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The last call for a skid row era at King Eddy Saloon

Wire-thin and slumped like a question mark, James Maley nurses a watered-down whiskey at the battered bar inside the King Eddy Saloon. Around him a boisterous crowd presses in. Maley taps a cracked fingernail nervously on his glass and stares warily at the newcomers.

They’ve come to see novelist John Fante’s son, Dan Fante, read at the bar that inspired his father’s 1939 classic “Ask the Dust.” They’re also here to experience skid row’s last dive bar before it shuts down for renovations on Sunday.

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“If this happened every day, I would never show up,” says Maley, who lives in transitional housing a few blocks away.

Other time-worn regulars, many with leathery skin, bad teeth and watchful eyes, nod in agreement. The bar provides home and family for those who have neither. They come for community and to spend what little money they have on plastic pitchers of beer and $2.50 gin and tonics.

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PHOTOS: Last Call at King Eddy Saloon

When the Fante reading ends, the interlopers quickly disperse.

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“There go the slummers,” says John Tottenham, a poet who has been coming to the King Eddy since the 1980s.

Chances are the crowds will be back when the bar reopens under new management. The owners plan to use old photos to restore the bar’s Midcentury look. They hope to renovate the abandoned speak-easy in the basement and open the bar’s windows that are covered by stucco, letting natural light into the place for the first time in decades.

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They haven’t finalized their plans, but one thing is for sure. Drinks won’t come cheap at the new King Eddy.

The bar is located on the corner of 5th and Los Angeles streets in the King Edward Hotel, which was built in 1906 and was a tony destination for visitors to what was once a thriving commercial district. The hotel now provides low-income housing for many of King Eddy’s regulars.

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The pre-Prohibition era King Eddy is painted black. With neon beer signs providing most of its light, the room is dim and gloomy. Its black-and-white checkered floor is grimy. Plastic beer flags hang from the ceiling and the place smells of stale smoke and disinfectant.

The bar itself, shaped in a square, commands the center of the room, with cracked vinyl banquettes lining the perimeter. A glassed-in smoking space is set off to the side. Behind the bar is a tiny fluorescent-lighted kitchen where prepackaged burgers, pizza and sandwiches are heated in a microwave. A beer and burrito would set a person back only $4.

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Next week, Maley and the other dislodged drinkers will have to find another bar, but they face a new downtown landscape of high-end mixology bars, restaurants and Brazilian waxing salons.

“I haven’t the faintest idea where they’ll go,” says bar manager Bill Roller, 75, who has worked at the King Eddy for more than 30 years.

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King Eddy opened in 1933 and has one of the oldest liquor licenses in the city. It was favored not only by Fante, but also by writers such as Charles Bukowski and James M. Cain for its lack of pretension and colorful clientele.

PHOTOS: Last Call at King Eddy Saloon

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“The King Eddy Saloon is the last stand in a world that’s completely lost to us — and that’s skid row in the 1950s sense, a place where itinerant and semi-skilled laborers could find work seasonally,” says downtown historian Richard Schave, who founded the Los Angeles Visionaries Assn., which staged the Fante event.

The bar has been owned by the same family for three generations. Dustin Croick took over in 2008 after his father, Rob, was badly injured in a car accident on his way home from the bar one night. Rob Croick, who has since died, managed the King Eddy for his father, Babe, who bought the bar in the 1960s with money he earned running downtown parking lots.

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“This place has been a dive bar since I’ve been coming here as a kid with my dad, ordering milk and sitting on that stool,” says Dustin Croick, 27.

In recent years, Croick has been trying to attract a more mainstream clientele. He started a website that played up the bar’s hard-luck roots and featured a catchphrase he coined: “Where nobody gives a … about your name.” He tried to lure the producers of the television show “Bar Rescue” to shoot a segment there, but the building’s previous owners would not allow the filming.

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In the end, he was unwilling to make the sort of changes wanted by the building’s new owners, Bristol 423 — a partnership of developers headed by the Shomof family. Croick’s lease was not renewed and this summer the lease was granted to the Acme Bar Group, which also operates downtown’s Library and Spring Street bars and Urbano Pizza.

“I feel sad for the lack of recognition that Dustin’s getting,” says Roller, the bar manager. “I’m sad to see it going this way.”

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Jon Valenti, Acme’s point person for the King Eddy remodel, has been spending a lot of time at the bar getting to know the people who call it home. He hopes they will feel comfortable coming back when it reopens.

“I’m sensitive to those people — they feel their comfort level is being disrupted,” Valenti says.

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Valenti plans to incorporate into the remodel photographs of the regulars that now hang on the back wall, perhaps as an installation above a booth. The new design, he says, will also highlight the bar’s history.

A few regulars say they plan to give the new King Eddy’s a chance. “Pancake” is one of them.

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“Why is Pancake called Pancake?” a newcomer wants to know.

“Because I’m international,” Pancake says, nodding his head emphatically. He’s been a King Eddy regular for nearly 20 years.

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PHOTOS: Last Call at King Eddy Saloon

“We don’t want it to be too yuppified,” he says one weekday afternoon. “I’ve seen the changes in downtown Los Angeles — Loft Angeles. Still, no matter what they do to the interior, the spirit of King Eddy will live on.”

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Sitting across the bar, Dave Ugartechea harrumphs and utters an obscenity. An unemployed Vietnam vet and former IRS auditor, Ugartechea lives upstairs.

“This place is going to die when they close it,” he says. “I can’t afford yuppie. Most of the bums that come in here can’t afford yuppie.”

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Yuppie isn’t on the agenda for the updated King Eddy, the new owners insist.

“We want a place that fits the neighborhood,” says Acme’s Michael Leko, who lives downtown. “It’s not like we can change the location.”

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They do intend to alter the look of the corner, which is considered the gateway to skid row.

“Rather than hide from the street, let’s say, ‘Hi!’” says Ricki Kline, who has designed other downtown projects in historic buildings including Cole’s, the Nickel Diner and Tony’s. “These are our neighbors. We all have to live together, and we should live together graciously. There’s a limit to the amount of gentrification that’s going to take place in this neighborhood.”

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Change is closing in. A block away on Winston Street, a slick loft building called the Jeffries opened in June with 675-square-foot, one-bedroom units that rent for about $1,600. A cocktail bar and a wine bar are planned for the ground floor.

The King Edward Hotel’s residents are safe from eviction, says Bristol 423 partner Eric Shomof. The Shomofs, who in 1999 opened one of the first upscale loft buildings downtown, also bought the Leland and Baltimore hotels across from the King Edward. A moratorium prohibits the conversion of residential hotels in the area to upscale housing until 2063.

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No matter, says Roller, who like many of his customers, lives in the King Edward. He plans to move on once the renovations start.

“I could reapply for my job,” King Eddy’s manager says, “but I’m not going to.”

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jessica.gelt@latimes.com


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