Sunset Beach Is One Place Where Character Counts
Someone mentioned to me that a well-known watering hole in Sunset Beach is changing hands in a few months, creating an uncertain future for it. Bars come and go, but because Sunset Beach is one of those by-the-sea enclaves that usually get adorned with words like “quirky” or “character,” any change there usually is seen as someone taking away something we like.
The story of taking away things we like in Southern California has been told and retold, so let’s walk a different path today, while still paying at least token homage to quirky Sunset Beach, a burg with real character. See, I can’t help myself.
I’d forgotten that I’d written about the place shortly after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. My premise was that Sunset Beach provided solace from the urban chaos. I was reminded last week when out of the blue a photocopy of the column was mailed to me, along with a sweet note from one of the people I’d talked to that day -- a woman of a certain age who lived in a rented motel cabin to pursue her dream of being a writer.
Under the column, she’d typed her recollections of the day: “Early afternoon, Thursday, May 7, 1992, this young man heard my typewriter here in my Oceanside Inn writing cabin, peeked in my window, knocked, and told me he was trying to get a feel of Sunset Beach.”
Her name is Irene Calmer, and she also reminded me that I didn’t use anything she told me in the next day’s column.
Call it vanity, but anyone who tracks down a 14-year-old column and sends it to me gets a phone call. What better chance, I figure, to finally get Irene’s name in the paper and make up for excluding her all those years ago. Surely, she could recapture some of that spirit of Sunset Beach, especially considering that she’d rented the room for much of a 10-year period back then.
The lady now lives in San Diego County and remains of a certain age, living alone and the mother of three grown children. She sent a photo of herself from a few years ago wearing a red hat, wrapped in a white feathered boa and holding a white parasol. It was taken while she rode in a local float during a Marines celebration day.
I told her of the changes afoot at Mother’s Tavern, and she remembers it being right next door to where she lived. She has pictures of some of the women who worked there, she says, and then remembered when TV crews were interviewing people for segments of “The Love Connection” somewhere in the neighborhood.
She had eschewed her three-bedroom home in Trabuco Canyon for the cramped cabin No. 4 in Sunset Beach, because she felt more comfortable writing there and was taking classes in the area. I tried to prime her for some off-beat stories of Sunset Beach, but back then she was a writer immersed in that pursuit, not a social butterfly.
Well, there were the days at King Neptune’s restaurant and bar. “Richard Harrison owned King Neptune’s,” Irene says. “That was our hangout. Everybody in the neighborhood went there. A lot of those cabins, I found out, held 40-year-old men who had to go to AA meetings. Right next door to King Neptune’s, they held AA meetings.”
Turns out Ms. Calmer, a former elementary school teacher in south Orange County, was not a shrinking violet. She worked up a skit with management in which she dressed as a bag lady who approached a man celebrating his birthday at the restaurant. The bit was that she started to come on to the birthday boy and then, when management cued the music, “I’d start dancing and undressing a little bit.”
Now, that’s why we call Sunset Beach quirky.
I ask if she’s lost any of that verve. “I am a character,” she says. “But when my son comes to visit, I have to sort of put on a front.”
When she’s dining out with family, she says, she’s quiet. But when they’re gone, and she hits her favorite local pub, “I’m dancing and acting silly and being myself. But in front of my kids, they wouldn’t want to see their mom doing that.”
Her local friends know she still dabbles at writing. She’s been in a writer’s club and was a charter member of the Oceanside Red Hot Hatters Club, which identified itself by wearing red hats and vowing to be uninhibited when they felt like it.
“At a certain age, you do what you want to do,” she says. “You spit on the floor, you dance. Do whatever you want to do. But you can’t be promiscuous, because your reputation would be bad.”
She apologizes for once again failing to provide off-beat tales of Sunset Beach. I think she senses that, just as in 1992, she won’t be appearing in the column.
Not to worry, madam.
You had me at “This young man heard my typewriter here in my Oceanside Inn writing cabin....”
Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at email@example.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.