February 11, 1997
If Damon Runyon were alive and looking for a watering hole in downtown Los Angeles, five'll get you 10 he'd be hanging out at Hank's Bar.
Runyon would find plenty of colorful characters to write about in the New York-style saloon on Grand Avenue near 8th Street.
There's Racetrack Charlie, who won't talk to a reporter because he might be "a copper." There's Liquor Mary, who can put 'em away with the biggest drinkers. There're undercover cops, ex-showgirls and Playboy bunnies, lawyers and gamblers, Wall Streeters and office workers.
But first and foremost, there is the bar owner, Hank Holzer.
Holzer, a former prizefighter, approaches a customer sitting on a bar stool. He fakes a right hand to the customer's ribs, then brings an uppercut to within an inch of the man's jaw. It happens so quickly that the customer, an athletically built man in his 30s, cannot react. He only smiles and shakes his head at the speed of the impressive combination. Nothing unusual about an ex-boxer showing off his skill.
Except that Hank Holzer is 88.
"I still have the punch, but it's my reputation that gets me by," says Holzer in a New York accent as thick as the pastrami at Langer's Deli and decked out in his trademark captain's hat.
His mind is as sharp as his fists used to be. Once a sparring partner for Rocky Graziano, he tells you in vivid detail (including the weather) about the three legendary middleweight championship fights in the late '40s between Graziano and Tony Zale.
The narrow bar--a few booths and 14 stools--is attached to the 80-year-old Stillwell Hotel. The jukebox, full of Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Barbra Streisand, Smokey Robinson, Patsy Cline and Louis Armstrong, is almost always spinning.
Near the bottles of booze is a sign that old-timers say Holzer put up a decade before the hit TV show "Cheers": "Welcome to Hank's, where everyone knows your name, where everyone's glad you came."
"There are no racial barriers in this bar," says one of the youngest regulars, Greg Meyer, a 32-year-old stockbroker. "Everybody gets along good here."
Almost on cue, two customers out of earshot at the other end of the bar--one black, one white--start singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" along with Sinatra.
Holzer was born in Greenwich Village in 1909. By the time he was 16, he was fighting professionally as Steven Terry. ("Back then, you took on an Irish name because they were the most popular.") Though never a champion, he fought well enough as a welterweight to make a good living and marry a successful model. He earned several medals and commendations for bravery while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
When his wife, Frances, became ill with diabetes, doctors advised Holzer to move from New York to California for the warmer climate. He opened Hank's Bar in 1959 and ran it for 14 years until Frances' illness forced him to quit to take care of her.
A decade later, in 1983, at her urging, he bought back the bar.
"She told me 'I'm getting well, go on back to the bar, you love it too,' so I did."
Shortly afterward, she died.
The vast majority of the regulars are friendly to strangers. Of course, this is a New York-style bar. Five-foot-one Fast Eddie Schrodeski, 76, balls his fist up at a reporter who asks about Hank.
"How do I know you're the real deal, maybe your some kinda agent?" says Schrodeski, who proceeds to cuss out the reporter from beneath a cap that hides his eyes. Holzer intervenes and vouches for the reporter. Schrodeski slowly acquiesces.
"Hank's kind of like an inspiration to us younger guys," he says.
"Hank is like the father I never had," says bar regular James Watson, 46.
Holzer looks healthy but says, "I'm pushing 90, I probably only got a couple years left. I don't like to dwell on past glories. I've had a good life. I was married 42 years to a beautiful woman. She gave me a good son. I have plenty of friends. I've known all types of people, from killers and shylocks to millionaires."
One millionaire who used to frequent Hank's Bar was the late philanthropist Ben Weingart, whose name now graces a large homeless center in Skid Row.
"Weingart used to look at these guys sleeping in the gutter and tell me, 'Hank, one of these days I'm going to do something for these people,' " Holzer recalls.
Inevitably, the conversation turns again to boxing. Holzer reels off his all-time favorites: Rocky Marciano ("If he fought Tyson, they have to indict the Rock with murder"), Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Zale and Harry "The Human Windmill" Greb, who had 294 bouts.
Behind the bar is a small box with markers of the few people who owe Holzer money. Holzer takes the box and pulls out a IOU slip.
"This one is from Henry Armstrong," a legendary champion of the '30s who died in 1988. "That guy still owes me 48 bucks."