Craig Bigelow 1945-2006

by Hillary Hauser

Craig.jpgOn a recent Saturday afternoon, Craig Bigelow’s friends got together on the bow of the Condor to spread his ashes to sea. As the flowers and rose petals spread across the surface of the ocean, somebody said, “There goes the host of literary Santa Barbara.”

We’d had the foresight to make sure this final ritual at sea was inline with the Biltmore bar, a favorite Bigelow hangout. The host with the most also liked the Miramar bar and the Montecito Café. But Craig Bigelow is probably best remembered for the old Head of the Wolf, a State Street restaurant which in its 1970s heyday was a literary watering hole, an “Algonquin West” that daily attracted luminary writers, publishers, and printers like Kenneth Rexroth, Ray Carver, Noel Young, Graham Mackintosh, Robert Kirsch, and novelist Thomas (Rabbit Boss) Sanchez.

Sanchez was among the crowd of friends who joined Craig’s brother, John Bigelow, in this final tribute. The celebrated writer of Zoot-Suit Murders, King Bongo, and a host of other novels remembered aloud the Head of the Wolf in the 1970s as a cultural cornerstone of Santa Barbara, the center of vibrant small presses that once existed in this town. Bigelow eventually expanded the restaurant and renamed it Gallagher’s. For a time, he also co-owned with Chuck Santry the fine men’s clothing store Bigelow and Santry, also on State Street.

Bigelow’s next enterprise was Santa Barbara Salsa, started in 1984. Some of us wondered what Bigelow was getting into — with all the chopping of countless tomatoes and all the stirring and stewing — but Santa Barbara Salsa put Santa Barbara on a nationwide pop map more than the soap opera did.

Who could forget Bigelow’s mischievous smile? When he saw you, he’d bark your name and just start laughing. Out on the Condor, old friends told stories of pranks and good times; at the top of everyone’s story list was Bigelow’s gift of hosting people, making everyone feel at home. This was the theme of Thomas Sanchez’s moving tribute, “Adios Amigo.” Even in the face of the ferocious cancer that took him very quickly, Bigelow would gather people together and oversee the cooking of some wonderful dinner while enjoying everybody’s company. He would get furious if anyone expressed condolence about his health predicament. He’d brush it off and change the subject.

I met Craig Bigelow when I moved back to Santa Barbara in 1977. He lived in a picturesque little cottage down the lane from my place, and immediately a tight group of us formed who loved to stomp around to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” until the old Rod Stewart album lost its groove. Bigelow was doing business as Bigelow & Santry at the time, as well as running the Head of the Wolf.

Our community of beach friends often got together. One afternoon, the comedian Martin Mull came by my house, asking if I could help a friend “go for a swim in the ocean.” He needed my assistance because the friend was in a wheelchair. As Martin and I struggled over a rocky, treacherous winter beach to lift this man into the ocean, I saw Bigelow coming toward us. He had someone from Italy with him, a purveyor of fine Italian leather goods that he was trying to sell to Bigelow & Santry Fine Men’s Clothiers. This Italian gentleman was on the beach in a pair of fine leather pants, fine leather shoes, a fine belt, and the fine works.

“Hauser! What the hell are you doing?” Bigelow said.

“We’re getting this guy into the water,” I said. “Get in here, we need your help!”

Soon, we were all up to our waists in the ocean, including the Italian guy in the leather pants. “Hauser, you’re fired!” Bigelow said.

Later on, when Bigelow expanded the Head of the Wolf to become the restaurant Gallagher’s, a bunch of us freelance writers, artists, and photographers applied for jobs. Bigelow happily hired us all, but I only got one table and complained.

“See if you can handle it,” Bigelow said. “Then we’ll discuss it.”

He knew what he was talking about. I was a miserable waitress, and got everything mixed up. I made $3 in tips the first night, and on the second night, Kate and Clyde Packer came in with a huge table of guests. I couldn’t get the champagne opened — as I had promised Bigelow I could — and Clyde Packer ordered me to sit down and join them, “before you fall down.” I took off my bow tie, my apron, and sat down with the Packers just as Bigelow came around the corner.

“Hauser! What the hell are you doing?” he barked.

“I’m sitting with the Packers.”

“Hauser, you’re fired!” Bigelow said. He framed my paycheck (about $18.67) and hung it in the restaurant as a memento of the worst wait help he had ever hired.

One day in November 2005, we ran into each other in Montecito. Bigelow pulled up on a motorcycle, and when he whipped off his helmet, I saw he was completely bald.

“Mr. Big,” I said. “What’s happening here?”

“Got the worst kind,” he said. “Small cell. But you know what? I organized a dinner for everyone at the Cancer Center — took them all out to dinner and they had whatever they wanted!”

On Christmas Eve, I went to his house for a big dinner he had organized — always such a to-do about lobsters! We were all in his kitchen, discussing what to do about boiling, broiling, roasting, or sautéing, and Craig looked out over everything with a glass of wine in his hand and smiled. I had brought him a CD of the old Rod Stewart album, and suggested we put it on.

“No!” he said. “Not now!”

“I love you, Mr. Big,” I said.

“No! Not now!”

When I scorched the rolls, he gave me his famous and final salute, “Hauser! You’re fired!”

As Thomas Sanchez wrote in his tribute, “Adios, amigo Craig. Vaya con Dios.” Mr. Big, we are all going to miss you. And I have the additional regret that there will never be anyone in this world who will fire me as much as you did.

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