Monday January 24, 2005 / COLUMN ONE / LOS ANGELES TIMES
* Lanes sit unused at Mr. T's Bowl, but its nightlife is on a roll. Regulars hope the bar's renewed popularity won't strike at its gritty authenticity.
Home Edition, Main News, Page A-1
By Daniel Hernandez, Times Staff Writer
Kiersten Puusemp walked into Mr. T's Bowl in Highland Park on a rollicking Saturday night and, as the bar's most ardent fans might expect, fell instantly in love.
She came through the main entrance, which is the back door. She took in the ratty, faded carpeting. The perfectly tacky holiday decorations. The eight unused bowling lanes. The framed photographs of "Mr. Joe T" greeting patrons and pouring drinks. She breathed in the scent: a cozy muskiness that's been cooking in the windowless space for about 60 years.
"I have never been here before," said the 31-year-old artist from Altadena, squeezing up to the bar and hollering above the thrashing sounds of a band called the Mormons.
"I came in and said, 'This place is rad.' And then I'm like, 'Am I one of the ones who's ruining it?'"
Puusemp smiled ruefully at her Budweiser. "That's the dilemma."
It's the classic conundrum for the Los Angeles seeker of cool: gleefully discovering authenticity in a city notorious for veneer and contrived environments, then fretting over whether your very presence compromises it.
The predicament is becoming commonplace in Highland Park. "Cool" is coming to Northeast L.A.
Other old-school bars in the working- and middle-class district are relighting their retro signs, hiring doormen and installing modern mood lighting: Footsie's, The Chalet, the Cave. Last year, North Figueroa Street welcomed an artsy coffee shop called Mudpuppy. It's doing good business selling loose-leaf teas and homemade muffins.
Rental and property prices are rising. Younger artists, musicians and first-time home buyers priced out of Silver Lake and Echo Park are moving east, potentially bringing with them those neighborhoods' pretensions of cool.
Despite all the change happening outside, the scene inside Mr. T's Bowl repeats itself day after day. A cast of older regulars gets there around lunchtime during the week and sometimes before breakfast on weekends. There's no natural light, but they generally know when it's time to leave.
That's 9 p.m. or so, when the live music starts and twentysomethings with messy hair and Chuck Taylor sneakers roll in.
"There's no problem," said semiretired Bob, 68, who, like many of the others at Mr. T's, prefers to go by one name. "The older people drift out when the kids come in."
It's a formula that's been working so well, the rockers who've found success playing there admit they're a little worried.
"My whole dream was to have the bands blow up [find success] and keep secret about Mr. T's," said Mike "TV" Torres, 31, in charge of booking acts at the place.
"Wait," he said, suddenly considering the implications of speaking to a newspaper. "I can't believe I'm telling you this."
Given the bar's history, vigilance over its vulnerability is understandable. Mr. T's Bowl has had its share of "cool" and "so over" periods.
The brick-and-concrete-block building at 5621 1/2 N. Figueroa St., across from the old Highland Theater, opened in 1929 as a garage. At some point during the early 1940s -- no one today can say for sure -- the property was converted to a bowling alley. From a nondescript double-glass door, a long hallway led to a single room divided into a bar and a dining area. Curved wooden benches lined the slightly submerged playing area. For years, the alley prospered alongside the neighborhood's family-owned department stores and movie houses.
Joseph "Mr. T" Teresa, an Italian immigrant by way of Louisiana, who owned a nearby liquor store, bought the property in 1966. Live big-band music, Mr. T's favorite, filled the space. Mr. T set up home-style buffets for hungry bowlers. And students from nearby Occidental College and other Eastside campuses indulged in the tradition of collegiate drinking there.
But by the late 1980s, interest in the sport had waned considerably. The lanes went dark. And Mr. T's turned into a retiree bar. Not much more.
Then a curious thing happened: An out-of-order bowling alley populated by graying drinkers became attractive to a party-seeking younger generation brought up on punk rock, hip-hop and, above all, an acute sense of irony.
Fuzzyland, a wild underground music-and-dance event put on by veteran promoter Jac Zinder, became a phenomenon when it landed at Mr. T's in the early 1990s.
Mr. T's Bowl was a fit for Fuzzyland because partygoers "enjoyed the funkiness of the old school," said fellow promoter Gus Hudson. "The regulars were just hanging out there, and here were these strange young kids in their early 20s coming in from different parts of L.A."
Soon the party atmosphere extended to other nights of the week. Performers well-known in the underground, such as the Breeders and Beck, stopped by. Fuzzyland gradually morphed into an untamed carnival (trapeze performances, "clothing optional" theme nights). The bar's regulars became just another part of the party.
"I remember seeing one of the retirees who was hanging out, one guy who was blind with a cane, dancing on the floor to Jac's music," Hudson recalled.
On Thanksgiving Day 1994, Zinder was killed in a car crash in Silver Lake. Fuzzyland died with him. But the energy didn't.
Arlo, the bar's sound guy, started an open-mike night. Mike TV, who at the time was in a band named Arlo, in honor of Arlo, was given booking duties. Bands formed among neighborhood kids. Mike TV brought in acts from across the state, the country -- even from Japan. A scene was born.
"Basically, what brought me to Highland Park was open-mike Thursday nights at Mr. T's Bowl about seven years ago," said Santina Giordano, lead singer of the local band Hidden. "The first time I went there I was like, 'Whoa, there's something different about this place. It's special.' "
Special, many said, because of Mr. T, the bespectacled, white-haired man always smiling behind the bar. Or sometimes getting down on the dance floor. Or sometimes singing Sinatra on karaoke night. Or sometimes lugging crates of liquor from stockroom to ice chest. Even into his 80s, Mr. Joe T rarely left before the bar's last call.
Then, in June 2003, Joe Teresa succumbed to pulmonary fibrosis. He kept his illness from everyone -- even his son, John -- until he was no longer able to come into the bar. Mr. T was 87.
The funeral was a parade of floppy-haired rockers and Highland Park old-timers. Then everyone gathered at the bar to swap stories. Sarge, who used to be a cook at the bowling alley, prepared a meal featuring one of Mr. T's favorite foods: Italian sausage.
"He was just a damn decent guy," said Mike TV. "No matter what kind of band was happening, if there was a girl interested in dancing, Joe would take them out for a spin."
Things have been different since Mr. T passed.
Many of the bands that played some of their earliest gigs at Mr. T's -- if not their debuts -- have signed with major record labels, gone on tour, recorded videos, appeared on television. The Peak Show. Go Betty Go. Los Abandoned. 8-Bit (whose members dress up as robots). And others.
The open-mike night that spawned the scene was shut down. It's back now, but different.
On a recent Tuesday night, a few twentysomethings huddled at a table near the entrance. The seating in front of the stage, where an angst-ridden acoustic guitarist crooned into a microphone, was mostly empty. Edgar Smith, a 67-year-old regular in Dodger cap and shiny blue bomber jacket, belted out a song with indecipherable lyrics.
"Edgar, you have to sign up to sing," Lisa Thorsen, the beach-blond barkeep, called out gently. "There's a sign-up."
Linda Chavez, a 24-year-old downtown trade settlement worker, arched her eyebrows as if to say: See?
"It used to be happening, man," she said, clutching a Bud Light and a glowing cellphone. "On Tuesday night it looked like a Friday night. Right now the scene is supposedly happening, but it's already dying."
Chavez blames the arrival of Silver Lake and Echo Park hipsters, obsessed with the coolest and the newest. "People from over there come out here to 'hang out,' " Chavez said, making sarcastic quotation marks in the air with her hands. "You know, the 'rough part' of town. The regulars feel intimidated."
Mike TV and John insist the glory days will return. Several nights a week, the bar is packed with dedicated music fans, just like the old days. It's the best memorial he could leave to his father, John said.
Despite his fears, Mike TV said he believes Mr. T's won't lose its special brand of Uncool Cool.
"That's so odd that I'm even trying to explain this," he said on a recent night. "I don't know, man. I sort of suspect it's going to preserve itself. It's far enough east, even if people read about it, they'll say, 'Oh, that's cool,' and that's it. They're not going to go, 'Oh, my God, there's something incredible going on in Highland Park.' "
He paused: "And even if they do, I sort of suspect things could return back to normal. I don't know what it is."
Maybe it's the dedication of neighborhood regulars, young or old, like Chavez. Asked if she would hang out at Mr. T's no matter what kind of crowd overruns it next, Chavez answered straight and quick: "Of course, dude. I love this place. And that's how Mr. T would've wanted it."
© Los Angeles Times
* Photo above, from Flickr user waltarrrrr.