Getting capricious clubgoers to frequent a place with a dubious past (and one off the beaten path, no less) without totally remodeling it or establishing a whole new identity is nearly impossible. But Little Pedro's is not only doing it, it's doing it with no money, no velvet ropes and no hype -- and it's kept both its unfettered ambience and its regulars in the process.
Built in the late 1800s, Little Pedro's is one of the oldest bars in L.A., but it was the place's more recent history that proved challenging for promoter Mark Bava (well known among Burning Man festival revelers for bacchanalian events Sea of Dreams and Anon Salon in San Francisco and New York), brother Chris Bava and wife Catherine Asche when they took over about three years ago.
Despite a colorful history that includes beatnik jazz jams and maybe even a prostitution ring (the landlord claims the building has a brothel license), it was gang and drug activity in the 1980s and '90s that dragged Little Pedro's down.
"When I moved in, crack was happening on the streets around here. People fled and I got a great deal on my loft," says William Acedo, 39, an artist who has lived next to the bar-restaurant for 18 years. "But there's been a real change over the years. The mixture of cultures, and the organic, almost hippie-like sourcing of art and music -- it's so rich and free now. Little Pedro's is a big part of it."
As the bad elements faded, area loft dwellers adopted the space as a favorite hangout.
Though Bava and company opted to keep the tacky Acapulco-restaurant-meets-Moroccan-temple interior, they did add "Blue Bongo" to the moniker. They tore out a giant fountain to make way for a dance floor and added disco lights, but that was the extent of the makeover.
Music writer Alexis Rivera, 27, saw even more potential in the space and approached the owners about mounting some live shows. His first, a year and a half ago, featuring L.A. indie rockers the Blood Arm and eclectic Latin groovers Very Be Careful, packed the place.
"I'd go to clubs and they'd be so segregated, both people-wise and music-wise," he says. "I wanted to do something that represented Los Angeles and helped out all these great groups that were being ignored both locally and nationally. Little Pedro's was perfect and it was cool to see this whole freeform thing happening there."
He started throwing a monthly event called A Change Is Gonna Come (after the Sam Cooke song), boasting disparate acts, such as singer Rudy Ray Moore (the blaxploitation star who played Dolemite in the movie of the same name) and live salsa bands. That led to other booking responsibilities, and Rivera was brought in as a full-fledged partner at the start of this year.
Thanks to Rivera's vision and Bava's connections, Little Pedro's is starting to see a new generation of patrons. Legendary jazz singer Mickey Champion (who serves up fried chicken and plenty of attitude during her free shows on Tuesday evenings) and nightly mariachi happy hours attract an older crowd and keep regulars who've been around for decades in the loop, but a melting pot of hipsters, rockers, drag queens and more are coming for new promotions. There's the hot gay-flavored dance night, La Polla Loca, from Jeppe Laursen of Junior Senior on Thursdays; a live samba soiree on the second Saturday of the month; the mod-kid-heavy Britpop dance night Razzmatazz on the first Saturday of the month; and the equally youth-oriented Club UltraLuxx on the fourth Saturday.
"When these promotions first started the kids were like, 'This is the ghetto,' " Rivera says. "But now they seem really comfortable here -- they know all the bartenders by name and hang outside to smoke."
It's a cause-and-effect thing. Now that the place is more populated outside and in, it feels less sketchy. At La Polla Loca a few weeks ago, a bevy of brightly garbed club kids (some cross-dressed, virtually all drenched in glitter) made the scene.
"It's hard to explain but as soon as you get through the doors it's like a free zone, meaning no attitude, not what clothes you are wearing, what your agenda for going there was," Laursen says. "It all seems to disappear and people just let loose."
Obviously the lowbrow charm is what makes Little Pedro's special, and Rivera says they plan to keep it that way, although some changes are in store -- including the addition of a rooftop patio, and a paint job outside and in.
"The history sets it apart from other places," says Rivera, who sees Little Pedro's as a rawer alternative to downtown's much-touted renaissance. "It's like an old lady. You've got to treat it with respect."
Lina Lecaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Little Pedro's Blue Bongo
Where: 901 E. 1st St., L.A.
When: Nightly until 2 a.m.
Price: Cover varies
Info: (213) 687-3766 or www.littlepedros.com