Celebrity Close Encounters of the Bartender Kind! (Part II)

LOS ANGELES - Standing Room Only contributing writer and co-owner of The Bar Professional, Kyle Branche, has tended bar at several up scale establishments and exclusive private parties over the years, rubbing elbows with countless musicians, athletes and actors alike. Recently, Kyle decided to document some of these cool, one-of-a-kind encounters that he's experienced over time, which SRO will now feature in a three-part, column-series. From the Editor


Article by Kyle Branche * Photos by Paul de Leon

Richard Carpenter: Just a couple years ago, I was called by a service to work the bar of a private party for Richard and his family at their home. It was a cool get-together in the back yard and a birthday for one of their kids. The property itself is huge. Like Jay Leno, Richard also is a car collector, with 25 to his name, and has garage space for all of them. I've worked in a lot of wealthy estates all over Los Angeles through the years, and as far as favorites, this one is in my Top 5. I went to grab some bottles from his built-in bar inside the home. It is so custom, as per his meticulous nature, that every bottle he chooses to showcase on the back bar has its own lighting underneath it. I wish I would have had my digital camera with me. Richard is a very nice guy, the same for his family. There was a lady sitting at a table next to the kitchen on the inside of the house I had noticed when I was going in and out for a few things towards the latter half of the event and I swear, she looked so familiar. She had the Carpenter eyes.

Mel Brooks: A regular at the Cabaret club in Hollywood where I've worked at for many years. He always comes in with Carl Reiner on nights when Carl's daughter, Annie performs, and where Carl's wife, Estelle, use to perform for decades. Mel always likes to be the first one to pay his tab after the show. He's very funny in person too. One night I had to work both the bar and the floor for seating and food. We introduce ourselves. He asked what my last name was and where I'm from. I said "My last name is Branche, with an e on the end, and I'm from Upstate New York. He says to me "I know a lot of Branche's from New York. Just not ones with the e on the end!"

Elvira and Pee Wee Herman: I was working the bar of a private event at The Hollywood Palladium on one of many occasions, as I had worked on-call at the old haunted venue for years. They had no make-up on. For some reason they were hanging together. It was kind of Halloween creepy, though you couldn't help but dig it. Cassandra comes up to my bar, orders a drink and orders for Paul as well. He's in back of her. When I mention the total for their simple cocktails of wine and vodka/soda, Paul moves slightly closer in to hand me the money. I give him change. He follows with a very generous tip. We acknowledge through the eyes and a kind head gesture. I say a quiet thank you. He says a silent thank you. I smile at Cassandra, and they both walk off into the crowd.

John Mendoza: While working the bar as a part-time fill-in at the Riviera restaurant in Calabasas, comedian John Mendoza was a semi-regular who came in alone and hung at the bar usually for a drink and a bite to eat. We would talk. He loved the fact that I would participate in a Native American sweat lodge from time to time, either in Malibu or out in Oxnard. He wanted to go and do one with me. I loved his offbeat humor. He enjoyed being the observer of other people's strange conversations. He wasn't alone in that matter. Calabasas is a neighborhood of wealthy people and their spoiled children. He loved making fun of the stepford facade. As a non-Jew, he heard what all of us often hear in the bar area. But he said something about it, to a Jewish bar patron, and it went something like this: "How come Jewish people always have to let other people know, in whatever way or form of communication at some point in time, that they're Jewish?" That conversation ensued for the next half-hour. I laughed inside for the rest of the shift.

Pat Riley: The Hollywood Palladium had a sporting event and fundraiser, where many athletes from all popular sports were in attendance, that happened to be in town. Pat Riley was one of them. The Heat had just played either the Lakers or the Clippers. He came up to the bar, asked for a double-pour of red wine in a large cup. He told me he was getting ready to leave and needed a roadie. That I didn't need to know because it wasn't my job to be the enforcer, just the bartender. If he made it out of the building and into the limo safely with cup in hand or not, isn't my business. He tipped well, but you could tell he had a busy mind going on, and I wasn't about to engage in depth or interfere with what he was occupied with. All I said was don't beat up on my team too badly tomorrow night. Miami was headed to Phoenix to play the Suns.

Sally Struthers: Once in a while I work these fun dinner parties in Hollywood that are put on by a legendary L.A. stage and theater director. One night Sally was an invited guest. She was very cool and down to earth, and was recently in a show back east, I think somewhere in Rhode island. Anyway, after dinner and drinks, I was busy in the kitchen as the bar was all cleaned from the early mess it was in during the initial cocktail reception when people arrived. I'm washing glassware and dishes, and Sally calmly leaves her seat in the living room, slides right into the area where I'm at, grabs a dry towel and starts helping me, and we engage in a conversation about each other's lives.

Martin Landau: The Gardenia is a celebrity mecca for people who work in theater, stage, film, television or music. It's like a comfortable living room where you notice that everybody knows everybody in the biz. I'm pretty good with faces, and the bar is close to the speakeasy-style entrance. I noticed Mr. Landau was in the room earlier on in the evening, but I don't always know exactly where the drinks are going to in this supper club setting, even though there are seven seats at the bar. At the end of the night and after the show was over, as he was leaving, Mr. Landau made a quick stop at the edge of the bar, shook my hand, smiled and said "That was the best martini I've ever had". All I could say was "Thank you very much, glad you enjoyed". Considering all the places and bars around the world where he's had a martini, I couldn't speak for awhile after that acknowledgement.

Bud Cort: At another Palladium event many moons ago, this guy comes up the bar with a lady friend of his. He looks so familiar, but I just couldn't place the name to the face. But I was curious, so I created a sly inquiry. We ended up introducing ourselves after sharing kind words of the event as I was making his and her drinks. The thing about people in showbiz is many of them have waited tables or tended bar at some point early in their careers, so they have a tendency to appreciate the positions instead of looking down at them. Not everybody had it handed to them. But I always hold my head up high with whatever I do, because if I'm going to do something, I want to do it well. I think Bud noticed that with me. We chatted for a couple minutes, and amongst other things I already knew about his career including playing the lead actor opposite Ruth Gordon in the 70's cult classic film Harold & Maude. But he was also a live-in caretaker to Groucho Marx in his Bel-Air mansion. He was there in the house and next to Groucho when he died in 1977.

Raquel Welch: One night at the club I ended up answering the phone behind the bar on a packed night. When you hear that distinct, sultry voice on the other end of the line, you know who it is. It stopped me in my paces. I couldn't believe it, it was so surreal, like out of a dream or being hypnotized. It was her. The stunning one. I knew from the reservation books that she was coming in. I just didn't expect her to be calling the club. But she was running late, and wanted me to let her friends know that she was going to be sitting with, of the news. So we did. As I'm making drinks in a mad skills way, she walks into the club. The first thing she does is come to the corner of the bar and says "Hi Kyle" and waves. I pause my prep movements in shock, waved back, smiled and said "Hi Raquel." I mean, at that point, what else could I do or say that was appropriate but less formal of a response. She walks over to her table on the main floor of the room, and the patrons in to see the show and filling up all the bar seats were sitting there looking at me going "Huh! . . . How in the world are you on a first name basis with her?"

Willie Shoemaker: One of the more interesting places I've ever tended bar on an on-call basis was at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center over on Riverside Drive in Burbank. One early evening I was called in to work a nice, simple birthday gathering of friends in a room on the property fitting for about 30-40 people. Later did I find out that it was for the legendary jockey of horse racing. Willie walks in after about a dozen people had already arrived. He comes to the bar and orders a Johnnie Walker Red on-the-rocks. It was an honor to meet him. Small guys don't have too much luck in the world, so it's nice to know that there's a place for them here in this sport that requires such. He couldn't have been nicer, and before it got busy, we got into a chat about the center and everything that it does as far as events and what it means to the community of so many Hollywood equestrians.

Rick Dees: Mr. Dees was a member of Lakeside Golf Club as well. And in this place, we called everybody-leading off with either "Mr." or "Dr.". There was quite a cast of characters that we're part of this special place. They wouldn't let just anybody in. Rick always ordered cranberry juice. I don't think he ever drank alcohol, at least not in front of us. He was always in good spirits. I remember my executive chef rock & roll buddy at the club, Markus Kohn, at times having to put together a set of specially-prepared meals at Rick's request, and then drive over to the airport to deliver them to his private jet just before take-off to Kentucky.

Adrienne Barbeau: She came into the Gardenia one night with husband, Billy Van Zandt, to see a sold-out show, but there wasn't any room on the floor tables, so they sat at the bar, where I also serve full dinners. At that time she was in one of my all-time favorite cable shows on HBO called "Carnivale," that shamefully only lasted two seasons. It was such a packed house that night. But when you sit at the bar, you can get more attention, plus you're sitting higher, so in some thoughts, it can actually be better as far as service. And I made it a point to take extra care.