Tuesday, June 5, 2012


(photo: some GN staff off-site at a fund-raiser)


“Well we all entertain you while the chef and food are found
We got clowns, jugglers, musicians, singers to help that food go down
And we’re running around the tables at a frantic pace
Trying to keep that smile on our haggard face”

Ribbon of Fat written and performed at the GN by Marty Cohen
The Grand Opening was a huge success and the restaurant immediately flourished.  As long as the C’s showed up and the money kept flowing, the staff was allowed tremendous leeway in its behavior.  General Manager Scarne was brilliant at card magic, and considered himself quite the bon vivant, an LA “playa” who evidently had been allowed to get away with just about anything down south.  Scarne theoretically ran things, but when he was around, he was either amazing C’s with his card tricks or chatting up the female performers.  Within the first week or so, it was rumored that on one memorable night, he had given everyone in the swamp (our affectionate name for the kitchen) a hit of acid.  Things turned out okay, but this group did NOT “need” any mind altering drugs.

Like the performers, the swamp staff was a colorful bunch, and perhaps the most memorable one was its lead line cook.  Walter was the one we communicated with the most, the one who directly dealt with the front house staff.  He was a smallish, goatee’d, gruff reprobate who didn’t take any crap from the bunch of egomaniacs who waited or bussed tables, and if you were one of the fancy-pants twinkies (that would be a “host/ess”), you were almost beneath his contempt (and a pretty ingenue was no exception).  Heaven help the poor fool who tried to hurry the swamp, or who thought about giving anybody in it some lip.  With an alligator look that could decimate a politician and a tongue that could tear your heart out, you only made a mistake like that once.  And yet - some of us loved Walter.  As a matter of fact, we loved him so much that several months down the line we actually convinced him to perform a couple of songs – but that’s a story for next week.

Scarne was getting more and more out of control.  This was probably fueled by a reckless abandon when it came to certain recreational substances.  For better or worse, this stuff was not hard to come by at the Great Nothing (as it was eventually referred to by its workers).  So you had a packed restaurant, alcohol flowing to C’s and staff, various “recreational” drugs around every corner, and a young group of talented, preening musicians.  What could go wrong?  For Scarne, it was probably the night he ran out of money in the middle of what was rumored to be a savage cocaine binge. 

Early on, the waiters had to pool tips and Scarne would dole them out at the end of the night in envelopes.  This was NOT an insignificant amount of money.  The tab for a night at the Great Northern did not have to be extravagant, but it wasn’t “cheap”.  It was a medium priced place, so the tips were okay to begin with – and when you added the “extra value” of the songs, you were looking at a VERY good night’s pay.  As a matter of fact, if you happened to be waiting a table whose patrons loved whatever you were singing, the tips could be unbelievable.  After the restaurant closed on this particular night, Scarne told everyone that because they had done such a lousy job the previous night, he was confiscating all the tips.  That’s right: that night, NO tips.  This was unforgiveable and probably the last straw.  Within a couple of weeks there was a major change.

The Great American (in LA) and the Great Northern were both owned by Redwood and the Beach “boys”.  Shortly after the confiscated tip incident, the owners (who had rarely been seen) came to town and Scarne disappeared.  The Beach brothers were Dave (a commercial airline pilot) and Rick (a doctor).  (There was a third brother, Tennessee, who was not an owner, but who would later join the staff as a singing waiter.)  Redwood wasn’t a brother, but he was pretty much the managing partner.  He got his nickname because he was about six and a half feet tall, slim, trim and imposing, the owners’ “enforcer”, a man who enjoyed his “height” and literally “looked down” on most people.  He was usually a reasonable man, but if you crossed him or got on his “bad side”, he was ruthless.  Scarne was out, replaced by new general manager John Reynolds.  Dr. Rick was not often there, but it seemed like Redwood and/or Dave (when he wasn’t flying) usually were.

Shortly after the grand opening, I decided that being a twinkie was not for me.  When I began to grasp just how much the waiters were making, I switched to a busser and before long was waiting tables.  For a few hours a night, the work was grueling and almost non-stop, but the money and camaraderie were worth it.  I found out that different groups of waiters had their unique non-musical “rituals”, and one of them was the “Doob in the Stein”.  I didn’t usually partake in this particular “back of the restaurant” gathering, but one of the times I did, events went terribly wrong and almost shut the place down in the middle of its busiest night.


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