Club Tee Gee is a long-standing bar in the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Atwater Village. After the owner died in 2016, there were fears that it might be shuttered. After a sale and renovation, it reopened on 14 November 2018 — and so in the interest of research, I headed over for a few drinks.
Atwater had only been part of Los Angeles for thirteen years when the building in which Club Tee Gee is located was constructed, in 1923. Its original tenant was a branch of Citizens Trust and Savings Bank. The Los Angeles County Assessor‘s office records show that the building underwent substantial alterations in 1935. It was then located along Pacific Electric Railway‘s Glendale-Burbank line, between stops at Monte Sano and San Fernando Road. The train connected Downtown Burbank and Downtown Glendale with Downtown Los Angeles via Atwater, Silver Lake, Edendale, Echo Park, Filipinotown, and Temple-Beaudry but in a characteristic bit of mid-20th-century shortsightedness, service ended in 1955 and the tracks were pulled up to accommodate automobiles. That’s why Glendale Boulevard is still so ridiculously wide (about 35 meters) and begs for a light rail line.
In 1946, two World War II veterans (and brothers-in-law), Neil W. Tracy and Joe Grzybowski, opened Club Tee Gee. The “Tee” and Gee” were references to the owners’ respective family names. They remodeled the old bank, applying a flagstone façade and neon “cocktails” sign, giving it a decidedly mid-20th-century look.
On 2 March 1948, two teenagers attempted to rob the bar near closing time. They were Echo Park resident Charles Hagadorn and Sidney B. Moody of Texas. From behind the bar, Tracy fired his Luger, at the would-be robbers, hitting Hagadorn. Return fire hit Tracy in the chest. One of the six patrons at the bar, a 27-year-old resident of Glendale named John R. Markland, was killed by Tracy’s gun. Tracy’s sister, Lucille, phoned the police from the bar’s kitchen. Police followed the trail of blood from the bar to the Los Angeles River where they found Hagadorn and took him into custody. Moody surrendered soon after. Tracy, in critical condition, was rushed to a hospital in Pasadena.
Violence seemed to follow Hagadorn. Just a month earlier, the newspaper had reported that eighteen-year-old Hagadorn and nineteen-year-old Moody had been assaulted by five attackers at a café in San Pedro. In that instance, Hagadorn had been slashed in the face with a broken beer bottle. After his arrest for the botched robbery, Hagadorn was sentenced to life in prison on one count of attempted robbery, two counts of robbery, and one count of attempted murder. In 1952, while awaiting trial for stabbing an inmate at San Quentin, Hagadorn beat a prison guard with a section of his toilet’s plumbing.
Tracy ultimately died in 1961. Around the same time, Grzybowski met a transplant from New York City named Betty Barlotta, then working as a secretary down the street. The two became involved, both romantically and professionally. Barlotta took over ownership of the bar in 1981. Grzybowski died of a heart attack in 1984. Barlotta continued to run the bar, with new partner Bob Kick, as well as serve on both the Atwater Griffith Park Chamber of Commerce and the local Lion’s Club.
By the 1980s, Atwater was plagued with rival Mexican Mafia-affiliated gangs including The Avenues, Frogtown Rifa, Thee Rascals, and Toonerville Rifa. In 1986, in an effort to soften Atwater’s sullied reputation, the neighborhood was rebranded “Atwater Village.” Many other neighborhoods added “village” to their names around that time, an easy bit of window dressing, the superficiality of which was underscored when someone threw a Molotov cocktail into Club Tee Gee in 1993.
The bar was repaired. The Naugahyde booths were restored and wood paneling and cork board was applied to the walls, giving it something of a basement wet bar vibe — if that basement belonged to, say, Bob Crane. When the bar reopened, patrons sprung for an official-looking bronze plaque declaring the bar “The Cheers of Atwater Village.” The gold glitter on the lime green ceiling once again sparkled. Nonetheless, with the kitchen closed off and used for storage, its windows boarded over, and both “Tee” and “Gee” dead, its best days appeared to be behind it.
Over the decades that followed, though, Tee Gee amassed an eclectic collection of knickknacks and furnishings and in the process obtained its own sort of divey charm. There was the Betty Boop paraphernalia — donated to Betty the bar-owner from patrons. Ceramic lamps lit newspaper clippings and framed advertisements. A framed picture of Frank Sinatra glowered from behind the bar.
In an era where “dive bar” referred merely to an aesthetic, Club Tee Gee remained a dive bar in the classic sense — cash only, popular with day drinkers, and mostly unsullied by the yuppification which came to the neighborhood in the 2000s. When Mad Men debuted in 2001, Club Tee Gee was naturally chosen by cosplay nerds who gathered there to watch new episodes.
Around 2009, an internet jukebox appeared. On one visit, Kiefer Sutherland handed a friend and I some money and asked us to put on some classic rock for him, explaining “I’m not good with technology.” The technological skill proved within our grasp and we put some Rolling Stones on for him without difficulty — but internet jukeboxes are a terrible thing for a bar to have, for so many reasons. Sutherland was drinking something brown, probably whiskey, and appeared to be on a date. Above him, on one of the televisions, an ad ran in which he promoted a brand of tequila.
Barlotta died in February 2016 at the age of 79. She left no will, no trust, and no heirs. The property had remained in the hands of the Hartman family since the 1940s. Barlotta’s boyfriend, Kick, informed the Hartmans that he didn’t intend to keep running the bar and naturally there were questions about the bar’s future. Los Angeles Magazine, predictably eager to be the first to cry wolf, published an article titled “Club Tee Gee in Atwater Village Is Closing After 70 Years.”
On 1 September 2017, ownership transferred to Greg Dulli. Renovations were made. The boards came off the windows. The bar re-opened. Reentering Club Tee Gee was a bit like seeing a bar you’re familiar with when it’s redressed for a movie or television series. It’s definitely still Club Tee Gee but also unmistakably remade to reflect the tastes of the guy who owns La Cita, Footsies, Monty’s, R Bar (in New Orleans), and The Short Stop.
For starters, the internet jukebox is thankfully gone. In its place, however, is a jukebox loaded with the expected mix of adult-oriented alternative (e.g. Air, 10cc, and Talking Heads), horrendously overplayed classic rock (e.g. Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Kinks, and Led Zeppelin), and the sorts of “world” and black artists widely championed by hip, aging Gen X dudes (e.g. Cymande, The Jacksons, Kendrick Lamar, Prince, Rodriguez, &c).
Gone, too, is the bar’s focus on cheap well booze and macrobrew lagers — a move which may displease many of the bar’s former regulars. In their place is a decent selection of tequilas, Japanese whiskeys, and a decent selection of reasonably priced specialty cocktails made with them. Also gone are the computer strip poker, electric darts and all of the old decorations. In their place, there’s a lot of shiny brass and dim amber lighting shined down from brassy ceiling lamps and from behind scotch colored wall lights. The bar itself is reupholstered with even more Naugahyde and the ceiling is the sparkliest its ever been. It’s just a little too dark to read the drink menu, which is ideal. The overall effect is now of a bar that Lee Marvin‘s character, Walker, might’ve patronized in Point Blank. Naturally, I’d worn a cologne developed in the 1940s, in honor of the bar’s history, but a more appropriate scent would’ve been Bernard Chant‘s Aramis.
Two of the most profound changes to the bar were easy to miss in the degraded twilight of the barroom. The windows, which had been boarded up for decades, are once again uncovered. Better yet, the long-dormant restaurant half of the bar is re-opening on weekends. There won’t be food, but more bar space, a DJ booth, and presumably dancing. Word in the bar was that it is expected to open before Christmas and to have a big, official re-opening on New Year’s Eve. I’ll be back!
Please drink responsibly and explore responsibly; meaning walk, cycle, scoot, or take public transit. Metro‘s 92 and 201 buses stop within easy stumbling distance of the bar. If you’re coming from farther away, the Glendale Transportation Center — served by both Amtrak and Metrolink, is about a fifteen-minute walk from the bar.