A postcard showing the interior of Barney Oldfield’s saloon on South Spring Street, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
‘Mile a minute” Barney Oldfield, the first automobile racer to achieve that feat while racing, was quick when it came to promotions bearing his name as well. Like many famous celebrities, actors, and sports stars before and after him, he quickly realized he could turn his fame into cash. Oldfield promoted various products throughout his life like Firestone Tires and the Fisher Auto Co., but for a brief time, operated a saloon under his name in downtown Los Angeles.
Born Berna Eli Oldfield in 1878, daredevil Barney Oldfield first found his outlet for speed racing bicycles. His car racing career began in 1902 when fledgling automobile designer Henry Ford hired him to race his model 999 car. With little to no experience, Oldfield fearlessly took the lead and won the race against more experienced competitors.
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The approximate location of Barney Oldfield’s saloon, via Google Street View.
The young man began barnstorming around the country competing in road races and speed competitions, setting records across the United States. He set a record in 1910 for achieving a speed of over 131 miles per hour before the American Automobile Association suspended him in 1912 for what they called “outlaw” racing.
“Speed king” Oldfield took advantage of his famous name and fortune to open a saloon in downtown Los Angeles in 1913 at 534 S. Spring St. Long before Oldfield arrived on the scene, however, the location served as the first home of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1896, with the group later taking over the entire block. By 1901, Brent’s, a retail store, operated at the location selling all manner of goods.
Arthur McDevitt and Patrick Doyle opened the Old Crow Bar here in 1906, one of scores of downtown saloons serving drinking men. In 1908 Rush A. Barnes operated a Pool Hall in one room of the business and Loren Beckley sold cigars. By 1910, however, the proprietors were forced to change the business name to McDevitt & Doyle Saloon after Old Crow liquor sued them in a copyright fight.
William Nolan, in his book “The Barney Oldfield” story, states that Oldfield took money earned from barnstorming to form a partnership with a former railroad conductor by the name of Jack Kipper. They took over the location and opened the Oldfield Kipper Saloon in late 1912. A large portrait of Oldfield’s friend Jim Jeffries decorated one wall, and a “mile long” bar mahogany bar laid out with free repast of turkey, ham, cheese, and pickled sausage ran the length of one wall. Twenty five cents bought two drinks, and Oldfield handed out a free beer to the press.
By January 8, 1913, the Los Angeles Times referred to it as the Oldfield “Thirst Parlor,” a popular location for athletes to relax and hang out. Patrons included boxers Frank Gotch and “Kid” McCoy and baseball’s Frank Chase.
Perhaps movie producer Mack Sennett, a boxing and fast car fan, visited as well, because within a few weeks he persuaded Oldfield to play himself in a melodramatic film spoof entitled “Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life.” The short combined the slapstick shenanigans of the Keystone Kops and dastardly Ford Sterling with an exciting race to the finish with Sennett to save Mabel Normand from being run over by a train.
Mabel Normand is tied to the railroad tracks in “Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life.”
As Brent Walker reports in his book “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory,” Sennett obtained the cooperation of Santa Fe railroad general passenger agent E. W. McGee to gain permission to employ the Santa Fe track and Redondo Road, which ran parallel to the track near the Inglewood train station as well as access to a late model locomotive, baggage car, and passenger coach for the film. Inglewood city officials granted Oldfield permission to race at an estimated 90 miles per hour on the road towards the train moving at 65 mph. The thrilling, fast-paced action sequence cut back and forth between car and train, a leap forward in shooting and film technology.
Later that fall, Sennett combined footage from his 1912 film “The Speed Demon,” shot at the 1912 Santa Monica Road Race involving Oldfield and other top drivers, with footage from the exciting 191 Road Race to create “The Speed Kings – Earl Cooper and Teddy Tetzlaff,” with Oldfield appearing in a cameo.
Barney Oldfield in Motorgraphy, 1915.
When the AAA waived Oldfield’s suspension in 1914, he leased 534 S. Spring back to McDevitt and Doyle who returned their name to the enterprise though Oldfield served as President. In 1918, the business reverted to the name Oldfield & Kipper, serving soft drinks per the LA City Directory listing.
Finally tiring of the saloon trade, Oldfield sold out in 1920 to the Rappaport Brothers, who operated a hattery business out of the building. In 1923 they changed their name to the New York Hat Co., continuing to operate through 1939 when Citizens Title took over the address. In 1942, tailor Sidney Cowan worked at 534 S. Spring St.
By the late 1940s, a Western Union Telegraph Office operated at 534 S. Spring St. Over the next ten years they would be robbed seven times. Some time in the late 1950s to early 1960s Continental Parking Corporation took over the building and converted in to a parking garage and office building. They sold the property in 1970 and it now appears to be a parking lot.
While 534 S. Spring St. operated only a short time as the Oldfield Kipper Saloon, it served hundreds if not thousands of Los Angeles residents as club, saloon, and telegraph office in the heart of downtown, businesses important to the early history of our metropolis.