BRUCE SPENCER – THE PELICAN HAS RETREATED

It takes a minute to find a special person, an hour to appreciate them, and a day to love them, but it takes an entire lifetime to forget them.

I met Bruce Spencer, one of the founders of the six Pelican restaurants in Los Angeles (Santa Monica, Venice, Manhattan Beach, Panorama City were a few locations) when he and his partners opened the newest one in Calabasas, Pelican’s Retreat, in the early 1980s. I was in the midst of big changes in my personal and business life and welcomed attending the grand opening of a new restaurant, especially one that featured seafood and live entertainment.

John, Gert, Bruce & the Pelican

John Perram, Gert Just (Bruce’s brother-in-law who passed in 2010), gun-toting Bruce & the Pelican. Don’t know the horse’s name!  Getting ready for the Agoura Hills Pony Express Days Parade.

The opening drew a big crowd and I could tell by the friendly ambience and the atmosphere that I would enjoy coming back for happy hour, lunches and dinners. I didn’t imagine then that I would spend lots of time there in the coming years and would be working for them as their advertising and public relations person. It was a pleasure to plan parties and special events, especially when the restaurant owners were a congenial bunch. Fishing excursions, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, live entertainment, participation in nearby Agoura Hills’ Pony Express Days, and mixers for various chambers of commerce were a few of the activities. We even had a Living History party since the Pelican’s Retreat was once a one-teacher schoolhouse built in 1925. It was nestled on a hill adjacent to the 101 Freeway and the Calabasas Grade, which led to the Conejo Valley.

Bruce was a model restaurant owner: always friendly and smiling and eager to take care of customers. A California native who was raised in Santa Monica, he had that joie de vivre about life, which made him a born salesman—a smile most of the time but with his husky build, it was easy to switch into command mode. He was very creative and full of ideas of fun events or promotions for the restaurant, especially since it was a big place with two patios.

Patrons of the Pelican’s were loyal, and they enjoyed talking with Bruce, who was always eager to exchange jokes or other banter. He organized a few fishing excursions (I wrote about one of them in a recent blog), which were well attended.  After we caught the fish, we came back to Calabasas to eat as many of them as possible. The yearly Halloween party was a rousing success—I’d never seen such imaginative costumes. I felt like a family member instead of a patron and their PR/Advertising person.

When the small chain of Pelican’s restaurants broke up, Bruce decided to embark on a new restaurant adventure and redesign an old building, this one in Agoura Hills, which was just minutes from his home. He loved using his hands and imagination as he worked on expanding and decorating what had once been a small home on a chicken ranch. Bruce owned and ran the Adobe Cantina until 1999 when California’s El Nino weather patterns caused flooding that destroyed many properties. The restaurant, however,  still exists in the same location and serves Mexican food,

I used to stop by and visit Bruce as he was creating the Cantina, mostly by himself. He admitted he enjoyed the creation of the restaurant more than actually running it. He finally gave up on restaurants a few years later. As he got older, he wanted to keep active. He thought it would be fun to be a crossing guard for schoolchildren in his neighborhood, and he did so for three years. Always looking for new opportunities, his last enterprise was selling sunglasses, hats and gloves. His wife Ingrid told me she joked with him that he was a peddler at heart.

Although we didn’t get together as the years passed, Bruce would call me occasionally and tell me his latest adventures. He liked to go fishing in the Pacific Ocean or on the Kern River and he was good at grilling the fresh fish. No wonder he liked the ocean, as a young man he joined the US Navy and was stationed on the island of Guam. Bruce always had a story to tell me about old friends or family, so many of them the recipients of his good will and helpfulness. Sometimes we’d reminisce about the Pelican days and the people who had been loyal patrons — like the afternoon Bruce and I and two other guys decided on the spur of the moment to go to a Dodger game. Being escorted by three men was flattering for me. There was always plenty of laughter when we talked.

With friends or family, we tend to think there will always be another phone call to look forward to. But I was recently alerted by Ingrid, Bruce’s loyal wife of 47 years, that Bruce, only 75, had passed on to the Great Beyond. He must have sensed he was ready to go: toward the end he kept telling Ingrid how much he loved her. He left behind two adult daughters–Nicole and Michelle. His granddaughter, Coralee, (daughter of Michelle) told Ingrid that everything was fine: she’d seen Bruce in her dream and he had a big smile.

 

 

 

 

One Comment

  1. Diana Becker Mullins says:

    Beautiful tribute to such a fine man.

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