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Saying goodbye to a Valley institution

As he has so many times before -- for his son’s bar mitzvah, for his daughter’s wedding, to celebrate birthdays -- Jerry Bass reserved a banquet room at the woodsy Sportsmen’s Lodge this month for his family’s Hanukkah party.

In some ways, the lighting of the candles was a bittersweet commemoration for Bass, who knew this would be his last party at the San Fernando Valley landmark.

On New Year’s Day, the Sportsmen’s Lodge and its collection of well-known eateries, including the Caribou Restaurant, Muddy Moose Bar & Lounge and a handful of banquet rooms, will be temporarily shut down for remodeling. A new owner plans to reopen the historic venue in Studio City as a modern restaurant and boutique shopping center, perhaps with a new name.

And perhaps the kind of place that the Basses would shy away from.

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“We’ve been to other places, but I didn’t like that it was too ritzy,” said Jerry Bass, holding a page listing dozens of events he’s held at the lodge since 1970, including his 35th, 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries. “It wasn’t, like we call it in Yiddish, haimish or homey,” he continued. “The other places, they didn’t have the same thing. They didn’t feel the same way.”

For the Basses, what sets the restaurant apart is the personal service provided by longtime employees, including banquet manager Alberto Aparicio, who tended to the details of their Hanukkah party.

Knowing that this month’s holiday celebration would be the last milestone family event for one of his best customers, Aparicio made sure the Regency Room was perfectly outfitted: Christmas decorations hidden from view, tables to hold gifts for the 15 children and room to play musical chairs and spin the dreidel.

The old lodge’s closure is likewise a life-altering event for Aparicio’s large family. The venue, with its swan-filled ponds and expansive eucalyptus-shaded grounds, has been their gateway to the American dream.

In 1972, Alberto Aparicio’s father, Juan, took a job as a busboy after emigrating from Mexico City. While working double shifts serving as many as 800 diners a day, Alberto’s family obtained green cards, learned English by watching old movies, became citizens, bought houses and sent children to college.

Aparicio recalls that after watching “The Ten Commandments,” he realized its star, Charlton Heston, was the customer he had seen perched on a bar stool sipping soup. In its heyday, Clark Gable, John Wayne and Bette Davis favored the lodge, where Ronald Reagan and his bride, Nancy, held their wedding reception.

Along the way, the Aparicios and many of the lodge’s employees forged bonds in a business rife with high turnover. “Some of the guys working here have known me since I was 17,” said Aparicio, who started as a busboy in 1978 and now manages a staff of 45. “I like the fact I grew up with a lot of these people.”

The final days of the aging Sportsmen’s Lodge likewise close the scrapbooks for thousands of families. This is a place where even in the slow years, couples booked more than 500 weddings in its banquet rooms. In the last three weeks alone, 150 parties were scheduled.

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“I had a customer come up to me and say, ‘You worked at my son’s bar mitzvah, you worked at my son’s wedding and now you’re working my birthday. We have pictures of you in our house,’ ” said Oscar Aparicio, 45, Alberto’s brother, who has periodically worked as a waiter at the lodge over the last three decades.

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Once a trout farm

When it opened in 1913, the Hollywood Trout Farms featured ponds and a bait-and-tackle shop. Dave Harlig bought the venue near the end of World War II, added the first dining room and kitchen and reopened it as the Sportsmen’s Lodge on Dec. 31, 1946.

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The rustic dining hall became a movie studio hangout at a time when sheep grazed hillsides later claimed by Universal Studios. Surrounded by orange groves, the Ventura Boulevard restaurant quickly became a local hot spot, a place where patrons could hook their dinner and have it fried fresh in the kitchen.

Families holding events there often relied on nearby small-business owners, like North Hollywood florist Dan Codron. He started working in the restaurant’s banquet halls in 1973. “It’s going to be missed,” said Codron, who got married there, as did his two sisters.

“In the 35 years I’ve worked there,” he added, “I’ve done thousands of weddings for thousands of couples and thousands of happy people shared the experience.”

In 1978, the Basses’ daughter Doris got married at the lodge, the same year Alberto Aparicio started as a busboy. In the next decade, nine of the 17 Aparicio children worked alongside their father, Juan, in the themed banquet halls. Many of Aparicio’s uncles also toiled in the restaurant’s expansive kitchens.

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“Half the crew in the kitchen was related to me,” said Oscar Aparicio. “The butcher, the pastry guys, the bread makers. The guys making salads were my mom’s half brothers.”

As he learned to cook chateaubriand and flaming cherries jubilee, Alberto Aparicio rubbed elbows with dignitaries and celebrities. Once, he refilled President Ford’s water glass without permission, earning reprimands both from the Secret Service and his boss.

He recalled showing Sylvester Stallone how to make strong Cuban coffee, sashaying around Patrick Swayze strutting his stuff during salsa night and watching Tom Selleck eat barbecued buffalo burgers.

As the Valley grew up around it, with chic eateries and boutiques opening nearby on Ventura Boulevard, the lodge’s popularity declined.

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Looking ahead

In 1996, Patrick Holleran bought the restaurant and banquet business, not the land, from the Norred family, which had purchased the business from the Harligs.

Revenue tripled after the lodge was renovated, Holleran said.

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Malibu developer Richard Weintraub bought the 11-acre site and a 190-room hotel next door last year from Len Harlig, the son of the original owner, and did not renew Holleran’s lease.

Weintraub hopes the refurbished lodge will feature several new restaurants -- one of which may be a high-end steak house -- retail uses and possibly a fitness center, said Steve Afriat, a lobbyist who represents Weintraub and whose sister was married at the Lodge.

While the renovation is underway, residents can book events in the hotel’s banquet facilities, Afriat said, which will retain the name Sportsmen’s Lodge Hotel.

But the lodge’s longtime employees -- the Aparicios; executive chef Ramon Avila, who began his career as a dishwasher 43 years ago; and bar manager Luis Hurtado, who started in 1970 as an assistant behind the bar -- are losing their jobs.

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Holleran said he owns the rights to the Sportsmen’s Lodge name and plans to open restaurants and banquet facilities using it in Orange County and Santa Clarita. Afriat said the matter is not settled.

“The only history that’s going away is the run-down operation that’s been there for the last 10 years,” Afriat said. “My client wants to bring the Sportsmen’s Lodge to its heyday. No one goes there anymore except for people who have been having luncheons there for the last 20 years.”

But the Bass family is wary of the impending change.

“There are a lot of families that will be very, very sad at not being able to use the Sportsmen’s Lodge,” Jerry Bass said. “These guys greet me like a brother. It’s always been that way. They never forget your name in all the years I’ve been going there.”

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And the Aparicios say it’s hard to imagine life without the Sportsmen’s Lodge.

“I myself thought I was going to die here, but now I’m 50 years old. What am I going to do?” Alberto Aparicio said. “It’s going to be hard for us to see this place go.”

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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latimes.com/California

A family album

The Bass family shares photos of family celebrations at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City. They span the years from 1970 to 2008.

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