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A sports bar for players, power brokers

October 02, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Lunchtime at Legends in Long Beach is a peculiarly mercantile affair.

At one table sits the three-member staff of a local insurance company, planning a promotional open house. A few feet away, real estate agents chat chummily over lunch about would-be transactions. And across the room, two bankers drink amiably during a lull in negotiations with a broker at the next table about financing a $2-million property deal in Hollywood Hills.

"I've probably closed in excess of $50 million in business deals right here," said Jim Duffy, vice president of the residential loan division at Signal Savings & Loan in Signal Hill. "Most of our clientele are Yuppies . . . and sports addicts. So instead of conducting business in the office, we spend an hour with them here and accomplish the same thing."

Despite taking sides in the bitterly fought June 3 City Council contest--a decision that Legends management believes may have hurt business--this is still considered by many to be the area's "in" spot.

Back in 1979 when John Morris, a newcomer to Long Beach, and Los Angeles Rams player Dennis Harrah opened Legends on Belmont Shore's trendy 2nd Street, their intention was to create a simple, down-home sports bar. The bar and restaurant--which has three giant video screens and walls decorated with everything from an actual race car to photos of sports heroes--is certainly that.

Due largely to the Harrah connection, Rams players frequently don Legends T-shirts or caps for locker room interviews, prompting some sportscasters to dub the establishment the unofficial Rams headquarters. And when a Los Angeles sports event requires local television news to do the inevitable live report from a sports bar, television news folks often descend on Legends to talk on camera with fans and athletes.

But smack in the middle of the city's affluent east side business district, the place has become something else as well. It is here, as one regular puts it, that the "guys who are doing things in town" come to lunch; Here is where many of the movers and shakers of Long Beach hang out. And because of its high profile and impact, it is Legends that has become symbolic in some residents' minds of a trend toward chic dining and night life in their community that they would just as soon see go away.

Indeed, this establishment is unusual in several respects. For starters, it publishes its own monthly newspaper distributed free to some 15,000 doorsteps in the Belmont Shore area and overseen by a full-time employee whose only job is public relations. Also, the high visibility of Morris, now in his third term as president of the Belmont Shore Business Assn., has at times thrust the establishment into controversy.

And Legends' frequent promotions of itself and the area have become somewhat legendary.

In May, for instance, Morris was one of four people who put up $10,000 to persuade Hands Across America officials to add a special loop through Belmont Shore. He was also instrumental in reviving the neighborhood's annual Christmas parade, which generally attracts about 10,000 spectators. And in 1984, Legends actively promoted the Olympic torch relay, which was seen by an estimated 40,000 people along 2nd Street and later drew criticism from some residents.

"Belmont Shore was the only area in the United States where (the torch relay) turned into a drunken party," said Janet Davids, treasurer of the Belmont Shore Improvement Assn., a group of homeowners and residents. "That's not the image we want to project for our community."

Morris said he spends about $100,000 a year on promotions, an effort not all of his neighbors appreciate. In fact, Davids said, Legends' lavish promotion of itself and the area as the party capital of Long Beach mainly benefits bars and restaurants at the expense of residents who have to put up with the additional noise and traffic.

"Residents have the right to come in and enjoy the quiet of their residence on a weekend," she said. "They (at Legends) are trying to promote, but they're going to destroy the very thing they say they like, which is a nice community."

Feelings on the issue became especially strong during the City Council race, during which Morris openly supported challenger Jim Searles--whom he saw as more supportive of local business interests--against incumbent Jan Hall, who many regard as more closely attuned to residential concerns. The day after Searles lost, in fact, someone apparently celebrated the victory by surreptitiously plastering the front of Legends with Hall campaign posters.

"The election hurt us," Morris admitted. "I know people who won't come in here now. And I don't think I get the same respect and cooperation that I did before from downtown."

But underneath all the politics and intrigue, its patrons say, Legends is, at heart, the same sports bar it always was. Sort of a Long Beach Cheers, they say, but one in which Cliffy the postman is replaced by Duffy the banker.

"You could be talking with another banker about a $10-million loan," said Duffy, glancing at a Cubs game being broadcast on one of the video screens, "but all negotiations stop when somebody hits a grand slam. That's when everyone stands up and cheers."

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