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WORK IN PROGRESS : Tending the Thirsty : Dennis Mattson is an artist with bottles and glasses, a member of a dying breed: the career barkeeper.

June 04, 1992|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's Friday night and at Charley Brown's in Ventura, the tables around the L-shaped bar are filled. Conversations echo against the dark windows and crystal mirrors. The crowd ignores the four TV screens dear to Monday sports fans and makes repeated sorties to a hot buffet.

Behind the bar, Dennis Mattson pours cascades of beer into liter mugs and lifts them to the counter, from which they are whisked to the tables by young women in short maroon pants.

Fridays like this remind him of the old days--when it took an hour and a half to get a table at the restaurant without a reservation. Back then, most of those who kept the vigil downed three drinks at the bar.

"It's a whole different routine; hard liquor is way down," Mattson says. "It's good health-wise, but bad business-wise."

Drunk-driving concerns and tight budgets have caused an attendance crunch in the industry. Customers who used to close the bar, Mattson says, now drink mostly before dinner.

"There are some die-hards, but not many," he adds.

Mattson, 45, is one of a dying breed: the career bartender, soon to go the way of the cowboy. He has been in the trade almost a quarter of a century and was trained in the trenches--Hollywood in the '60s.

The bartenders he knows now have other career aspirations. Sara Moody, his young, blonde co-worker this evening, is a case in point. She plans to use her radio and TV production degree as soon as she can gain more contacts.

As drink orders come in from the restaurant and lounge, Moody moves expertly through the routine of pouring drinks. Meanwhile, Mattson glides through his paces like a dancer. His arms swing through the air and transport liquid into glasses in a kind of harmonic pass. His trim body turns in measured grace, no movement wasted.

With deft swoops, he chooses bottles from the mystical array before the mirror, blends liquid and ice in a canister, and completes a pas seul to the bar to deliver a frothy margarita with a side of tequila.

Pausing, motionless, he tells server Trevia Ayers that her day business, Sassi Beachwear, is named after its owner. The woman takes the tray and tosses a head with a dark bob of hair, throwing back: "You know I'm your favorite."

There is a little of the old vitality in the exchange. Time was when a bartender ruled at the top of a hierarchy, and cocktail servers played up to him. There's less of that since women climbed behind the bar. Until the '70s, a woman didn't tend bar unless her name was on the license.

"It was a macho thing," Mattson says. "A lot of males have gotten out of it. They think somehow the female bartenders have taken something away from the art."

Old men who place drink orders in the restaurant still tell waiters to make sure that it's Mattson who fills them, and he obliges. But, he says, company spotters check to see that everyone pours a uniform 1 1/4 ounces of liquor in a drink.

Spotters included, Mattson considers the duty at Charley Brown's choice compared to his time at Love's on Hollywood Boulevard. In those days, he says, "I used to drink behind the bar. You just about have to stay drunk to put up with those people. And you have to watch your backside--it's dangerous."

Mattson came away from the Hollywood crucible with a simple set of rules for living that he insists work for him:

"Don't talk to people who carry guitars, or a person who draws caricatures of people at the bar--they are always bad news; be careful of people who overtip-- they try to own you, sometimes."

Tending bar was not Mattson's original plan. As a boy, he dreamed of a future in architecture.

He grew up in the country near Helsinki, Finland, and money was hard to come by. His parents separated before he was a year old, and his father went to the United States, promising to help the rest of the family emigrate.

Eighteen years later, the promise came through. Mattson and his mother arrived in Los Angeles and settled near downtown. He walked to a job in a plastics factory in Watts. It was 1965 and, for many days, he had to pass sandbags and machine guns to report to work.

"I hated Los Angeles; I was trying to save money to go back (to Finland)," he says.

Instead, he got a foothold in aircraft construction and, when that industry slipped, he signed on with Love's.

After marrying wife Dora and moving to Ventura County, he looked for quieter, safer places to work and built up a clientele who, he says, tend to follow him to new jobs. He's been at Charley's for 10 years.

"There's some kind of reference point for (customers), I guess, to see that I'm still here."

Sometimes, still, he thinks of developing his favorite pastime, woodworking, into a full-time job. But he has a daughter entering college and a son in first grade.

"I've got my insurance here; I guess I'm stuck," he says with a smile.

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