Last call for Hermosa Beach’s beachfront Poop Deck bar [Update]
Saturday was to be the Poop Deck’s 57th anniversary party, a Hermosa Beach tradition celebrated with Bud beers and a new patio mural by the Budweiser distributor’s artist, caricaturing The Strand bar’s regulars and staff.
But three days before the party, instead of anniversary posters, Poop Deck owner Dorothy Zagozda was stapling signs to the front door that read, “Last Call, Saturday. April, 20. 9 a.m. to close.”
The Poop Deck lost its lease last month to the owners of Uncorked, a wine tasting room up the street, on Pier Avenue. The new owners will offer local craft beers and fine wines, and promise to preserve the neighborhood bar spirit. They are shortening the name to The Deck.
The 1200 block of the Strand, which includes the Poop Deck, and the Good Stuff and Mermaid restaurants, was purchased last summer by Strand Pier Holding Company. They hope to begin construction of a boutique hotel in three years.
The Poop Deck and the neighboring Mermaid restaurant are the last downtown Hermosa Beach businesses from the Eisenhower years, when the downtown retail mix included JC Penney, Arnold’s Hardware, Guild Drug, Egger’s Bakery and Jean’s Men’s and Women’s Clothing. Nightlife centered around John Levine’s Lighthouse Cafe, which spawned the West Coast Jazz sound.
Today, Hermosa’s downtown is primarily upscale restaurants, craft beer bars and banks.
The Poop Deck has been an exception, ignored even by the passing popularity of dive bars.
While Dorothy was stapling the last call sign to the bar’s front door, Walt Armstrong, Ed Barden and Matt Schumacher were seated at the window counter watching women on The Strand and volleyball players on the beach. Each had his own pitcher of Bud.
Armstrong is a retired engineer from Manhattan Beach; Barden a semi retired construction worker from Redondo and Schumacher a retired attorney from Palos Verdes. They met playing volleyball in the mid ‘70s and have met almost daily at the Poop Deck ever since.
“We talk about everything except art,” said Armstrong, who admits to a 15-year gap in his Poop Deck routine to raise kids.
Thursday’s talk centered on where to meet when the Poop Deck closes.
A Trojan horse
Hermosa Beach surfer Howard Bugbee opened the Poop Deck on April 17, 1957, shortly after graduating from USC, where he majored in business and ran the 100 and 220. He sold his junker for $100, borrowed $400 from Hermosa surfing buddies Hal Ormondroyd and Dan Patch and $100 from his mother, even though she would have preferred he accepted the IBM job offer.
Bugbee built the bar top from used diving boards he bought for $1.50. Boots Thelen, his landlord, and owner of the neighboring Mermaid Tavern, sold Bugbee his old bar stools for $5 each. A bunch of USC buddies proposed the name Poop Deck, which is the stern deck on a ship, from the French la poupe, which made the the name even funnier.
Grubby Clark, who would go on to surf fame as the founder of Clark Foam, fiberglassed the tables and Stu Linder, another surf buddy, created the Hawaiian decor. “A show about Jack London had just shut down, so I drove my truck to the studio and Stuey loaded me up with all the Hawaiian Island props. He also drew all over the walls and did carvings in the bartop,” Bugbee said. The surf artist would win the 1966 film editing Oscar for “Grand Prix.”
“We were still sawing and cleaning the bathrooms when a friend who was helping shouted out the front door, ‘We’re open.’ Then he jumped behind the bar and started pouring beers,” recalled Bugbee, now 83 and living in San Diego.
By the end of the first summer, Bugbee had repaid his loans.
“On summer days, when I was working the front door, it was quicker to walk around the block to the back bathroom than to try walking through the bar,” he said.
Beers were 25 cents and pitchers $1.
A horse called Poop Deck was running at Hollywood Park. Bugbee drove to the track with $100 of his own and some customers money and came back with $1500. The customers put their winnings on a tab and every time one of them bought a pitcher, the bartender would take it off the tab.
After a few years, Bugbee tried raising pitchers to $1.25, but the bartenders complained it was too much trouble to make change so pitchers went back to $1.
Many of Bugbee’s customers were friends from his track days.
One morning while drinking his coffee on The Strand wall in front of his bar a passerby challenged him to a race. Bugbee pulled Frank, the business licensing inspector out of the Mermaid and asked him to draw a chalk line in front of the Biltmore Hotel, two blocks north of the pier.
Hugbee ran the race and was back drinking his coffee when the challenger finished.
“Parry O’ Brien, the [world record setting USC] shotputter was a good friend. One day a customer wanted to tangle with him. I told the guy, ‘That’s not a good idea. He’ll shot put your head out the door and into the ocean.’”
“Another time when a customer was giving me a hard time, he suddenly backed off. I looked behind me and there were four longshoreman, not saying a word. They liked the Poop Deck because in the San Pedro bars if there was a problem they had to fight. At the Poop Deck, if there was problem people would say, “Excuse me.”
“We had an ABC guy who married a girl from Redondo. He came in all the time and sat at the end of the bar. Normally, those guys never paid for drinks. This guy always did. He said, ‘This is the one place I can act like everyone else.’
“The real owner was Sooner, a black mutt. If he was sitting on a bar stool or the shuffleboard table and you tried to moved him, you’d be in trouble.
“We had a cop named Al Graham. He wasn’t very popular until one day the dog catcher saw Sooner run into the bar and sent Al in to get him. Al looked around, then walked out and told the dog catcher Sooner had slipped out the back door.”
The lifeguard years
Because of its location and 25 cent beers, the Poop Deck quickly became the afterwork bar for lifeguards.
Lindner and 2014 Hermosa Beach Surfer’s Walk of Fame inductee John McFarlane, also a USC business graduate, started their first surf trip to Mazatlan with beers at the Poop Deck.
“Before we took off I reset the odometer in my VW bug. From the Poop Deck to Canon Point is 1,272 miles,” McFarlane told Easy Reader during an interview for his Hall of Fame induction.
Retired lifeguard Sonny Vardeman recalled going into the Poop Deck on his 21st birthday for the free pitcher of beer Bugbee always gave newly legal drinkers.
“Howard said to me, “You sob. You’ve been drinking in here for over a year.”
“All the lifeguards hung out there after work. That’s why the two Steves bought it,” Vardeman said.
In 1971, a Poop Deck bartender mentioned to lifeguards Steve Voorhees and Steve Wood that the bar might be for sale. Bugbee had gotten a divorce and moved to Hawaii. The new owner spent his time soaking up scotch in the Mermaid.
“Steve and I liked drinking there, so I asked my accountant if it made sense and he said it did. When I talked to Boots, he told me, “If anything goes wrong, it’s your problem, not mine.”
“We were still lifeguarding, so all the money went to management and bartenders. Had we worked it ourselves, it wouldn’t have been such a headache,” recalled Voorhees, who retired from the lifeguards as the Southern Section Captain in 1990 and lives in Manhattan Beach.
“The saddest part during this period was that so many young people coming off the beach in the afternoon for a beer were taking drugs. We had to run a lot of people out because they were high on something.
“It was just a time when beer bars were not very popular.”
After five years, Voorhees and Woods sold the Poop Deck to “Uncle” Bill Vacek, a Poop Deck regular and Southern Pacific Bank vice president who lived on The Strand, at 21st Street.
“He told us his goal in life was to own a home on The Strand and a bar on The Strand,” Voorhees said.
In the early ‘90s, Hermosa’s long stagnant downtown underwent a transformation, triggered by the closure of Pier Avenue to automobile traffic. Mixed retail gave way to the current upscale restaurants and craft beer bars.
None of this mattered to Vacek. Bud remained the sole tap beer, wine was red or white. Food was served when you picked it up from Big Mike’s on Hermosa Avenue, or whatever other take-out you wanted to bring in. All the staff asked was that you clear your table.
The only notable changes from the Bugbee era were new pool tables and an ATM. No credit cards. No problems.
“I doubt we’ved called the police more than five times since I started here in December, 1996. We take care of ourselves,” bartender Bob Schwartz said. “Bill’s the reason we’ve all stuck around,” Schwartz added, referring not just to the customers, but also the staff. The last new hire started eight years ago.
One of Schwartz’s biggest concerns about the closure is what will happen to the clown fish, pacu and the sucker fish in the aquarium behind the bar, which he cares for. Bugbee put in the aquarium over the back bar and it’s been replaced only once, in the mid ‘80s, after Whimpy the bartender ducked a pitcher thrown at his head.
Following Vacek’s death on July 5, 2008, at age 77, just days after being diagnosed with liver cancer, Vacek’s sister Dorothy and her husband Rae took over. They have their own Poop Deck in an industrial section of Omaha, but visit Hermosa every few months. Vacek’s niece Mary Corbaley, who also lives in Omaha and his nephew Ray Zagozda, who lives in San Diego, pitch in. But the bar’s daily operation rests with Schwartz and his veteran staff.
Back on the three barstools looking out on The Strand, the old volleyball players’ conversation turned to where they’ll will go after the Poop Deck is no more. Hermosa has three other bars on The Strand, the Mermaid, Scotty’s and Hennessey’s.
“Not the Mermaid. They don’t open ‘til three,” Barden said.
“Not Scotty’s. You’re looking out at public bathrooms,” Armstrong said.
“Not Hennesseys. We’d have to sell the farm,” Schumacher said. “I may have to change my lifestyle,” the retired attorney added.
“We’ve heard that before,” Barden, the semi retired construction worker said..
“I’ll miss the sunset services,” Armstrong, the engineer said. ER