For decades, Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens was both literally and figuratively at the center of life in downtown Santa Barbara. The restaurant/bar was a gathering place for the ages in a town that takes its fun and gatherings quite seriously. In Grasshopper for Grandpa, filmmaker Casey McGarry explores the wild and rich history of the place while celebrating the cast of characters that made it what it was.
What first sparked your interest in making a film about Jimmy’s?
I ran into Bob Lovejoy one day at Café Del Sol (the current proprietor of Jimmy’s, which is now Three Pickles and The Pickle Room) when he was involved with redoing the bar side of Jimmy’s. This is probably sometime in late 2012 or early 2013, I can’t remember when exactly. He told me to come down to his deli and he’d buy me lunch and show me the bar (Jimmy’s). I had never actually been in there before. (I was too young to drink there before they closed in 2006.) And so I went. I could tell he really loved the place and there seemed to be a lot of history behind the building. Further than that, I knew close to nothing about Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens at that time.
Months later, I was eating brunch and nursing a hangover at The Brewhouse and I got to talking to a guy named Milo Wolf. It was a Sunday; I know that because Milo hosts trivia there on Sundays. He told me that he had taken a lot of footage of Jimmy’s around the time they were closing and that it was a great story but the footage had just been sitting in his office collecting dust for the past seven years. He then told me that he had always wanted to do something with the footage but didn’t really know how to get started or how to make a documentary. I have a bunch of experience working in documentary filmmaking so I told him I’d give him a call in a few months when my schedule opened up and that maybe I could take on the project. I’d direct and he could produce. The project then snowballed into a much bigger thing, but that’s a different story.
For the uninitiated, explain in brief the magic and import of a place like Jimmy’s?
Well, that’s kind of like the thesis of the film: What is it that made Jimmy’s so special? That’s one of the questions I asked every single one of the interviewees. At first, I was running with this idea of “establishment as character” because the building itself and the location is such a central figure in the film, but it turned out what really made Jimmy’s so special was the people.
Jimmy’s really was this classic neighborhood bar. It was the “Cheers” of Santa Barbara. You had Willy Gilbert, the longtime bartender there, who was your Ted Danson figure; Esther, the cocktail waitress who I hear had attitude and sass just like Rhea Perlman’s character, Carla Tortelli. You had Nancy Nufer, an actress who lived in the house directly behind Jimmy’s who looked exactly like Shelly Long. You had the postman, the lawyer, the doctor, the whole cast of characters just like the TV show. And then of course there was Tommy Chung, the owner and the father of that family.
Talk a little bit about the secret tunnels and catacombs beneath downtown Santa Barbara that are referenced in the film.
Did you know there was a Chinatown in Santa Barbara? I certainly didn’t before making this film and I grew up here my whole life. As Matt Kettmann states in the film, “The Chinatown allure was one of the things that made Jimmy’s really cool.”
There’s something about that property that really triggers people’s curiosity in the place. “Is it haunted?” “I heard this and that about this place, is it true?” Underground tunnels, gambling, opium dens, and the like. People wander in off the street all the time wondering about the history of the place. So naturally, I was immediately drawn to this idea of the underground culture in Chinatown, and that aspect of the project. The folklore and mystique behind Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens was definitely a selling point for me in making this film. One of my favorite films is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and we definitely pay homage to it. I mean, how could you not?
What is the significance of the title?
“Grasshopper for Grandpa” was a story written by Matt Kettmann published in The Santa Barbara Independent around the time that Jimmy’s was closing. It was part of a series of articles that made up the cover story, “Last Calls.” The article at its core was about Willy Gilbert, the infamous bartender that worked at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens for 22 years and who remains the heart and soul of the place.
Personally, I was also thinking about the symbolism of the grasshopper in Chinese culture and how it related to the essence of Jimmy’s long-life mantra. The grasshopper, according to one website, “offers attributes of longevity, happiness, good health, good luck, wealth, abundance, fertility and virtue. In fact, grasshoppers were thought to be fertility symbols; specifically omens of the birth of a son (hence, another reason for its good luck symbol status as sons are considered prized gems within the setting of the family). In certain regions of China, grasshoppers were kept as family pets and it was believed grasshoppers embodied the personalities of family members who were deceased. Keeping these reincarnate souls in the form of grasshoppers insured prosperity amongst the family members.”
In Willy Gilbert’s obituary about Tommy Chung, he stated that one of “the best things that ever happened to Tommy was the birth of his grandson, Nicholas Thomas Yee Chung. The elation of that event made Tommy the happiest he had ever been seen.” I also thought this was a nice coincidence that made the title even more fitting.
What, if anything, really surprised you while making this film?
A reoccurring joke I would make while making this thing was, “Santa Barbarans really love their own history, don’t they?!?” And it’s kind of true, Santa Barbara history is incredibly well-preserved and documented for being such a small little town way back when.
But people from around the world love Jimmy’s. It’s just one of those places. Everyone has their own Jimmy’s story. And although Jimmy’s was very accepting and friendly environment, there’s definitely a private club of individuals that made up the place. And not just any old person off the street could just prance in and join. You had to earn your keep. And that group is pretty serious about their membership.
Anything else you would like to add about the film or the film making process that seems significant to you?
We made the film in 2 ½ months. We started filming October 21st and submitted a rough cut to the festival on December 12. In terms of the magnitude and size of this project, it’s certainly the fastest I’ve ever made a project this big before. It’s like a mini-feature documentary film. There are over 35 personalities in the film (some living, some now deceased).
I’m really lucky I stumbled upon such a great local story and was granted such access into the world of Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens.
Also, the soundtrack of the film is jazz. We used mostly all Nate Birkey’s music. He was a regular at Jimmy’s for years and now is a successful jazz musician living in New York City.