Sunday, August 26, 2007

This is my Dad's story ...

Los Angeles Time Machines

is not the most elegant of titles but apt for one of the great websites in the making, chronicling the rise and fall of bars and restaurants in the USA with emphasis on the Los Angeles area. I came across it while looking for references to HMS Bounty, the kitschy restaurant my family owned and around which my life revolved for many years. The Bounty, its present owner Ramon Castaneda and former owners including my late father, Gordon Fields (the short guy above with sometime U.S. senator John V. Tunney) and the inestimable Dick O'Neill (immediate background) are spoken of very highly and at great length on this site. The anonymous author seems obsessed with detail and accuracy so I am going to help wherever I can , beginning with this blog entry, in the form of an open letter!

Hey, man!

I am the late Gordon (Gordie) Fields' son. I have known Dick O'Neill all my life, worked on and off as the maitre d' at the Bull 'n Bush and HMS Bounty from 1977-87. I last saw Dick a few years ago at El Adobe. He had slowed down quite a bit.

Following my father's death on 18 October 1998 (You list Oct. 30) I was briefly president of the corporation that owned both the Bull and the Bounty, W.O.F., Inc..

My father was the managing partner of both restaurants.

He was formerly the manager and sometime bartender at the Blarney Castle on Western Avenue (You mention a different, unknown to me bar). My father proudly maintained his union bartender status for as long as I can remember.

When my father came up with the business plan for the Bull 'n Bush, he was ridiculed. Conventional wisdom had it that a location on 7th or 8th Streets would be more beneficial, 6th being then a nondescript thoroughfare in the early 50's. This was before mid Wilshire briefly boomed, climaxed by the Equitable building development and the destruction of the Chapman Park hotel (for a parking lot).

The cross street, Kenmore, had a line of double story white clapboard 1920's apartment buildings, extending from the Bull to the Gaylord.

My father's sister, my Aunt Lois, was the soon to be Mrs Rodney Pantages. Yes, I grew up running around both the Bull 'n Bush and the Pantages Theatre!

Rodney Pantages turned down my father for a $10,000 investment, as did my father's second wife, my stepmother Mimi. So my father turned to an attorney called James West and Dick O'Neill to come aboard as silent partners, each putting up $10,000. West was bought out in the 1960's, in my recollection. Ron Waller was a close friend of my father's but he was not a partner in the restaurant as you incorrectly state.

To my father's credit, he did not cut out Dick when he saw the opportunity to take over what had been Dale's Secret Harbor (I have never heard it referred to as Dimsdale's Secret Harbor as you do). In any case, what made the Bounty successful where previous incarnations had failed was that my father brought PARKING to the table.

The magnificent Gaylord has no parking.

Going back to the late 1950's, the Bull 'n Bush also did not have its own parking. The original rented lot used was across Kenmore.

But as each one of those white clapboard houses came up for sale, my father bought them and tore them down to provide parking. One house, the third lot on Kenmore was spared for a number of years as my father's mother, Dorothy Withers, daughter of infamous Little Josie Dupree of Barbary Coast fame, was installed in an upstairs apartment to keep an eye on things!

The Bull 'n Bush opened with just one small dining room and was an overnight sensation.. As the years went by, the restaurant took over more and more of the neighboring shops to provide additional dining rooms. Right up until the half city block was demolished for a largely Korean pod mall, my father had an old fashioned Chinese laundry as a tenant, I'm sure paying an anachronistic amount of rent.

The addition of the Bounty in 1962 made sense as the back office operations could be run from the Bull and it could provide additional capacity.

What transpired was somewhat different : with Mid Wilshire's ascendancy as a business district in the 1960's, H.M.S. Bounty became a pre-eminent power lunch
spot, home of the proverbial 5 or even 10 martini lunch. For 20 odd years, the place was jammed every lunchtime.

The glorious 60's : my father Gordon I Fields and stepmother Mimi pictured at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, located across Wilshire Blvd. from
H.M.S. Bounty restaurant

Whereas the Bull had a reputation for being a macho sports hang out, the Bounty soon became "the" pick up bar in L.A., with hundreds of single women living nearby in the newly constructed apartment complexes between 6th and 3rd streets. Dinner almost became an afterthought, as the Bounty was wall to wall people during the cocktail hour(s); indeed, a likely move would be to get
happy at the Bounty before having dinner at The Cove (inexplicably missed in your round up of classic restaurants in that neighborhood) or The Windsor around the corner or even next door at the Brown Derby.

Yes, there was bookmaking going on. After a big sports day, the back bar (actually the front bar) at the Bull resembled a bookmaker's convention. When the Dodgers came to L.A., my father was front and center buying the most desirable 1st base season tickets. Gordie had 50 yard line tickets for the Coliseum. He would run buses from the Bull parking lot to the major sporting events. The restaurant would be a zoo for hours after the fans returned, especially as often the visiting team would come in! Dick O'Neill loved being one of the boys and riding a school bus out to the game; afterwards, he would sit by himself at a small table, eating one of the Bull 'n Bush's famous steaks. My Dad would be running the mayhem at the bar, telling joke after joke, making introductions, defining the raucous atmosphere. The restaurant's regular clientele, those who came in like clockwork every Sunday evening would just love it. There would be heavy hitters like Jess Unruh (responsible for the saying "Money is the mother's milk of politics", veteran newsman Bill Stout, one night hall of famer Dick Butkus held court at a table in front, effectively blocking all foot traffic.

One of the public payphones inside a booth at the Bull was constantly ringing. There was a veritable nest of bookies : a guy called Haack was apparently a big wheel,; a short guy Vic working the back bar, another cohort was George Silo. I remember being invited by Silo to his record store in downtown L.A. in the late 1970's and not being able to understand its commercial viability; it was only decades later that I found out there was a bookmaking operation in the back!

Silo made the move to the Bounty after the Bull closed and was inexplicably run over crossing Wilshire Blvd one night. But one bookie did take the proverbial fall : the waiter, Tommy Palma.

To backtrack a bit : These restaurants had old world professional waiters. And they were exclusively men and they were hungry. Just as my father was on a mission in working his tail off in the early 50's to earn the grub stake required for opening his own joint.

There was Merle, right out of riding the rails in the 1930's with his wife out of the roarin' 20's with a horse racing habit to support, too. The half German, half Mexican Joe Roman, out of Texas, who had worked from 1949 at the Blarney Castle with my father up until the 90's at the Bounty. He financed the American dream from his tips. With a nod to the elegant HMS Bounty of the 1960's. there was Dave Wiseman the maitre d' who would have fit in at The Windsor or Perino's, flanked by bartender Hank Sievers who had known my father as Gordon Fleishman at Hamilton High in the late 1930's. Hungriest of all was Leo Egan, from a well to do family in pre-war Poland, survivor of Auschwitz. His work was wonderfully rewarded by the success of his new American family replacing the one lost in the holocaust. His son Sam Egan is an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter.

Finally, working the tables numbered in the 30's was Tommy Palma. If any man had bad habits that needed to be fed, it was Tommy. Yet he had the most devoted following among high powered businessmen in the Wilshire corridor who would only sit at his tables and sit and sit; so long as Tommy made sure his guys got their drinks from the bar, the food could wait. But it was Tommy who got popped for bookmaking, major.

Tommy took the fall for some much bigger fish but never ratted. He did time and by the time of his release the Bull was in its death throes and Tommy proceeded to drink himself to death at the Bounty.

By the 1990's, very, very few of the advertising agencies, insurance brokers were left in the neighborhood and the Bounty lunch business had almost completely vanished. There was now a Bull 'n Bush end of the Bounty bar where the survivors from down Kenmore would spend their afternoons, anchored by my father at the window. At dinner time there was some low spending residual business from the Gaylord habitues, average age of 70+. Most remarkable of all, was the absence of off street parking for the evening business. The packed Happy hours were a distant memory.

The L.A. riots of 1992 changed the entire equation. Panicked middle aged children rushed to pick up their aged parents and their belongings from the Gaylord, as columns of smoke rose from a few city blocks away.

During this decade, the Gaylord changed from being essentially an old folks' home to becoming a hip address for young professionals. The Bounty was only kept alive during this critical transition period owing to Gordie Fields wanting a place to hang out in during his dotage. The restaurant had long ceased to make money and it was only personal loans from him to the corporation that kept the doors open.

However, the seeds of the Bounty's renaissance had been planted. A private party had been thrown by a young lawyer from upstairs in the Gaylord and soon 2 or 3 nights a week, there would essentially be a party open to all comers, starting around 11 pm and continuing to 1:30 am with a view to closing at the legal closing time of 2 a.m..

Just these half dozen or so hours a week were enough to keep HMS Bounty open at the time of Gordon Fields' passing in 1998; Mr Fields would see the bar receipts and bottle breakage the following morning and wonder what was going on. He never saw the action, usually leaving the business by the early evening. In fact, the restaurant's kitchen would serve a few dinners and be closed by 10 pm missing the "rush".

Ramon's story is indeed a beautiful one and American in the best sense of the word. If my father had lived to be 100, Ramon would have continued to shadow his every step, ever the loyal retainer.

Much as the family would have wanted to continue as owners, HMS Bounty is only viable as an owner managed business and Ramon had decided to go it alone. Ramon's biggest potential problem was the restaurant lease held by George Harb (Angelo Mozilo's tailor!) but the indefatigable Mr Harb has proven a wonderful landlord since Gordon Fields' passing. Dick O'Neill still owned 50% but indicated that he would give his shares to Ramon. The Fields family not only gave Ramon their controlling interest but forgave 80% of the debt owed by the corporation to the Fields estate. Humble as always, Ramon is still prone to calling me (his junior by some years) "jefe" on the now rare occasion when I am able to visit. It does not surprise me that Ramon would still refer to Dick as an owner.


Robbie Fields


Anonymous said...

Great reading!

My father was a regular at the HMS Bounty and frequented The Windsor and Dales Secret Harbor as well. He was an insurance broker and his company often lodged clients across the street at The Ambasador. I can recall my dad dragging me along with him during my summer vacations from school and we would often wind up at The Boutny, my dad drinking scotch and working the phone brought to his table, and my drinking Shirly Temples and wondering who all these people were.

Bookmaking, it all makes sense now.

Thanks a lot for a great read!

N.Harren said...

Hi Robbie, You will likely be interested in the exhibition I've organized with LA artist Chris Lipomi, now on view through Feb 4, 2012. We've rearranged the Bounty interior and hung the Bull 'n Bush crest in the Variety building across from LACMA, along with information about the Bounty and B 'n B history. Cheers! -- N. Harren