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A change in character for Hermosa Beach?

The decades-old Mermaid bar is for sale, and two other beachfront properties are being eyed for commercial development. Some worry that the city's original feel will be lost.

January 04, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

At the Mermaid, the seaside bar and restaurant he presided over for half a century, Boots Thelen once gave the heave-ho to a Brazilian soccer team and its fans because their celebratory songs and samba didn't agree with him.

He threw out at least one Hermosa Beach mayor. He even tossed out a Girl Scout because he didn't want her peddling cookies.

"It was almost a rite of passage having Boots throw you out," said Richard Koenig, president of the Hermosa Beach Historical Society.

These days, it might be the Mermaid that's on its way out.

When Thelen died in 2007 at 85, his family offered not only the Mermaid for sale, but two other adjacent properties along the beach and three others heading inland, which together form an "L." Asking price for the near half-acre is $28 million.

Along with Thelen's property, developers have longingly eyed two other long-time fixtures just down the beachfront path known as the Strand -- the Sea Sprite Motel and Scotty's on the Strand restaurant, both of which come with surrounding real estate.

With the exception of the 96-room Beach House hotel, a veritable child that opened 10 years ago next to Thelen's holdings, those three are the only commercially zoned beachfront properties in the nine or so miles between Redondo Beach and Venice.

Although the current economic downturn has dramatically slowed business, most knowledgeable observers say it is just a matter of years before those properties are sold.

If the price is right, "we're gone," said Darrell Greenwald, whose family owns the 38-room Sea Sprite, distinguished by its turquoise paint job.

Greenwald, who lives down the street in Charlie Chaplin's old summer house, said his family receives inquiries about the motel every other day.

Almost any change in ownership would transform Hermosa Beach, trading the quirky for the swanky.

"Those are not the dollar-a-beer crowd that some of those establishments down there attract now," Mayor J.R. Reviczky said of prospective buyers. "I think it will change the personality of the city."

The Strand properties have had personality to spare.

At the Mermaid, with its black Naugahyde booths, paneled walls and stained dark red rug, large windows open to the beach. A bullet hole is hidden behind the bar. A painting of Thelen in dark-rimmed glasses and a coat and tie sits above the pay phone.

"Every seat in here has a ghost in it," said Mermaid bartender Mike Jones, who has worked there 26 years.

Now and then a bartender will pull out the tin box a woman left one night. It holds the ashes of one Thomas Marshall, who died in January 1932 of heart disease, according to the label, and patrons sometimes will have a drink with him.

Over time, the Mermaid became the gathering spot for anybody who was anybody in town. Although Thelen spent much of the 53 years he owned the Mermaid sitting at the corner stool at the bar or in the parking lot finishing a crossword puzzle, he accumulated a fortune in South Bay real estate. Thelen, who was shot down over the Mediterranean during World War II, did business with a handshake, and his tenants seldom had leases.

A sale would mean not only goodbye to the Mermaid, but to the other establishments on Thelen's property, such as the Poopdeck, a beer bar whose owner of 35 years recently died; Good Stuff restaurant, which has been serving patrons for almost 29 years; and Cantina Real, a fixture for 46 years.

"Great properties like that don't come along very often," said Chop Keenan, the Beach House owner, who tried to buy Thelen's property. "It's a quintessential Southern California beach scene. All the action on the Strand, people skating, walking, running, biking."

But not everyone favors change. "Just the thought of putting a corporate hotel and restaurant there turns my stomach," said former Mayor Sam Edgerton, who uses a Mermaid bar stool as the captain's chair on his 42-foot yacht.

The Mermaid, Scotty's and Sea Sprite speak to a previous era in Hermosa Beach and the freewheeling people who lived there. "We used to go to our neighbors' parties rather than call the police on our neighbors," Reviczky said.

The Mermaid is so adamantly un-hip that it has become hip. Esquire magazine placed the Mermaid on its list of America's best bars -- though some locals think the publication mistakenly dropped the word "dive" -- noting "septuagenarian bartenders still refuse to make drinks they don't like."

Diana Albergate, Thelen's stepdaughter, who manages his property, said a website recently called and said she should look up its review of the Mermaid. "We don't even have an answering machine," she said. "Why would we have the Internet?"

Albergate said her family is being forced to sell to pay estate taxes and because of the reassessment of property taxes after Thelen's death.

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