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OBITUARIES : Bob Popescu, 1930 - 2008

He made Catalina Bar a top jazz venue in L.A.

January 09, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Bob Popescu, co-owner of the Catalina Bar & Grill, who converted a former Italian restaurant into a jazz supper club, then quickly sealed its reputation as a premier night spot by convincing jazz great Dizzy Gillespie to play there, has died. He was 77.

Popescu suffered a heart attack Saturday at his home in Los Angeles, said his wife, Catalina.

"Bob was a visionary," said bassist Richard Simon. "This town hasn't always been hospitable to ventures such as his in a niche as fraught with uncertainty as jazz, but he managed to create a space that was hospitable to both local musicians and the name groups that visit from other parts of the world."

The Hollywood club that Popescu and his wife created occupies a unique chapter in the history of jazz in Los Angeles.

By the mid-1980s, Hollywood was in the throes of a decline, and Shelly's Manne-Hole, a once popular Hollywood jazz club, had gone silent.

Popescu and his wife, both Romanian immigrants, had pooled their resources to open a restaurant on a shabby stretch of Cahuenga Boulevard, not far from what had been Shelly's Manne-Hole.

Business was not booming, and as they searched for ways to increase their customer base, the couple heard one suggestion that resonated: jazz.

Neither Popescu nor his wife had experience running a jazz club; Popescu had made his living as a contractor. So they enlisted the help of local jazzman Buddy Collette, whose advice on how to create a fine jazz club included such elements as the bandstand, lights and sound system.

With his building skills, Popescu was able to convert the space quickly. Catalina Bar & Grill opened in 1986, a fledgling new jazz spot with premier supper club dreams.

"Bob was always very courageous as a promoter," said Collette, who was the club's first performer. "He said, 'I would like to hire Dizzy Gillsespie.' I said, 'It will cost you a lot of money' . . . Dizzy didn't come cheap."

Popescu was prepared to underwrite the performance, figuring it would yield untold dividends. Getting Gillespie to accept the invitation to play at a club few had heard of before was a matter of Popescu doing what he did best.

"He loved people. He loved the music," Catalina Popescu said of her husband. "With his sweetness and his heart, Dizzy couldn't resist him."

Gillespie played the club right onto the nation's jazz map.

On Easter weekend in 1987, a who's who from the jazz world -- Benny Carter, Miles Davis, Cedar Walton -- made their way to that shabby stretch of Cahuenga in search of the Catalina Bar & Grill.

"Each chair was filled with a big celebrity. They all showed up to see Gillespie," Collette recalled. "Once they did that, they wanted to know, 'Who is this guy Bob Popescu?' "

Born May 23, 1930, in Alunu, a small village in Oltenia in south Romania, Popescu earned a degree in electrical engineering from a university in Bucharest.

In 1969, when the nation was under communist rule, he defected to the U.S., settled in Los Angeles and acquired citizenship. When he returned to Romania five years later, he met Catalina and they later married.

Over the years, Popescu helped bring scores of people from Romania to the U.S. He sponsored them, helped them adjust to their new nation and opened his home to them.

The couple also developed a reputation for being real friends of the jazz world, Collette said.

"Bob and Catalina have really been in the vanguard as far as giving hope to the young and undiscovered, as well as giving latitude and encouragement to both local and touring musicians," said Simon, the bassist who often performed at the club.

The elegant club, which moved to Sunset Boulevard at McCadden Place in 2003, also is a frequent host for events benefiting charitable and jazz education organizations, such as Collette's JazzAmerica.

Catalina Popescu is the face most identified with the club while her husband, humble and shy, worked behind the scenes. He continued to book performers for the club and answer the phones.

"That was his life," his wife said. We were "always fighting for this, to keep it alive and to make it happen -- and we did. That was only because of his love for this place and his dedication."

In addition to his wife, Popescu is survived by a son, Michael, and a grandson, also named Michael, who both live in Romania; a brother; and two sisters.

Visitation will be at 7 tonight at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at the cemetery.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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