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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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."