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AROUND THE VALLEY

In This Joint, House Special Is Yesteryear

February 19, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — There are two Ernani Bernardis on this planet.

One is a former Los Angeles city councilman shrunken and wizened by time, who holds onto the wall while he stands, speaks in a delayed whisper and looks every day of his 88 years.

But there's another Bernardi who appears suspiciously akin to the ex-politico and shows up a couple times a month at Leon's Steak House in North Hollywood to blast big band music.

When this guy takes his spot in front of a 16-piece ensemble of blaring trumpets and gleaming saxes--The Way It Was Orchestra, as he calls it--his frail arms start pumping, his toes tap and his body begins to radiate a vigor that energizes the old musicians like a swig from the fountain of youth.

The crowd loves it. Leon's is old school, the type of place where big band music belongs. Picture padded booths and wood-paneled walls, waiters in black vests hustling sirloins and thick slices of cheese cake, older ladies sipping mai tais, older men swiveling on red vinyl bar stools talking about horse racing.

The moment Bernardi and his gang strike up a bouncy tune like "Stomping at the Savoy," the room transforms, turning into a sea of silver hair bobbing to the beat. Some folks even squeeze between the tables to dance.

"Man, look at all the old smoothies in this place," said Jimmy Wagner, a 48-year-old TV director who came on a recent night to hear Bernardi's band.

"I almost didn't get in because they were carding at the door--no one under 65 allowed," he said.

Lingering Aroma of Ajax, Old Spice

During the past year and a half since Bernardi and his gang started playing at Leon's, a bona fide big band scene has taken root in the restaurant's back room. It's one of the last reliable outposts in Los Angeles for a boisterous, upbeat genre of music whose heyday came before the Second World War.

"This," said 72-year-old Don Mazen, nodding his head toward the band, "is our era. When we hear this music, we think of the war and growing up and the good times we've had. It's the perfect sound for reminiscing."

On a recent night, the joint even smelled a little like yesteryear. The whiff of Ajax from the men's room and Old Spice from a guy wearing white pants and slippers mixed with the rich, inviting aroma of melting butter and freshly charred steaks.

Bernardi's band plays at the Victory Boulevard restaurant every other Monday and the most recent performance happened to fall on Valentine's Day. The place was packed, all 50-some seats taken. Every woman save one was wearing red. Shouts of "OK! OK!" punctuated the solo performances.

"It's like this every Monday," said bartender Jun Navarro.

Many couples were contemporaries of Bernardi, yelling "Nani! Nani!" (a shortened version of his first name) when he took a drag on his saxophone and blew a solo that shook the glass goblets hanging above the bar.

Others, though, had come to Leon's in search of an affordable meal (a steak with fries costs 12 bucks) and a padded booth to snuggle in, unaware of the time warp they were about to experience. Swing dancing may be hip again, but it's still rare to find a live swing band with this much firepower--including five saxophones, four trumpets, and three trombones--entertaining a crowd.

"When I walked in and saw all the white hair, I said, 'Honey, let's go,"' laughed Linda Feldman of Canoga Park, who was cozied up with her husband, Marvin. "But after the first drink, you don't really notice."

The musicians may look a little worn, 16 sweater-clad men, most pushing 60, many of whom seemed to suffer from a fear of combs. On Valentine's Day, Bernardi was wearing a faded argyle cardigan that hung from his stooped shoulders like an old rug.

But the band members' chops are first rate. Drummer Johnny Vana tapped cymbals for Jimmy Dorsey. Trumpeter Art DePew conducts the well-known Harry James Band. Another horn blower backed up Lawrence Welk.

From Swing Man to Councilman

As for Bernardi, he can honestly say he played with the best of them, having recorded music in the 1930s and 1940s with big band titans Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby. The son of Italian-born immigrants, his first profession (he's had a few) was as a saxophonist, first at farm dances in Peoria, Ill., then Detroit, then New York and eventually Los Angeles.

After World War II, as big band music began to wind down, he switched into the booming construction business in Los Angeles, paving sidewalks. That led him to the presidency of the California State Contractors Assn., and in 1961 he won a seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the 7th District, which includes his longtime home of Van Nuys.

His cause celebre up until his retirement in 1993 was battling the Community Redevelopment Agency, which he felt squandered tax dollars on projects that ignored the needs of the poor. The topic still gets him fired up.

But nothing stirs the diminutive Bernardi--he's about 5 foot 3, a little over 100 pounds--like his music. He says you must be energetic to be a good leader, especially in a big band.

"You have to convey that energy to the musicians to convince them that you're serious," said Bernardi, who not only leads the band during performances but is responsible for lining up gigs, all of which are unpaid.

Bernardi knows the energetic music keeps him going. On Valentine's Day night, as steaks sizzled and glasses clinked and silver-haired women in red sweaters called out his name, Bernardi's eyes glowed beneath his windshield-thick glasses.

"This is the good stuff, the original arrangements that we used to play," he said moments after the performance ended. "This is the way it was."

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