‘Gramps’ on the Strip : Entertainment: In 30 years of running Sunset Boulevard hot spots, Mario Maglieri has seen Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and many others destroyed by life’s vices. But he is a survivor.
November 17, 1993|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER
In a place known for its shimmering excesses and nonstop partying, Mario Maglieri is an anomaly–a silver-haired father figure who, at 70, maintains order amid the chaos of the Sunset Strip.
Known simply as “Gramps,” Maglieri works from sunset to sunrise, keeping watch in West Hollywood over his glittery corner of the famous boulevard.
After 30 years as a proprietor of the Whisky, the Roxy and the Rainbow Bar and Grill–clubs considered the cradle for rock giants such as the Doors, David Bowie and Janis Joplin–Maglieri has seen it all.
He bought Joplin a bottle of Southern Comfort three days before she overdosed. He discussed world politics with John Lennon in the parking lot of the Roxy. And he lectured Jim Morrison about using too many drugs.
Some of the people around him were destroyed by life’s vices, but Maglieri has survived.
Perhaps that is why, at an age when many others have retired, he stays on the Strip–offering advice and an occasional stern lecture to the rockers and revelers who walk through his doors.
On a recent night at the Rainbow, Maglieri is in fine form.
A couple of weeks earlier, River Phoenix, 23, collapsed and died of a drug overdose outside the Viper Room, another Strip hot spot. But Sunset Boulevard continued its dizzy indulgences.
As thundering music billows from the Rainbow’s dark upstairs disco, Maglieri mingles with the patrons.
“All these young people want to get high,” he tells a visitor. “High, why? Where are you going? You’ve got to face reality. If you don’t, you’re gonna die. This boy, River Phoenix, he shouldn’t be dead. Only 23 years old . . .”
His words fade into the music, but he continues to speak.
“I’m 70 years old and I’ve never smoked a joint in my life,” Maglieri boasts. “People ask me and I tell them, ‘Dope is for dopes.’ People want to fight me on that, I’ll fight them. I’ve seen too many lives destroyed by drugs.”
When Maglieri moved from Chicago in 1964 to help friend Elmer Valentine operate the Whisky, drugs were openly used.
Maglieri said he can remember telling Morrison and Joplin–among many others–to clean up their acts. Both later died of drug overdoses.
“Jim Morrison was just like a big kid,” said Maglieri, who still speaks with a tough Chicago accent. “He was a good boy. It’s too bad I couldn’t straighten him out, because I tried awful hard.
“He would look at me all goofed up, and say, ‘Oh Mario, I love you.’ The reprimanding I gave him didn’t do any good. But I tried my best.”
As for Joplin, Maglieri said: “She was a raunchy broad. Her fingernails were full of dirt. Her hair was always strung. But she was a beautiful girl. Very down to earth.”
Before a show, Joplin would demand whiskey.
“I would bring her Southern Comfort on the rocks,” he said. Mimicking Joplin’s gravelly voice, he added: “She would say, ‘I don’t want that. I want the whole f—— bottle.’ ”
And then there was Terry Kath, lead guitarist for the rock group Chicago, a house band at the Whisky in the early days.
Maglieri and Kath became so close that the club owner stood as godfather of Kath’s daughter. Maglieri said he tried, without luck, to persuade Kath to give up his cocaine habit. In 1978, Kath killed himself when he put what he thought was an unloaded pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
“Sometimes they don’t listen,” Maglieri said. “They have to hit rock bottom first. Some of them make it, and some of them don’t.”
Even before moving to California, Maglieri was no stranger to the club scene.
While working as a bail bondsman in Chicago, Maglieri operated a lounge in the city at night. He agreed to come in as part-owner of the Whisky in 1964 after Valentine, who is also from Chicago, complained his employees were stealing from him, Maglieri said.
In 1972, the two men opened the Roxy and the Rainbow, located about a block west of the Whisky.
Unlike the old days, when Maglieri and Valentine picked the bands that played the clubs, production companies are now responsible for booking acts. Still, Maglieri said he receives dozens of tapes a month from young musicians looking for a big break. He tells the bad ones to “keep on practicing.”
Although Maglieri no longer selects the musical talent, he still takes care of some of the clubs’ details.
“Some people go play golf. I come here,” he said. “What are you gonna do? You gonna sit at home with your old lady holding hands? You gotta get out.”
Maglieri wakes up shortly before 1 p.m. and drives to the produce market in Los Angeles. There, he picks out fresh vegetables for the evening dinners at the Rainbow. Later, he returns to his Laurel Canyon home, where he works out for an hour in his gym before taking his wife, Scarlett, to the club for dinner.
“He has became a workaholic through the years,” said Scarlett, who has been married to Maglieri for 48 years.
By 7:30 p.m., Maglieri is on the job.
As Maglieri sits near the door of the Rainbow, sipping a glass of wine, a record producer stops by to say hello.