Last Call! Historic Bar Closing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It survived bootleggers, Prohibition, carousing movie stars and yuppie-bred fern bars.

But what is claimed to be Los Angeles' oldest continuously operating neighborhood tavern will close Sunday. So it can be converted into a women's dress shop.

The planned make-over of the 83-year-old J. Sloans pub in West Hollywood has caused an uproar among customers who say there can be no replacement for its wood-beamed simplicity and its beer-fueled congeniality.

The dress shop is reportedly planned by actress Elaine Joyce, who owns the 1,500-square-foot building used by the bar at 8623 Melrose Ave. Joyce is the wife of playwright Neil Simon.

Generations of customers are expected on the last day. Anticipating a full house, bar owners Manny Galindo and Eddie Harrah have canceled the band that would have played to make room for as many patrons as possible.

Frequently seen in movie and television scenes, J. Sloans has been a favorite for generations of Hollywood stars too. Customers such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy frequented the place in the 1940s and '50s. More recently, actors Dennis Quaid, George Clooney and Matt Dillon relaxed there.

Film industry types routinely rented out the place for Oscar-watching soirees and wrap parties. Five years ago, the bar made international headlines when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein announced he was buying the bar and giving it to a screenwriter as partial payment for a script--a deal that wasn't consummated.

Mostly, J. Sloans was a neighborhood hangout.

"We had to be. We don't have any parking here," explained bartender Jo Lynn Van Holten as she wiped down the battered bar Friday afternoon.

J. Sloans was exempt from the normal requirement of 25 parking spaces for a bar where dancing is permitted. But then, J. Sloans was exempt from plenty of restrictions placed on other bars.

"Because it opened in 1919 and predated the Alcoholic Beverage [Control Board], it was grandfathered in," Galindo explained Friday as he sat at a table in the bar and accepted condolences from a steady stream of customers.

"It's the only license of its kind in Los Angeles. I can sell beer to go. I can have naked bartenders. I don't, of course. But I can do things that other bars can't, if I want to."

J. Sloans had an outlaw image when it opened. Prohibition was looming, so its first owner picked a spot well outside what were then Los Angeles city limits, figuring authorities wouldn't bother enforcing the national ban on alcoholic beverages there.

The Melrose Avenue location was also next to the Red Car trolley system's western terminal, which meant there was a steady flow of customers--even if the flow of beer and liquor was supposed to be cut off.

"This place was a speak-easy back then," Galindo said. "When Prohibition was repealed, they kicked the doors open and kept going."

On Friday, no one could remember what the bar's original name was. But by the 1950s the place was called Bailey's. Then a large theme-bar company, Grand American Fair, owned it from about 1970 to 1995. It was renamed J. Sloans and decorated with such things as antique harnesses and a sleigh hanging from the rafters. An aging, steam-driven pipe organ taken from the Bijou Theater in Plattsburgh, N.Y., was installed above its bar.

There was a series of owners after that. In 1997, J. Sloans bartender Troy Duffy almost joined them.

Duffy was at work one night when Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, joined him and his pals over a pitcher of beer. Duffy was signed to a multimillion-dollar deal to write and direct his first screenplay, "Boondocks Saints." And as part of the deal, Weinstein offered to buy J. Sloans for Duffy. Both the movie and purchase eventually fell through.

Landlord Joyce, whose acting credits include "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Fade In, Fade Out," could not be reached Friday for comment. The Melrose Avenue property has been in her family since 1956; she and Simon were married 2 1/2 years ago.

West Hollywood city officials, meantime, said they were puzzled by Joyce's plans. A dress shop would not be exempt from city parking regulations; as many as six parking places would be required for such a retail store.

City Councilman Steve Martin, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, stopped by the bar Friday afternoon to sign a petition calling for its continuation. "This is the kind of place that should be preserved," he said. "This place is really the precursor of the House of Blues and what is now the Sunset Strip."

West Hollywood letter carrier Ruben Martinez, who for years has eaten lunch each day at J. Sloans, stopped in for a final tuna sandwich and a glass of cranberry juice. "I'm going to miss this place. It really is like the bar in 'Cheers,'" said Martinez, of Highland Park.

At a nearby table, Scott Van Sanford, a computer technician who lives in the neighborhood, was washing down a hamburger with a mug of Budweiser. It would be tragic for Los Angeles to lose a landmark like J. Sloans, he said.

"Not to be blasphemous, but I'm still hoping that on Easter we'll find out that Sloans has risen from the dead," he said.

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