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Bar manager, historians take sides over saloon's popularity with author Charles Bukowski

By Kylie Reynolds
Published: Thursday, June 28, 2012, at 12:31PM
King Eddy Andres Aguila/KPCC

Historians say there's no solid proof that Charles Bukowski used to frequent the King Eddy Saloon.

The recently sold Downtown dive bar, the King Eddy Saloon, has a disputed cultural history: While the bar's longtime manager claims author Charles Bukowski used to be a regular there, some historians and experts say there's no proof to these claims.

In back of the dimly-lit Fifth Street bar, a maroon booth sits under neon lights. Bar manager Bill Roller, 74, did not glance up when he pointed to the booth from across the room on Tuesday.

He noted, without much interest, that it's the spot where Bukowski would sit when he frequented the saloon towards the end of his life.

Roller, who has worked at the bar for 50 years and served as its manager for the last 34, remembers Bukowski's weekly visits to his bar near Skid Row during the early 1990s.

The author of books such as Post Office and Hollywood is known as much for his drunkenness and lifestyle as he is for his writing - but Roller has a different story to tell.

In those days spent at King Eddy, Bukowski would drink coffee and quietly sit in that back booth, Roller said.

"When he came in here, he was just a normal customer - nothing outstanding about it," he said. "(Bukowski) was a good man."

The bar manager did not know at the time that Bukowski was a famed author. It was only after Bukowski's death in 1994 that Roller realized the same man who came into the King Eddy from 4 to 8:30 p.m. a few days a week to scribble notes, was also a celebrity.

Roller's accounts, however, do not sit right with Richard Schave, a Los Angeles historian and founder of Esotouric tours.

Bukowski did spend some time in Skid Row, Schave said, but those days are a "murky period of his life." By the 1990s, when Roller says the author spent time in the saloon, Bukowski was living in San Pedro with his wife, Schave said.

"Charles Bukoswki didn't really spend a lot of time in that area of Skid Row after he married Linda," he added.

The author's biographer and friend, Neeli Cherkovski, said in an email that he had never heard of the King Eddy, but knew that Bukowski did not like Skid Row.

"I wonder, did he really drive from San Pedro to a Skid Row bar for coffee?" Cherkovski said.

While Schave wants to believe Bukowski frequented the King Eddy, he can't - there just is not enough information to confirm the author's visits, he said.

"Basically every bar in Los Angeles will tell you that they had Bukowski visit," he said.

Schave, along with his wife Kim Cooper, runs a Bukowski tour of Los Angeles. While the tour makes a stop at the King Eddy, it's not because of its association with Bukowski, but rather its connection to Bukowski's literary hero John Fante.

Both Roller and Schave can agree that Fante frequented the saloon. The King Eddy is even featured in Fante's Ask the Dust - the novel Bukowski attributes to getting him into writing.

It's this literary inspiration that makes the King Eddy a focal point on the Bukowski tour, not the number of visits he made to it, Schave said.

"John Fante was intrinsic to Charles Bukowski's narrative," he said. "Whatever is important to Fante is important to Charles Bukowski."

But Dan Fante, John Fante's son and an author himself, said in an email that he is sure "Hank" - as he calls Bukowski - drank at the King Eddy, just like his father John.

"The bar is located in the belly of the beast - Hank's old downtown haunts," Dan Fante said. "There's no question of that."

Roller admittedly does not have many tales to tell about Bukowski. He sticks to his account that the author just kept to himself and wrote.

Without any definite stories from Roller about Bukowski's visits to the saloon, Schave said he just does not believe the author went there often, or at all.

To all the doubters, though, Roller just said with a laugh, "they weren't here in the 1990s."

"If you like the joint, you come back. If you don't like the joint, you don't come back," he said. "(Bukowski) liked the joint."

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