A velvety fog wafts gently, tunefully over the dewy wet grass at the nine-hole Van Nuys Golf Course, and it’s calling me. A beautiful, understated sound, it floats along unhurriedly, like a grainy musical dream, until its timeless magic engulfs you, and you are utterly and completely in under its spell, locked into a parallel universe that only seems like the past.
I’m not old, but I remember things. Like when a steak dinner was the nicest night out imaginable. (Though I was never a seafood kid, the Lobster Barrel on La Cienega always seemed intriguing, if only for the possibility of “Skipper” Alan Hale handing me a menu as I walked through the door).
Year after year I spent birthday dinners atop the hill in Universal City, dining in the caboose at Victoria Station, gnawing at the artery-poppin’ top sirloin. Those were the days when the Universal Amphitheater wasn’t a misnomer. (Admission: At 12, I took the RTD to the Neil Sedaka/England Dan & John Ford Coley gig in ’77 under the stars. Won tickets on TenQ. It rocked.).
More than two decades later, a steak dinner still makes my heart go all aflutter and my arteries contort. And Billingsley’s is where I would have gone all those years ago, if only I had known better. (Blame the parents! Blame the parents!) It could have been the Valley’s hottest dining ticket back somewhere around 1963. It’s all wood grain and red banquette, movie posters and stained glass lamps. The lingering scent of cigarettes from years past cling stubbornly to the walls. To my dismay, waitresses have never heard of Maker’s Mark.
I come for the New York and the golf course view, but I become instantly entranced by the fog – an unassuming gent named Graydon Wayne. Underneath that suit jacket and tie is 75-year-old song machine that has serenaded the weekend dinnertime crowd at Billingsley’s for 23 years. Seated behind a piano, synth, and Hammond G-3 organ he purchased in 1958, Gray picks from thin air one of the 3,500 songs taking up space in his head.
On Saturday night, Billingsley’s is packed with folks of a certain age, most of whom who remember much more than me. The rhythm of clanking glass and steak knives slicing through meat competes with a smooth set of standards – from “These Foolish Things” to “Temptation” to “Blue Hawaii.” As Gray cracks wise with regulars, taking requests and sipping slowly from a Calypso Coffee (tia maria and rum mixed with java), dapper couples slowly rise from their tables and shuffle over the small parquet dance floor at the restaurant's center. He croons with an effortless, Chet Baker-esque cadence, as couples seriously get their groove on. I lift my head from my steak, and life becomes significantly more enchanting.
It’s not nostalgia. It’s not the gold chains and winks of Marty and Elaine. You won’t be hearing “Stayin’ Alive.” The music is pure, performed by a dinner house entertainer merely doing his job. The scene is a time capsule unearthed and opened, a weekly ritual practiced by those who don’t seem to concerned that it’s 2003 outside..
The crowd is a family to Gray. Many have been coming for his full 23-year run. And if someone goes missing for too long, he makes a call, fearing the worst. In spite of the informalities, he is always a pro. “I’m constantly aware from minute to minute of the mood or movement in the room,” he explains. “Does the room need something up or does it need to relax? You get those vibes from the audience. It’s a very difficult profession for me in that sense that it’s not so much of a physical strain, it’s like a juggling a dozen oranges. It’s more of a mental strain than anything else.”
He’s been at it since the forties, when he heard “Twilight Time” and caught a buzz for the organ. Self-taught, he mastered his instrument in the dark during the L.A. World War II blackouts. He continued to ply his craft in the military, where he entertained fellow troops over the airwaves.
Though he’s dabbled in fashion and acting, Graydon has spent most of his life inside darkened dinner houses. He remembers when Ventura Boulevard was lined with stout, meaty places like Tail O’ the Cock, the Pump Room and The Queen’s Arms. He’s paid his dues in rooms like the Chateaubriand, the Shangri La, and the Dinner Horn.
“It was extraordinary when I was young,” he remembers. “When I turned old enough to drink, L.A. had a tremendous amount of dinner houses, restaurants like the Copa and the Trop. There were untold amounts of restaurants that had live entertainment, the piano bars, organ bars, organ was especially popular from the late 40s.” Now, he says, there’s only one other organ player within 200 miles, somewhere in San Gabriel Canyon.
It's a sound, a vibe, a lost art whose time has unfortunately passed, and when you sway and dream and close your eyes, just for a moment, it will be gone forever.
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