September 16, 2012
After being a Downtown stalwart for over 90 years, the King Eddy bar is – any day now – due to close it’s doors for renovation. There’s no solid re-opening date either (though it is keeping the name apparently), but whatever happens, it won’t be the same dive bar it was. Nonetheless, as part of the King Edward Hotel it has stories to tell….
In February 1906 the Los Angeles Times noted that the new building planned for 5th Street was “such an American hotel, although with such a very English name, don’t you know”. Designed by architects John Parkinson and George “Ed” Bergstrom, the fireproof six story King Edward hotel was due to boast a marble lobby, mosaic floors, “a telephone in every room”, and was built from materials made right here in L.A.
While Parkinson went on to make a huge mark on the skyline – he was the man behind City Hall, Union Station, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and many others – the King Edward Hotel’s halcyon days are long in the past. Down on street level, the King Eddy Saloon was here almost as long as the hotel itself, and that includes during the 1920s and 1930s, when it was a store selling pianos (though drinkers could use a separate entrance to get to the “speakeasy” in the basement).
It was the time of Prohibition, and the King Eddy was right at the center of it. Corrupt local officials turned a blind eye, enjoyed the secret drinking and took some of the profits, while underneath the bar there was a 133 foot tunnel that was part of a large network of service and utility tunnels across downtown Los Angeles – perfect for deliveries of bootleg liquor. After prohibition ended in 1933 the speakeasy disappeared and it went back to proudly being a dive bar – opening for business at 6am!
Novelists Charles Bukowski and John Fante drank here, and it helped inspire Fante to write his semi-autobiographical Ask The Dust (1939), the tale of struggling writer Arturo Bandini who lived downtown and came here to drink and dance with “Jean”.
As for the hotel, it started with a bang of the worst kind; Shortly after first opening its doors, one of the guests committed suicide in his room following a three-day drinking and gambling spree.
The Los Angeles Times of September 15, 1906 reported that Benjamin E. Smith, who had been left by his wife due to his “slavery” to liquor and gambling, drank an ounce of the poison laudanum before writing several suicide letters. In one he accused his aunt of illegally selling his property and hoped that “her soul would be in torment forever,” while in the other he blamed his wife Minnie as the “cause of it all”, and then wrote his last words:
“Minnie, you killed me”.
The hotel changed hands for the sum of $50,000 in March 1909, and the new owners had to deal with a Christmas Day tragedy that same year. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, in the early hours of Christmas Day, H.F. Windward shot himself in the head with a .38 caliber revolver while his new friend S.F. Oliver sat just yards away. Registered under the name Brown, Windward was dictating some letters to Oliver – one of which was regarding a woman whom “he was ready to give up a thousand lives” – before he performed his final act, something that led the Los Angeles Herald to describe him as “Disappointed In Love”.
The King Eddy’s everyone knows now is a no-frills, no messing, cash-only dive bar of the highest order. Their funky website gleefully admitted that this is the place where “nobody gives a shit about your name” and that they serve the cheapest “muddy water” – ingredients unknown. Inside there’s a handwritten sign that says “Keep your house clean” and “Mess with drugs – go to jail”, and there’s also an indoor smoking section (the people inside looking like human goldfish as they stare back through the glass).
The food isn’t “gourmet” – the most expensive item when I went was the Breakfast Special (sausages, hash browns, biscuits and gravy for a very wallet-friendly $3.25) – but I loved the pastrami sandwich (complete with onions, pickles and mustard and served in a plastic red basket), and having a beer with a few of the bar’s “characters”.