Finding Popo: The Search for a Lost Tiki Master Bartender
The life of bartender Popo Galsini is like something from a Thomas Pynchon novel and, amazingly, it was almost lost to history.
There is no better book for understanding the collective leap into the future that was Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s than Thomas Pynchon’s intricate, prescient 1965 novella, The Crying of Lot 49.
Freeways, freaks, geeks, electric guitars, electronic music, exotic drugs, paranoia, the paranormal, miniskirts, mathematics, movie stars, private mail systems, public paranoia, rock & roll—somehow the story of the enlightenment of Mrs. Oedipa Maas got it all in there and almost—almost—got it to make some kind of crazy sense. Even if that sense is elusive, the characters Oedipa meets along the way—even the minor ones—are each a portal into one of the parallel mental universes that that place and time held woven together, each of them soon to go its own way in the general unraveling that came with the end of the ’60s. Take Popo the bartender:
“When it got so the wheels of the Impala couldn’t spin away the almost-imperceptible but unbuckable hum generated by the winding and rewinding of San Narciso’s circuit-board streets Oedipa Maas knew that there was only one sure remedy: she had to see Popo.
The Carven Idol’s parking lot had a remarkable number of cars in it for mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, and when Oedipa swiveled past the pair of leering idols (looking suspiciously like a loin-clothed, hastily-chiseled Martin and Lewis) that guarded the door, dodged around the girl in the lei proffering one of the polychrome broadsheets that passed for a menu in these waters, and ducked through the beaded bamboo curtain into the bar, she was not surprised to see it almost full. But there was one spot open, right in front of Popo—as if he had been saving it for her. But what if he had?
She shook off the thought and slid between a clutch of genteelly disheveled Laguna ladies-who-lunch and a trio of grizzled crewcuts in Hawaiian shirts. Popo’s perfectly round, glabrous head, which looked like it had been built by the Galactronics Division of Yoyodyne, Inc. to broadcast radio signals from orbit at fixed intervals, was down as he performed some complex manipulation involving stainless steel, time travel—collapsing the work of minutes into seconds; making things that came after somehow before—and rum. But when Oedipa was about to climb onto the vacant stool the satellite rotated her way, its thick, black glasses a carefully-calibrated frame antenna, and unsealed a hatch that revealed two little rows of perfectly white, perfectly uniform teeth.
‘Why hello, Mrs. Maas. How lovely it is to see you here again. Please, won’t you take a seat?’
As she sat, one of the crewcuts turned to her—Vern, according to the Yoyodyne identicard clipped to his pocket—and gave her a stiff little bow.
‘Entschuldigung, gnädige frau, but if ve could chust move you very, very fast, ve vould haff—Energy!’
Oedipa gave a polite chuckle. She had drunk with rocket scientists before. She turned back to Popo.
He winked at her. ‘It looks to me like you could use one of my Tr—‘
‘Nein, Popo!’ barked Vern, shaking his head. ‘Better you mix her vun of your X-15s, nicht wahr?’
And almost before he had even said the name, Popo’s hands executed a precise, rapid sequence and there was one on the bar in front of her, glowing and orange like a just-lit afterburner.”
OK, I must be honest. No, you won’t actually find this passage, or Vern, Popo or the Carven Idol, in Pynchon’s book. It is a forgery, or, as we call it now, “fan-fiction.” But if I have stooped to that, it’s only because nobody belongs more between TCL49’s narrow covers than Joseph “Popo” Galsini, the most SoCal of all SoCal bartenders and a figure of mystery and obsession to the tiki crowd ever since Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the god-emperor of tropical-drink historians, first came across his traces in the 1990s. (I hope that, as a master of the pastiche, Mr. Pynchon will at least pardon the attempt, if not the clumsiness of its execution.)
The traces Galsini left in the archives of that peculiar, exhilarating time, as sketchy as they are, reveal a character practically custom-engineered to stand beside Manny DiPresso, Mike Fallopian, Emory Bortz, Helga Blamm, Randolph Driblette and all the other off-kilter individuals that populate Pynchon’s book. Popo was as weird and wild a creation as any of them, only he was the one who did the creating, and kept doing it for more than 40 years.
José Valencia Galsini was born in Bautista, Pangasinan Province, in the mountains facing the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon on March 19, 1900. Or maybe 1904—and his name was probably Galsim, not Galsini. We’ll get into all that.
We don’t know much about his early life, beyond the claim that “he gave up a life as a schoolteacher to follow his given profession,” which, as he told a journalist a great many years later, he learned “while working on a steamship.” In 1928, the Japanese passenger liner ShinyōMaru docked in San Francisco. Among the names on its crew roster was one José Galsim, from Bautista, Pangasinan. We know that this is our bartender because when Galsini was naturalized, 25 years later, he stated that he came to America in 1928 on the ShinyōMaru, entering the port of San Francisco under that name.
Apparently young Mr. Galsim—either 24 or 28, depending on which source you believe—followed the leads of bartending Olympians Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson and Duncan Nicol, and took San Francisco as a perfect place to jump ship. He might have been 5’ 4” and ball-headed, but he didn’t lack confidence.
The next we hear of José Galsim, however, is in Brooklyn, New York. That’s in October, 1930, when he married Lena DeCicco–an 18-year-old, convent-schooled telephone operator—there. Now, we can’t be certain that this José Galsim is the ShinyōMaru José Galsim, without a lot more digging in the New York archives, but it seems likely—the name is not a common one.
In any case, we don’t know what happened to that marriage or Ms. DeCicco, but Galsim, now just “Joe,” turns up next back in California on January 3, 1939—although on that day he’s not actually in Los Angeles, where he was living, but is instead in the little town of St. George, Utah, 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas, where he’s marrying one Violet Jane Stone, also of Los Angeles. She’s 20. Why St. George, I do not know, unless it was for its Mormon temple.
Then, on May 3, our man is back in St. George, this time with Helen Bray, also from L.A. She gives her age as 18, but she’s in fact 17. They’re married anyway.
What happened to Violet Jane? Dunno. But Galsim was able to get away with two marriages in five months by entering the second one as “José Valencia Galsini.” Galsim is a common Filipino surname; Galsini is—well, it turns up a little bit in Italy and Mexico, but it ain’t common anywhere. Still, it was close enough to pass for a typo if anyone questioned it. In any case, Galsini he would remain. Married he would not, although it took until 1957 for him to file for divorce (he would marry once more, briefly, in the 1960s, but the only information I have been able to turn up regarding Millicent A. Galsini is her name, although I think we can guess at her age).
While José had apparently been tending bar this whole time, I have been unable to find out where. In 1941, however, he was working at Harry Arnheim’s Tropics, and had probably been there since it opened in early 1939. On Vine Street just north of Sunset Boulevard, the Tropics, a knockoff of the famous Coconut Grove nightclub (with a larcenous little nod to Don the Beachcomber’s), was a half-assed intrusion of the tiki future into the heart of gritty, urban Philip Marlowe Hollywood, complete with fake palms and perfunctory bamboo cabanas lining the walls. But like Don, Arnheim served tropical, or “tropical,” drinks and liked to hire Filipinos to make them.
All this has been the larval stage of Galsini’s career. Wriggly as it has been, it would be another decade before he would break out of his chrysalis and unfurl his gaudy wings. When he next surfaces, in 1948, he’s already a name: he’s “Popo” (I have no idea where the nickname came from) and he’s behind the ultra-modern bar at the tony Palm Springs Tennis Club, where everything is bent wood and exposed stone and a waterfall runs through the place. Not only that—when Lee Bering, the club’s hard-charging manager, opened a summer beach club in San Clemente, south of Los Angeles in Orange County (we’ll get back there later), he advertised that it had cocktails “expertly mixed for you by ‘Popo,’” whom he identified as the “Head Mixologist” of the Palm Springs operation.
Both the Palm Springs gig and, more importantly, the fact that his boss thought the mention of his name would bring business into his beach bar suggest that Galsini had made it into the small circle of Southern California’s bartending elite. Before long, that would be confirmed.
In 1949, the United Kingdom Bartender’s Guild, then the world’s leading professional organization for elite bartenders, had sent a representative to the United States to catalyze the formation of satellite chapters. The most fertile ground for the pitch was in Southern California, whether that’s because it was at the cutting edge of the good life or it was simply a sucker for a self-improvement schtick. It started in 1949, with only a handful of members. New members had to be nominated and voted on by the rest of the members, so growth was slow and only the most professional, established bartenders tended to make it in.
At the end of 1952, the Guild had some 40 members. Among them was “J. Popo Galsini,” as he was calling himself. We don’t know if Galsini was a charter member of the guild or one of the ones drawn in by its increased visibility after a team of Guild bartenders had competed earlier that year in the UKBG’s biennial world competition in London. The team, led by chapter president Johnny Durlesser, didn’t win, but they did well enough to boost the chapter’s prestige and got lots of press in Los Angeles and nationally. (Durlesser, the dean of Southern California bartenders, would go on to popularize, and perhaps name, the Margarita from his post behind the bar at the popular Tail o’ the Cock on La Cienega Boulevard in Hollywood.) In any case, Popo competed in the chapter’s fourth annual bartending competition, held in November, 1952.
At this, the first of many competitions where Popo would finish in the money, he came in third. This earned him $50 and a free dinner at Kelbo’s Hawaiian Barbecue on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood, famous for its ribs and its “flaming tropical drinks.” That wasn’t much of a prize, since Galsini now happened to be Kelbo’s head bartender (the Palm Springs club had fallen into financial difficulties by the end of 1949). Galsini was still at Kelbo’s a year later when joined the next California competition. This time, he won. His drink, the “Pekake” or “Pikake,” named after a Hawaiian flower, doesn’t sound like all that: half six-year-old Christopher Columbus Puerto Rican Rum, a quarter mixed papaya, pineapple and lime juices, a short quarter Vanderhum South African Curaçao and a dash of Cointreau, shaken with shaved ice, strained into a chilled cocktail glass and garnished with a “cum quat,” as the UKBG’s 1953 bartenders guide wrote it. Fine, but hardly exciting.
Compared to most of the rest of the winners of that competition from the 1950s and 1960s, though, it’s a work of rare genius. The winning drinks tended to be simple combinations of not-very-interesting ingredients. Take the one from the 1956 contest: two-thirds bourbon, one-third orange curaçao, twist of lemon peel. That got Thomas Stenger, head bartender at the Ambassador Hotel, $1,000. And where did Stenger work? At the Ambassador. Neither that, nor the fact that when Galsini won he happened to be the Guild’s secretary are much help in dispelling the rumor that an old Guild member once confided to Jeff Berry, to the effect that these contests—both the ones held by the California chapter of the UKBG, and the ones held after it broke away in 1961 to become the California Bartender’s Guild—were, basically, rigged.
That doesn’t mean that all of the winners were hacks. Johnny Durlesser, who was the Guild’s head when he won his first competition, wasn’t a hack. J. Popo Galsini wasn’t a hack either. Bob Esmino, a former Guild member, told Berry in 2005 that Popo had been his idol, and spoke in reverent tones about what a serious bartender he was. Admittedly, in 1954, when Galsini went to compete in England on the strength of his 1953 local win, he failed to place. But apparently, he did win a prize for his Blue Gardenia cocktail—that’s an ounce of white rum, half-an-ounce of blue curaçao, and a quarter-ounce each of maraschino, Parfait Amour (another blue, or blue-ish liqueur) and heavy cream—at the huge Hospes international restaurant and hospitality exhibition in Berne, Switzerland, which he attended on the same trip.
Back in California, Galsini re-submerges for a few more years, presumably mixing drinks at Kelbo’s, and then in 1958 lights out for Phoenix, where he’s head bartender at the Islands, Maricopa County’s newest, gaudiest tiki palace. The Islands even took out newspaper ads talking him up (“one of the world’s premier mixologists”), complete with photo. He traveled back to California for the annual Guild competition that year and came in second with his drink, “The Island.” Popo finished in the money the next year, too, copping a third place for his “Queen’s Choice.” By then, he was back in the Southland, working at the New Orleans-themed La Cuisine in Fullerton, down in Orange County.
Orange County, the 30 by 20-mile rectangle of beaches, tablelands and former orange groves that separates Los Angeles County from San Diego County, was where California’s great leap into the space age took its most concentrated, most Pynchonesque form. This was Popo territory. By February, 1960, he was gone from La Cuisine. A bartender of more than 30 years experience, there’s no doubt he could make all the New Orleans classics—but why would he when he could be dazzling the crowds with his tropical creations? In early 1961, he was doing that at the Long Beach Marina (just across the Los Angeles County line), at the Hukilau Polynesian Lounge in the Captain’s Inn there. By 1962, he had moved back to Orange County, to the Outrigger,a lavishly-appointed tiki temple that opened in January of that year in Laguna Beach. Before long, the Outrigger’s menu was studded with more than a half-dozen of Popo’s signature drinks, each credited to him. Nonetheless, he was gone by 1964, having moved on to the Palms, in Anaheim, but not before notching another second-place finish in the 1963 California Bartenders Guild competition (that year it was Durlesser’s turn to win).
In 1966, Galsini was back in second place again. By then, he had, of course, moved on, as if he were on a personal odyssey through every palm-thatched bar in Orange County. This time he was at the Kona Kai in Huntington Beach, which was a bit downscale from where he had been but let him do whatever he wanted. At some point during his time at the Kona Kai he invented a new cocktail, the X-15, named after North American Aviation’s rocket-powered space-plane of that name: an ounce-and-a-half of Seagram’s Gin, a quarter-ounce each of Falernum and orgeat syrup and a half-ounce each of passion fruit nectar and sweetened lemon juice, shaken with shaved ice or flash-blended and poured into a cocktail glass.
Complex, crisp and tasty, the X-15 looked like a winner to Galsini. There was only one problem: in January, 1967, before he could enter it into a contest, the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire during a routine test and the three astronauts it contained, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, could not be rescued. A Congressional investigation revealed a shoddy design from North American, who had built it. Popo, not stupid, dodged any guilt by association by changing the drink’s name to Saturn, after the big booster rocket that would lift subsequent Apollos into orbit. (Ironically, the Saturn’s engines were built by the Rocketdyne division of North American—the source of Pynchon’s Yoyodyne, of course—but nobody was mad at the engines.)
In May, 1967, Popo brought his Saturn to the annual Guild competition and won handily. That put the 67-year-old Galsini in charge of the four-man California team that went to the International Bartenders Association competition, held that November in Mallorca, Spain. It lost to the “Mallorca,” a pretty uninteresting specimen (half rum, the other half split between Drambuie, dry vermouth and banana liqueur) put forward by one of the Spanish bartenders.
No matter. Popo did bring home a fifth place, for another one of his cocktails, but more importantly the four Americans beat out all the finicky Frenchmen, elegant Italians, superior Brits and 17 other national squads to win first place in the team competition, something no American team had yet been able to pull off.
Popo used his victory lap to find another job, naturally. The Southland was changing, and those World War II vets who had found so much pleasure and solace in Pu Pu Platters and paralyzingly-stiff rum drinks were getting too old, and in many cases too rich, for such simple, robust pleasures, while their juniors were into things that made even the most exotic tropical drink seem square. The clean, bright and easy future had spent too long hovering just out of reach, and some were beginning to understand that it was always going to be that way, no matter how hard they tried to propel themselves into it. In J. Popo Galsini’s case, that meant the end of bamboo bars and cunningly-compounded symphonies of exotic juices, syrups, and rum. 1969 found him working at the old, conservative Fisherman’s Grotto, in San Francisco.
Galsini would have one more turn on stage, in 1971. He came in second to Virgel Jones, who had been a Marine from 1942 to 1968, retiring as a master gunnery sergeant. The contest rules had changed, and now both Jones and Galsini were sent, along with Jose Ruiseco, the previous year’s winner, off to Tokyo for the IBA contest, an odd trio at an even odder time. They did not win. No matter. Popo’s personal journey had followed Southern California’s, and now he was back in Orange County, at the Disneyland hotel in Anaheim—the perfect place to watch as space-age modernism and the ersatz tropical escapism that was intertwined with it toppled into a desperate, “G’night John Boy” retreat to prepared barricades piled high with striped awnings, banjos, carved wooden signs and anything at all that could recall a time before everything was so goddamn crazy. The Okolemaluna Hut was out and Dr. Bombay’s Old-Tyme Almagoozlum Parlor was in.
In 1973, Galsini, moving through his Orange County stations of the cross, gave up making drinks for the exhausted parents of middle America and joined the opening crew at Newport Beach’s Ambrosia restaurant, dedicated to serving the best of everything to the very rich and very-much-wanting-to-be elegant. Ambrosia aimed to be Orange County’s “most important and distinguished restaurant,” and offered a single, long-stemmed rose in a silver vase on every table and a wine list that topped out at $1,600 a bottle. Ladies got velvet footstools for their handbags, because—well, because. “It goes without saying that this posh restaurant offers the services of the world’s most famous bartender, Popo Galsini,” wrote the Orange County Register, adding that he was in Argentina at the time, “defending the American title for the bartender sweepstakes.” (I have no idea what that last bit is all about—the international contest that year was in Century City, Los Angeles—unless he was chaperoning a squad of California bartenders down there; at some point in the 1970s he served as a coordinator for the Guild’s competitions.)
I don’t know how long Popo lasted at Ambrosia; knowing him, it wasn’t long. The next, and last, time we see him is at a place that was, and is, the polar opposite. The Saloon, on South Coast Highway in the middle of the artist’s-village-gone-rich that is Laguna Beach, is still there, and he is still remembered there, if obliquely (I can say no more). Galsini first turns up there in 1980, a couple of years after it opened (it’s entirely possible he was there at the beginning; he seemed to enjoy opening bars).
The Saloon is a far cry from the Island or the Outrigger. With only three small café tables and no barstools, the place was both intimate and lively, in that free-flowing way only stand-up bars can be, but when it came to mixing drinks it wasn’t the place for anything fancy. But Galsini’s kind of mixology had been dying since the beginning of the 1970s: even the Guild contest-winning drinks were little more than typing-monkey assemblies of mass-market liqueurs with a splash of cream or sour mix or—who knows?—Mrs. Butterworth’s.
At least at the Saloon, Popo got to preside over a fun crowd. In 1981, he even celebrated his birthday behind the bar—his 81st, although the reporter the local paper sent thought he looked “about 55, with his sweet dimpled smile.” There was cake and balloons and plenty to drink. Some of the young female regulars wore tight football jerseys emblazoned with “POPO 1981.” “I just love him, he’s so cute,” said one. “He’s always so sweet to me, even when he knows I’ve had too much.”
In September, 1982, Galsini ran his car into a tree and died on the spot. He had been tending bar for something like 60 years (his brief obituary said 48 years, but that only puts it back to 1937, when he was already in Los Angeles). His legacy would have ended there (unless you found yourself in the Saloon and knew what to ask for), just like it did for Eddie Nordsiek of the Sportsman’s Lodge, Pete Zamuto of the Plymouth House, Al Carillo of Hody’s, and all of the other master bartenders who Popo used to both compete against and hold the line with, against the entropy that eventually pulled down the craft that they had all worked so hard to uphold.
But then one day in the mid 1990s, Jeff Berry came across a tiki drink he’d never heard of (and if he hadn’t, nobody else had either)—but I’ll let him tell it, just as he told me:
“I found a California Bartenders Guild commemorative double rocks glass…in a thrift store in Ocean Beach, just outside San Diego. Because I had so much vintage glassware choking all our kitchen space back then, I didn’t buy the glass—to my eternal regret later because I’ve never seen it since—but I did copy down the recipe on it, which was for the Saturn, and the bartender’s name: J. Popo Galsini. The glass commemorated the drink’s win at the IBA finals in Majorca for 1967. The glass did not specify how to make the drink, just listed ingredients.”
When I first read this, in an email from Jeff, I had to put my phone down. For the Pynchon reader, this little story hits the Lot 49 trifecta, with its funny name (Popo) its obscure organization (the Guild) and above all its chance find of an original text that later cannot be produced for confirmation. It’s as if the world Pynchon created for his book, extrapolated from the reality of Southern California in the mid-1960s, turned around and burrowed back into that world, sending out tendrils that occasionally break briefly into sight if you know where to look. It’s as if Popo was one of those tendrils; as if he was in the book all along, but in a secret part that you will only get hipped to when you order a Saturn in the right bar.
Eventually Berry put the Saturn, complete with instructions courtesy of Bob Esmino, who remembered the drink well, into his 2010 classic, Beachbum Berry Remixed. It is now widely regarded as a tiki essential. Vivat Popo!
Correction (January 12, 2020): Further research has disclosed three more places Popo Galsini worked, clarifying the early parts of his career, but also dispelling a theory I aired on the origin of his nickname. The article has been amended accordingly.