Mr. B's Has Got the Blues

It's a common L.A. story: regulars at a local spot find their favorite hangout has been taken over by a new, younger crowd.

In recent years, the Shamrock and the Three of Clubs in Hollywood, and the Dresden Room in Los Feliz have all been rediscovered and re-christened as hot spots.

Downtown Santa Monica, quickly altered by the gentrified Third Street Promenade, has seen changes at its neighborhood haunts as well.

Some, like the ultra-divey Wind & Sea, have gone out of business. Others have adjusted. The King George V Pub relocated and went upscale; Harvelle's refashioned itself a haven for live music and now has lines stretching down 4th Street on weekends.

Mr. B's is somewhere in the middle. On weekend nights and Sunday afternoons, it's packed with crowds sweating to the blues of the James Armstrong Band, and the median age of the customers drops a generation or two.

But Mr. B's still opens at 6 a.m. for the regulars who have been coming there for decades, and owners Betty Rowland and Mel Thompson still put on an annual buffet on Christmas Eve for Mr. B's extended family.

Armstrong, 28, is a blues belter who sweats through several shirts every performance. Since he started at Mr. B's last November, Armstrong's following has broadened to include everyone from beach-going college students to old-timers in natty three-piece suits.

Write-ups have been admiring, and his music draws a low-attitude, high-energy crowd. It's not a celebrity-driven scene; the biggest star here is Elvis, enshrined in a portrait over one of the booths.

The two people most identified with Mr. B's are Rowland and Thompson, who have been there 25 and 40 years, respectively. Years ago, when it was still called the Lightning Room, Mel played piano, and Betty danced for the customers. When the original owners died, they left the bar to Rowland and Thompson.

Many of the regulars still remember Rowland as "The Redhead Ball of Fire"--one of the country's premier striptease artists. She headlined in burlesque for years before retiring in the 1960s. ("The girls now, they start where we used to leave off," she notes.)

Today, Rowland works behind the bar and sets the level of decorum at the club, where the occupancy rate is under 100. There is, to put it mildly, no funny business allowed here. You play by Rowland's rules or you're out on the corner of 2nd and Broadway, wondering what happened.

Pool players who use profanity are told to "watch your language." The last resort is the Flashlight Treatment. When someone gets truly out of hand, Rowland takes a large flashlight and shines it in the miscreant's face, all the way to the sidewalk. (Other rules to keep in mind: No tank tops after dark. Dance at your own risk. No luggage allowed.)

The changes at Mr. B's have resulted in some defections from decades-long regulars, but daytimes and weekends are still the province of those who have frequented Mr. B's for years. It's dark and quiet, and the jukebox is still stocked with singles by Gene Krupa, Sarah Vaughan and Artie Shaw.

Rowland and Thompson are delighted with Mr. B's renaissance, and enthusiastic about Armstrong and his fans. But, mindful of their habitual clientele, they say they have no plans to bring in live music seven nights a week.

"Our regulars do like to sit around and talk," Rowland says. "And this is, after all, a neighborhood bar."

Name: Mr. B's.

Where and When: 217 Broadway, Santa Monica. Live music Friday and Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons. (310) 394-9300.

Dress: As the sign at the door says: "Shoes, Shirts and Your Best Behavior."

Doormen: Low-key. 21 or over. I.D. required.

Prices: Admission, $3. Domestic beer, $2.25.

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