The Angriest Bartender In the World

Hal Durham, 1944-2001

Hal Durham's life had apparently been running on fumes for a long time before he ended it out in the Nevada desert—maybe for most of the 56 years since he was born in Tacoma, Washington, the son of a ranching preacher.

"His mother and I called him 'Harold,'" emphasizes the Reverend Ernest Everett Durham, who turned 85 in July. He's breathing a little heavily because he has just finished feeding the horses on the church ranch he still runs in the little town of Roy. He and his wife, Wilma, separated some 30 years ago. "We named him Harold, and he was a good boy. Never a problem at home. The only thing he wouldn't do is go to school."

Durham was a high school dropout, leaving him with a life that consisted mostly of hard physical labor. He didn't shirk work, but the financial returns he earned for it were inevitably checkered. "Harold always had a job," his father recalls proudly. "I can look back to when he was 14 years old, driving a wrecker truck. I remember him going out on a call when it was pouring down rain. He went to get a car that was upside-down in the ditch. He knew just how to wrap a cable around that car, block the wheels and use a winch. He just rolled that car right up on the road. He knew just how to do it."

Durham's succession of jobs combined with a series of failed romances—including a costly divorce—to mire him in debt and, eventually, bitterness. "He got married too young, like lots of people do," his father reflects. "Then he and the wife had a couple of kids real quick, too."

The marriage didn't last. "His wife left him, sued him for alimony and child support," says the elder Durham. "Harold never went to court to defend himself. He just ignored it. That was his way. Then the judge put fees against him he couldn't pay. And when Harold realized that, he just went down to California to run away from it all. Like I said, that was just his way."

Ernest Durham sighs for a moment with a loving father's exasperated regret. "You can't run away," he says, pinpointing the lesson he wishes his son had learned. "That gal hounded him. He went to California, but it wouldn't have mattered if he went to Mexico, South America or Australia. That stuff follows you around. The welfare people were on his neck from then on—all the time."

And when Durham's back went bad, his luck turned worse. "That's when Harold took up bartending," says his dad. "The doctor told him, 'Learn to do something where you'll never have to pick up more than 10 pounds.' He picked up a drinking habit."

From the old days of Buck Owens and Johnny Cash to the new days of Big Sandy and 00 Soul, the music at the Foothill was always rootsy and raucous. The drinks were, too. But while the club persevered near the intersection of Cherry Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway for 56 years, lots of change came to the surrounding neighborhoods—little of it for the better. Today the streets sag with dingy motels and cluttered liquor stores that cater to poverty, prostitution and the drug trade. Farther up the hill, drying oil wells have drained the color from Signal Hill's public face, as the red-hot ambition for black gold steadily fades into earth-toned, view-lot housing tracts. But when Bonnie Price founded the Foothill in 1944, the oil fields were gushing, and the work force was teeming.

Bonnie was a big-boned, straight-talking woman who commanded attention when she slapped her hand on the counter—whether it was to make a point or order a drink. She turned the Foothill into one of the nation's hottest stops for top-name country-music touring acts after World War II and the center of local social life. And she lived up to her burgeoning legend. She moved into a castle-sized house behind the club, filled it with velvet paintings, stood on one or another of its three landings and held forth as Signal Hill's no-nonsense first lady. Even when age and infirmity forced Bonnie to turn over the Foothill to her grandson Ron, her can-do reputation endured.

Hal Durham was among her legions of admirers. "It's too bad someone couldn't have gotten a printout of her brain," he once said, quoted in a Press-Telegram story about the Foothill. "She knew stuff I hadn't even dreamed of. And she knew everybody. She was always on top of things. Even when she could barely see, she'd say, 'Somebody over there is waiting for a drink.'"

Over the years, the Foothill's core customers became a tired, desperate mixture. They ranged from the exhausted leftovers of the grimy crews that tended the drying oil wells to the nervous, preening scenesters who came from miles around hoping to quench their soul-deep thirst for a little honky-tonk authenticity. Night after night, year after year, Durham stood behind the Foothill's famously kitschy bar—between its long, dark countertop and a fluorescent full moon painted over a western-prairie landscape on the back—and he stewed. He endured the slow shifts that dragged by, and he despised the large crowds that besieged him on busy nights. Because of the music, customers frequently had to shout their orders, which gave their requests the tone of demands. As Durham was dispatched to fetch their booze, he came to regard them with more and more disdain. Determined to take no shit from anybody, he made certain he dished out plenty of it to everybody. And his bad reputation grew.

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