At a 1985 news conference, Irwin Held announces that he will no longer display… (Los Angeles Times )
Irwin Held, whose license-plate-festooned West Hollywood beer-and-burger spot drew praise from rock stars but protests from gay rights activists, has died. He was 87.
Held died Monday in his Los Angeles home, family members said. He had a kidney ailment.
From 1970 to 1999, Held owned Barney's Beanery, a Santa Monica Boulevard restaurant where Janis Joplin is said to have eaten her last meal and the Doors' Jim Morrison made himself at home.
But for many in a community with a large, politically active gay population, the restaurant's freewheeling feel was tainted by an anti-gay sign that Held inherited when he bought the place and for years refused to take down.
Situated not far from Hollywood's movie studios, Barney's opened in 1927 and drew generations of stars, star wannabes and stars-to-be. William Holden, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth and many others dived into Barney's trademark beans before Held, an El Segundo beer distributor looking for another opportunity, heard that the tumbledown roadhouse was up for sale.
"It was run into the ground," Held's daughter Linda Shabot told The Times on Tuesday. "I was scared to walk into the place — it looked like a dungeon."
But Held poured himself into his new business, experimenting with the menu as his wife, Sally, kept the books. For years, a sign over the bar — "Fagots Stay Out" — drew little notice from customers. Barney's founder, World War I veteran John "Barney" Anthony, was said to have put it up after police in the 1940s raided his restrooms for then-illegal homosexual activity.
Urged to remove the sign after acquiring Barney's, Held dug in his heels, despite prolonged picketing and other protests.
"He was just one of those guys who didn't like being told what to do with his business," said David Houston, the Beanery's current co-owner. "He was very old-school, and this was a freedom issue."
That wasn't quite how Troy Perry, a clergyman who founded the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, saw it.
In an interview Tuesday, he said he once asked Held what the sign meant.
"It doesn't mean anything," Held said.
"Take it down!" Perry said.
At one point, Held did — only to put up others.
When West Hollywood incorporated in November 1984, it passed an anti-discrimination ordinance. Facing a fine of $500 a day, Held reluctantly removed the sign in January 1985 — and also quit distributing matchbooks with the same offensive slogan.
"For the first time in my life, I know how MacArthur must have felt at Corregidor," he told The Times, alluding to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's 1942 retreat from Japanese troops in the Philippines.
Even as the sign controversy roiled, Barney's drew a legion of music-industry names.
"It was a landmark that meant so much to people in the rock 'n' roll community," said Jim Ladd, a longtime Los Angeles deejay who now hosts a show on Sirius-XM. "It was more than a watering hole — it was a gathering spot for the rebels, the rockers, the raconteurs and the misfits we all love to hang out with."
In a 2008 interview, Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek, who died last month, said he and Morrison used to get into profound talks at the Beanery about politics, the war in Vietnam and topics as arcane as "the philosophy behind Nietzche's existentialism and transcendence." Morrison, who died at 27 in 1971, also would get quite drunk and, according to some accounts, once urinated on the Beanery's bar.
Although Held didn't encourage outrageous behavior, he was willing to take politically incorrect stands.
When California banned smoking in bars, he didn't ban smoking in his bar.
"You don't like this place because of the smoke? Hey, there's another streetcar coming down the road any minute," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998.
Until he sold when he was 73, he worked full shifts at the Beanery, which now operates in five locations. He continued to drop by the original site about once a week until his health started declining.
Born July 1, 1925, in the Bronx, N.Y., Held grew up in an apartment above a neighborhood grocery store owned by his parents. He served in the Marines and moved to Los Angeles in 1950. Sally Held, his wife of 56 years, died in 2006.
He is survived by his daughters Linda Shabot and Ellen Gordon, son Philip Held and four grandchildren.