“And Barney is the level-headed St. Anthony, who packs a generous heart and mind for all who come to his place, whether they be tycoons of the Motion Picture Industry, star actors or writers or if they be humble extras or the cab driver on the midnight shift.”
– Pepe Romero, 1957
Chile on an Indian trail. Route 66 Diner. Juke Joint/Pool Hall. ’50s Beatnik hangout. A drag ‘n’ eat pad. A place where movie people go to let their hair down. Home base of screenwriters, authors and Pop Artists. Watering hole for rock ‘n’ roll legends, greater Los Angeles area residents and visitors from exotic locales reading tour guides about Hollywood. Barney’s Beanery is all of these rolled into one, an esoteric and inclusionary delight in an increasingly exclusive tinsel town. A timeless, last bastion of the freewheelin’ American West, and constant spirit of the open frontier that remains, historically, L.A..
As a business, Barney’s Beanery took root in Berkeley, California. A Los Angeles native, John “Barney” Anthony attended the University of California at Berkeley for his education. Enlisting in the Navy during World War I, Barney served his special blend of chili burgers and onion soup to soldiers. On return to Northern California in 1918, he tried his hand as a boxing manager before opening his first Beanery, for men only, in 1920. “It was rough going at first” he described in a 1950s interview. “I did everything myself. The cooking, serving, marketing. I washed the dishes and scrubbed the floors.”
The warm climate played a major part in Barney’s decision to relocate his Beanery to its current location in 1927. At the time, this stretch of the old Route 66 was still “out in the toolies.” Both Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard had originally been Indian trails, with the 66 annex stretching from Chicago to L.A. The area surrounding Barney’s Beanery was primarily a huge Poinsettia field. But business was good in these pioneering days, as the rows of discarded license plates above the bar attests. “These were left by travelers, who came out to California to find a better life” claims Lauren Taines. “Their symbolic gesture was to leave the original plates of their home state behind at the diner.”
This, perhaps was a reflection of a typical conversation with the owner. The restaurant’s down to earth atmosphere is a direct reflection of his personality. In 1945, Hollywood Nightlife magazine noted the way in which Barney treated his customers, as if they were buddies from the service. “Barney Anthony is a name known to most writers who at one time or another have been broke in this town. Barney has always made sure that they have had food and just a little cash to tide them over.” Another account from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner shows the tough guy as a man of compassion and understanding; “He listens to their problems, gives good advice when asked, but it is his manner more than his words that carries the conviction.” Barney was a realist, as his note at the bottom of the clipping, which he saved, reads “Hell, nobody is this wonderful!” Indeed, some of the license plates had been pulled for collateral on a dinner bill.
At the outset, Barney’s Beanery was not the sprawling, sectional playground that it is today. A 1942 description in Rob Wagner’s Script describes it as so; “It is a little wooden shanty, with a whole row of cheap floor lamps illuminating the counter, and a dinky little bar down at one end.” The Herald called it “a shack, on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Cienega, which has not greatly changed since I dropped in there one afternoon in 1929 for a hamburger and root beer.” Seemingly, the filmland community took a shine to Barney’s laissez-faire, early. The first movie star customer to Barney’s knowledge was Monte Blue. ’20s screen goddess Clara Bow, swashbuckling John Barrymore, and the original blonde bombshell from the ’30s, Jean Harlow, all made Barney’s Beanery a regular stop. Into the ’40s, the likes of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Hoot Gibson, Lawrence Tibbets and Gene Fowler were counted as familiar customers. Celebrities would cause no heads to turn, because the guy in the corner may have owned the studio at which they worked. Barney treated them all the same, according to Herald-Examiner columnist Mike Jackson; “You do not get that great big smile when you are up. And you don’t get the brush off when you are down. Barney has seen too many personalities through these ups & downs to be impressed by anyone.”
In Mexico, one newspaperman defined the local condition in Hollywood more succinctly. “Barney has listened to more problems for the last quarter of a Century than there are pebbles on all the beaches of the world” reminded Pepe Romero in 1957. “How many careers Barney has encouraged with a thought packed with horse-sense and a meal thrown in to boot? I would bet a thousand to one that Barney has saved a few lives when despair possessed someone and suicide was being planned – His strong arm and his powerful rebuke changed that – but fast.” Romero also pointed out Barney’s familiarity with the people of his homeland; “Whenever I’m there throughout the years Barney always asks, ‘How my pal ‘Indio’?’ (Emilio Fernandez, Mexico’s Ace Director.) Then he asks after Gaby Figueroa. and another Indio. Bedoya, the fine character actor. Then he tells me that Tony Samaniego (Ramon Navarro’s brother) was there last night.”
But the primary reason it all works is because of the food, which is pure American comfort. Waffles, pancakes, burgers, pizza, burritos and of course, chili. There are now (at least) 85 different beers to choose from, and 45 different kinds of chili. The first selling point of the restaurant that Barney loved to push was the onion soup. Food critic Richard Sharpe nailed its appeal in the early forties; “The onion soup is way beyond the scope of any French rotisserie in town, and they also give you enough oyster crackers with everything, for the first time in recorded history.” His assessment is in line with American spirit during World War II; “Rarest of all types of restaurants is a really good hamburgery. You would think that anything so simple would be bound to be delectable anywhere, but anybody with any taste buds left at all knows that the exact opposite is true, and that a beautiful hamburger is as rare as a benign Nazi.”
As the mid-century expansion of the fifties took place, the changes surrounding Barney’s Beanery were reflected within its walls. Still a movieland hangout, Barney took a step into futurism with a special rig for his regular clientele. “It is not generally known, but the old-fashioned coach lamp hanging in front of Barney’s Beanery has a gadget inside it installed by a radionics inventor from U.S.C.” reported Bill Kennedy in his Mr. L.A. column in a ‘55 issue of the Herald-Examiner. “Operating like a radio-controlled garage door, the coach lamp is able to pick up radio beam signals from as far away as 25 miles. By prearranged signals, messages flashed from a unit installed on a patron’s car can inform Barney just how many will be in the party, what they want to order, and how soon they’ll arrive. Among the celebrities who have installed a Beanery Beam are Lou Costello, Wayne Morris, Donald O’Connor, George Gobel, Otto Kreuger and Gloria Jean.” The times were really beginning to change. It was also in the ’50s that Barney added the extra rooms.
Changes also took place in the arts. The Big Bands of the original swing era were being shaved down to small bebop combos. Television had a symbolic relationship on both radio and films, and mainstream Hollywood was hit double by the realism that began to emerge from the foreign cinema. Black jazz musicians were no longer segregated by the musicians union, and Sunset Strip nightclubs such as the Renaissance, the Crescendo, the Purple Onion and Pandora’s Box began to resemble the beat scene that had originally thrived in Venice and Manhattan Beach. With James Dean looming nearby at the coffeehouse known as Chez Paulette, the loose feel around Barney’s Beanery weathered the transitional period without a hitch, almost.
Frequented by beatniks, rockin’ teens and the likes of Charles Bukowski, the aging Barney showed his impatience with the homosexual element that came with bohemian culture. This was first pointed out by a 1958 Torch Reporter column titled “Barney’s Unique Signs” that read “unique indeed – Bold, Black Letters on a Dusty Pink background read ‘FAGOTS – STAY OUT’ over the bar.” It was an issue that was not soon forgotten, though one account in The Los Angeles Times seemed to deflate its importance. “Nobody ever paid much attention to it” claimed David Barry in 1977. “Barney’s always had a regular gay clientele but it’s not a pickup joint. In the old, crazier days the sign was a joke to a clientele in such advanced stages of social decay that gender seemed an unnecessarily picky distinction.”
In fact, Barney’s Beanery was becoming a true outlet for counterculture freedom. The Pop Artists associated with the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega from the early to mid-sixties, inclusive of John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Mel Ramos, Dennis Hopper and Ed Ruscha, could be found at Barney’s Beanery regularly. This saw its most fully realized extension in the 1965 work by Ed Kienholz, The Beanery. It was justly described in Shana Alexander’s take on Batman-era Pop Art in her The Feminine Eye column for Life magazine; “Next I read that the Hollywood diner in which I often have coffee, Barney’s Beanery, has been reproduced by an avant-garde artist in plaster of Paris, complete with bacon smells, cooking sounds and papier-mâché customers, and proclaimed a 22-foot long, $25,000 work of art.”
Life was more aware in their 5-page spread on the piece. “Kienholz began thinking about making his own Beanery around 1958, but he didn’t do anything about it until August 28, 1964. On that day, on the newsstand outside Barney’s door, he caught sight of a headline: ‘Children Kill Children in Vietnam Riots.’ “It was that headline…” said Kienholz – the harsh contrast between the ‘real time’ symbolized by the newspaper and the ‘surrealist time’ of the escapists inside the bar – that got him going. Their heads are clocks whose hands are stopped at 10 past 10 – to suggest eyebrows, says Kienholz, but also to indicate that the denizens of the bar are all killing time.” In the work, Barney is the only person who has his own head on his shoulders.
A more recent assessment of the work by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) by Marge Bulmer categorizes the statement made by The Beanery; “Like Mark Twain, Kienholz was an American satirist and a moralist who could perceive the absurdity of the human condition. He was never politically correct. His art is blunt. The beauty in Kienholz’s art is in its very ugliness – the ugliness of the truth.” The debut of The Beanery actually took place in the Barney’s Beanery parking lot, and was then sent to the Dwan Gallery in New York. Since then, it has appeared in Amsterdam’s Royal Dutch Museum, which is fitting, since the actual Barney’s Beanery was given a portrait by Princess Margaret in 1960 for the opening of the restaurant’s “Crown Room.”
By 1965, the film industry had been temporarily eclipsed by the counterculture in Hollywood, and the nearby Sunset Strip was again the center of the action. The beat jazz scene of the ’50s had evolved on the Strip, and had absorbed the folk and rock ‘n’ roll music popular with the coming generation. The Byrds changed the Strip at its ground zero, Ciro’s, nearby at the corner of La Cienga and Sunset. Via the music of the Byrds, Bob Dylan’s protest songs and political message began to spread throughout popular music. For two and a half years, Hollywood, not San Francisco, was the motivating force behind the social revolution, with bands like Love and the Seeds defining flower power, an L.A. invention. Frank Zappa & the Mothers debuted at a club called the Action on Santa Monica Boulevard itself. Several blocks east at Crescent Heights, P.J.s featured garage punk godz the Standells and the Bobby Fuller Four as house bands. To the west on Santa Monica, the Troubadour (along with the Ash Grove on Melrose) represented the hotbeds of the local folk movement. From this creative environment, the Doors emerged with a logical extension of beat poetry and rock ‘n’ roll dynamics.
Barney’s Beanery was a natural magnet for people involved with the new scene. Thespians from Marlon Brando straight through to Jack Nicholson had gravitated to the respective art, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll scenes, and frequented Barney’s as part of these movements. In Datebook, Tom Carvey of the Everpresent Fullness featured it in his Hip Teen Guide to L.A.: “At about 3 a.m., Barney’s starts to get crowded. The people here are older; more the college and intellectual types, and many interesting discussions take place on a high level wave. They serve good apple pie and it’s a very friendly place.” In November of 1966, police harassment of kids with Beatlesque hair and mod clothing resulted in a riot at Pandora’s Box (Sunset & Crescent Heights.) The militaristic sweep of teen hangouts, for the most part, had extinguished L.A.’s momentum as the center of the counterculture revolution. The Ferus Gallery closed at around the same time, and the magnifying glass of the media began to focus their attention to the underground scene in San Francisco. Barney’s Beanery became one of several bomb shelters in the local area for what was now becoming nationally hyped as the hippie movement. Two of the main figureheads from Los Angeles and San Francisco, Jim Morrison of the Doors and Janis Joplin of Big Brother & the Holding Company, respectively, became the celebrities most associated with consistent patronage of Barney’s Beanery. Janis had a favorite booth; #34. Morrison had a penchant for teasing Joplin, and one incident commonly recalled is a catfight between the two, with the bawdy Joplin successfully belting the playfully demonic Morrison.
It’s no secret why the Doors frequented Barney’s Beanery. Their offices and their label (Elektra Records) were both nearby. With the fires of protest all around it, the time had come for Barney’s Beanery to experience it’s own trial by populous. On Saturday, February 7th, 1970, the Gay Liberation Front and other concerned organizations began picketing in front of Barney’s Beanery to have the “FAGOTS – STAY OUT” sign removed from the bar. In 1964, a Life magazine story on the emergence of the gay culture in public had featured a steadfast Barney posing in front of his sign. By the end of the decade, Erwin Held had acquired the restaurant from the estate of Barney C. Anthony, who had passed away on November 25th, 1968. Erwin contested that he wanted to keep the place close to original, as he had obtained it. The argument of oppression and discrimination was uncontestable, however, and the offending sign was removed in the mid-seventies and relocated to its current place in storage.
Former bartender Paul Brazier recalls another backlog legend in the transfer of ownership; “When Erwin took over, he was cleaning out a lot of the stuff upstairs, and they found a shoe box with a bunch of papers in it that had I.O.U.’s Barney had collected. Over the years, when people would come in, he’d write down on a little piece of paper as far as what they had, and what they owed him. He’d throw it in this little shoe box, and supposedly there was an I.O.U. from Clark Gable and several other people that went on to become big Hollywood stars.”
Firmly ensconced in the comfort zone with a bearded, longhaired clientele, employees at Barney’s Beanery were shocked and saddened to hear that after a typical night of partying at the bar, their friend, Janis Joplin, was found dead at the nearby Landmark Hotel, where she had overdosed on heroin. A year later, Jim Morrison also bid adieu to Los Angeles, and the planet, passing away in Paris. The roadhouse feel of Barney’s Beanery began to take on the mantle of its counterculture heritage. With the values of a new decade, Hollywood enjoyed a renaissance in film. Easy Rider, and other realist films such as The Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge and Chinatown were driven by the kind of anti-hero that we associate with the young crowd that embraced the restaurant. Another memorable event took place in 1970 down the street at the Troubadour, when British Blues Boom rockers Led Zeppelin sat in with British Folk group Fairport Convention. When the jam session was over, the entire entourage made it over to Barney’s Beanery for another wild night.
The buzz from these days of underground F.M. radio continued throughout the decade, with tacky fashion associated with the Brady Bunch and later, disco, barely noticeable. In a positive way, the woodsy quality of Barney’s Beanery seemed frozen in 1969, as an extensive article in The Los Angeles Times – Calendar section, dated March 13, 1977 reveals. “It doesn’t matter how you look in here,” said one young woman, a paralegal by trade. “Nobody cares whether you’re straight, hip or funky. You don’t have to wear the uniform. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re somebody famous or not. If you want to play pool, you put your quarter up and it’ll wait its turn like anybody’s.”
Somehow, all of the positive attributes that we associate with the post-World War I Barney’s Beanery still crop up, through each decade. The late ’70s and ’80s absorbed punk and new wave customers, as well as hair band people and the occasional movie star and screenwriter. Paul Brazier worked the bar from 1984 through 1998, hosting many of the drop-ins. “I can remember Elliot Gould sittin’ at the bar and havin’ a scotch on the rocks” he recalls. “Bette Midler and her husband came in once, Mel Gibson was around here a lot because he was filming in the neighborhood. We used to get a lot of the Brat Pack. Emilio Esteves had his birthday in the back room one night, and Demi Moore paid for the party. They were all there, Rob Lowe, Keefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Andy McCarthy, all those guys used to like to come in and play pinball and video games.” Musicians continued to drop in as through all the changes in trends. Brazier recalls visits by the Blasters, Janes Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and many others. “I served Bob Dylan a bourbon and water once, he was very soft-spoken” Brazier counters “and then you’d get Liza Minelli coming in with a bunch of people after a show, very nice and flamboyant. You wouldn’t expect to see her at Barney’s, but that’s the nature of the place.”
The bawdy atmosphere of this juke joint owes a great debt to the wait staff, and one member happens to be a cult artist in her own right. Former lead singer of pop group Nikki & the Corvettes have now evolved into author Nikki while holding down a job at Barney’s Beanery.
During the ’90s, films such as The Doors and Out of Bounds featured Barney’s Beanery as a location. As the altrock.com and independent film generation emerged, scriptwriters such as Quentin Tarintino would hole up in one of the multi-colored padded booths, ordering chow from the extensive, newspaper-like menu, to write such epics as Pulp Fiction. Controversy can still surround the place, as when Drew Carey formed a public protest in 1999 against California’s smoking ban by inviting press and television cameras to the bar at Barney’s Beanery, to watch him and his pals light up a few cigarettes.
As the new millennium dawned, the restaurant was purchased by David Houston and Avi Fattal, who will cultivate the natural atmosphere as it has always been from the earliest days of Barney C. Anthony. Good food, good fun, and the realization, even in Hollywood, that we are all, essentially, human beings worthy of respect.