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James Breen, 1947-2019

Photo: Mehosh DziadzioJim Breen’s wit once ruled the roost at Harry’s and The Sportsman and also made him a sought-after publicist with clients like Ensemble Theatre and Old Spanish Days.

James Howard Breen passed away on Friday, August 2, after dining with friends at Arnoldi’s ​— ​one of his favorite eateries. He was laughing minutes before the lights went out. He was 71.

Born in Los Angeles, Jim’s first aspirations were to be a professional cook. He apprenticed with a French chef who displayed an intense artistic temperament (throwing lots of pots and pans around). Jim noticed the bartender seemed to do less work, have more fun, and make the same money. So a new path to success was selected.

Jim lived in Summerland in the late ’60s with his wife, Sue, and attended SBCC. In 1970, they moved to Arcata, with Sue now pregnant with their son Darrin. There, Jim transferred to Humboldt State, where he earned his BA.

Jim continued working toward a master’s at Humboldt in film studies ​— ​fostering his lifelong love of that medium. He relished discussing foreign films and new filmmakers, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of both.

Growing up, Jim and his siblings began a tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day. Jim’s family life in Arcata continued that tradition, and after Christmas dinner he’d take his young son to the movies. However, they never saw holiday movies. Rather, Jim took Darrin to dark, complex films like Schindler’s List, The Thin Red Line, or an obscure bit of foreign cinema. It’s a tradition that lives on in his family to this day.

Jim moved back to L.A. in the late ’70s to work in the hospitality industry. But he’d always loved Santa Barbara and made his way here shortly thereafter. Jim became renowned in S.B. as the snarky, witty bartender who ruled the roost at Harry’s and The Sportsman.

He also pinch-hit at Mel’s, the Tee-Off, Jimmy’s, the Lei Lani Room, and many other watering holes. Even after finding sobriety, he still enjoyed the camaraderie of bars where he’d now order a “Breen,” soda water ​— ​no fruit!

Jim’s second act, career-wise, was to first become a media salesman and later a specialist in public relations. He went back to SBCC to keep up with the onslaught of new technologies. Jim was one of the earliest enthusiasts of the World Wide Web. The man loved his Macintosh.

Over the years, Jim represented (or built websites for) a myriad of clients, including The Ensemble Theatre, Three Pickles Sandwiches/Pickle Room, Old Spanish Days, Santa Barbara Symphony, Marianne Williamson, Passport Magazine, The Dupree Foundation, and many, many others. 

He also served on the board of several arts organizations ​— ​including Center Stage Theater and Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Going anywhere (anywhere!) in Santa Barbara with Jim meant running into lots of folks who knew him. 

Jim was incredibly proud of his son, Darrin, and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. They shared the same sense of humor, likes, dislikes, love of art, line of work, and opinions on almost everything. They spoke on the phone almost daily, which included a lot of laughing, complaining, and love. He was also very proud of his granddaughter, Sadie, and spoke humbly of the father his son turned out to be.

Throughout Jim’s life, he remained close to his three siblings, visiting them, enjoying cultural events together, and vacationing. They were a clan, and he was proud to be a member.

Jim was an iconic figure: a fixture of our community ​— ​with a pronounced edge and a singular style. Yet to think of Jim is to forever see his beaming smile in our mind’s eye.

To say he was loved and admired by his family and many friends is an understatement. To lament his being taken from us too soon is indisputable. But we will always hold an indelible picture in our collective memory of the charming curmudgeon with a heart of gold.

Jim was preceded in death by his much-loved daughter, Lauren James. Born with cystic fibrosis, Lauren succumbed to the disease in 2014. Jim’s ashes will be spread underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at the same spot as Lauren’s.

Jim is survived by his son, Darrin; daughter-in-law, Ivy; granddaughter, Sadie; sisters, Kathy and Virginia; niece, Carly; brother, Rob; and a roster of friends that reach from coast to coast. The family is in the planning stages of a memorial at The New Vic (Ensemble Theatre) in October.

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