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It’s Last Call for Old Saloon

Times Staff Writer

Big Ed’s bar, once a meeting place for screen stars, gamblers and prostitutes in the 1940s and 1950s, will probably be demolished next year so Culver City officials can redevelop a blighted block in the downtown area.

The Culver City Redevelopment Agency wants to condemn the bar and the Adams Hotel next door and use the land for private development or a proposed new city hall and civic center.

Located in a 60-year-old building at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Main Street, the bar is one of the few remaining places in town that played host to the gambling and carousing during the years after World War II, when the area’s population soared and the movie industry held sway.

‘Culver City’s History’

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Longtime patrons tell stories, difficult to verify, of wild times with celebrities and a variety of characters.

“When they tear this thing down, they’re going to leave some of Culver City’s history behind,” said Jim Thompson, 53, a retired engineer from Mar Vista who has frequented the bar since the 1960s.

Some say that stars like Gordon MacCrea and Joan Crawford from the old RKO Studios across the street stopped by on occasion in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. And legend has it that a tunnel ran under Main Street to the Culver Hotel, where patrons went for trysts.

That era ended in the late ‘50s, but the bar has remained open, although it has changed hands several times. “It’s a typical Damon Runyon bar,” said Thompson, comparing Big Ed’s to the bars described by the journalist and short story writer. “There’s so many stories here. If Runyon were alive here, he’d be writing lots of stories about this place.”

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Thompson said two alcoholics once held a foot race in the late ‘60s in a long alley behind the bar. One represented the bar, then called Sarna’s; the other represented the Culver House, a nearby bar that burned down a decade ago. Sarna’s patrons trained their man for the race and bought him a sweat suit, Thompson said.

Used as Movie, TV Set

On the day of the race, a large crowd watched Sarna’s man lose after the Culver House “cheated” by spotting him a few drinks before the race, Thompson said.

Although far less crowded and popular than it was in its heyday, Big Ed’s--with its dark and seedy atmosphere--is used by nearby movie and television companies, mainly for police shows.

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“Let’s say that it will be sorely missed by a number of good location managers,” said Ralph Alderman of Stephen J. Cannell Productions in Hollywood, which has filmed parts of “The A Team” and “Hunter” at Big Ed’s. “Our stages are located in Culver City and Big Ed’s is about the closest (bar) of that size. It does have a ‘look.’ ‘

Big Ed’s, originally built in 1927 as a drug store, was converted to a restaurant and bar in 1944 and became one of about eight cocktail lounges in Culver City within a block of RKO (now Laird International Studios).

“It was a fairly loose town (then),” said former City Councilman A. Ronald Perkins, who patrolled the bar as a Culver City policeman in the early ‘50s.

“It appeared to be nothing but gas stations and bars,” he said. “And it was pretty much who you knew and who you didn’t know that made the difference. There was considerable bookmaking in the town. The movie industry didn’t have too good of a reputation. The stars and studios kind of ran Culver City for years.”

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Popular Night Spot

Tony Parsettie,, a machinist for McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co. in Culver City, said he has frequented the bar since the early ‘50s when the place was named Frank’s, after its owner, the late Frank Calagnini. He said it was a hopping night spot where prostitutes hung out and patrons played dice, cards and skee ball machines in the back, out of sight of police.

Parsettie said one of the people he met at the bar was the late billionaire Howard Hughes, the recluse who owned RKO in the mid ‘50s.

“He was a three-to-four-bottle Budweiser drinker,” he said. “He wore boots and Levis all the time. Quiet. He wouldn’t talk to you unless you asked him something. He was reserved and stayed by himself.”

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Parsettie said he often drank with the late Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, who would arrive at the bar after filming the old “Jungle Jim” television series at RKO.

“He wasn’t a drinking man,” Parsettie said. “Four or five beers--that was all Johnny could take. He would embarrass himself, shouting and being impolite. I saw him spit beer on people. After a couple of drinks, he was an idiot, but I still loved the S.O.B.”

After-Hours Activity

Parsettie said that after 2 a.m., some patrons retreated to the bar’s basement for after-hours drinking and gambling.

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“People wanted to do what they wanted with their money, and they would go underground to do it,” he said “If you wanted to get drunk after 2 a.m. or to get into a poker game, or a crap game, you’d go to any place you could find. All of it was in complete harmony and no one ever got hurt.”

Parsettie said he saw couples, usually men with prostitutes, entering a six-foot-high tunnel that led to the Culver Hotel. He said the tunnel was sealed in the mid-1950s. Although others have said they have heard of the tunnel, Parsettie is the only one who claims to have seen it. He and Schwartz said most of the bar’s regulars in the 1940s and 1950s have either died or moved away.

William Hildebrand, who served as Culver City’s police chief from 1950 to 1956, said that while there was open prostitution and gambling at Frank’s during those years, he doubted the existence of a tunnel.

“I knew the old-timers (at the bar) and I’m sure I’d have had some idea,” Hildebrand, 82, said. “There was bookmaking in all the bars. There was some prostitution, but they didn’t need a tunnel to get in (the Culver Hotel). They had free access.”

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Past Long Gone

For Big Ed Schwartz the bar’s freewheeling past is long gone.

Schwartz, dressed in a black cowboy outfit, peered out of the swinging doors to his bar one lazy afternoon.

Behind him, a half-dozen middle-aged customers sat hunched over their drinks in silence, except for an occasional hoarse laugh or cough. Tex Ritter’s country classic “Rye Whiskey” played on the juke box. Sporting a white goatee, string tie, gold necklace and bifocals, Schwartz, 62, pondered his future as a bar owner.

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“I’ll probably have to pack it up. I’m getting too old for this,” said Schwartz, who stands about 6-foot-5 in his boots. “It’s going to be pretty hard to relocate. A 30-stool, and 50-foot-long bar is pretty hard to find. The rent would be tough.”

Schwartz, a Western fan, gun enthusiast and real estate investor, took over the bar in 1980 and decorated it with old rifles, pistols, train lanterns, longhorns, a noose and other Western souvenirs he has collected over the years.

The bar was pretty rough at first, he said.

“I cleaned it up, but it took a good year,” he said. “This used to be called Blood Alley because there were so many fights. I had to 86 a lot of people. I told them to leave. I was lucky. I would face them and they wouldn’t challenge me. I’m not a small man, but I didn’t get into it. I’m no hero.”

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But his days as a part-time bouncer are over, he said.

‘We’ve Lost Customers’

“I don’t come in here as much as I used to, only about two hours a day now. I don’t drink much since I got my pacemaker in November. (Bartender William) Buck is the manager now. My wife (Phyllis) does the books. But we don’t do a bunch of business here anymore.

“We’ve lost so many customers by attrition. Just about everyone here is over 50 (and) are either divorced or widowed. It’s a very Puritan town now. It’s so clean it squeaks. . . . There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way it is.”

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Schwartz said that a dozen of his patrons, mostly pensioners, live in rooms next door at the Adams hotel, where they pay about $220 a month. Some days, he drops by to visit and lends some of them a little money.

The 40 tenants in the hotel will receive a few thousand dollars to relocate when the city buys the property, but will have to move to downtown Los Angeles to find affordable housing, he said.

“There’s a lot of sad stories here,” he said. “People don’t come to a bar just to get drunk, but for the company. They come here because it’s a social club. I’ve had one (regular customer) tell me, ‘If I die, I want to be here.’ ”

But, he added, “this type of bar’s a dinosaur. . . . I’ll save all the Western stuff, and if I do open another bar, it’ll have a Western motif.”

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