt the performance, which is why we don’t use blenders anymore, too loud for the room no matter what. I like that! We even had to get rid of the soda gun because the compressor would never fail to turn on in the middle of the show.

There was a few times in the last couple years when a performer was in the middle of a slow, quiet medley of songs and the crowd wasn’t huge, at the same time I was jammed with a few martini orders from the waiters, so I went outside on the sidewalk of Santa Monica Boulevard and rocked my full bullet martini shaker for a good 10-15 seconds, came back into the club, raised the bar gate, and poured into the already chilled martini glasses.

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With all the traffic going by, it’s good no squad cars caught me. Who knows what would have happened. Imagine me going to jail for preparing cocktails on the street. However, one thing I can say about that is, this part of the boulevard in Hollywood is also part of the last extension of Route 66 that goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean’s edge in Santa Monica. Therefore, I can officially say that I have shaken martinis on Route 66, however late it may be for the history books.

These types of clubs survive on a shoestring more or less, so as a community of like-minded artists, everyone supports each other as much as one can, as it tries to keep a toehold of exposure and recognition in American entertainment. Facebook not only helps get the word out, but images, video and bio content as well. I’ve been the administrator of the Gardenia page since it began eight years ago. It’s funny out of all this time I’ve never sat in the main room to see a show on an off night. Occasionally when I’m alone in the room early on setting up the bar, I’ll turn on the mic and music system and practice belting a few songs just for fun, as I used to perform twenty plus years ago in a singing server restaurant called Café Bellissimo.

It all remains a grassroots effort to keep it alive and kicking. An avenue for talent, of which it has in abundance, both new and established, and making money at it as a performer depends on the size of your band. Musicians have to be paid. You have a small room in which to fill up. The only advertising the house does is with the marquee on the boulevard and the Facebook page. It’s up to the performer to promote. These factors go into the price of your cover charge, all with a prayer that your besties come in to see the show and are not out of town. Most of the time, you’re just happy to break even. And about musicians, we happen to have had the best of the best in Los Angeles perform in this room over the decades, and it has been an honor to sit back and listen in awe.

But you see all kinds in the world of Cabaret, from super-talented singers who are completely broke and get little to no help or support, to performers in a financially easier position but may not possess as much talent. What I’m saying is there are all kinds from all walks that come here to this great city of chance and give it their best shot. The one universal centerpiece that doesn’t budge – you need to have talent and luck on your side. No other combination works, not even money and nepotism. When executives invest in talent, they count on it for as long a run as they can, so you also have to be professional and intelligent with your craft and in the business, and a charming and workable-with personality doesn’t hurt either.

Even though Tom is no longer with us, his spirit is always present in the chair in the back of the room where he sat with Bruce to watch and enjoy many of the performances in a space that he created for the very purpose of attempting to help others with their dreams of making it in show business like he did. This is his legacy. And we continue it today in the same room in Hollywood that he opened back in 1981, in honor of what he gave to so many that embrace the heart of his purpose and intention with the greatest of appreciation and respect.

Below is a listing of some of the celebrities that have graced the room at The Gardenia since I’ve been there.

Clint Eastwood     Ann Margret     Charles Bronson     Michael Learned    Tom Bosley     Annette Bening     Chevy Chase     Raquel Welch    Richard Mulligan     Rita Moreno     Henry Jaglom     Carol Channing    Michael Madsen     Natalie Schafer     Kevin McCarthy     Charlene Tilton    Stevie Wonder     Maria Shriver     Henry Mancini

Cheryl Bentyne     Norman Lear     Lesley Ann Warren     Robert Goulet     Carol Lawrence    Gil Gerard     Marion Ross     Michael Feinstein     Nancy Sinatra    Mel Brooks     Anne Bancroft     Gregory Harrison     Lainie Kazan    Sidney Poitier     Bonnie Franklin     Ron Glass     Phyllis Diller    Martin Landau     Shirley Jones     Bruce Vilanch

Nancy Dussault     Tim Curry     Sally Struthers     Richard Benjamin     Judith Light    Patrick Swayze     Bea Arthur     Nick Cassavetes     Jean Simmons    James Garner     Michelle Lee     Mike Stoller     Carl Reiner  Joanne Worley     Rex Reed     Peri Gilpin     Mr. Blackwell     Peisha McPhee     Leonard Maltin     Sally Kirkland

Gary Collins    Joan Van Ark     Jack Klugman     Barbara Bain     Dick Sherman    Anne Rutherford     Elliot Gould     Carole Cook     James Cromwell     Yvette Mimieux     Robert Urich     Karen Morrow     Richard Gautier    Melissa Manchester     Ray Evans     Amanda McBroom     Ken Berry     Anne Kerry Ford     Robben Ford     Lee Meriwether     Tyrone Power Jr.

Tyne Daly     Ray Jessel     Fiona Apple     Jason Alexander     Sally Field    Richard Chamberlain     Charlotte Rae     Lawrence Pressman     Betty Garrett    Leonard Nimoy     Marcia Wallace     Dick Van Patten     Mary Ann Mobley    Peter Gallagher     Pia Zadora     George Chakiris     Jackie Collins    John Glover     Adrienne Barbeau     Keith David

Michelle Phillips     Bruce Davison     Anne Jeffreys     Frank Strazzeri     Susan Blakely    James Pickens Jr.     Mary Jo Catlett     Sammy Williams     Margaret O’Brien    Rob Reiner     Sally Kellerman     Buddy Collette     Cloris Leachman    Billy Vera     Estelle Getty     Robert Wuhl     Lydia Cornell     Chris Noth

Jim. J. Bullock     Deborah Van Valkenburgh     Robert Guilliame    Beverly Sanders     Alan Mandell     Jackaye Harry     Michael Ironside     Robert Forster     Dale Olson     Stephen Schwartz     Richard Dreyfuss     Kelly Lange     Mews Small     Kate Vernon

 

“Party of 8” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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Pulling up into what was once known as The Jewel of Los Feliz, an area up in the hills just off of Van Ness Avenue and Hollywood Freeway, I realize how close it is to the many historical points down below on flatter ground. Just a couple minutes away is Beachwood Drive, the original site of the old Hollywoodland neighborhood, where Aldous and Laura Huxley once lived in the late 50’s, early 60’s, on Deronda Drive. Scenes from the 1956 classic film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were shot in front of the Beachwood Market and Village, as well as a scene in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” of a creepy guy in a cowboy hat in a deserted corral at the top of Beachwood Canyon, the same area where the Sunset Ranch is located today, a large horse stable for the public to take toured night rides through the Hollywood Hills. I’ve worked several gigs on Beachwood over the last decade, but a few years ago there was a gig I couldn’t work – the season-ending wrap party for the producers and cast of the show “In Treatment” with Gabriel Byrne. That was a drag to be gigging somewhere else on that occasion, as he’s one of my favorite actors to watch.

Just South at Beachwood’s beginning is Franklin Avenue, home of the castle-like Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International building a block down that before it was purchased by L.Ron Hubbard in 1973, was the landmark Chateau Elysee. The church is now known for owning more historical buildings in Hollywood than any other entity, some $400 million worth. I remember going over there and checking it out over 30 years ago when I was in a bit of a lost and search mode myself. It wasn’t bad. It was different, that’s for sure. I talked with some people there, but never signed up to become a paying member or regular participant. That’s when it became kind of questionable for me, so I backed off for a bit and never returned. I didn’t have the excess funds to start paying them some monthly dues. Nothing wrong with it, we all make choices, some benefit, some regret. But hey, at least we’re seeking ways to improve and do something instead of just grazing the earth all the time, meandering here and there. Then again, maybe that’s what we should be doing!

I finally wrap a right turn onto Live Oak, the point of my uphill destination. I spend a few minutes of early time gazing over the twilight city and downtown before the remaining light turns into night. I was told that across the street is the home of actress, Kelly Lynch. Chris, my waiter friend, pulls up, who knows where everybody lives, as I mentioned before in a previous story, his brother owns the security company that some celebs and the wealthy use on property. The last time he and I were here, at the end of the night I followed him back down a different path than I usually take up. I know a lot of streets, but Chris makes me feel like I just arrived in L.A. You know how it goes, right when you think you know everything about anything, someone comes along and changes your game!

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Chris tells me to watch out for his left arm signal, as my headlights tight-tail his new sports car down the narrow, windy pitch-black road, where it’s all too easy to slam into a street can sticking out too far for the following morning’s trash pick-up. That’s one thing you notice, especially in the alleys of Beverly Hills, their dump cans are so big you could fit six people in them. They have twice as many in total than any middle-class neighborhood. But that’s how it goes.  The more you own, the more trash you have to shit-can. In many ways, I’m glad I’m not rich, but there are times where I could use it on occasion, just for continued encouragement in the one life that I still have.

I catch Chris’s hand movement, he slows down and I do the same. He points across his vehicle to let me know of the main entry gate into the huge Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie compound, which from what I gathered is like four surrounding properties in one, bought up over the last several years, creating a sort of magic kingdom, so close but just far away enough, hidden and unmarked. And it’s only about ten properties down from where we’re working tonight.

Chris parks a few spaces in back of my truck. If both of us had passengers, they would open the door and slice into either a streamline of well-groomed shrubbery or a mail box would be spinning off its hinges. With no sidewalks, the landscaping takes advantage all the way up to the asphalt. Jody, the other server for the night, is sitting in her car, and we all walk in together, as the main gate was still closed. Better to open once.

Hillary and Adam are great clients and have been for years. They’re super cool people, and their single-level ultra-tech modern home is actually combined with substantial land and yard, compared to other edge properties within walking distance that are all house and no grass. No mower, just hedge clippers necessary, for the gardener that is!

The main house help answers the door, and we stroll in. In the attempt to assume our positions, I was at a loss for mine. I couldn’t find the bar, which was usually a large portable on the outside patio. Thinking it was going to be another of the same type of party and normal guest count of 40-50, it soon became clear that I didn’t receive the same memo. Thinking to myself for a moment “What the hell am I doing here, I could have worked another gig elsewhere tonight”. Hillary appears in the living room area and lets me know it’s a small dinner party, not with the usual crowd of friends. They have a small built-in bar, more of the cottage/bungalow style wet bar. The home deserved better. The only thing missing that would make the house complete, a custom build-out and step-behind.

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I go to the kitchen and find out that Chris and Jody had the more clear and accurate event details, which still made me wonder what I was doing there. Limbo and I don’t get along very well. Either I’m in gear with task and purpose or I prefer to be in neutral, on my own time, not someone else’s. Eventually I realize I have to somehow fit into the mold of the evenings activities or just put on a coat and become the house butler, nodding and walking away!

Adam was in the kitchen executing the role of chef with precision, and Hillary held her own in the dessert department. Lurking on the countertop was a 1.5 L Magnum bottle of a 1970 Chateau Paullac, unopened. What to do? I create a makeshift bar set-up in the kitchen to double as a station and hiding place, assembling whatever I could think of in close proximity with everything else. They soon realized that putting a task-mastered workhorse like myself in this quasi-helper position was the wrong thing to do. They thought that I knew, but I was previously unaware. I just needed more reason to sustain me and I’m fine, easy to work with. But asking to give me something to do after 30 years of shredding at top game was almost an embarrassment, if not an accidental touch of humiliation.

I’m a professional in this business, not some wannabe actor biding time for a guest-starring spot. There was no bad intention by anyone, but how do I remove that from my face to feel more at home and useful than just the role of a floater. However, I do have to keep in mind that they put me on this party because of “Guess who’s coming to Dinner”. The daunting news of the guests included Barbra Streisand, James Brolin, Mia Sara, Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson), along with the head of Universal/Sony and his wife. Surprise!

Adam goes about the cork removal at a frighteningly brisk pace, not considering the decades it had been stuck in glass. We were about to find out the mystery if a 40-year wine was too long in the bottle or not. The older and/or out of position the bottle of wine is, the more patient and sensitive you have to be with the cork. There are also slightly different cork lengths that one cannot always see. Removing the top foil helps, but the bottle could be too dark anyway. I knew Adam had a wine cellar, so I wasn’t worried of the bottle laying down properly. After he had initially used his corkscrew without being successful, I was able to remove the rest of it, the last third of the cork remaining, intact two inches from the top, so no loose ends fell into the wine. My trusty ah-so cork remover does it again.

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He was impressed! I was shocked!! I didn’t think it was going to come up. Either way, we could have used a simple cheesecloth to filter anything out, but there wasn’t a need after I cleaned the inside of the bottle neck of any minute debris. It’s just better if it’s a clean removal all in one pull. Some corks are tougher, so you need to take your time with a very slow screw upward and work it sloth-pace. With love and care, there was no dust in the drink. Not an easy thing to do. We decanted it for close to 3 hours before the guests first tasting at the sit down, giving it substantial breathing time. I cleaned the bottle up really nice afterward and put it on the back counter. Luckily, there was very little residual in the bottom remains.

Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres began the beguine. Glancing out of my kitchen peephole with curious eyes, out of all the places in the world a legend could be right now, she was right here. Barbra Streisand. The one and only. I remember when I was 24 and still living in Phoenix, Mom and I went to see Yentl in the movie theater when it came out. I grew up listening to her. Mom had all her albums. I wonder if they’re still at the house in her arts and crafts room? I’ll have to check. And since I used to watch Marcus Welby M.D. as a kid, I was equally familiar with James Brolin. He’s a big dude. Intimidation usually has to do with personality, ego, voice and energy. If they’re warm, you feel it, if they’re otherwise, you feel that too, all caught in a matter of seconds. This dictates and therefore arcs how Chris, Jody and I will be conducting and behaving with our collective mannerisms and floor choreography. The initial greeting and reception lasted a little less than an hour.

Steady as she goes . . .

When it came to the food, I let Chris and Jody tell me what to do and where to go. At the beginning after the guests took their named places at the long dining table, I timely made first entrance with the decanter of the 1970 red, praying it was of good taste, even with Adam giving it a swish on the palate earlier. Not everyone is of the same tongue. It was fine. But reaching, pouring and breathing in times eight while moving around the table between bodies, well, of course I had to be the first one, with the least floor experience. This just can’t not happen, now can it? Will the heavens ever stop testing me? I make it around the curve with silent lucidity, and slip away into the kitchen taking air deep into lungs, cooling the beginnings of perspiration on my forehead.

Chris and Jody followed to the table with rolls and butter. My breather was short. Next was a thin, cream-based soup, much easier to spill than a salad. Oh, the challenges never end! Hillary and Barbra were sitting next to each other on the corner of the L closest to the kitchen entrance. Of course that’s where I was told to go. It was closer, but I don’t know about any easier! With Hillary to my right and Barbra to my left, I slowly plated in front and over their beautiful hands, one at a time. With the final lean left, Barbra abruptly got up and brushed her body across my outstretched arm and went to the ladies room. Did I do something wrong? Looking at where Chris and Jody were at with their drops, I did an about face and rolled out of the area to grasp one more bowl to reverse back my way to Mia Sara. Soup was done.

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Adam cooked Kobe beef and lobster in sealed bags in boiling water to hold all the juices in. There was a vegetable and au gratin potato to complete the dish. The plating and removing at the tables continued, as well as my double-duty with wines and waters while trying to feel the right balance of being there and not being there, avoiding any intrusion to multiple conversations that were not to our privy. We had enough to do and sweat over, as the kitchen wasn’t exactly cool in temperature. Someone open a window.

All went well, but working with extremely tall, sensitive stemware for the champagne and wines white and red is a freaky issue, not to mention the decanter itself, as you’re trying to avoid any breakage or shattering at all costs. Then you have to do your best at proper pouring and multiple dish/course placement at the large table, moving in-between guests, without fumble! In fact, there was more focus on those safety measures than being flipped out by the celebs attending. This is how a dinner party goes! I perform this type of service too infrequently to be really good at it. By the time it comes around again, I’ve forgotten what I had previously learned, as far as left and right, etc. I’m not at my best when I’m out from the bar, but I always give it a go for sake of new experience. And the clients had faith in us to help them pull the evening off without a hitch.

I always thought Streisand was gorgeous, and the close-up was no disappointment. She had a casual and simply beautiful look about her that evening, little make-up because she doesn’t need any, really. And she seems smaller and cuter in person than what the camera does to her. I hadn’t seen Mia Sara in a long time, maybe since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Timecop, but she’s done more TV, episodic and voiceover than film since those days, still in it. And then you have the head of Universal/Sony Pictures, who pretty much has more power than anyone at the table, with Adam his VP. That’s the connection for this dinner taking place.

With dessert as the closer, Hillary took control of the kitchen with Adam keeping at the table this time. I think we had three different selections on each plate for the guests who had more than one sweet tooth flavor craving. It was quite the incredible culinary atmosphere despite having no hired chef on premise covering all the bases. It was more of a shared in-house event only to avoid some ugly, beat-up catering van outside in the driveway. Clean and safe, no green bean deliveries in a large, aluminum tin!

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Jody was doing most of the washing in the sink with both Chris and I helping a little when we could. There’s a point where the table needs three servers, than two servers, and finally one server towards the end, as a kind of fade-in and fade-out experience, much like the movies. We were the acts that created our own silent film that night. That’s always the attempt anyway, moving around in whispering code talk like a calm, attractive version of the three stooges in dinner service attire, looking at each other in passing, keeping busy for time to move quicker.

Nothing dropped, nothing spilled, nothing broken, nothing slipped. Like a dance on eggshells, we made it through the night. If a Chef or Head Waiter would have been there, they would’ve caused the potential friction for everything to fall apart at every nail. That’s what they do, getting paid to provide the pins and needles that we don’t need.

After the star-studded guests left, there were the five of us taking in a sigh of finish line completion. Walking back out to our vehicles, the night air never felt so good upon the skin as the evening’s stressors slowly slipped away into yet another one-off gig in the history books with this city of entertaining.

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“Highland Taffy” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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The Highland Taffy Estate, as it is now called, is the old estate built in 1928 that was once owned by William Randolph Hearst. It was actually the first property he bought as his residence shortly after moving to LA. Today, it is now a private residence. The previous owner was architect Henry Lovins, designer of the Pig N’ Whistle restaurant, which was originally the concession stand for the Egyptian Theater.

With a long, narrow gated driveway sitting between a Best Western Hollywood Plaza Inn Motel and the American Legion Hall Post 43 at 2025 N. Highland Avenue, about a quarter-mile south of the Hollywood Bowl, it is an artistic gem of a property, a multi-level landscape with two homes, art studios, lush greenery, and walkways to the top where a small, amphitheater-style wedding chapel is built up against a mountain wall. This was also the original hideout for Hearst’s mistress, the actress Marion Davies. They ended up together for over 30 years.

In talking with the caretaker of the estate, he let me know that one time he had to run off a specific homeless person that was reported to be an ex-scientist PHD intellectual that dropped his once successful life and went completely off the grid. I’m sure there’s a sneak trail of open land where homeless people hang out somewhere between Taffy’s mountain edge and extends all the way over to the nosebleed section of the Bowl’s amphitheater, free concerts from an easy distance away. That’s what I would do, build the perfect tent area campgrounds in the gap where no one goes – a place to survive and exist in some form, full of individuals who’ve fallen through the ever-widening cracks in the economic pavement, and geniuses who gave up on the corrupt American system to be truly free with whatever new set of hardships they have to deal with, but having no monthly bills at all, nor an address. Like anything else, it’s a trade-off.

Spring to Fall, they rent out the venue location for parties, weddings and other event functions. This is how I made it through the gates, as a bartender for a caterer, LA Gourmet, who is on their office listing as preferred and recommended foodies. I come along for the providing of the drink.

It was a wedding party for 150 guests. We’re allowed to use the kitchen areas of both houses for all the food prep and beverage back-up. There were three bars spread out over the property. At the bottom level bar was veteran actor Casey Sander, who played the character of Wade Swoboda in the TV series “Grace Under Fire”, but has many other film and TV credits to his name. He still loves to get out and tend bar on occasion, as he used to work for years as a bartender at the famous Gladstone’s on PCH in Malibu. His talent manager is James Garner’s daughter.

At the mid-level bar was commercial, stage, film and Emmy-nominated (co-starring role in The X-Files Season 7 episode 9 –  Signs & Wonders – as Reverend Enoch O’Connor) TV actor Michael Childers, who basically does the same between acting gigs, and used to be a bartender at the Formosa Café for 16 years, the only bartender survivor from some newly-implemented bar craft cocktail program, which turned out to be the wrong place to exercise such a culinary demon. Not in a classic, old Hollywood haunt where celebs have been hanging out since the late 20’s. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra spent many nights at the Formosa in the 1950’s, pining over Ava Gardner. The interior and the exterior of the bar can also be seen in the movie, L.A. Confidential. Across the street is Jones Café, and my Gardenia Room is just a block east from there on the other side of La Brea, all three on Santa Monica Boulevard, that is thankfully cleaned up now from what used to be hooker-trans central over a decade ago. I ended up being given the duties at the bar on the top level, which would get hit first after the ceremony ended.

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We all arrive in the limited parking area to do a massive crew unload of anything and everything from the company vans. Michael and I have our gloves on to avoid any nicks and scuffs before we actually get to setting up the bars, nice-looking hands behind the bar is always a good thing. Getting a bleeder is never something to look forward to. But I have various sizes of band-aids in a Ziploc baggie in my bar kit for the little emergencies. I see some of the new cocktailian bartenders on my Facebook page who will go as far as to photo announce when they nearly slice their thumb off to the point of a dozen stitches, and for the next two weeks they’re wearing finger condoms, which don’t allow for the best air-breathing for healing purposes, along with extra-caution hand movements all because a slip of the blade while more than likely looking the other way when someone harks their name on a busy night.

When you’re cutting fruit, pay attention to nothing else until it’s done. I prefer a knife with a serrated edge so it can catch its own fall, as opposed to a smooth blade all the way to the tip. You’re dealing with all kinds of fruits with an equal amount of different skins, some easy, some tough. Working the cut-through is sometimes safer than becoming lazy about it with too much ease. But the initial key – Keep the hands and fruit dry. Slippage is too common. And know your knife. It isn’t worth losing any work over, or feeling the throb of blood pressure in the finger when you’re pulling a shift. But this is what happens when you cut fresh throughout a night with the huge range of garnishes they use in today’s craft bars, instead of what you think you’ll use for the night beforehand. This, I can do, because I know in advance how busy I’m going to be. Bar establishments on the other hand, some nights of the week you just don’t know.

After all the set-up, we have about forty-five minutes to shift our vehicles into the huge back parking lot next door at the Legion, freshen ourselves up from the sweat break and change into our formal attire. Michael borrows my lint roller while I put on my cologne, and then we have a smoke and shoot the shit of our lives for awhile until we cruise back in for any early guest arrivals. It’s nice just to get back behind the bar and relax our faces into happy mode. Sometimes we have a pop, sometimes we don’t, all depends on how we feel at the moment, if anything is bothering us to where we need to arc it up a notch.

It was a beautiful day, but very warm during the top of the afternoon. We always look forward to when the sun dips down slightly below the mountain ridge and we get the evening shade that cools the pores for the rest of the night while we’re slinging away. It gets busy with easy drinks at the onset as most don’t want to get plastered before the ceremony. The initial reception lasts a little over an hour with some light appetizers passed. With an acoustic guitar and violin singing through the air, the rest of the band sets up as eventually all of the guests are requested to head their way to the chapel above for the ceremony.

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It was a good rush for all of us when you get hit with 150 thirsty travelers in time. Not too many repeat offenders, mostly quenchers coming back for mineral or still waters. It’s re-stocking hour, and managing the 40 lb. ice bags to hold us down till the end without everything melting away. The ceremony lasts 30-45 minutes and then we’re back at it again, this time with more regular drinking of the spirits, classic cocktails, wines, beers and champagne. I even make a few blast from the past Long Island Teas along with Drivers, Hounds, Cape’s, and hey, the Cosmo is still in fashion – which is basically nothing more than a Kamikaze with a dash of cranberry juice, but chilled straight up in a martini glass instead of as a cold shot or on-the-rocks. Plus I always make something special with what I have to work with, stock-wise, behind the bar, just to make it interesting for myself. If I have peach schnapps, lemonade and pomegranate, I can play that into a few different drinks, but sometimes the pickings are slim.

And Mojitos are always a bitch to prepare outside, because the mint dies in the heat pretty quick. They’re better left in the cooler-frig of a bar where they can keep crisp and its aromatic essence alive. Otherwise, at a party this size, if one guest orders a Mojito, it usually starts an avalanche of everybody wanting one out of trend, without realizing each one is made from scratch, taking longer, yet still failing its desired effect because it’s best if everything going into the glass is cold, meaning the rum and club soda too. The mint, lime and sugar is what it is, but this is outdoors, so if the mint is warm, sweaty and getting limp by the minute, this is where you lose, by taking all that time stress-prepping them with a less than excellent result, while you still have a line at the bar that really should have been avoided in the first place. If it’s a party of 50, than it’s approachable, but not 150 people. You can use any of the various Mojito mixers on the market, but it’s still not the real deal, and takes about the same amount of time because you’re still muddling the mint if you have it there. I do love having mint as a garnish though, and it smells nice around the bar when a big bag of it is open.

The waiter captain is making sure plenty of guests go to the other bars for drinks to spread it out and share the duties. It also helps the guests in knowing all the walkways to explore while they’re on the property. A long buffet is set-up for dinner at the tables, and the band is playing some good, deep jazz with great vocals from a singer who really knows the old American songbook. We get to the past-rush point at the bars where it’s more relaxed after knocking back a few with everybody’s liquid tanks getting filled up. Time to catch up with ice refill once again and clear any mess created while pouring and shaking on-the-fly. I like the pace and challenge to kick ass in high gear, but it’s also nice when it cools down where I can cruise out the rest of the night, allowing for more customer interaction, which is a good thing. The guests enjoy some chat at the bar, and so do I. A chance to relate with someone you’ve never met before and you’ll probably never see again – in through the out door.

I think about all the history of the estate while I have moments behind the bar, panning around and knowing what it looks like in both the day and the night with lights and long candles, along with walking the property as much as I had time for. I wonder how many secrets went to the grave, if the houses are haunted, or any apparitions in the dark of night. As I spoke of Culver Studios in the previous story “Quiet on the Set”, the President and Founder of the studios, silent movie pioneer and “Father of the Western”, Thomas Ince, was invited to a party of his 42nd birthday in his honor, on Hearst’s yacht in 1924. He never made it off alive.

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The story goes is that Hearst was jealous thinking that Charlie Chaplin went off to another part of the yacht with Marion Davies. When he caught up with them, Hearst had a gun and shots were being fired willy-nilly. As the two were speaking, the man turned around and Hearst accidentally shot him in the chest. But it wasn’t Chaplin, it was Ince. After his mysterious death aboard the yacht, that was also alleged that he had not been shot, just had bad stomach indigestion and heart trouble, the studio was then purchased by producer/director, Cecil B. DeMille. There are several versions of the big cover-up.

Feeling so bad, rumor had it that Hearst paid off Ince’s widow’s mortgage on the Chateau Elysee apartment building in Hollywood (now the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre that I mentioned in another story “Party of 8”), as well as providing her with a trust fund just before she left for Europe. In turn, she refused an autopsy and ordered her husband’s immediate cremation.

The Chateau was originally built as a replica of a 17th Century French-Normandy castle, and ran as a residential apartment house by Ince’s widow, Elinor, for up and coming movie stars. But it operated like a hotel with daily maid service and meals served out of a formal dining room. Some of the many famous residents of the 30’s and 40’s were Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Carol Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Lillian Gish, George Gershwin, and Ed Sullivan. It became known as The Manor.

Shortly after, in 1928, RKO acquired the Culver studios and controlled it for years, bringing stardom to many legends, including Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Later in 1940, it was reported that stagehands high in the catwalks were confronted by a ghostly figure resembling Thomas Ince. How’s that for coming back to haunt you? He must’ve been pissed. And if he could be seen there, I don’t see a reason why he couldn’t have made it over to the Highland Taffy to spook Hearst out of his bed. In 1950, Howard Hughes acquired RKO Pictures, and in 1956, after Lucille Ball didn’t a get the leading role in a major movie that she wanted badly, she was so mad that her and Desi Arnaz purchased the lot and made it Desilu Productions.

As a side note, Scotty Bowers, author of the 2012 New York Times bestseller “Full Service”, whom I’ve known for years from him coming into The Gardenia Room, went to one of Hearst’s parties at the castle up in San Simeon, California in the 40’s, shortly after coming home from military service in WWII. Scotty may very well be the only person alive today that ever attended one of the parties.

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The thought of Marion Davies comes back to my mind with her living on the property. She was such a good soul, yet in a strange situation that she just rode out to the end until Hearst died in 1951. The night before his death, there had been a lot of people in the house. Marion was very upset by the large crowd of family and friends. She said it was too noisy and were disturbing Hearst, who was ill in bed, by talking so loud. She was upset and had to be sedated. When she woke, her niece, Patricia Van Cleve Lake, and her husband, Arthur Lake, told her that Hearst was dead, and that his lawyer’s associates had removed his body as well as all his belongings and any trace that he had lived there with her. Marion was banned from Hearst’s funeral. Upon Patricia’s death, it was revealed she had been the love child of Davies and Hearst.

In addition to her acting career, Marion spent much of her time at Cosmopolitan Pictures as a production manager. She had been appointed to this position by Hearst, who wanted to keep her close to him. She had a long-standing reputation in the film industry for being extremely kind to the casts and crews of her films, going so far as to pay hospital bills anonymously if she heard that they were ill. She was famous for doing dead-on impersonations of celebrities at parties. And being the practical joker, she once got President Calvin Coolidge drunk by feeding him wine and telling him it was fruit juice. When Davies was in England, she had found out that forgotten silent actress Florence Turner, who had been a star at Vitagraph, was destitute. A compassionate Davies paid for her and her mother to return to the U.S., put them up in a hotel, and offered Turner a job with her production company.

Marion started lots of charities including a children’s clinic. She was very generous and was loved by everyone who knew her. She died 10 years later, in 1961, in Hollywood.  Marion is interred at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever), in section B, east side of the lake very close to the grave of Tyrone Power. This cemetery, by the way, in the summer, shows full-length feature film screenings outdoors on the property on weekends. A different kind of drive-in, among many of Tinsletown’s resting celebrities, showing the movies projected onto a mausoleum’s white marble wall. They also have DJ’s spinning music before and after the film. It’s called Cinespia. Check them out at Cinespia.org. for a calendar of screenings.

It’s that time of the night after plenty of dancing and drinking, and things are slowly coming to a close. We all start fading things out of whatever’s left that hasn’t been consumed and emptied. During a long shift, packing up at the end on a 4-tier property like this is a little more on the strain than we’d care to admit. But we do it as the finish line is near. I chat with the caretaker one more time before we call it a night. He’s a great guy and loves the property, so you know it’s being well taken care of until the next time we get the call to come over and do it all again.

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“Quiet on the Set” – Stories and Encounters by Kyle Branche

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Occasionally, I get the call to work bar gigs at the various movie studios here in L.A., whether it be Culver City, Studio City or Universal City. There are others, like Warner Brothers/Burbank studios, but some have their own sort of built-in culinary catered event department on the lot when they occur somewhat consistent, using an on-call staff in-house. They rarely go outside the walls unless it’s either a large event or one with very short notice.

Universal is like that to a degree, but once in a while I get to sneak in if the show’s offices has their own budget and petty cash. It all depends on the timing of everything, last minute or plenty of notice with advance booking. The studio lots are like very busy production villages all to themselves. They don’t let you in the gates unless they know exactly what you’re doing there. And parking can often be a ways away. I may be able to drop my bar gear off at the stage door, but I may end up walking a distance back.

When I have a call time to arrive, it’s always good to get on site up to a half-hour early to allow for the unexpected that can suck up minutes, just in case. Through the gates I get my pass, stage number and directions. Sometimes I can set up early, and if they’ve requested me to bring my own custom bar set-up, that means extra dragging time with a few more trips back and forth. I may have to wait for prep if the bar is close to the set and they’re already taping with a live audience. The many variables that you don’t know until you get there.

The beverage product could be right there close by or it could be at a major schlepping distance, like someone’s production office. However, the studios usually have plenty of help hanging around wanting something to do, and these days I have no problem accepting help from others, especially those who make good money with the union along with health insurance and other perks and bennies that I don’t have.

You notice with unions that employees have a tendency to work together as a team, covering and having each other’s backs, unlike the private sector where it’s more shark infested. I like their upside a lot better than I do my downside!  The idea and feeling of being taken care of is very motivating to me, makes me want to do more, not less. But the Food and Beverage industry is not of the same mindset to take care of their own, unfortunately.

Given its size of overall work force throughout the country, you’d think it would be of automatic necessity. It’s just the opposite. Hospitality as a whole prefers not to have strong, dedicated people they can rely on for long term. Let’s put it this way – they talk it, but they don’t walk it, and they certainly don’t back it. It must have something to do with seeing these various positions as menial tasks of work regarded as servile, when in reality they are very much respected professions of physical labor and mental work. Just ask Europe.

Now if I can just figure out where the ice bags are?

Craft Cocktail 2

        One of the first gigs I got on the set was a final season episode wrap party for the TV comedy series “Less Than Perfect”, starring Eric Roberts, Andy Dick, and Sara Rue over at CBS Studio Center on Radford Ave. in Studio City. I remember being right off the soundstage and having to set up very quietly while it was all happening live. After each take I could move more freely, but as soon as I heard the words “Quiet on the Set”, I become the silent mover in the shadows. I bring my rubber hex floor mats for the back bar so, if something drops, it won’t break and will barely register a sound that reverberates any distance at all. I may bring a lot of tools with me, but it’s for good reason. The production assistants appreciate it.

Following the last scene of the script, you hear the words “It’s a Wrap”. The pressure of the set is relieved, and it’s party time. A few chosen winners are plucked out of the audience to join in the festivities and mingle with the stars, the DJ starts up the music, the food catering floor staff begins passing appetizers, and I start making drinks at rapid pace, handling it all solo behind the bar. It’s always hectic at first until you catch up to the wave, and then you just ride it into shore.

This position I have and maintain is pretty much front and center with everyone attending; producers, directors, actors, cameramen, grips, assistants, office personnel, audience members, you name it. I have to be on my best energetic game. There is no option with only one of me behind the bar that all are counting on to pull it off. The eyes are on me once again, but I can focus and execute with the best of them. When you have enough experience doing one thing for so long, you can dial it in pretty tight, making the performance right on the mark.

It was great to meet Eric Roberts when he came to the bar. He was very nice, cordial and even asked how I was doing. People must see the comfortable couch and smile in my eyes when I’m working, easy to approach and chat up. I love it when the bar becomes the hanging-out point.

Craft Cocktail 4

        Years ago I got called to be one of several bartenders for the Producers Guild Awards that were held on the lot of the Culver Studios in Culver City, which is just northeast of MGM Studios. It was literally held in the huge stage where many movie classics were shot, including “Citizen Kane”, “Gone with the Wind”, the original “King Kong” with Fay Wray, “E.T.,” and Hitchcock’s “Notorious”. But this was only one of 13 soundstages on the property. So many more movies and even TV shows were shot here, including “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Batman”, “Gomer Pyle”, “The Twilight Zone” with Rod Serling, “Lassie”, “The Andy Griffith Show”, and the pilot episodes of the original “Star Trek”.

We get there very early to unload and set-up, everyone lending a helping hand with the beverages for a guest count of hundreds. This was one of those size parties where the more the merrier doesn’t quite apply on our end. There can be an overload of initial product in to cover, and depending on what doesn’t get used up, could be equally taxing when it’s the end of the night. We usually pray we’re so busy that there’s nothing left for us to re-box and load back. I remember it was chilly and rainy out that evening, as this event takes place at the beginning of the year when it’s still officially winter in Southern Cal. The bones can get a little brittle in knowing that our body adjustment to cold weather here is the same as someone else’s skin being adapted to living in Minnesota, except thirty more degrees closer to zero!

They were serving full plated dinner at the tables, so there’s a point where the bar slows down in the middle of the evening, and we take turns with breaks for a few to avoid sleeping standing up like horses. Gigs can be busy all the way through or it can have a series of ups and downs, you only know about half the time going in. It would be great if all the bars would be in the main room surrounding the tables, it might help us keep busier with the guests knowing there in quicker walking range, but they would also be in the peripheral camera eye, so the floor waiters have to put on the extra mileage to keep the show looking clean and wholesome.

Last year I worked the actual set bar for a live audience table reading with the cast of “Hot in Cleveland” back at CBS in Studio City, I think it was Stage 19. There were three of us bartenders for this gig, so Andrea and Daniel worked alongside me at this medium-length bar with a walk space in between. With almost 200 guests invited, the studio can easily afford a slight overstaff when they deem necessary, making my job a little easier sharing the duties, with the same pay.

A Cabaret friend, actress and performer at The Gardenia club, Robyn Spangler, was part of the reading, and showed up with her husband to say hello before she had to hit the stage. This also takes me back to when I used to see Valerie Bertinelli at Lakeside Golf Club, and now she’s back in the game, on this show. It’s interesting to work a sort of shell bar on the set where the front and top is the real deal, but the back under bar is not of normal use, you get to see a lot of props and leftover knick-knacks gathering dust until their next use on-camera.

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        A couple months after, I was called back there on another soundstage, in a makeshift living room/lounge area for the executives, with no ceiling, as just on the other side of the thin wall they were taping the pilot episode of a new comedy show called “Only Fools and Horses”, that starred Christopher Lloyd, John Leguizamo, and Wendi McClendon-Covey from “Reno 911”. This shoot was a basic pass or fail, with the onlooker suits watching a live tape feed linked into a large TV monitor/screen in the room where I was cornered to pour.

In fact, the director of the show was actor and ex-L.A. Ram defensive end, Fred Dryer, His voice saying “Action” and “Cut” several times over was easily recognizable. This 30-minute pilot took nearly 4 hours to complete shooting. It was a pretty funny show, but with this includes all the re-takes, forgetting or screwing up lines of dialogue, and hearing Leguizamo cussing at himself. To think the bank these performers make, yet the script and marks still have to be memorized and hit, and the money doesn’t improve the memory. On top of that, you still have to act. It made for a long, drawn out night for me, especially with only mild activity at the bar. One executive came over to me a few times with rolling eyes that told me “Get this over with so I can go home”. The show was cool, but I don’t think it received the green light for a season’s worth.

Late last year and early this year, I got the call on two different occasions, during weeknights (Tues, Wed, etc) which is perfect, of which the other studio gigs were the same so it doesn’t clash with my weekend work, to bring my custom bar and set-up inside the production offices of the show “Guys with Kids” up at Universal City for episode and season wrap parties, with the hope they’ll get picked up for another season. It was great to meet the crew; Anthony Anderson, Jesse Bradford, Tempest Bledsoe, along with the creators and writers, and saying hello to Jamie-Lynn Sigler (The Sopranos) on the stairs up put a nice lift in my step. She’s just as gorgeous in person.

Their offices are like a creative playground, with three massive bean bags and other toys. I set the bar up right on the outside of the office where the long table sits the various show writers and all the 3×5 cards stuck to a wall board taking you scene-by-scene through the episode. I love to see and learn the process of all the inner workings of the entertainment business. There’s no doubt had I grown up in L.A., I would have been in the business in some capacity, either in back or in front of the camera. However, with my look and baby face, I should probably feel grateful not getting eaten up and thrown out as a child actor. Instead, I’m the pleasant observer putting cocktails in hand.

Back in 2007, also up at Universal, I worked both in the production offices and up on the roof for parties for then President of NBC-Universal Television, Katherine Pope. She was very nice, and I ended up working a couple gatherings at her home as well. She’s now the executive producer of the TV series “Touch” with Kiefer Sutherland. Now that I think about it, I’ve also worked a couple private party gigs at the home of Amanda Segel, who is now the supervising producer of the show “Person of Interest”, but back when I saw her last I think she was co-producing the last two seasons of “Without a Trace”. Shows come and go to the activity and rating numbers of the viewers.

It’s funny, as I write this story, I get a call today from a service I work out of to possibly pull a 10-12 hour bar gig at old Paramount Studios over on Melrose, for a whiskey brand that’s doing some sort of sponsored event expecting close to 250 people throughout the day and eve. That’s a long-ass haul, as I may have to bring my own bar again along with other details and particulars to solo manage. This call also reminded me that I worked a gig there almost 10 years ago that I forgot, and then jogged my memory even further that I once worked at Raleigh Studios as well. That’s as far back as I can remember, which now means the only major studio I haven’t worked a bar gig is at Warner Brothers in Burbank. Strange, because I used to serve drinks to the executives when I was at Lakeside Golf Club, just across the street from the studio. So close, yet so far away. But now that I think deeper, something tells me I did a day thing there a long time ago. Hmm, oh well . . . end of memory.

Craft Cocktail 3