Well, here we go! For many years people have encouraged me to write and share my memories about working at the Boathouse restaurant on the Pier in the early 1990s. All of the memorable people, all of the hard-to-believable events, and all of that charm from a time when both Santa Monica and its pier were a little more laid-back, a lot less frenzied. There were no smart phones and no social media – life wasn’t constantly being recorded and shared instantaneously – but we created and lived vivid and memorable stories nonetheless. Those formative years as a PIER RAT would forge who I am today, inspired by great mentors during a period when all of Los Angeles seemed to make the big headlines, while our little community at the Santa Monica Pier simply lived, laughed and loved. Welcome to my tales of the Sunset Lounge.
Qualified? – Pt. 1
“Well, that interview basically sucked,” I said to myself as I walked out of the small animal veterinary office and toward my car. I had been in southern California for two weeks, ever since Labor Day, living with my uncle in Newport Beach after graduating with a BA in Fine Arts just a few months earlier. The goal was to take a year off of school before going to law school – presumably in Kansas – while pursuing some prospective acting and writing opportunities. At the same time, I needed to find a job and an apartment. It was the fall of 1989, though, and the job market wasn’t exactly promising for an “arts & parties” major fresh out of college. Telemarketing jobs were numerous, but who really wanted to sit around and call people all day? Today’s interview with the veterinary clinic in Marina del Rey seemed like a good fit, for my father was a horse veterinarian back in Colorado and I spent my formative years assisting him. The interview went very much as expected, with me sharing with the doctor-in-charge my many tales of helping my father, plus answering affirmatively to all of his questions about using syringes and applying ointments. Then came the verdict. He drew a deep breath before saying, “I’m afraid that I cannot hire you.” Before I could ask why, he continued, “You are far too overqualified for what I’m offering, and I think you would become bored here.”
Overqualified… So, I wondered, how would I rate as a telemarketer?
The veterinary clinic was next door to a bar called Sports Harbour, and for a moment I contemplated going in for a beer. But I was due to meet up with an old family friend/client of my father’s on the Santa Monica Pier, so I let that idea slide as I continued toward my 1980 Chevy Citation. Reaching the car, I threw my briefcase on the passenger seat, took off my tie and jacket, and found my way to the Marina Freeway, then to the 405 Freeway, and ultimately to the 10 Freeway. Two weeks in southern California and I was already deep into memorizing which number led you to where and what its corresponding nickname was, with the 10 being known as the Santa Monica Freeway. Off to the Santa Monica Pier I went!
I reached for my hand-scribbled directions, with the next note reading “Exit at 4th & 5th Street, then turn right on either 4th or 5th, then left on Colorado”. Easy to remember, I chuckled, since I grew up in Colorado! I chose 4th Street, for no particular reason other than the convenience of the lane, and then turned left to gain my first real impression of Santa Monica.
This Colorado corridor featured a large, vintage-looking Sears building on the left side and an even larger, far more contemporary shopping mall called Santa Monica Place on the right side. Directly in front of me glistened the Pacific Ocean and , framed in the middle of the path ahead, was a large, arched blue sign with the neon lettering SANTA MONICA YACHT HARBOR.
Had I not already been informed that Santa Monica Yacht Harbor and Santa Monica Pier were one-and-the-same, I would likely have turned right, or left, upon reaching the sign, for I’m certain that many uniformed tourists arriving at this particular location for the first time were baffled by the misinforming signage and embarked upon an unintentional journey up and down Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue, searching for the mysterious Pier. To add to their confusion, a glimpse at the ocean would indicate no yachts or other boats at all, leaving them to question the very existence of a yacht harbor. Fortunately for me, I had the inside-information from my friend, Patti Sheffield.
Several months earlier, back in my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, while preparing for my final exams at Mesa State College, I happened to have dinner with Patti and her husband, Richard. My parents occasionally invited their last clients of the day to their home for dinner, since many of these horse owners lived many miles away and had a long evening’s drive ahead of them. While I was not living at my parents’ house at the time, I happened to drop by for dinner – you know, the poor starving college student! During dinner our conversation turned toward my plans, my ultimate goal of going to law school and, eventually, my decision to move to the Los Angeles area after the summer. Richard’s face slowly broke into a classic and wonderfully wry smile as he leaned over to Patti and said, “There’s your new manager.” Before he even finished that short sentence, Patti mirrored his smile as she looked at me and asked what I plan to do in Los Angeles, to which I revealed my plans about acting, writing and finding a job. She had just inherited a restaurant called the Boathouse on the Santa Monica Pier, she said, and she would be happy to give me a job! With all eyes on me, I politely declined the offer, saying that I was not interested in working in the restaurant business. In my head, as I said those words, I imagined a dinky little shack atop a dilapidated old pile of wood within a smelly old marina. Now, these several months later, I had agreed to go meet Patti for dinner at the Boathouse, just to catch up.
The light to cross Ocean Avenue turned green, so I pressed on and drove under the YACHT HARBOR sign along the ramp that would deliver me onto this long aforementioned pier. I reached the pinnacle point where I could finally catch sight of the pier and, behold…
Well, it was a lot bigger than I had originally imagined. It was very wide and had many aging buildings upon it, creating sort of an old neighborhood strip mall feel. But it was short, and very little of it even extended out over the ocean… There was, at the very end of it, a massive construction presence, with two steel girders running out into the ocean and supporting a large crane. Much of that end area was walled with chain link fence and there were pickup trucks parked along the rail between the crane and the pier. Okay, so it wasn’t the dilapidated pile of wood that I had originally imagined, but was this true version really any better?
I turned into the vast parking lot behind the pier’s row of buildings, took a ticket from the parking attendant and parked the Citation. I was hit with a case of sticker shock when I realized that the cost to park was five dollars, but then I recalled that Patti told me she could validate my parking so that the cost would be lowered to two dollars. Whew! I opened the door and set my first two steps on the asphalt-covered pier. It was an overall unremarkable experience, for this was certainly not the first time that my feet stood upon asphalt. Still, there was something unique about that first moment that I stood on the Santa Monica Pier and breathed in the salt air. I had been to the ocean many times before, but this had a very different feeling that I could not quite place. It felt… new.
My arrival was about an hour earlier than I had arranged to meet up with Patti, so I decided to take some time to walk around and discover whatever could be discovered at the Santa Monica Pier. I grabbed my briefcase from inside the car – a friend once told me never to leave anything inside my car in Los Angeles lest it be stolen, even from a locked car – and went for a walk. Clearly the least attractive part of the pier, at least as far as any of the businesses was concerned, was the south side, facing the parking lot. Chipped paint, battered window frames and rows of trash dumpsters were the primary décor on this side – not much to see here. So I immediately made my way out of the parking lot and toward the main walkway on the north side. I chose to walk inland first, to look at the building that I had passed while driving into the parking lot. A few cafes – Jack’s, Santa Monica Pier Seafood and the Crown & Anchor – formed a little restaurant row, at the end of which was a small theater called The Waterfront Stage. “Nice!” I thought, imagining that I could perhaps share my acting and writing abilities right here. After that was a large, funky tan building with blue trim and a silver, inverted-funnel-shaped roof. A quick look through the building’s many windows revealed a carousel inside. “Now, that’s cool,” I said to myself. Having reached this eastern end of the pier, I turned around to take my journey to the opposite end. After the little restaurant row was the parking booth – been there, discovered that already – and then a tiny little hut called Clara’s, in which they proudly sold hot dogs and churros through a walkup window. Across from Clara’s – on the north side – was the Boathouse, which I would be visiting soon. Continuing west I encountered the Beachcomber Gift Shop, Doreena’s Fortune Telling and a series of blue and white walled booths that hosted midway games. Suddenly the place was becoming more and more interesting! Continuing on, there was Surf View Café, then a video game arcade called Playland, followed by an impressive but vacant two-story red building with Sinbad’s painted on its side, then the American Grill and, finally, some good old-fashioned bumper cars. And then, of course, the crane! I wondered what wonders were in store when the construction project was someday complete.
I made my way back to the Boathouse, passing by a trailer and a small shack along the way. The trailer housed the Harbor Patrol, which, with the noticeable lack of boats in the area, seemed out of place. It did provide the weather report on a small chalkboard by its door, though, which assured that it was useful. The shack was Oatman Rock Shop, and outside of it were a couple of folding tables adorned with jewelry, postcards and other assorted souvenirs. A few feet eastward past the Rock Shop was a huge gathering of seagulls, each diving toward a man clad in faded denim from head to toe. As I got closer to him I noticed that he was feeding the birds Cheetos with orange-stained fingers, his face alight with a joyful expression usually reserved only for the faces of children. Just before reaching the Boathouse I encountered a number of life-size blown-up photographs of celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Suzanne Somers accompanied by a photographer who was at-the-ready to take your photograph, for a price.
And then I came upon my destination, the Boathouse. The only real building on the north side of the pier, the Boathouse had a certain distinct appeal in that its background – no matter where you viewed it from – was either the Pacific Ocean or the hills of Malibu. It was distinctly and undeniably Californian. The building, though, was an architectural oddity in that it looked like it was either a jumbled-together collection of structures that had been joined together or a series of add-ons to an original structure (I would not find out until much later that it was the latter). It wasn’t an eyesore, though. On the contrary, it seemed to fit in perfectly with the mixture of buildings and businesses that I had just passed by during my self-guided tour – it was sort of the north side of the pier’s mirrored homage to the south side. The building was dark brown with large white BOATHOUSE letters and an orange awning over the front door – a door on which the window was actually a porthole. Two larger faux-portholes adorned the westernmost – and clearly newest – extension of the building. An elevated ledge lined the front of the Boathouse and supported a six-foot high old-fashioned light housing, a large anchor and chain and a ship’s canon that could have easily been part of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. All of these were painted black, with a few rusty areas where paint had chipped off. Somehow that rust had a chameleon-like affect in that its color matched that of the brown building.
Walking through the front door revealed an interior that was just as perplexing as the exterior, for it was clearly just sections pieced together with little continuity. The entrance was a narrow hallway, about six-feet long, decorated with old photographs and newspaper articles. The hallway seemed to pull you in as if it was a sloped ramp, for in fact it did have a bit of an incline, but the force let go of you as the hallway ended. This release came not a moment too soon as, just beyond the end of the hallway a downward-bound stairwell greeted all who entered like a huge, gaping mouth. A sign stating DO NOT ENTER hung from a red-velvet cable attached to each side wall, the front teeth of the stairwell’s smile. Another sign, this one fixed on a post to the left of the stairwell and framed in nautical rope, read PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED. The paradox did not stop with the signage. Once you finally entered into the establishment, locating your direction was easy. To the left, clearly, was the bar. Made obvious by the sunlight bursting through a kaleidoscope of liquor bottles lined along the window sills in the far northern corner, the sensory experience exploded as a breeze blew through the bar and slapped you in the face with the aroma of stale beer and cigarette smoke. To the right of the hallway, mostly removed from the glorious ocean view, was the dining area that felt old and cold. Half of it was large, dark room with standard table-and-chair setups, while the other half was an aisle along the north side of the building with thirteen booths along each side, seven of which were against windows that provided a great view of Malibu. Of the two halves of the dining area, the booths were clearly more popular, and for obvious reasons. The division between bar and restaurant was, at best, challenging. A ledge that resembled a series of large windows ran from the first booth on the north side almost completely to the entrance, effectively and formidably dividing bar from restaurant.
With some time to kill, and since I was not going to be driving for until much later, I turned left, toward the bar. In doing so I noticed a dark brown oar hanging above the bar entrance. Upon it was inscribed:
TO BEN DESIMONE:
CONGRATULATIONS ON SURVIVING THE EL NIÑO STORMS OF1983.
-YOUR LOYAL PATRONS OF THE SUNSET LOUNGE
Keeping with a consistent theme, the bar area was also unlike any that I’d ever seen before. The height of the actual bar was low, proper height for seating in standard chairs as opposed to bar stools. I deduced that this allowed the rest of the restaurant ample access to the extraordinary view of the beach, ocean and pier through the wall-sized windows on the restaurant’s western side. The floor upon which the bartender stood dropped so that there was not an awkward height disadvantage; the bartender remained at eye-level with the customer. The length of the bar ran the length of the entire west wall – the window wall. In the northwest corner it made a sharp 90-degree turn and ran another fifteen feet along the north wall. It was a giant letter “L”, plotted perfectly for patrons to view the ocean. The bartender’s well and workstation was at the end of the shorter side of the “L”. A large window ran along the north wall, where the kaleidoscope of bottles sat upon the windowsill. On a shelf behind the bartender’s station was a cash register and, on the wall next to it, a hand-painted sign that read:
NEVER ARGUE WITH GOD
OR HIS BEST FRIEND BEN
Like thousands before me who also read that sign, I wondered just who the heck was Ben.
A small, elevated stage adorned the south side of the bar area, and on the wall behind it was a large, vintage ship’s steering wheel. In the middle of the bar area was a most unusual table, clearly custom-made and shaped basically like an eight-legged centipede. This allowed for two people to sit at each leg of the centipede and fashioned such that you could look toward the ocean and Malibu during the daylight hours, then turn directly around and watch a live band at night. Clever? Maybe. Unique? Absolutely. Smart? Well… I’m no expert, but the design sure seemed like a head-scratcher to me. Every surface – bar and tabletop – was covered with yellow Formica, presumably to keep the atmosphere light.
There were just a few customers in the bar – an elderly couple sat at the end of the lengthy stretch of the “L”, staring out the window, eyes squinting as they stared at the sun’s rays dancing atop the ocean. Every few moments they would look at each other and smile. They were clearly in love. On the shorter side of the “L” sat another man, mid-40’s, whom I guessed to be a surfer by the looks of his shoulder-length hair, square shoulders and long, tanned face. His posture matched that of the chair he sat in, a perfect pair. He, too, was mesmerized by the glistening sea. I looked back into the restaurant area and noticed a few diners, each at those window tables with the view. Everyone stared outward, peaceful. There was a pattern among the customers who frequented this place, to be sure.
Seeing no sign of my friend Patti, I approached the bartender, a buxom woman whose face was at once sweet and hard, a characteristic developed from years of working the trade, I surmised. Before I could ask, she smiled and, with a thick Irish brogue, asked, “Are ya lookin’ fer somebody?”
I told her I was looking for Patti.
“Ah! Yer her friend Jimmy, aren’t ya?” I nodded to confirm and was about to speak when she continued, “She said ya were comin’, but she had ta step out for a little bit. She’ll be back, though. I’m Rita. D’ya wanna beer?”
“Sure, uh, Rita. A Coors Light,” I said, looking around the room again, not really sure what I should do. Having a beer seemed like a good idea, though, and I wouldn’t be driving back to Newport Beach until after dinner.
“We don’t have it,” she snapped my train of thought, “Just Bud, Bud Light and Michelob.”
“Oh, a Bud Light, then.”
“Sit anywhar’s ya like,” Rita directed, then pointed to a chair just a couple of seats away from the surfer. “That seat’s a good’un. Sit there.” I complied, and set down my briefcase beside me. No sooner was I seated than a pint of draft beer was placed in front of me. I reached for my wallet, but the bartender halted me. “Yer a friend of Patti’s. Yer money’s no good here.”
I thanked her as she walked away, then looked out the window. “This place was pretty cool,” I thought, “fun surroundings, a quirky atmosphere, a cool bar with a magnificent view.” The mirror-ball effect of the suns rays reflecting off of the choppy ocean began to consume me, pulling me into a daydream as my appreciation grew, “I could really like it here.”
Next Week: Qualified? – Part 2
Archived in the Sunset Lounge