The Ice House, Coffee Gallery Backstage, the Fork in the Road ... Bob Stane is a local international legend
by Laura Monteros
If you’re a night person, working on a farm may not be the career for you. As a tow-headed lad of four years living on his uncle’s pig farm in Yucaipa, Bob Stane already knew that he’d better find something else to do. Having lots of coffee on hand wouldn’t hurt, either.
Stane shared his story at the Allendale Branch Library on Saturday as the second speaker in the branch’s “Speaking of…” series, moderated by staff assistant and creator of the series, Terry Cannon. “Terry promised me endless supplies of coffee,” Stane said. Forty people crowded into the small space to hear Stane talk about his storied career.
In a plug for the library, Stane shared one of his inspirations, "Death of a Salesman":
“If you haven’t read it, you should. ‘Oh, I get it. Don’t be Willy Loman, don’t’ be Biff, don’t be Happy. Do what you want to do.’ Being an entrepreneur is a good way to live. Sometimes it’s not very rewarding, but you sleep well at night.”
Though he may be best known to Altadenans as the owner of The Coffee Gallery Backstage and inspiration for The Fork in the Road, Stane is known around the world as the Ice House impresario during the heyday of folk music and stand-up comics. He discovered his passion one night in 1955 at The Unicorn folk music club in Los Angeles.
What's life about?
After trying various day jobs, Stane said he asked his parents “Is this what life is really about? And they would say, ‘Yes.’” When he walked into The Unicorn as a college student, it was a defining moment for him. “People were working at night and making money! I said, ‘I can do this.’ It was my salvation.” It provided an alternative to working in the mines in Boron, following his father’s footsteps as a bridge engineer for the Santa Fe Railroad, or joining the army.
Three years later, Stane had his own club in San Diego. He even formed his own group, and approached Ice House owner Willard Chilcott for a gig. “He said, ‘No, but I’ll give you anything if you will manage the Ice House,” Stane said. That began a 17-year partnership from 1961 to 1978, when the partners retired.
The Ice House was known for discovering bright young stars in the comedy and music world, and in the case of the Smothers Brothers, both. Stane said his uncanny knack of recognizing good entertainment dates from his youth. “In high school, it was obvious to me that I knew about entertainment, what’s entertaining and what isn’t,” he said. Of 20,000 acts that auditioned for the Ice House during his tenure, “I never missed one that made it.”
Art of the publicity stunt
Stane is also a master of the publicity stunt.
For his San Diego club, he took a cue from an East Coast artist who would strip down, dunk himself in paint, and roll around on a canvas. He asked his stable of comedians—one of them Pat Paulsen—to grow facial hair, dip their heads in paint, and roll it on butcher paper. He called it “cranial art” and sent pictures off the three local television stations, but they weren’t buying it.
“Station A said no, because it’s a publicity stunt,” Stane said. He responded, “Yes, Red Ryder, of course it is.” But when Station B needed a feature a little while later, they called Stane. He set an appointment for taping at 1 p.m. the next day. “What happened here?” he asked himself, and answered, “I made an appointment!” So he quickly called Stations A and C and asked, “When would you like an appointment?” He got free coverage on all three stations that day.
At the Ice House, he hired an elephant to give rides. “He had a wonderful taste for beer,” Stane said. “He would walk in and put his trunk into a pitcher of beer. The Humane Society did not like it.”
Bob meets Coffee Gallery
In the late ’90s, Stane was approached by the agent for The Limelighters. They were replacing a member of the group and needed rehearsal space. Stane put a show together with them to raise a little money, and they opened at 45 Bean Town in Sierra Madre. When people told him that he shouldn’t be retired, he agreed, and asked the owner if his local hangout if there was any performance space he could use.
That owner was Ken Marshall, and the hangout was The Coffee Gallery in Altadena. The property owner had been using the back room as storage space for ceramics, so he agreed to rent it to Stane. In the space of a 10-second walk between his house and his garage, Stane came up with the coffee warehouse décor. “The whole thing, front to back, came to me,” he said. “I haven’t changed it in 14 years.”
The Coffee Gallery Backstage opened in 1998 and has been a community fixture ever since. “I was the youngest person in the business,” Stane said, “and now I’m the oldest. “You have to admit that you almost never see a bad act at the Coffee Gallery.”
The Coffee Gallery Backstage is known all over the world, Stane said, and even Europeans request a shot. Performers “play at Birdland in New York, then The Coffee Gallery, then Carnegie Hall, Europe, and back to The Coffee Gallery.”
Asked about the kerfuffle over parking around The Coffee Gallery, Stane quoted the old proverb, “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” The permit issues have just been cleared up, he said, after he talked to “100 politicians, and won the vote 100 percent. It all comes from one neighbor. Always.” The office of Supervisor Mike Antonovich was especially helpful, he said, expressing their response as “Oh my gosh, every single city in the world wants something like this.”
And now ... The Fork in the Road
Perhaps Stane’s most famous example of asking forgiveness is The Fork in the Road. “I told Ken that we needed a wonderful, wonderful publicity stunt,” he said. “Down at Pasadena Avenue and Bellefontaine is a wonderful patch of ground. I want that patch of ground. What we need to do is build and put in a fork. We would get so much publicity.”
Ten years went by with no action on the plot, until Stane’s 75th birthday in the fall of 2009. A friend woke him up—in the morning, of all times—and told him to get up, they were going for a drive. They went below Bellefontaine and came back around.
“I knew it had to be about the fork,” Stane said.“I thought, I hope they didn’t build it out of papier mache. Hopefully, they’ll have coffee.” What he saw was an 18-foot high fork, “glistening in the sun.”
“When I got home, the Star-News called and asked, ‘Is that your fork?’’ When Stane asked why the reporter would think that, he responded, “Either it’s this German guy who does stuff all over the world, or it’s you.” “Yeah, it’s me,” Stane replied. The paper ran a photo, it was picked up on TV, and “It was the teaser for every single television station in Los Angeles. On one, I think it was Channel 9, the anchor turned into the camera and said, ‘Happy Birthday, Bob.’”
“I want to go out feet first from The Coffee Gallery.” What do you want to be listening to at that time? “Anything of quality.”
Jazz musician and PPC prof Bobby Bradford, another Altadenan, will be the next speaker in the series at Allendale Branch Library on April 27 in honor of National Jazz Appreciation Month, librarian Shauna Redmond said.