Here’s to Hank, Say Sad Friends of a Very Special Saloonkeeper
No one was lonely Friday evening at Hank’s Bar in downtown Los Angeles. But everyone in the jampacked New York-style saloon was a little bit sad as they gathered for a rainy-night remembrance of Hank Holzer, the colorful Damon Runyon-type character who opened the Grand Avenue tavern 40 years ago and who died last month at the age of 88.
All the regular characters were on hand as they lifted their glasses in many a farewell toast to Hank. The cops and the con men. The horse players and the stockbrokers. The old rummies and the young lawyers. The former models and the miniskirted secretaries.
Charlie Sears, a retired narcotics detective, sang Hank’s favorite tune, “Danny Boy,” and tears streamed down the faces of people from all over the world.
There were animated conversations and dancing, to Sinatra and Satchmo, to Benny Goodman and Smokey. And arguments about leaf blowers and letter bombers.
The regulars had come to say adieu to Hank--a former professional boxer, undercover World War II operative and raconteur--who kept a diverse crowd entertained nightly at his saloon. Before he died, he said he wanted the party to continue.
“My father lived his life the way he wanted to,” said Steve Holzer, an attorney who gave a speech to the crowd. “He never thought of himself as old. Never thought about retirement. After seeing Hank, I think a lot of people thought maybe when they get to be 80, 85, they’ll be living a full life too. My father had a special talent making people feel important--that their life, their problems mattered. It wasn’t a job for him. It was his life.”
Hank Holzer’s life began in a Greenwich Village slum in 1908. By the time he was 16, he was a professional boxer fighting under the name Steven Terry. (“Back then you took on an Irish name because they were the most popular,” Hank, who was Jewish, told a reporter a year ago.) He fought well enough to make a good living for himself and his wife, Frances, a successful fashion model. He earned several medals for bravery while serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II. After moving to Los Angeles, he opened Hank’s Bar in 1959.
Mike the electrician stood under the canopy of the adjacent Hotel Stillwell watching the rain Friday night and talking about Holzer.
“Hank was someone who was there for people when they were down,” said the man who knew the saloonkeeper 10 years. “He was always there with some advice, with a drink, with a loan. But more than that, on a larger scale, where else you going to get such a diverse crowd? He got everyone to mingle. The whole spectrum of the world is here. All colors, all nationalities. Hank introduced the world to us, and now we are friends.”
Inside the hotel, a man wearing a black turban was sitting alone.
“Hank was a celebrity around here,” said G.P. Singh, who works at the hotel. “He was very nice to everyone. It didn’t matter if you were from India or Pakistan or Bangladesh. In my religion, there is a saying that some people, when they die, they leave their goodness here. Hank was one of those people.”
Fred Kawano, 76, recalled the time a Vietnam veteran came into the bar and, for the first time, opened up to Hank about returning home from the war.
“He started to tell Hank how it felt that he wasn’t welcomed back. Hank was a good listener. And then this guy, this huge guy, he started to cry on Hank’s shoulder. Hank listened with his heart.”
An African American undercover LAPD detective told of the time eight years ago when Hank, then 80, threw out a foul-mouthed customer who was cussing out a female bartender.
A beautiful Italian American woman, who identified herself only as Mary, thought about the well-stocked jukebox and said the song that most epitomized the bar was “Downtown.”
Inside the bar, as the jukebox played Sintra’s version of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” another customer who loved Hank, Courtney Chesney, rose to leave after a long sentimental round of goodbyes.
As she crossed a rain-glistened Grand Avenue near 9th Street, Chesney was handed a memento--an 8-by-10 color glossy of Hank at his saloon reaching for a drink. She almost started to cry, then shook it off.
“Can I have this?” she asked incredulously. She could keep it, she was told. “You know, it’s kind of funny. Hank died, but I’ve never seen the bar so alive as it was tonight. I’ve never seen the bar so full of life.”
She paused for a while and stared at the photograph.
“Except maybe a few times when I dropped in and Hank was the only one here.”