Behind the Scenes at Iconic Hollywood Haunt Musso & Frank Grill
Bartender Kenneth "Sonny" Donato talks literary legends, whiskey sours and Leo and Brad in "Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood"
One of the more unexpectedly moving scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Hollywood fantasia Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood comes at the start of the third act when, on the fateful night of August 8, 1969, there’s a quick montage of the neon signs of famous Los Angeles venues buzzing to life at twilight as the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” plays, taking on a haunting significance. Among those iconic signs is the rooftop neon of the Musso & Frank Grill. Musso’s, as it’s known among regulars, is also featured as a key location of an early scene in the film where Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprico), a fading TV star scraping the bottom rung of guest-star roles and his stunt-double, driver and occasional handyman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), enter through the back of the restaurant and stop at the bar to have a round of drinks before Dalton takes a lunch meeting with agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino).
It makes sense that Musso & Frank, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, who celebrates their 100th anniversary on September 27, would be a desirable location for Tarantino, who’s also a regular there. He joins the ranks of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski, along with actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock, John Houston and Steve McQueen who regularly stopped in for a Martini and a ribeye steak or their famous chicken pot pie (Thursdays only).
Since 1922, when it was used in the Buster Keaton silent film Cops, both the interior and exterior of Musso’s has remained a popular filming location. From movies like Ed Wood, Swingers, Ocean’s Eleven and La La Land to TV shows like Entourage, Mad Men (where it served as 1960s-era Sardi’s and Downey’s Steakhouse), Ray Donovan and Scandal. But Mark Echeverria, COO, CFO, Proprietor and fourth-generation member of the family of owners of Musso & Frank, made the unprecedented move of closing the restaurant for five straight days to accommodate Tarantino.
Tarantino and his production team took great pains to bring late-1960s Los Angeles back to life, from the costumes to the period movies advertised on posters and marquees to the classic cars cruising the boulevards and freeways with their radios tuned into KHJ AM radio. While the immediate area surrounding Musso’s on Hollywood Boulevard was transformed with the facades of long-gone venues like the Pussycat Theatre and Peaches Records & Tapes resurrected, little had to be done to Musso’s. Even today the dimly lit restaurant is a step back in time, with waiters and bartenders outfitted in their iconic red bolero-cut jackets buzzing among the red-leather booths and dark mahogany bar. Modern cash registers were removed and replaced with period-appropriate ones and though you’d likely never notice on film, of-the-era menus were created (with notes celebrating the occasion of Musso’s 50th anniversary in 1969), plates and glasses from the 1960s were pulled from storage, and the liquor bottles behind the bar were swapped out for vintage bottles.
“We have witnessed a lot of Tarantino enthusiasts taking photos of the different locations he used in the film since its release, and Musso’s is no exception,” Echeverria tells InsideHook. “Through this movie, Quentin wants people to experience Hollywood, and Los Angeles, as it was in 1969 and Musso’s obviously pays a huge role in that experience. It’s been a pleasure to see our regulars enjoying themselves as they always do at Musso’s before heading off to see the new film.”
While Musso’s bar is best known for their bestselling Martinis served with a sidecar glass decanter nestled in a small bucket of crushed ice, in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, it’s Musso’s whiskey sour that plays a supporting role as a favorite drink of Rick Dalton (and it turns out his creator, Quentin Tarantino). And the man who makes those drinks is Musso’s bartender Kenneth “Sonny” Donato who gets to play himself in the film, listed in the credits as “Musso & Frank Bartender.” Spoiler alert: ultimately his appearance in the film has him in the background behind the bar and a touch out of focus, but he’s the man responsible for shaking up Rick Dalton’s whiskey sour and that’s his hand sliding the neon-cherry-topped cocktail across the bar to Leonardo DiCaprio.
“You’ve got Sonny Bones here,” is how Donato answers the phone when I give him a ring. “I absolutely made that cocktail,” he says. He tells me they spent an hour-and-a-half filming him making 15-20 whiskey sours at 7 in the morning. At Musso’s they combine bourbon (Donato is brand agnostic but says Maker’s Mark or Basil Hayden is a good foundation) fresh lemon, simple syrup, a splash of sweet and sour mix and egg whites in a cocktail tin filled with ice and “violently shake it,” resulting in a golden, frothy cocktail.
“The whiskey sour isn’t just a drink. It’s a representation of that era that was coming to an end, and not just in Hollywood,” says Donato. “I see a lot of humanity in this film. It gives a voice to people and says something that people might not be able to say. Which is yeah, I’m losing my place. Yeah, I’m getting a little bit older and I can’t be the person–man or woman — that I used to be. But in spirit I still am.”
Donato spent a lot of downtime on the set with Tarantino, DiCaprio, Pitt and Pacino, and at one point between takes he approached Pacino to relay a message. “Mr. Pacino, do you have a second? You were in a film with my Uncle Bobby and he said if ever run into you to say hello.” Pacino responded (imagine Donato slipping into a perfect Al Pacino impression) with “I was in a film with your Uncle Bobby?” “Yeah, Scarface,” said Donato. “I was in Scarface with your Uncle Bobby?” “Yeah, you were in Scarface with my uncle, Robert Loggia.” Loggia had passed away in 2015 and thinking about him seemed to move Pacino. “That’s your uncle, Sonny?” he said, coming behind the bar to express his sadness and to comfort Donato with a big hug.
Though it seems like the 70-year-old Donato has been a fixture at the Musso’s bar, he’s been there for less than a decade. Born in Long Island, New York, he hitchhiked across America three times in 1967 before settling down in Los Angeles. “Man, my lineage is all right,” says Donato. In 1975 Donato became the lead bartender at The Starwood in West Hollywood, run by the infamous Eddie Nash, the alleged mastermind behind the 1981 Wonderland murders (and who inspired Alfred Molina’s character in Boogie Nights). Bands that took the stage at The Starwood included the Knack, the Runaways, Bob Seger, and Van Halen. “Those were our house bands,” says Donato, who was soon invited to work at the Troubadour. Among his regulars were Gene Clark of The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Glenn Frey, Rickie Lee Jones, and Tom Waits, who bestowed Donato with his nickname Sonny after watching Dog Day Afternoon.
“When people started telling stories late at night, mine were on the same level as anybody’s stories, you know what I mean?” says Donato. “We all crossed the line between entertainer, bartender, storyteller, poet, writer. Across all those lines we became friends. We became united no matter what we did for a living.” Donato encapsulates that spirit in his 2011 book, A Poet’s Guide to the Bars, which he describes as a “poetic journey that takes people from Idaho or Australia or anywhere to Hollywood and into those bars with Waits and Bukowski.” The book is dedicated to his friend “Deano,” the late Harry Dean Stanton, and Donato recently wrote a poem in honor of the cast and crew of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood called “Here’s To Those Who Know & Those Who Never Will.”
Sonny talks about the summer of 1974, when he first met Charles Bukowski, naturally, at a bar. “It was up on Yucca, right around the corner from Capitol Records,” says Donato. “It wasn’t really a dive bar as much as it was a trailer with a bar and a couple bottles of bourbon and a few six-packs of beer.” After leaving the bar on a rainy night he realized he’d left behind his radio and went back to pick it up. He knocked on the door a few times but despite the sound of muffled voices inside no one would answer. He heard music playing down a nearby alleyway and when he rounded the corner he ran into the “poet guy” he had met earlier at the bar sitting there with his radio. When he asked for it back, Bukowski said in a low voice, “It’s my radio now, kid.” Donato demanded his radio back again, this time making his point with a flip of his switchblade. Bukowski’s measured response: “Put the toothpick away, kid. I will kill you.”
That was enough motivation for Donato to put away his knife. He lost a radio, but gained a drinking companion. “We just sat there in the fucking rain for an hour talking. Just sat there and drank and listened to the rain come down,” recalls Donato. “I figured I’m never coming back to that fucking place again. The very next night it was the first place I went to. That’s how it came down.”
Donato has seen Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood two-and-a-half times (he was late getting to the cast and crew screening and missed the first half hour) and he loves the energy it brings playing around the clock at nearby Hollywood movie theaters. According to Donato, the waves of people coming in before and after seeing the film have definitely caused a buzz of excitement about Musso & Frank being in the film, along with a spike in sales of whiskey sours.
“I consider Tarantino one of LA’s great authors. Right there with Bukowski and Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Parker and Jon Fante,” says Donato. “He’s one of those guys that has a reverence for our place. Musso’s is almost like a spiritual museum, you know? It’s like a jewelry box, but instead of holding jewelry there’s spirits in there. Right there in the restaurant. When you have a bar where Raymond Chandler would discuss his writing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, that isn’t just a bar. That’s Musso and Frank’s.”