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SKETCHES: Mike Sheehan visits Bugsy Siegel's Lake Arrowhead speakeasy-casino-brothel, under renovation

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I spent a couple of Saturdays hanging around Bugsy Siegel's old speakeasy/casino/brothel up in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead.

(The gangster Bugsy Siegel in 1940. LAPL/Herald-Examiner collection)

I've passed by the building for years (it's in my neighborhood), and always wanted to peek inside. If I didn't know better I would have mistaken it for a failed restaurant. But it has quite a history and I'd heard a lot of stories about it. 

Recently, I noticed a lot of activity going on. It turns out that someone bought it and is moving the Lake Arrowhead Repertory Theatre Company in.

I expected it to have been turned into an office building long ago. Thankfully, that didn't happen and it still had vibe. Even with all the renovation, for the most part the inside still looks the same as it did in days gone by.

When I went there for my first official tour, I walked over the new stage into the original kitchen from the 1920s. I happened to be there just as a new chef was trying out for the head chef position for the soon-to-be-opened restaurant. While I was sketching him, I noticed the 1905 pot belly stove. A lot of little artifacts are still there.

 It was nice to see the place alive after being dormant for so long.

I went down a spiral staircase (so steep it's almost a ladder) to the basement. Marci (she's staying there and overseeing a lot of the work) took me around the basement. She showed me the ice box, which was a tiny room where they kept blocks of ice for refrigeration. It was kind of creepy when I think of who owned the place.

(When Bugsy Siegel was iced in 1947, they stored his remains at the LA County Morgue. LAPL/Herald-Examiner collection)

Chuck Marras, artistic director of Lake Arrowhead Repertory Theater Company, told me the plumbers working down there saw a ghost. I've heard a few ghost stories about this place before. The whole basement has a spooky feel. There are lots of rooms to wander through.

Next Marci led me to a patch of dirt where there was a pile of broken bottles -- some of which date back to Prohibition. She told me there are a lot of little weird things in the building, like strange spaces above closets and a small door that leads to the outside. When I went back on another Saturday, a kid named Lucas had taken over a small room in the basement and was sculpting a stage prop. It was starting to get just a little less creepy.

From what I've been able to piece together, Bugsy opened this place on July 4th 1929. It was called "Club Arrowhead of the Pines." The building I was in was the casino/speakeasy. It was connected by an underground tunnel no less, to the building across the street which was a soda fountain/butcher on the first floor. The upper floor of that building had been a brothel. The tunnel has since collapsed but remnants of it are still there. A lot of the history is murky, but I kind of like that.

Sitting in front of the casino building sketching, I wondered where the pool had been. I had heard that there was a Olympic-sized swimming pool and a bath house. A woman came by, we got to talking, and it turns out it was about twenty feet behind me. I've never noticed it. It was filled in years ago but the outline is still visible. It doesn't look Olympic-sized though. When you actually look for it, you can piece together where things were and the whole building and surrounding area starts to make sense.

Looking at the sepia-colored drawing? I couldn't resist doing a sketch of what the Casino might have looked like on a Saturday night when it was at its peak.

I love this kind of stuff. It reminds me of wandering through old factories, dairies, and abandoned foundations complete with basements when I was a kid. Before everything in the world got fenced off and bubble wrapped.

(Artist Mike Sheehan covers Southern California for Off-Ramp)

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