LONG BEACH — Like a bantamweight pug, Bryan (Whitey) Littlefield shifted forward, his square jaw set.
"I take (people) at face value until (they) do me wrong," said Littlefield, a one-time "hellion" from a tough neighborhood who grew up to run Frank Sinatra's beer franchise here and, now, to serve on the California Arts Council.
"When I was a kid, I was arrogant and cocky," smiled Littlefield, 52, a former Golden Gloves boxer. "I was a little bastard, and I haven't changed much."
Littlefield, Gov. George Deukmejian's most recent appointee to the Arts Council, is a Long Beach character. A self-educated salesman, he is known for his big heart and quick temper, his rough charm and aggressive nature.
He probably has raised more money for more charities than any other person in town. He once helped raise almost $140,000 for the Police Officers Assn. widow's fund when his boss, Sinatra, staged a benefit concert in Long Beach for the group.
Praised by Friends and Enemies
Claudia Harden, executive director of Cedar House, a local center for abused children, and a friend of Littlefield's, calls him a "good guy, the best. He's one of those people who can't do enough and who never says no. And he's intensely loyal . . . . But don't ever cross him. He doesn't forget."
Littlefield is an effective fund-raiser and politically influential, said friends and enemies alike, because so many people owe him favors. He is not shy about using that leverage.
"If I need to raise money for a charity, you're darned right I call in the chits," he said.
He is a guy who claimed the name "Whitey" after the black kids on his poor Los Angeles block good-naturedly noted the color of his hair and skin. He kept the nickname because it was easy to remember, he said. "In selling, that's an asset."
Today, the moniker is mounted on the door of his handsome general manager's office at Somerset Distributors in Carson, which he said supplies about 60% of Long Beach's beer. An ailing $1.5-million-a-year business when he arrived in 1967, Somerset now grosses about $40 million annually, he said.
The nickname, too, indicates the lack of pretense for which Littlefield is known. He is blunt, and does not pull his punches. A couple of his feuds--one with Long Beach Grand Prix Assn. president Christopher Pook and another with former police union boss Mike Tracy--have been highly public.
"I tell the truth," Littlefield said, "and people aren't used to the truth."
Others see it differently, of course. Littlefield, they say, likes to run his own show and is not good at compromise.
"Whitey wears his heart on his sleeve," said a Long Beach lawyer who knows him well, but asked not to be named. "He's the closest thing we have in this city to a Damon Runyon character. He believes you're for him or you're against him. If you're for him, he'll give you the shirt off his back. If you're against him, he hates you with a passion."
Because of that reputation and his relative inexperience in the arts, Deukmejian's appointment of Littlefield to the Arts Council, which distributes state money to the arts, raised a few eyebrows.
As noted by the governor's press release, Littlefield is a member of the Fine Arts Affiliates of Cal State Long Beach and a former member of the Long Beach Symphony board of directors.
But, Littlefield acknowledged, he knows beer and politics much better than champagne and dance.
Business Sense on Arts Council
"I come as an apprentice, but I know where the governor is coming from," he said. "He wants business stability on that council. Two of his four appointments have been businessmen."
In particular, Deukmejian wants Littlefield, his "token Democrat" appointee and a longtime Deukmejian fund-raiser, to persuade private business to underwrite grants, Littlefield said. Nearly all of the Arts Council's $12.6-million annual budget is state and federal money.
Littlefield watched with interest last month as the state Senate confirmed his appointment, 38-0. "I was very complimented by 38 to zip," he said, "even though it probably didn't mean anything to any one of them . . . If somebody had voted no, I would have written them a letter and asked them why. I would have wanted to know."
People who know him say Littlefield's comments point up what ought to be obvious.
"I think he's a typical salesman," said city Planning Commission Chairman Richard Gaylord, a real estate agent. "He's very proud of his accomplishments, and like all of us who sell, he needs recognition."
Good Deeds Are Their Own Reward
However, Littlefield said he does his good deeds not for the fanfare but because "it makes me feel good . . . . I still get calls from police widows. Every six months or so, I get a call from this woman and she tells me she remembers how I helped."
Whitey also can be a softie with children, said Harden of Cedar House, Littlefield's favorite charity. In addition to monetary contributions, perhaps three times a year Littlefield will send from 10 to 50 tickets for the Cedar House kids to see concerts and other events promoted by Sinatra's enterprises, she said.
"And each year, he comes over in a limousine and takes 10 or 15 kids out," Harden said. "Last year, he took them to see Michael Jackson."
Christmas, Littlefield's birthday, is also something special, she said, because on that day the tough little ex-boxer serves dinner at the senior citizens center, and then is a waiter again at a meal for indigents at the Legends bar.
Littlefield's contributions are acknowledged even by those with whom he has had differences.
"No matter what you think of him," said the Grand Prix's Pook, "Whitey's a tireless worker on charity causes . . . and you've got to recognize what he does."