Valet parking is about as complicated as you can imagine. It’s not so much about parking as it is about running… lots and lots of running. Ethiopians would raise an eyebrow to the amount of running. If you want to earn some extra cash while losing weight, being a valet parker isn’t half bad. The job was pretty straightforward, until my short relationship with Burt Reynolds, or more specifically, Burt’s Corvette.
It’s hard to believe that the second highest grossing movie of 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit (only to be outdone by a small film about a dysfunctional family in a galaxy far, far away.)
Burt Reynolds was a legend. Deliverance was and still is a great movie. He and the rest of the cast may have won Academy awards if not for Burt’s ill timed Cosmopolitan magazine centerfold. But it was Smokey that propelled him to become Hollywood’s highest paid star for the next five years with SATB sequels, Hooper, the oft-maligned but lovable Cannonball Runs and countless other forgettable but entertaining schlock.
(How often can we see Burt, Dom, Farah, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore and dozens of other legends yucking it up on the big screen?)
In an effort to pay my way through school, one of my seemingly never ending series of jobs was to park cars for a tony Italian restaurant in the ritzy confines of Encino. This restaurant was widely considered one of the best in L.A., often spoken in the same sentence as Spago. It was a ‘one sitting’ restaurant, which meant guests came for a 3 hour, 5 course culinary experience, arriving between 6:00-8:00 and leaving around 9:00-11:00 pm.
Serge, my boss, was from Medellin, Colombia and fit the stereotype. Cocaine and Serge were good friends. He finagled the restaurant contract through some dubious relationships and required his valet parkers to wear these curiously designed white jumpsuits. If we added white goggles and hoods we could’ve Wonkavisioned chocolate.
Over the several months I worked for Serge there was a cavalcade of stars who threw me their keys. One of my favorites was DeForest Kelly. DeForest was a heavy drinker, and even though it was the mid 80’s he often showed up in his 1968 convertible green Mercury Cougar (dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a mechanic!) always wearing denim leisure suits while donning an ascot and emitting some wicked bourbon breath. Vintage Bones!
However, it was Burt Reynolds that I remember most. The night he gave me his keys taught me a few things about valet parking for the stars. Here’s a few rules:
- When Burt Reynolds drives up with Loni Anderson in a new Corvette C4, don’t knock your coke-head boss to the sidewalk while yelling “I’m up!” Mixing Colombians, cocaine, and violence never ends well: Serge bounced (literally) off the sidewalk with a look his eyes that made me immediately realize he wasn’t in America because he liked parking cars. It was a chilling glare from someone who was obviously using some super restraint to not go Pablo Escobar on me. What/who was he running from?
- When assisting Loni Anderson out of a Corvette (a very low to ground ride) be more Venus Flytrap and less Les Nessman: As I opened her door she swung her legs up and around and let’s just say her knees were not touching. At this point a testosterone filled young male can react in one of two ways: 1: politely ignore all you see and assist the leggy blond star out the car, or 2: exhale like you were punched in the gut loudly enough so your angry boss notices (who is still dusting himself off 20 feet away). Suffice to say, Loni also noticed. Busted! With charm and grace Loni looked me in the eyes and simply smiled. What class. I will forever remember that look as it may have been that moment I learned how to (not) treat a lady.
- If Burt, or as we called him that day ‘Mr. Reynolds’, ever throws his keys at you with a smile and wink saying “have fun, son”, note that is NOT permission to do anything other than safely drive the Corvette to the parking lot and return the keys to the valet stand, posthaste.
It was our dinner rush, so I hopped in and drove Bandits Vette into the large parking lot behind the buildings. The restaurant was at the front of the very nice shopping area on Ventura Blvd. which housed high end fashion, jewelry stores and the like. As it was a Saturday night, most of the stores were closed so the parking lot was empty but for our guests cars. I parked in one of the front spots reserved for VIP’s and jogged back to continue with the numerous arriving guests.
Since this was a one sitting type restaurant, there is downtime. For at least an hour we have nothing to do. Serge usually took some time visiting the ‘powder’ room while I would eat my packed sandwich and ensured all the tickets and keys matched. As I came to the Corvette key I mumbled to no one in particular that I would go back to the lot and re-arrange some cars for efficiency, something we would often do when we had a chance.
Jogging directly to the Vette, I entered and slumped down into the deep seat. Burt and I were roughly the same height so I felt right at home in his rocket. Our similar stature made us close friends, so he wouldn’t mind.
Bandit’s car and I were finally alone (granted it wasn’t the TransAm, but this was his real car, and oh by the way, much faster). As I turned the key in the ignition the engine growl shot through me like electricity. I slowly drove the car out of the parked area to the open section of the large lot. Look at all that open space. It would be a crime not to.
With my hands placed at 10 & 2 (because I’m a responsible joyrider), I punched the pedal and within a few seconds hit 88 mph. The only thing stopping me from worm-holing to 1977 was some stainless steel gullwings, a flux capacitor and 1.21 gigiwatts.
After a hundred yards I slowed, rinsed and repeated in the other direction and did that 4 or 5 more times. I only spent about five minutes enjoying the ride, and with a few donuts thrown in for good measure (leaving circular tracked skid marks that I was later told remained for a decade), I drove Burt’s car safely back to VIP row.
I headed back to the restaurant. It was quiet at the valet stand. Serge was still gone, no doubt powdering his nose. Carlos, the other parker for the night, told me Serge was looking for me. I turned around and Mr. Medellin was standing right behind me glaring. In his clipped English he said “Jew av fun?”
Arghhhh double-busted! I stammered, hemmed and hawed for what seemed like 30 mississippi, and then, understandably, he lit into me telling me how he saw everything and that this would be my last night working for him.
In defense, this was my first transgression, and it’s not like I drove Ferris’s buddy Cameron’s Dad’s Ferrari California around Chicago for a few hours.
Serge was being overly harsh, but what are you going to do? Cocaine is one helluva drug.
Serge also made it known I would NOT be returning ‘Meester Rrrenyids’ Corvette to him. Later that evening when Carlos brought the car around I opened the door for Ms. Anderson. She smiled at me as Burt slapped $5 in my hand and told me not to work so hard.
No worries Bandit, after tonight, I won’t be… but somehow I knew it was all worth it.
PostScript: I recently saw a picture of Burt at an event. Almost 80, his years of doing his own stunts have taken their toll. Hard to see another star who defined our generation looking frail. Always the gentleman, he gave autographs and took questions about his films.
30 years after having hijinks with Burts car, I wish to apologize to him, but also say I feel a certain kinship with the man. Burt, thank you for the great movies, even better outtakes, and for choosing our fair restaurant that night.