Chuck Harrell is looking forward to seeing some “nice old faces” in the Sandpiper Lounge on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6 and 7, when everyone’s invited to celebrate his half-century ownership of the “dive bar” known locally as the Dirty Bird. His uncle originally opened “The Bird,” as Harrell refers to his bar, in 1942.
Though Chuck and his late brother Chip closed escrow on the bar in 1969, many still have fond memories of the bar going back even more than 50 years.
Cal Hutchinson began visiting The Sandpiper Lounge when he was a pilot stationed at El Toro Marine base in 1964. “When I had a date I wanted to impress, I’d take her there. You could cook your own steak, serve yourself at the salad bar and get a baked potato; wine was purchased by the flask,” he recalled.
Katy Moss, a property manager and former caterer who’s lived in Laguna for 40 years, also remembers the steak and salad bar days. “Behind the fireplace there was a small kitchen,” said Moss, who used that small kitchen to put on two wedding receptions at the bar. In the 80s, “the Beach House chef married the Partner’s Bistro (now Watermark) chef; it was unusual to have a female chef back then,” Moss said. She also helped plan City Councilman John Shug’s (“Cadillac John”) reception held there in 2005.
Hutchinson also remembers movie nights at “the Piper,” as he calls the lounge. “Someone had a Hollywood connection. They’d borrow old black and white films and show them on a screen pulled down over the north wall.” By Tuesday morning, they had to be back up in Los Angeles he said. Chip and Chuck were just teenagers then, he added.
Eventually, movie night went out and live music, seven nights a week came in—something Harrell is still proud of.
A Piper bartender, Bobby Doerr and Chip Harrell considered Michael Byrne the new kid on the block—he moved to Laguna Beach in 1988—when they met him tending bar at the Sorrento Grill. The two invited Byrne to the Marine Room Tavern after his shift and the three quickly became fast friends. They developed a bar-hopping ritual they called “running the bases.” The night would always end at The Sandpiper Lounge or, “home plate,” as they called it.
Laguna local Carol Josepher was close friends with Chip and his wife, Carol, and has been a patron at The Piper for 25 years. “I remember those boys doing the rounds,” she said. “My friends and I spent many a Friday or Saturday night there,” adding that they all would use the trolleys or a taxi to get around town.
She remembers a particular night when she took a friend from San Diego into the bar to hear the live music and do some dancing. Her friend gave her purse and phone to the bartender for safekeeping but forgot to collect them before going home. “We came back in the morning and the purse was behind the bar and nothing had been touched,” Josepher said.
Byrne calls the “Sandpiper community, the epitome of a family operation.” Moss would agree; “It’s more than just a bar,” she said, “there is a heart there.”
As with all longstanding institutions, certain Sandpiper stories have been shared and re-shared. Hutchinson and Byrne both tell of a fellow named Melvin Miller from Ohio who was mistakenly called from the bar’s payphone one night by a Marine attempting to find help in locating his car. The Marine stayed on the phone with Miller for a time. In subsequent weeks, Miller got some more phone calls from the Marine, Joe Gueston. The bar patrons decided it would be fun to bring Miller out to the Piper for a drink, so they set up donation jars in various bars around town. When they’d collected sufficient funds, they brought Miller into LAX, where members of the Marine Corp band greeted him. Chuck Harrell, although a teenager at the time, corroborates the story. “We had a Melvin Miller parade and a Melvin Miller surfing contest,” he said. When they finally brought Miller into the bar, he announced that he didn’t drink and said he’d really like some milk. “Someone ran to the restaurant next door and got him a glass,” Harrell said. All versions of the story recount Miller telling Gueston that if he ever needed to talk, he’d be available.
At 50 years in, Harrell says the bar business is good. It enabled him to put his two sons—whom he says will eventually take over the business—through college. Calling himself “semi-retired,” he goes into The Bird two nights a week and greets the patrons, most of whom seem to be friends.
On Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6 and 7, The Strangers will provide the entertainment as they always do the first weekend of each month. “We’ll also give away some commemorative T-shirts and bring in some food; It’ll be a crazy ass weekend,” Harrell said.