On Saturday morning, Gene Rotondo, owner of the iconic Belmont Shore tavern Legends, gathered the 62 employees who work at his Second Street for a meeting.
Rotondo announced he was selling Legends, which he bought from John Morris in 1988 and which has been one of the most popular sports bars in Southern California since Morris and one-time Los Angeles Ram football star Dennis Harrah opened it in December of 1979.
He said the prospective new owner is Eric Johnson, a 1992 Wilson, a co-owner of the Auld Dubliner on Pine Avenue as well as six other Irish pubs bearing the same name.
In fact, it turns out that it has been Morris who has been the driving force behind the transaction and is responsible for bringing Johnson into it.
“Obviously, Legends always has remained a sacred part of my heart,” he said. “It was my entire life for a long time. I’m glad I’m returning home.”
Legends was destroyed by fire in June of 2005, and remained nothing more than a burned-out shell for more than a year as Rotondo attempted to come up with the immense capital needed to rebuild it.
For a time, it seemed he mightbe unsuccessful in such a quest, but the 62-year-old, finally came up with enough investors to start the $2 million renovation.
And Rotondo reopened Legends in early December of 2007 in time for the Belmont Shore Christmas Parade.
The place was not only more modern and open than its predecessor with a new VIP second floor, but it also has turned out to be busier.
“I really never expected that,” said Rotondo. “I was concerned people might have forgotten us, and moved on. But that hasn’t been the case. A new generation of people has started coming here, and we couldn’t be happier about the business.”
Of course, it helped that he has stocked the new building with all sorts of new TVs, including a massive one with a 27-foot screen that dominates the downstairs area.
“It’s the largest commercial high definition, non-theatrical big screen in America,” says Rotondo, whose place also has six 3-D TVs in the balcony.
The return of John Morris to his ancestral tavern roots is an interesting, if not surprising turn of events.
The restaurant pioneer of Pine Avenue — he opened Mum’s there in 1986 when he still was involved with Legends — shuttered Smooth’s last year and has been overseeing the proceedings at McKenna’s on the Bay the past several months.
Morris says he will retain his duties at McKenna’s, but became intrigued by the prospect of going back to Legends when he discovered that Rotondo was considering selling it.
Actually, it was John Morris who came up with the Legends concept back in 1977. He presented the idea to his friend Harrah, who put up a lot of the initial money.
Legends certainly wasn’t the first prosperous sports bar in Southern California, but what set it apart from the others was the technological trailblazing of Morris.
Morris installed a bunch of TV satellites on Legends’ roof that were able to transmit all the football, basketball, baseball and hockey games from around the country to his customers, many of whom were sports fanatics.
“We were way ahead of our time in that respect,” says Morris. That was before major league baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL had secured pay-per-view packages with DirecTV, and other companies.
Married with three young children — two girls and a boy — the 38-year-old Johnson opened Auld Dubliner in 2004 with partner David Copley, and the two have opened other ones in Tustin, Orange, Squaw Valley, Lake Las Vegas, Mammoth and Tucson.
“I grew up in the area, and used to go to Legends a lot of with my parents,” says Johnson. “I remember what a thrill it was for me to once meet Vince Ferragamo and some other Ram players there.”
Morris and Johnson said they didn’t plan to institute any major changes, although they said there would be some “fine tuning.”
“Everyone does things a little differently,” said Morris, back in the vortex of restaurant action after a period of inactivity following his departure from Pine Ave.
Gene Rotondo says he will depart Legends with mixed emotions. “When you spend 70 hours a week working in a place for many years, you obviously make a lot of friends,” he said. “We’ve been like one big family here at Legends, and I’m going to miss a lot of people. But it’s time for me to move on. I just got tired of fighting the battles at City Hall.”
Posted By Kristin 6/8/11