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Dream Team "The Golden
Kingdom" "...how it was"
My recent ruminations about the good times in the late Fifties thru mid-Seventies at Ugene's Bar and Grill, on the southeast corner of Firestone Blvd. and Woodruff Ave. in Downey, have brought such favorable response from around the country that I have decided to expound on the subject, and describe some of the people who were regulars in that unique watering hole.
I will begin by repeating the original "Recollection," then move on into thumb-nail sketches of some of the colorful characters who did their drinking and socializing at Ugene's:
For many years, there was a bar in Downey, California, called Ugene's. It was in a building that had once housed Downey's first supermarket--large (for the times) and cavernous. In succeeding generations, it was a supermarket / then a cocktail lounge / then a blue-collar beer bar, with a real estate office partitioned in a corner.
Ugene's was at the halfway point between my job in South Gate and my home in Whittier--so, naturally, I often stopped there for a beer (or two) on my way home. It had a large clientele, but was strictly a "neighborhood" bar. In fact, the only indication that the building housed a bar was a small SCHLITZ neon sign in a window. The proprietors of Ugene's were a couple of unreconstructed Chicagoans named Eddie Wallow and Billy Narducci. Officially, they didn't operate Ugene's as a non-profit enterprise--but that's what it amounted to. They served up free pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and many other treats, whenever the spirit moved them--which was more often than not!
Okay: A lot of the regulars at Ugene's--beginning with Eddie Wallow--were real boxing fans. And since I was doing a weekly boxing column for a newspaper that served the area, I was something of a "celebrity" in the bar. And at this point, let me say that Eddie Wallow was IRISH FRANKIE CRAWFORD'S greatest and most loyal fan. He had been following Crawford on TV, but had never seen him in person--until one night when I took him as my guest to the Olympic Auditorium to see Frankie go up against a little Filipino slugger with the unlikely name of Tony Jumao-as. Eddie and I were seated front-row ringside, near a neutral corner--when suddenly, midway through the first round, the Filipino caught Crawford with a terrific shot on the chin, and here came Frankie, bouncing flat of his back, under the bottom rope and onto the apron, almost into Eddie Wallow's lap! Crawford staggered to his feet at "nine," weathered more rough moments, and made it back to the safety of his corner at the end of the round. Whatever Frankie's manager-trainer, Jake Shugrue, did or said to him between rounds, noboby will ever know. But it must have been something tremendously inspirational.
When the bell sounded for the next round, Crawford went out like a man possessed. He hit the Filipino with what must have been at least a dozen left hooks, delivered in rapid-fire succession, that finally dropped him to the floor. The Olympic was in bedlam, with Eddie Wallow screaming loudest of all. I don't recall whether the fight ended then and there, or in the following round--but my friend Eddie was thrilled out of his gourd; and thereafter, no matter how hard I tried, I could never pay for another "first beer" in Ugene's Tavern. It was always there, waiting for me, along with the eternal question: "How's our boy Frankie?"
Did I mention that I was a "celebrity" at Ugene's? Other celebrity-type regulars were the local football coaches, off-duty policemen, and a guy named Doug Seus--a bearded, gravely-voiced wildman who raised wolves in his back yard and was later to win wide acclaim as the "daddy" of a family of GRIZZLY BEARS up in Utah, that he often rents out to Hollywood movie productions. And his wife, Lynne, also a semi-regular at Ugene's, was a beautiful blonde who had a continuing role in the cast of the TV series called "The Virginian." (They're still raising those bears--and probably other movie animals--on their ranch in the wilds of Utah, and were featured in a couple of one-hour specials on the Animal Planet cable TV channel earlier this year, with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston as their guest-hosts.)
Those were good, exciting times! LOTS of stories, at Ugene's--including the time when Doug Seus defied the Downey Police Department / and the time when your loyal correspondent was moved to punch out a heckler! Bon
Okay: With that as a preamble, let's meet a few of Ugene's Cast of Characters:
For starters, there were the co-owners, Eddie Wallow and Billy Narducci--buddies from Chicago who blew out of the Windy City as middle-aged alcoholics and somehow landed in Downey. They were great, warm-hearted guys--and the laid-back atmosphere in Ugene's started and ended with them.
EDDIE WALLOW was strictly an "indoor" man. He was a heavy smoker, lean to the point of being thin, very dapper in appearance, with pale white skin, white pompadour hair, watery blue eyes, and a face creased from frequent smiling. And his laugh was something else: He would bellow out, "HAAA-AAAA-Aaaa...," and there he'd stand, mouth open as far as it would go, silent, like he's yawning, until he appeared out of breath; but just as he seemed ready to faint, he would somehow continue, "Haaa-aaa-aaa...," mouth still agape, apparently without inhaling. Eddie loved his many friends, the ponies, the prize fights, the Chicago Cubs, all of the L.A. sports teams, Ugene's Bar and Grill, his flashy jewelry, and his several ladies--in roughly that order. He had some health problems, and drank more than he should have--but he loved his life, he had fun, and he sure was fun to be around.
BILLY (or Willie) NARDUCCI was the "quiet man" of the duo. He was middle-aged, middle-sized, sweaty, thin on top, with a rather bulbous nose that lit up when he was drinking heavilywhich was all too often. Billy was quiet and easy going, but had a hot temper at timesespecially when some fool made the mistake of kidding him too much about his Italian ancestry or his shortcomings as a horseplayer.
As for the others: Bear in mind that Ugene's could have been called "The Bar With No Name." There was no name outside; a little neon Schlitz sign in a small window of the large building gave the only inkling that there was a thriving bar inside. And the customers, for the most part, were people from the neighborhood who made Ugene's their second home.
So here we go, with a cast of characters that make the folks on "CHEERS" appear like nothing more than a bunch of TV actors (which they were):
DOUG SEUS: Where do I begin, in describing Doug Seus? Today he is famous, as the trainer and foster-father of the grizzly bears that appeared in such movies as "Legends of the Fall" and "The Bear," and in Animal Planet TV specials with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Back in the early Seventies, Doug lived in Downey with his beautiful wife, Lynne (a stunning blonde actress who had a regular role on "The Virginian" TV series) and their son, and raised a WOLF in their back yard. With a partner, he built the Golf 'n Stuff Miniature Golf Course & Indy Racing facility on Firestone Blvd., alongside the 605 Freeway. They built the place, sold it immediately, and Doug's share was something like $208,000a nice piece of change in those days. He carried the check into Ugene's and bought a series of roundsthen, a day or two later, rented a war-surplus DC-3 and took a group of friends on a beer-drenched, no-holds-barred, hell-raising, flying tour of the United States. ("Where shall we go today? New Orleans? Boston? Fargo? Anchorage? Why not??")
In the considerable acclaim that Doug has received for adopting, raising, and training animals for the movies, no mention has been made of his personal background. Maybe he keeps it under wraps, for fear that it would be bad for business; but here goes: Doug was born in a Chicago suburb, and early on established himself as an tremendously gifted athlete. After we became friends, he confessed to me one night that as a child, he loved serious music and literaturebut that in the time and place where he was raised, he was afraid to admit it. He felt that being a jock was the only way to gain acceptance. Doug became a High School All-America halfback, with offers from every college football program in the country. As any straight-thinking Catholic lad would have done in those days, he chose Notre Dame University. His future in college and pro football seemed assured. But in his freshman year, he suffered a crushing knee injury that virtually ended his football career. He underwent surgery, and came back a year later to play againbut was a step or two slower, with no chance of ever being a star. So he dropped out of college, joined the Army, and became a Green Beret.
Remember "Rambo?" Well, after serving with distinction in Southeast Asia, Doug looked around for someplace to apply his skills in personal combat and weaponry. He hired on as a "soldier of fortune" in South America (I¹m not sure which countryBolivia, perhaps, or Paraguay, or Uruguay), training military personnel in the fine points of jungle warfare. No problem, up to that point. But then, he and a group of fellow instructors and trainees got the drunken, wild-hair notion to rob a bank, deep in the jungle, that had a large deposit of gold. With modern weapons and a hijacked airplane, they thought they could pull off the job, flee the country, and live happily ever after. But things went terribly wrong. They were captured by government troopsand our man Doug found himself locked away in a dark, stinking jungle slammer.
So: How did he escape? Not very heroically. His family, friends, the priests at Notre Dame, and his family's Congressman all went to bat for himexerting political pressure until one day, after he had been incarcerated for a few months, he was called before a board that told him, in effect: You have 24 hours to get out of our country, and never come back. That just happened to be exactly what Doug had in mind, and he got the hell out, right away, with absolutely no desire to go back.
Hey: I could tell you a bunch more Doug Seus storiesbut I've got to get on down the line and introduce some of the other characters who frequented Ugene's.
JOHNNIE JONES: Picture a thin, shabbily-dressed, seedy-looking middle-aged Englishman with poor hygiene, bad breath, bad teethand a heart of gold. That was Johnnie Jones, himself. Johnnie came to California as a crewman on the final voyage of the Queen Mary, when she was brought to Long Beach to serve as a tourist attraction/hotel. Johnnie was handed his final paycheck and plane fare back to his home in Manchester, but opted instead to go on an extended drunk that somehow ended on the doorstep of Ugene's, which pretty much became his home. He found a janitor job across the street at Rheem's, and held down a seat at Ugene's, more or less continuously, for the next several years. Johnnie had an endless repertoire of jokesmost of them raunchythat he insisted on sharing, time after time. He often filled in as volunteer bartender, drawing beers and dispensing stories, when Eddie or Bill were "incapacitated." And there's no way I can tell you about Johnnie, without making mention of his skill at playing the SPOONS. I mean, the man could play 'em; and his specialty was "Sweet Georgia Brown." Whenever that number came up on the jukebox, the stinkin' old limey would grab his spoons and get down!
HAMMERHEAD: There was nothing wrong with old Hammerhead, aside from the fact that he was always smashed. Sometimes he would come into Ugene's halfway sober; but that didn't last long. He was a mellow drunk, who never gave anybody any trouble. He seemed to live within walking (or wobbling) distance of the bar, which was a great thing for highway safety.
I'm not sure how he got his nicknamethough I think maybe his last name was Hammer, or perhaps Hamner. But once you got to know him, you could never think of him by any name other that "Old Hammerhead."
One time I walked into Ugene's with a couple of factory workers from Purex to watch one of Jackie Hayden's fight-film presentations. One of the my companions was an extremely muscular black guy named Charlie Thornton. Charlie was a happy-go-lucky, energetic guy, in appearance a slightly scaled-down dead ringer for heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Acting on a sudden impulse, I called out: "Here he is, folks: JOE FRAZHEAH!!" Charlie handled it okay, laughing and protesting that he wasn't really Smokin' Joebut old Hammerhead was absolutely convinced that he was. And I guess he must have been Joe Frazier's greatest fan. He ran over, shook Charlie's hand, and said, "This is the greatest thrill of my life, Joe! Let me shake your hand, and buy you a drink!" He followed Charlie around all evening, unshakable in his conviction that he was, indeed, the former heavyweight champion.
JACKIE HAYDEN: Jackie wasn't a regular at Ugene's, but he deserves a mention here. He was a former lightweight champion of Canada, a good friend of mineand he had one of the world's greatest collections of 8-mm boxing films (or "fillums," as he called them). Two or three times each year, we would set up an 8-mm projector and a six-foot screen in Ugene's and show films of famous boxing contests, with Jackie and me sitting alongside the projector and giving commentary over a voice amplifier. In those pre-VHS videotape days, it was a big thing. Over a hundred people would show up / Eddie and Billy would set out free hot dogs and pizza / and the beer sold faster than they could fill the pitchers. We would "pass the hat" for Jackie near the end of each show, and take in funds to increase his film library. Most of the donations were one- or five-dollar bills; but one night, there was a fifty-dollar bill in the hat. Figuring someone had mistakenly thrown in the fifty thinking it was a five, Jackie sought Eddie Wallow's help in finding the contributor. The guy was soon located, but spoke up and declared: "Hey, I had a good day at the track today. And I really enjoyed the show. It was worth every penny!"
RED, THE BOOKIE: The many horseplayers at Ugene's were "serviced" by an old fellow in his late seventies or early eighties known simply as Red. If he had a last name, nobody around Ugene's knew it. Red was always clean and well-dressed, in one of his several shiny, well-worn suits. (I guess at his age, he figured there was no sense in springing for a new one.)
Red had apparently been around horses all his life. He was a gentlemanly fellow, unscrupulously honest. He had been a trainer of thoroughbreds as a younger man, and his claim to fame was that he was the trainer who gave the great jockey Johnny Longden his very first boost into the saddle. That must've been at Santa Anita, back in the 1920s. Longden was to win over 6,000 races in a 40-year career, but he always remembered and gave credit to our man Red as the man who gave him his start.
Red didn't hang out at Ugene's all the time. It was one of several locations that he serviced, and he would stop in two or three times a day to pay off winners and collect new bets. And there was always a bit of drama when Red would book a bet. The regulars would watch closely to see what Red did with the money. If he placed it in an inside coat pocket, it meant that the horse had a good chance to win, and he was probably going to "lay off" the bet with a larger, more affluent bookmaker. If he placed it in a front pants pocket, it meant that he was undecided whether to pass along the bet or cover it himself. But if he opened his wallet and slipped the currency in there‹WHAM! It meant that the player had no chance of winning, and Red was going to cover the bet himself. It was a very subtle thing‹but something Eddie Wallow and others watched for, and exchanged knowing glances whenever they saw Red slip a bill into his personal account..
MAE: Mae loved Eddie Wallow. And he loved hersometimes. She was a fairly well perserved, bespectacled, middle-aged lady, rather matronly in appearance. She was good company, always pleasant EXCEPT when she was dealing with any of the several predatory females who came in looking to turn Eddie's head. With them, she could be downright nasty.
DOTTIE: A very sweet, understanding person was Dottie, the slightly plump, blond barmaid. She had to be, to put up with the likes of Eddie and Billy and her often-inebriated husband, George. Dottie was a calming influence around Ugene'sas though it wasn't already sufficiently laid-back. She was always cheerful and a good listener, not given to gossip. She could talk up the Rams and the Dodgers and the boxers and the poniesthough, truth to tell, I don't think she knew a fly ball from a punt or a kick in the slats. As I say: a sweet lady, loved and respected by all.
GEORGE: There weren't all that many Hispanics in Downey in those
days; and only two or three were regulars at Ugene's. George Alaniz,
who somehow became known as "Chicano George," was a big, lovable,
barrel-chested construction worker from Arizona who probably would
have provided very well for his family had it not been for his love
OKIE ROY: One look at Okie Roy told you he was a cowboy. Not a movies-type cowboy; the real thing, complete with western-style shirt, faded blue denims, and pointy-toed, scarred leather boots. But it wasn't his manner of dress that convinced you. It was his very presence: a man of few words and the ways of a natural-born gentleman. He drank too much, but with good reason. Eddie Wallow told me that Roy was once a star rodeo performer, until a crushing encounter with a brahma bull left him crippled for life. I never got to know Roy all that well, but wish I could have. I'm sure he had an interesting story to tell, if you could coax it out of him.
GUS HEADINGTON: The Downey High School Vikings were the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) large-school champions for two consecutive years, 1956-57. The 1957 team had co-coaches: Rollie Eilerts and Gus Headington. And in one of the greatest high school games ever played anywhere, that 1957 team beat a San Diego area team that was loaded with at least a half-dozen athletes who went on to become big-time stars in college and / or the pro ranks. Rollie Eilerts jumped to a college coaching job after the 1957 season, and Gus stayed on at Downey High. He later served as principal of Warren High School, also in Downey. I met Gus when he was a "regular" at Ugene's. Saw him knock back a lot of beersbut never saw him "under the influence." The man could handle his booze. He was a fine man, great company, and was my ringside guest several times at the Olympic Boxing Club Thursday night fights.
THE NORWALK SHERIFFS: The Norwalk substation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was two or three miles east of Ugene's, at the corner of Firestone and Pioneer Boulevards. Some of the deputies who worked the "graveyard" shift made a regular thing of going to Ugene's at the end of their shift. They had a key to the place, and would go in at around 7 a.m., prepare breakfast for themselves and still be there, having coffee or a few beers, when Eddie or Billy arrived around 9 a.m. They ran a tab on their food and drink, and (presumably) always squared up their bill before leaving.
THE KIDS FROM UTAH: When Doug Seus and his partner were building that Golf 'n Stuff place on Firestone Boulevard, halfway between Downey and Norwalk, they brought in eight or ten young men from Utah to help with the considerable labor involved. They were Mormon lads, recruited for their strength and vitality, along with their work ethic. It is unlikely that any of them had ever tasted liquor before that fateful trip to Southern California. But there's a first time for everything. Doug rented a beach apartment for the lads at Belmont Shore, exposing them to some sights never seen or even dreamed of on the Great Salt Lake. The labor at what was to be Golf 'n Stuffone of the first of the huge, elaborate miniature golf locations in Southern Californiawas completed in just one summer. The Mormon lads would work twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, for three weeks straight; then they would have three days off, with a 16-gallon keg of beer in their apartment and any number of beach bunnies to chase. Three days of R&R, then back to the backbreaking labor. But they loved it! And they loved to unwind at Ugene's, at every opportunity.
Good Mormon boys, given such freedom, remained good boysbut they could get a little wild at times. On one memorable evening, they played what turned out to be an ill-conceived prank on their friend and employer, Doug Seus himself. They concocted some ruse to get Doug into a telephone booth directly across Firestone Boulevard from Ugene'sthen threw a heavy chain around the booth and secured it in such way that he couldn't get out. What they didn't realize was that Doug's incarceration in the jungles of South America had made him claustrophobic. When his Good Mormon Boy "captors" retired to Ugene's to have a beer before freeing him, the former Green Beret went bonkers. In a wild, kicking, screaming rage, he escapedcompletely destroying the phone booth in the process.
Minutes later, a couple of Downey police officers came into Ugene's, looking to arrest the wildman who had wrecked the phone booth. Determining that Doug Seus was their man, they sought to place him in handcuffs. And Doug refused their offer. The officers insisted, but found themselves confronted not just by Doug, but by all those big, husky Good Mormon Boys and other Ugene's patrons, as well. The officers called in reinforcements, and a major physical confrontation was averted only when Eddie Wallow arrived on the scene and assured a friendly police lieutenant that he would personally accompany Doug to the police station (or to court, I'm not sure which) the following morning, where he would post bond and be released on his own recognizance.
The good times at Ugene's must have ended at about the same time I moved from Whittier to Diamond Bar, in 1975. Both of the owners were getting up in years, and in ill health. I'm not sure if they actually closed the bar voluntarily, or perhaps the owner of the building did not renew their lease. In any event, the bar closed, and the "golden days and nights" at Ugene's were over. Many of the regulars, and even Eddie Wallow himself, moved their action a few hundred yards east to The Star Room, corner of Firestone and Stewart & Gray.
I rarely saw any of the old gang after that; but I did go to visit Eddie Wallow a few times after he had checked into an apartment in a large, upscale "assisted living" facility in Brea, and I took him home with me for dinner on at least one occasion. Eddie had become thinner and ever more pale in complexion, and his voice was little more than a whisperbut he was the unmistakable Star of the Show at the assisted living place. Most of the residents were elderly Jewish widows, and they knew a Player when they saw one. The flashy jewelry, the casual elegance of his wardrobe, the gift for gabeverything about him cried out, Here is a Player!
"The broads here are really after me," Eddie told me the first time I went to visit him. Looking around the lobby, I asked, "Which ones?" "ALL of Œem," he said. "HAAA-AAAA-Aaaa..." And then, just like old times, just when it appeared he was going to pass out, he continued, "HAAA-Aaaa-aaa...!"
A year or two after Eddie moved to that apartment, I received a call from his nephew, informing me that my friend had passed away. It was sad news, but not totally unexpected. I mean, how long can one pale, thin, struggling-for-breath, seventy-five-year-old maneven if he was once a tough guy, on the streets of Old Chicagocontinue to take care of that many broads?? HAAA-AAAA-Aaaa...!!
And now, a sort of "Twilight Zone" item: For years, Johnnie Jones divided his time between Ugene's and the Star Room. When Ugene's closed, he moved his theatre of operations to the Star Room entirely. He was theremorning, noon, and night, for at least a couple of years. That would probably have been late-1970s. I was rarely in Downey after my move to Diamond Bar; but one time, probably late-1980s, I took my wife and my sister Bernice, visiting from Texas, into the Star Room looking for our friend Johnnie Jones. Not seeing the old Englishman there, I asked the bartender about him. And the bartender had never HEARD of any Johnny Jones! I couldn¹t believe it. At my insistence, the bartender and I went stool-to-stool down the bar, inquiring about the skinny old Englishman with the bad teeth and bad breath who was always telling jokes and playing the spoons... And not one of those people, who looked like they had been sitting on those same stools for years, had ever heard of him, either. It was as though he had never existed.
Today, I don't think I even want to know what became of Johnnie Jones. Maybe, instead of ending up in a pauper's grave in Southern California, he went back and stowed away on the Queen Mary, or something. Maybe he got back to Merry Olde England, and the family he had deserted. I prefer that it remain a mystery.