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IN Los Angeles

"If These Beer  Spattered Walls Could Talk"

By Alistair McCartney

August 13, 2001 IN Los Angeles Magazine

Long before WeHo was established as "Boys' Town," Santa Monica was a small gay mecca with nearly a dozen queer establishments.  So how did the Westside become so alarmingly homo-free over the years?

For answers we pulled a seat up to the bar at the legendary Friendship for a surprising history lesson that includes visits by Christopher Isherwood and Marilyn Monroe and the beach bar's brief foray into the leather scene.


When you're in a bar, history isn't usually the first thing that comes to mind.  Boys and beer compete for that prized place.  But The Friendship Bar, tucked away on West Channel Road in Santa Monica, is not your average gay bar.  Although when you're there, it's hard not to, even if just for a moment, ponder the story of one of the oldest gay bars in Los Angeles County.  The place reeks of history. You can get it on tap there.

To learn about The Friendship's history, I jumped on my bike and headed down to have a chat with bartender Smokey Hammond.  Smokey was a park ranger (hence the name) before he traded one job in the wild for another.  He worked at bars up and down Santa Monica Boulevard before settling down at The Friendship 15 years ago.

"The boys started hanging out here around 1940," he says.  "It had to do with the fact that [nearby] Will Rogers Beach--or "Ginger Rogers Beach"--was the gay beach even back then. Plus, a lot of gay people were living in the Santa Monica Canyon.  At one point there were five gay bars on this street.  There were four on Main Street.  Santa Monica was a small gay mecca--and this was way before West Hollywood.  The only gay establishments left now on West Channel road are, of course, this bar the Goilden Bull restaurant [located a few feet from The Friendship]."

The Friendship serves a much-needed purpose on the alarmingly homo-free Westside and brings up the question, Why are there so few gay venues in Santa Monica nowadays?

"Well I think it's mainly due to the increasing rents," Smokey suggests.  "Rents used to be fairly reasonable around here, but as Santa Monica started going upscale, they became higher and higher.  The gay venues couldn't afford to keep up and were forced out, changing over to other [more mainstream] businesses.  Plus, you also have to take the drinking and driving issue into account. People stay close to home."

The fact that The Friendship has survived these economical and geographical shifts is surely proof that it has something special going on.  Particularly considering that, as Smokey brings up, "The place has always been about the weather--it has always rocked in summer and gets quieter in winter."

How, in the days before gay bars were legal--at a time before there were publications like IN Los Angeles, where gay bars could advertise--did word get around?  "Pretty much by word of mouth," says Smokey.

As Smokey goes to serve some customers, I start wondering about all of the different hairstyles and cuts of trousers the bar must have been host to for over six decades.  How many men have met and fallen in love here?  Broken up here?  This place is begging to have a If These Walls Could Talk made about it.

After Smokey finishes with his guests he returns and I wonder aloud if the bar had undergone many name changes or ambiance changes over the years.  "Well it has been called Doc Law's, Friendship Cafe, the S.S. Friendship & Co, the S.S. Friendship, and of course, today just The Friendship.  Oh, for a while there it was called the Titanic.  A guy came down from San Francisco and attempted to turn it into a dark, little leather bar.  But it didn't fly--she sank even more quickly than her namesake."

Despite its stronghold as a local gay treasure, The Friendship fell victim to the Northridge earthquke in 1994, when the bar was destroyed and the whole canyon was devastated.  The building next door fell on top of the bar, and it was closed for 20 months.  "We had to redo the whole palce from top to bottom," remembers Smokey.  "Virtually everything you see her is new."

You'd never know it.  The place is full of marvelous seaside-themed kitsch that appears to have been there for years.  It's like a ship exploded, what with all of the stuffed pirate's parrots, anchors, pier pilots, maps, and, ofcourse, the fabulous fake fish adorning the walls. But that's all been carefully collected by Smokey and the crew since the quake.

It seems that the only thing that survived since the bar opened is an old keel that hangs above the bar. Salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast in the '30s, this relic's history is as rich as that of The Friendship and is engraved with names scrawled in white lettering.

"All the boys from the early days of he bar wrote their names on it.  They originally were written in red, but as each of them died, their name was covered over in white.  It's in the lease that this keel will always hang here."

Far from the streamlined bars I've grown used to, The Friendship brings to mind the sexy waterfront bars Jean Genet wrote about, and those seedy and dangerous seaside dives Lucy and Ethel occasionally found themselves in.  We're not in West Hollywood anymore, Toto. Buit aesthetics aside, where does the bar's stalwart barkeep think the real difference lies?

"As long as I've been here, everybody has come here--gays, straights--because it's a beach bar, and it's always had that unique quality of being down-to-earth and friendly.  The beach somehow mellows people out, so that everyone comes here and mixes together.  I've tended bar in West Hollywood and I've never seen that anywhere else.  And 'down-to-earth" and 'friendly' aren't words you hear people use when talking about WeHo.  Even before I worked here I used to hang out here--I thought it was such a unique little place."

As you would expect of a place that's been around for 63 years, much mythology and rumor surrounds The Friendship.  In fact, not too long ago, a story came out on the front cover of The National Enquirer claiming that Marilyn Monroe gave birth to an illegitimate baby girl in the back of Dock Law's Friendship Cafe.

One of the best sources to go to get a glimpse of The Friendship's wild mythology, however, is the writing of legendary author Christopher Isherwood.  In his novel, A Single Man, a good part of the action unfolds in a bar named the "Starboard Side."  It's a fictionalized version of The Friendship and another bar Hap's, that is no longer.

"...He sees the round green porthole lights of the Starboard Side, down on the corner of the Ocean Highway across from the beach, shining to welcome him.  The Starboard Side has been here since the earliest days of he colony.  Its bar, formerly a lunch counter, served the neighbors with their first post-prohibition beers...But its finest hours came later.  That summer of 1945!  The war was as good as over.  The blackout no more than an excuse for keeping the lights out at a gangbang."

Now that's more like it! Although little of he original bar still stands, when you're standing in The Friendship you can easily imagine men in uniform rubbing up against each other, the Andrew Sisters on the jukebox.

Isherwood goes on to describe exactly what went on in the bar back then: "You pushed aside the blackout curtain and elbowed your way through a jam-packed bar crowd, scarely able to breathe or see for smoke. Here, in the complete privacy of the din and the crowd, you and your pickup yelled preliminary sex advances at each other.  You could flirt, but you couldn't fight; there wasn't even room to smack someone's face.  For that, you had to step outside.  Oh the bloody battles and the sidewalk vomiting.  The punches flying wide, the heads crashing backwards against the fenders of parked cars.  Huge diesel-dykes slugging it out, far grimmer than the men...hitch-hiking servicemen delayed at this corner for hours, nights, days; proceeding at last on their journey with black eyes, crab-lice, clap, and only the dimmest memory of their hostess or host."

Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy shared a home together for many yars in the canyon, right above the bar.  Bachardy still lives there, and I caught up with him to ask when he first discovered The Friendship.

"Oh, it was very early on in our relationship," he recalls.  "In the first months, with Chris, in the early spring of 1953.  It was alrady a famous place in the Canyon.  For many years it was a mixed bar.  During World War II it was a bar servicemen came to.  It always had a strong queer clientele and after the war got queerer and queerer."

Isherwood's and Bachardy's relationship is one of the great gay love stories of the 20th century.  Were they regulars at The Friendship?

"Well, " Bachardy says, "I've never been a regular bar-goer, but we would visit The Friendship after dinner at one of the canyon restaurants, like the Golden Bull or [the now-defunct] Ted's Grill."

Bachardy confirms that Will Rogers was a gay beach as far back as the '40s, and from what he has heard, further.  "Yes, it was a very gay beach, exclusively gay, probably more gay than it is now."

In A Single Man, Isherwood also paints a wild picture of Will Rogers Beach.  What with all the beach police patrols, this is a scene we would never see today: "The magic squalor of those hot nights...each group or pair to itself and bothering no one, yet all a part of the life of the tribal encampment--swimming in the darkness, cooking fish, dancing to the radio, coupling without shame on the sand.  George and Jim were out there amongst them, evening after evening..."

Bachardy points me in the direction of Isherwood's journalistic essay "The Shore," published in the collection Exhumations, in which Isherwood writes about The Friendship without a fictional guise.  In it, the writer describes a very different Santa Monica from the one we know: "The [Santa Monica} Canyon is our western Greenwich Village, overrun now by various types of outsiders, but still maintaining an atmosphere of bohemianism and unpretentious artiness.  An Doc Law's Friendship Bar is still, despite competition, the acknowledged stammlokal [local hangout] of the community.  Doc Law, who also owns the adjoining drugstore, is a gentleman of almost excessively distinguished appearance who wears a wide-brimmed hat and floppy artist's tie, and who used to be a close friend of Will Rogers."

Although 50 years later those 'outsiders" Isherwood targets have pretty much destroyed the former bohemian character of the area, The Friendship Bar remains.  It offers the community a lingering taste of some wilder days.  If the Northridge quake couldn't get rid of the bar's authentic flavor, neither can a swarm of Guppies.

In the face of the antiseptic nature of present day Santa Monica, The Friendship offers a wonderfully sexy and seedy refuge from it all.  It remains, as Smokey acknowledges, "L.A.'s best kept secret."

Dock & Berth

112 West Channel Road, Santa Monica, CA  90402

(310) 454-6024

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