Mark McDermott

Beachbum Burt’s will live again

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A postcard of Beachbum Burt’s, with its 75,000 palm fronds, a look owner Burt Hixson took from a building on a Tahitian franc.

Paris had the 1930s and its cafes. San Francisco had the 1960s and Haight Ashbury. Redondo Beach had the mid-1970s and Beachbum Burt’s.

A successful restaurateur named Burt Hixson, who had launched trendy Warehouse restaurant in Marina Del Rey, in 1974 attempted to duplicate his success in King Harbor. As legend has it, Hixson had in mind a thatched building he’d seen on a Tahitian franc. Towards that end, he built a large building, imported 75,000 palm fronds from Mexico and covered the entire structure.

The Redondo Beach Fire Department was not impressed.

“They burn quicker than gasoline,” recalled Councilman Pat Aust, who was a firefighter at that time. “There’s a reason you don’t see bars and restaurants saved from fire in Mexico.”

Hixson had to hire a large crew of workers to take each frond from the building, dip it in 55 gallon tubs of fire retardant, test each in fire, and then put it back on the building. But in the end, this outlandishly imaginative echo of French Polynesia opened its doors in Redondo Beach.

Hixson also had music in mind: harp music, specifically, which had been successful in his other restaurant. The harp, however, didn’t cut it in Redondo Beach.

“He wanted to create another Warehouse,” said Richie Yarnold, a bartender and later beverage manager at Beachbum Burt’s. “They were only 13 miles apart, but it just wasn’t in the cards.”

He’d built it, but at first, they didn’t come. And so, at the urging of his managers, somewhat reluctantly, Hixson allowed the booking of rock n’ roll music. The first few bands were mildly successful, but sometime in 1976 or 1977, the place truly caught fire. It happened with the arrival of the John Brown Band.

John Brown was a lanky 20-year-old kid with a honey-rich voice and charisma that attracted people in droves. Next door, the Red Onion restaurant was home to a vibrant disco scene, while Beachbum Burt’s soon became known as one of the premier folk-rock party scenes in Southern California. Brown and his band led the way, playing Thursday through Saturday nights and at the restaurant’s famously raucous Sunday afternoon brunches. The harbor area was thick with exuberant young people, day and night.

“It was John Brown and his band that put Beachbum Burt’s on the map,” Yarnold said.

The John Brown Band, circa 1977, at the height of their Beachbum Burt’s fame. Pictured, left to right, are Will Bailey, Scotty Varneau, Zavier, John Brown, and Brian Curtain. Brown is hosting a Beachbum Burt’s revival, beginning this Sunday at the former site of the legendary restaurant, now the Cheesecake Factory.

Beachbum Burt’s quickly became more than a club. It was a hub, the center of a community that included its tight-knit crew of employees – all called “Cousins” by Hixson, who presided over the scene like a benevolent but highly entrepreneurial uncle. He frequently hosted parties on his 70 ft. yacht, and organized subsidized trips to Tahiti for employees. The “Cousins” were a hard-partying, beach-going, beautiful and joyous bunch.

“As far as employees, I think 90 percent of us were working our way through college,” recalled Joey Van Leuven, who worked as a waitress at the restaurant. “We were all going the same direction, but we were having a great time doing it. It was truly a family.”

“That spirit of family is what made the place,” Brown said. “It wasn’t this fractured, everybody working their own shift kind of thing. It was we are all family and we love this place. We like to have a really good time together and everybody coming in here is going to have a really good time with us.”

And Brown became the South Bay’s very own rock star. His band featured a virtuoso guitarist named Zavier who opened sets with classical pieces – partly to appease the still rock-reluctant Hixson – and moved on to soft folk while easing into harder rock as the night progressed. By 11 p.m. most nights, Brown would be turning the house upside down.

“My memory of Burt was him going over and turning us down,” Brown said, chuckling. “There was a volume control on the wall, and he’d just turn us down. He had a vision for what he wanted, and as I grow older, I can understand why he’d be protective.”

“Everyone loved John Brown,” Van Leuven said. “Every time I hear ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ I think of him. It was also those tight white pants he wore. You think I’m kidding? He was really gorgeous.”

Beachbum Burt’s was happening. Yarnold remembers lines five deep at every bar station. The bar grossed as much as $13,000 a night on weekends, he said, this at a time when beers were 75 cents and Mai Tai’s were $1.25.

“That,” said Brown, “is a lot of drinks.”

It was one of those rare convergences, a time and a place that hangs fondly in the memories of most everyone who was there, one that helped create countless lifelong friendships and even a few marriages. The restaurant itself was almost like a fictional setting – an open-roofed courtyard, where the band played, was at the center of this boozy thatched 1970s version of paradise by the sea.

Beachbum Burt’s Burt Hixson, manager Ralph Dockery, and chef Tim Lee in the restaurant’s famed banquet area.

“On a summer night under a full moon, the band would go on and sometimes turn the stage lights off,” Yarnold said. “You’d look at the floor and it would be illuminated by moonlight. What can you say about that? You could sit upstairs on the rail and look down and watch the band play or look straight out over your head and look at the stars. It was insane.”

“It was really something,” Brown said. “It was funny. The summer of 1978 was really warm and it just seemed like this really long summer, just the opposite of this year. It was these warm nights and people came out in droves. People were more relational and community-oriented, back then, than they are now. We didn’t have video rentals and the Internet. We don’t have to talk to each other anymore like that, because we can Facebook each other.”

Sunday afternoons were particularly known for their unruliness.

“The Sunday brunches were just huge down there,” said John Witherspoon, who worked as a waiter, bartender, and bar manager at the restaurant. “It was always just packed and the bands just rock and rolled. Come five or six, the band would be out and we’d open for dinner and people would look in the bar and go, ‘Man, what has been going on?’ because all the tables would be upside down. I mean, it was wild in there.”

Beginning this Sunday afternoon, Brown is spearheading a Beachbum Burt’s “Revival” at the former site of the restaurant, which is now the Cheesecake Factory. He and his band will play this week and in upcoming weeks other of the venue’s former musical stars will return to their former haunts. Brown stresses that this is no mere reunion, but a recreation of the musical spark that helped create a community.

“We try to stay away from that reunion aspect,” Brown said. “Revival is really what we are trying to do – to continue that legacy, starting with Sunday afternoons and everybody really having a good time and talking and listening to quality music.”

People are coming from every corner of the country. One person nobody has been able to reach, however, is Hixson himself, who now lives in Mexico and operates an exclusive private resort near Puerto Vallarta. But as the spirit of Beachbum Burt’s is revived, he will be remembered.

Yarnold, who now lives in Monterey and will sail from his home to Mexico and then Tahiti next year, said that Hixson had a lasting impact on his life. He remembers his late 20s as an idyllic and formative time – he owned no car, but bicycled to work. Everybody left their beach towels and chairs at the center of their known universe, Beachbum Burt’s. For many, this was how their adult lives began.

“Most of us didn’t have a care in the world,” he remembered. “Everybody made a decent income. We weren’t getting rich, but we didn’t need a lot. I have been blessed….I see what happens in other places, and it just makes me that much more thankful that Burt Hixson was here to do what he did because he certainly bettered my life and enriched my life with Beachbum Burt’s. I say that with all my heart. I’ll never stop thanking him for what he did for me.”

John Brown never became the bigger rock star that many thought he would. But the years he spent at Beachbum Burt’s laid the groundwork for the simpler life he has led in the South Bay for the last three decades. He met his wife, made his name, and became deeply entrenched in a community that has given him a life steeped in song.

“It’s the whole reason I have what I have now,” Brown said.

Over a series of Sundays, Brown will return to the place where it all began, joined by many friends who have been with him all along the way.

“Bottom line, old rock n’ rollers never die,” Van Leuven said. “Never.”

For more information, see www.beachbumburtsrevival.com. ER