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A Yank and His Pub in Very British Town

October 04, 1987|MICHAEL McKINLEY | McKinley is a Canadian journalist studying at Oxford University in England.

WOODSTOCK, England — This village is one of those near-mythic British places laden with so much tradition that you would expect the venerable buildings to crumble under the weight of responsibility.

Woodstock is overloaded, possessing not only Blenheim Palace and its elegantly lush grounds, but the town's clean, sloping streets are lined with wool shops and teahouses and pubs and Englishness.

Even though Woodstock has taken pains to preserve its 18th-Century feel, it is not a movie set, and this is why its good citizens were not exactly dancing in its cobbled streets when they found out that one of its oldest pubs had been bought by an American. Not a silent investment-type American, either, but one who--unthinkably--intended to pump the beer himself.

The fact that precedent had been set did not count, as the locals drew a line between the American-born Lady Randolph Churchill's partnership in the operation of Blenheim Palace (as well as in the creation of Winston), and the plans Larry O'Brien had for the Black Prince pub when he bought it in 1983.

Curious Visitors

"People streamed into the pub out of curiosity, all of them wondering, 'What's this Yank going to do to our pub?' " The St. Louis-born O'Brien laughed as he recalled the "there-goes-the-neighborhood" fear of the locals. "They thought I was going to put up neon signs and hire topless waitresses."

What O'Brien did instead was to reclaim the pub's interior from the accumulation of 500 years worth of decorating fads and restore it to the building it once may have been. Sitting in the hazy sunlight beside the River Lime, which feeds Blenheim Palace lake, the Black Prince looks the most solidly British of pubs.

"The locals loved what we had done. They saw that the Yank had no plans to tart up their pub, and word traveled that we were all right."

Word also traveled that O'Brien and his wife, Gabrielle, in their mid-50s, were not exactly ordinary Yanks, and their purchase of the pub is really only a beginning to this story.

In the first place, Gabrielle was born in England but left home at 18 to pursue a dancing career with the famed Madame Bluebelle in Paris. She wound up in Las Vegas, where Larry O'Brien was a trumpeter playing as side and session man for the likes of Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, a career O'Brien modestly dismisses by saying: "I played the trumpet for 34 years, and in Las Vegas you eventually work with everyone."

Or everyone except Gabrielle, who although she was his Las Vegas neighbor, he did not meet and marry until a working holiday put them both in the Bahamas and tropical romance took its cue.

'A Fantasy Existence'

Together the O'Briens enjoyed the American dream: glamorous careers, a lavish house with a swimming pool and three cars in the garage, predictably clement weather and freely flowing cash. It was, says O'Brien, "a fantasy existence," the kind Las Vegas both giveth and eventually taketh away.

"Las Vegas is a very competitive place if you're a musician or a dancer. There was the age factor for us both, and I started having serious chop problems."

"Chop problems" meant that the idea of playing the trumpet became a form of psychological warfare for O'Brien, a war he fought and lost. "It beat me. I tried everything. I went for professional coaching and I worked out with the trumpet. It got so bad that I got scared just looking at the trumpet case."

So with Gabrielle then working as a croupier, O'Brien became secretary-treasurer of the Las Vegas Musician's Union for a long seven years.

'Not a Politician'

"I detested every minute of it. I was a musician, not a politician." And this is apparent as he leaps up to flip the background jazz tape, excusing himself with, "I can't talk unless I have music around me."

One day in 1982 O'Brien walked into a musician's union meeting, read the minutes, and then fulfilled the Disgruntled Employee's Dream by telling the board, politely, what they could do with his job. They listened, he walked.

Having no post-retirement plans, O'Brien and Gabrielle took a trip to Europe, his first, and one that inspired in him another type of fantasy existence: pub landlord in England.

"My wife didn't want to come back to England. She liked the life and the weather in Las Vegas. My friends all thought I had lost my mind."

It must have seemed that the odds were with O'Brien's skeptical friends, as neither Larry nor Gabrielle had ever run a pub or knew the first thing about buying one. Even so, they sold everything except "our clothes, a few oil paintings and a 15-year-old Siamese cat" and bought one-way tickets to London.

England does not suffer from a lack of pubs for sale, and this afforded the O'Briens the wearying privilege of scouting many available properties. Armed only with a hired car and a real estate agent's list, they went on a 5 1/2-month, 22,000-mile pub crawl around southern England looking at much countryside and more than 300 pubs.

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