Thursday, August 14, 2003

The bouncers let us in


Thursday August 14, 2003

Cover story
The bouncers let us in

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

ANY Saturday night in Hollywood. Outside of "it" clubs like White Lotus, Deep and Ivar, sidewalks teem with various versions of sexy, hip and trendy, everybody looking for validation and a place to party. Seeking admission into the netherworlds of nightlife -- where darkness softens frown lines, music blares louder than nagging introspection and booze eases inhibitions. Lonely in a city full of strangers, here you can finally connect.

If you're on the guest list. If you have a wallet full of cash. If you're over 21.

Cadres of bouncers and doormen loom in each doorway, assessing and judging -- they gauge style, sex appeal, propensity for violence. What do you offer the club culture inside? What are you worth?

"I look for a doorman who has what I call 'the eye,' " says Ivan Kane, who owns Deep and Forty Deuce. "Somebody who knows the players and can spot them.... Somebody who knows who's who."

"You want intimidating, big people," says Ivar and Nacional owner Alan Nathan. "So that, psychologically, people won't want to mess with them. Some security guys don't have much interaction. They're just posts."

Any Saturday night in Hollywood. You go home early, lonelier than before. Mumbling about jackass bouncers with oversized biceps and undersized brains. Them and their ad hoc night court. Who gave them license to judge, anyway?

But as is too often the case, the people you love to hate are people nonetheless. As it turns out, bouncers and doormen have their own hopes and dreams, insecurities and self-doubts. They even have day jobs like the rest of us. They are writers, singers, actors, teachers, family men.

"I am the skinniest bouncer in the world," says Forrest Satchell, who is also an assistant director of independent films. Andrew Brin is an ex-DJ, ex-performance artist, ex-drug addict, now working toward a doctorate in psychology. Damian Decottle has the heft of an NFL star, but ...

Damian Decottle

The Short Stop

Checking IDs outside the Short Stop, Damian Decottle looks older than 22. "Most people think I'm 35 or 40," says the beefy 6-foot, 6-inch bouncer. "Most people look at me and see ... a football player." Then Decottle smiles -- a youthful, giddy smile -- and he sheds years. "Most people tend to judge what they don't know."

Listen up, Most People: Decottle is no linebacker. "I'm more like a male J.Lo," he says. His personal hero? Janet Jackson. While the sun is up, you'll find Decottle at Millennium Dance Studio in North Hollywood, practicing his routines set to hip-hop beats. Yep, big guy is a dancer.

"Dancers are not always 5-6 and 110 pounds," he explains. "If I get in some terrible accident, if I can't walk, I'm still a dancer. That's who I am."

Growing up in Seattle, Decottle always felt different. His body spoke a language of its own -- "I realized that I could move in ways that other people couldn't." But he had no idea where to channel this fluidity, this energy. When he was 8, Decottle saw Janet Jackson on TV and started mimicking the diva. In no time, he had her moves down.

"Dancing came so easy. It wasn't a challenge," Decottle says. He remembers thinking, "I'm doing it exactly like they're doing it, but they're on TV. Why aren't I on TV?"

Decottle's father, like Most People, thought that his son was a football player. "You're a boy," Dad said. "Get out there and play football." But Decottle wasn't interested in paternal advice. "I grew up with the tragic broken family syndrome," he says. "We moved a lot. My parents were addicted to drugs." In lieu of losing hope, Decottle danced and danced....

In high school, he was the only guy on the drill team. And he towered over the others. He did talent shows, and "everybody's kinda like, whoa!" he laughs. This kid could move. He joined In the Mix, a dance group that worked radio station parties, fairs -- "if they did dancing, we were there."

He could never afford lessons, but as a sophomore Decottle began teaching hip-hop dance. All the while he was in the school choir and on the class council. "My parents didn't care if I dropped out. I don't think they even knew I went to school," he says. Which only made him study harder.

In his junior year, Decottle's two older sisters moved to San Diego. Then Dad got thrown in jail and Mom, strung out on crack cocaine, disappeared. A homeless Decottle spent two weeks telling friends and teachers that everything was fine, just fine, but school officials eventually caught on. Decottle was placed in foster care. Life was tolerable until, in his senior year, he was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a serious blood disease rarely found in people younger than 30. Decottle's body was producing too much blood.

"My eyes would bleed," he says. "I would be driving on the freeway and my eyes would black out." He did schoolwork from bed. Doctors drained his body of excess fluid, and he underwent radiation therapy. He lost his hair, and it returned only in patches. "I thought I was going to die," he says.

Doctors and Most People told Decottle that he wouldn't be able to walk again. "If normal blood is like water going through a straw, yours is like a milkshake," they explained. Decottle didn't give up. One foot in front of the other, then he was walking, then he was dancing. Nowadays he gets drained twice a year, but otherwise, he's back to normal. Most People, wrong again.

Decottle moved to Los Angeles seven months ago to pursue his dance career. Given his size, landing a bouncing job wasn't difficult. He never drank growing up -- that was his parents' gig. He experienced nightlife for the first time as the guard at the gate.

"When people go to bars, I don't consider them adults anymore. They're drunk kids. Which is not a bad thing -- I like drunk kids. Well, not literally," Decottle laughs. "I'm a baby sitter who can throw people around." He enjoys the "eclectic" mix of barhoppers at the Short Stop, "flashy Hollywood types, grunge types, '70s types," and schmoozing with the inevitable celebrity, Seann William Scott and Vince Vaughn being regulars.

He has yet to meet Janet Jackson, or appear in any of her music videos. Whether that happens or not, Decottle will keep on groovin'. "If I get recognition, great. If not, I'm still doing what I love to do."

Andrew Brin

Les Deux Cafe,

Bar Deluxe

Andrew BRIN prefers to be called a doorman. "Bouncers keep peace within the clubs, mostly with physical presence," he says. "Bouncers get people out. I get people in."

Certain people, at least.

Brin, 43, presides over some of the most exclusive clubs in Hollywood: Mondays at Les Deux Cafe, Tuesdays at Bar Deluxe. These are the celebrity destinations you read about in the glossies. Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore and Tobey Maguire all frequent Les Deux, and Bar Deluxe partyers include Owen and Luke Wilson, Ashton Kutcher, Edward Norton and Sheryl Crow. Most of L.A.'s A list has appeared on Brin's clipboard at one time or another.

In his spare time, Brin "maintains the integrity of the guest list" at private shindigs thrown by industry glitterati. "Hollywood is a little neighborhood," he explains. "I'm the neighborhood doorman."

He is also the neighborhood rehab counselor. During the day, Brin works at Beit T'Shuvah, a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in Culver City. He counsels, facilitates groups and grinds out paperwork. In addition to his caseload, at any given moment he's "available to 100 residents as an ear, to make suggestions ... for whatever they need."

Brin is aware of the irony -- by night he baby-sits the rich and famous as they drink and party, by day he shepherds addicts toward spirituality and sobriety. But the two worlds are "not as contradictory as they appear to be," he says. "What I do at night helps what I do during the day. I teach people trying to get clean that they don't have to be afraid of bars.... There are lots of sober people in nightclubs."

This doorman knows clubs. And he knows drugs.

"I started going to discotheques when I was 13, and started doing drugs before that," he says. "I was strung out for 20 years."

In the mid-'80s, Brin got a bachelor's degree in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design but soon lost interest in the profession. "Part of me has always wanted more ... has been insatiable," he explains. He is addicted to having "creative positions of influence."

After architecture, Brin moved "right into the mainstream of late-century performance art." It was a leftist political movement. "Polemic. A couple of people onstage with multimedia." When that petered out, he became a DJ and spent the next 20 years spinning disco, '80s house music and "hip-hop, when that was invented."

Then he was arrested for selling drugs in 1997. "I chose rehab over prison," he says. It was his sixth rehab. For some reason, this one stuck. He made the move to L.A. five years ago and has been clean ever since.

Brin tried to DJ here, but competition was stiff. He needed a new career. "It should have something to do with the [movie] industry," he remembers thinking. "If I lived in Detroit, I'd work at Ford." His credentials left something to be desired: "a lifetime of experience in [two] fields -- nightclubs and addiction."

"At some point in your life, you stop trying to pretend you're somebody you're not and make a deal with what you've got," Brin says. So when a friend quit her job as a doorperson, he slid right in. Soon, Beit T'Shuvah hired him by reputation.

Brin makes a model doorman and counselor for the same reason he's a journalist's nightmare: He is bullheadedly tight-lipped. Lounging outside the Coffee Bean on Lankershim one late afternoon, he refuses to identify a "well-known independent film director" who strolls by, because "that's her business." He won't discuss much of his childhood, because that involves other people -- his parents. Needless to say, he refuses to comment on his celebrity clientele. He is routinely hounded by "people disguised as students, people pretending to be reporters," but has yet to be fooled.

Despite spending most nights surrounded by booze, Brin is never tempted to imbibe. Well, rarely. "I was watching Mariah Carey trip her way across the room with a perfect apple martini," he recollects, "and realized that I have never had an apple martini."

If you're hankering for a night of glitz and glam, don't bother palming a fifty. "I have turned down thousands of dollars," he asserts. "I have an obligation to the environment that's not for sale." No matter how much you want to meet Cameron Diaz, unless you're on the guest list, Brin's answer is "no" -- excepting very, very rare occasions when, he admits, "I can be entertained enough to just let you in."

For the first time in his life, the future looks constant. Brin has found his niche. He's even enrolled in a graduate program at Antioch College, working toward a doctorate in psychology -- at which point he will no longer be a doorman. He will be the doctor at the door.

Torrance Jackson

Burgundy Room

His first day in Los Angeles "was too hot," Torrance Jackson remembers. It was 1991, and he had moved here on a whim -- with no friends or job prospects.

"I was standing by the Dresden Room [on Vermont Avenue], waiting for the light to change," he says. "The sun was shining. But I knew that people get jaywalking tickets in this city, so I waited. When I finally got across, an older lady handed me a $20 bill."

"For the song," she said.

Jackson realized that he had been singing "Old Man River."

"It was beautiful," the woman informed him. "People in Hollywood love music." She suggested that he "walk up and down this street, singing."

Nothing better to do, Jackson followed her advice. "I made $180 in an hour and a half," he says. The street singing gig lasted for nearly six years. "Of all the jobs I've had, that was the hardest. You have to do it every day." He sang "everything from blues, jazz to gospel."

"My passion is singing," says Jackson. "It is my aspiration, the joy of my life."

It is not his only goal, however. After "releasing a nationally successful piece of music," he wants to "teach at my alma mater, Howard University." He already has a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education from that university.

"I have a definite interest in human behavior," Jackson explains, "in human problems, particularly those of the disadvantaged." He wrote his master's thesis on "music therapy, based on a study in a Washington, D.C., jail." He focused on "music as a means toward self-disclosure, self-revelation."

For the moment, his diplomas are stowed away. "Your academic credentials will stay with you," he says. "Right now, my voice is crisp and I'm going to follow that. I'm not going to get old and talk about what I wish I had done."

Jackson was singing one day when the owner of the Burgundy Room passed by. Liking what he heard, he offered to hire Jackson as the doorman. Although Jackson had no experience as a bouncer, he took the job. Another whim. Four years later, Jackson is a fixture at the Hollywood bar.

"A lot of people come into this place because of Torrance," says bartender Thaddeus Quigley. "He's the staple. He moves as slow as a turtle -- but people listen."

The bar is a haven for music industry hipster types, and Jackson has made some connections. He released his first album last year -- "Torrance Jackson, My Dream" (Dr. Wu Records) -- and is recording a second.

But even if he makes it big, he says, he'll still work at the Burgundy Room part time. He loves the scene too much to give it up for small things like fame and fortune.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Jackson drapes his lanky 6-foot-9 form over his chair and watches the street for signs of life. He is eating a bag of instant buttered popcorn, as usual.

Every night is "like a movie," he says. "And better than the ones I rent, I'll tell you that." He points at a group of young punk-rockers huddling around a pay phone. "Those are the angry street kids," he says. "There are millions of them. They're an institution."

Virtually everyone who walks by -- be they dressed in Gucci or garbage bags -- stops to say hello. Jackson is equally congenial to each: He gives directions to a girl who looks like a Vogue model, then chats with a homeless guy who asks about finding an apartment. He is never patronizing, ever calm and calming.

A disheveled man walks up, fists clenched, eyes crazed. "I'm not afraid to die!" he screams. Instead of flinching, Jackson smiles. Which seems to disarm the man, who walks away looking confused.

"My academic training gives me a good foundation," Jackson says. "If I have an irate customer, I revert to the therapeutic approach."

In addition to bouncing and recording, Jackson also substitute-teaches throughout the L.A. Unified School District, gives voice lessons from his Hollywood apartment and tutors three students in reading -- "a Hispanic woman and her two children who have been in the States for a year. I met them when they walked past the bar."

Patrons and passersby ask Jackson to sing nightly, and he obliges. "I would never tell them no, unless I physically couldn't do it," he says. "That song might be what gets them to their next breath."

Jackson will talk candidly about most everything, except his age. "Age is in relation to the Earth. We are all very young," he says. He gazes lovingly upon his domain. "We are all just youngsters trying to find our way."


Opening the door

* They can smell desperation

The key to getting past the door is, above all, to play it cool. If bouncers don't want you, then you don't want in anyway, right? At most clubs, "if you're respectable-looking, decent people, then you'll get in," says Cinespace's Steven Z.

* Show your style

"I like attractive people who have a sense of style," says Anya Varda, longtime doorperson at the Standard Hotel on Sunset. "People who are, beyond anything, nice. People I would like to hang out with."

* Dress creatively

Flashy but not too flashy. Show some skin, but not too much skin. Sexy without going over the line. Treat each club as your personal fashion runway. "I like lots of eye candy," says Varda. "That's why people go out, to look at other people and have other people look at them."

* Don't bet on bribery

Most high-class doormen are with Varda on this one: "If all you bring to the door is a wallet, I'm sorry.... I have turned down over $50,000 in bribes."

* It's good to be a girl

Emily Cole-Chu, an Occidental College student who frequents L.A. clubs, has honed a routine that works for her. "I tell them that all my friends are in already. I give them some eyes. Make it seem like I'm needy, all alone on the great big Sunset Strip. I play into their wanting to do a good thing complex."

* Show up early

Go on less popular nights. Make a wish list of clubs, from most to least exclusive. Most importantly, don't let the game get you down. There's always tomorrow night.

* Don't drink too much beforehand

Bouncers are hesitant to admit drunks. "If you get out of a car and the first thing you do is vomit in my driveway," says Varda, "you're not getting in. I don't care how much better you feel."


Where they are

4100 Bar, 4100 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake

Akbar, 4356 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake

Bar Deluxe, 1710 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood

Burgundy Room, 1621 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood

Cinespace, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Dresden Room, 1760 N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood

Ivar, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Les Deux Cafe, 1638 Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood

The Falls, 8210 Sunset Blvd., L.A.

The Gate, 643 N. La Cienega, L.A.

The Standard Hotel, 8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

Short Stop, 1455 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park

Three Clubs, 1123 N. Vine St., Hollywood


On the inside looking out


Doors: Cinespace, The Falls, The Gate

Day job: Real estate agent with Coldwell Banker of Beverly Hills

"You're dealing with 300 to 400 people per night, so you have to be a people person. The key is not to be abrasive. You get threatened just doing your job, but you take it with a grain of salt. People

approach this rope defensively, so I like to make them laugh."


Door: Ivar

Day job: Hanging out with his wife

"I'm the nice guy, the opposite of all the other bouncers. I'm from Canada, maybe that's why.

People are like, 'You look so mean.' Then I smile, and they're like, 'Wow.' I don't goof around. When I come in here, I break a sweat. I'll help sweep, help valet. This is our home. Our team. Our family."


Door: Three of Clubs

Day job: Actor

"It's all about the art of self-

defense and containment. You present yourself as a nice guy, but if things go bad, you gotta be bad. You put on a look, wide shoulders, doorman persona.... I have had groupies, girls who just come and stand at the door and talk to me all night."


Door: Akbar

Day job: Assistant director of independent films

"I am the skinniest bouncer in the world. I let them come at me, then I turn sideways and they usually fall right over. I get to see every single person who comes in here -- it's like the salad bar comes to me.... I'm looking out for the welfare of people in here; I'm like a den mother. When I go to another bar, I feel like I'm cheating."


Door: 4100 Bar

Day job: Writer (short stories, screenplays)

"You're just a post. A tree stump. I'm tired of people who don't know how to order a drink in a bar and can't hold their alcohol. You are who you are, I am who I am. Still, I try to give people as much respect as I possibly can. I try to kill them with kindness. I'm the only door guy in town who will give people cigarettes while they're waiting in line."

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