Ode to an original woman


    I write in regard to the article on the Albatross [“From no-tell motel to costly condos in one history lesson,” April 22 issue].

    I worked at that infamous hotel/restaurant for Eloise Burnett (your Louise Barnett) from June 17, 1973 until it closed down two months later.

    I had just come by Trailways bus to Southern California from a small town in Pennsylvania. I was 24, but I was still wet behind the ears.

    I saw Eloise’s help wanted ad in the L.A. Times: “Restaurant-Bar, live-in, no car,” and it gave the address on PCH.

    I walked from Santa Monica all the way to Malibu (there was no bus service then), and applied. She hired me right there, to wait on tables for dining customers, mix and serve drinks and clean the rooms upstairs — everything. I was one of about six motley “drifter-type’ men, mostly young, who made up her staff.

    At that point there were no women working there at all.

    Judge Merrick was right that Eloise “was an old gal with a very salty tongue.” She put on a gruff and callous exterior, because she knew she had to be tough to survive. But more than once she came to my defense when the other guys bullied me.

    “For protection” Eloise was forever accompanied by a German Shepherd she called “Bach II” (its predecessor’s name having been “Bach”). And the atmosphere of the lobby of the Albatross was punctually pierced by the cries of a resident great pure-white cockatoo with flowing head-feathers, which Eloise only occasionally let perch on her shoulder and feed sunflower seeds.

    Most of us hired help slept outside the building in a metal utility shack on the concrete desk, and it was cold! But she’d let us use the vacant upstairs rooms to take long hot showers any time we wanted. She put us through our paces and made us work for pay and our keep, but she was liberal with time off and staples like house food.

    In the 1960 Columbia film “Strangers When We Met,” to which you alluded, one can see how the building was unusually designed to look like an oversized yacht, even to the extent of having brass-framed portholes for windows. In the first scene that shows the interior, Kirk Douglas sits at the long, studded brass-topped bar, a glass-encased old-fashioned gold-colored fire extinguisher behind him; he then walks toward the cocktail deck before a huge brass swordfish suspended over the wall-length stone fireplace. All these legendary fixtures were still in place, when I was there.

    I was asked several times by male guests in whispered confidence if it was a brothel, but I had no evidence of any kind that it ever was, and told them so.

    When she finally closed the place, Eloise Burnett moved up into one of the canyons (I won’t say which), and lived there on a several-acre lot in a spacious trailer, while she authorized the beginning of construction on a big house. She took three of us, “her boys,” with her up there, and paid us a little to help clear the brush and rocks off the lot. I slept in a small addendum to the trailer.

    But after a week and a half of this, I finally decided to get a real job, and walked down the canyon, and out of the life of one of the most unique and original women I’ve ever had the privilege to know.

    I heard she completed the house, and enjoyed it for about eight years before she died. That would be about 1981 or 1982.

    The thing I remember most fondly about my time at the Albatross was being able to listen to the incredible selection of hit songs on the colorfully lit up grand Seaborg Jukebox that sat in state on the Hawaiian-motif glass-enclosed cocktail lounge, while I served people their drinks on a Saturday night. There were beautiful renditions of tunes on the bill, by the likes of Dean Martin, Andy Williams and John Gary. Many are rare or unattainable today thanks to LPs being replaced by CDs. And almost half the jukebox was filled with Frank Sinatra’s singles.

    As I proudly wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt, and a mod ’70s black bow tie (Eloise liked that tie), I served the bourbon-and-soda and the brandy Alexander to, respectively, a middle-aged man and a woman awfully young and pretty to be his wife; and outside under the exterior lights, the waves — I can still hear their thunder — splashed way up and dotted the glass with droplets.

    The middle-aged man leaned way over to me and pressed a $20 bill into my hand and said simply, “Play Sinatra.” I did gladly. And he and his date were there a long, long time.

    Dennis Keith Klopp