Tall Order

Robert “Big Bob” LeBrun has been a bouncer in the South Bay for more than 35 years.

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    Peter Madden

When did people start calling you Big Bob?

I got the nickname when I was playing professional basketball in Europe. I moved there after college and played overseas for the next seven years. When I got there, I spoke three words: oui, non and sacre bleu. But I saw Western Europe, Eastern Europe, China … I even played in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Getting paid to play basketball and see Europe was the best thing in the world.

What brought you to the South Bay? How did you start bouncing?

I grew up in San Diego, and my brother was living in Venice. When I got back to California, I needed something to do, so I started bouncing. I think I was uniquely suited for the job—I’m really big, I’m really good with people, and I enjoy the work. A friend opened Café Boogaloo in Hermosa Beach. It was an incredible live blues music venue, so I got paid to sit there, hug and kiss girls at the door and listen to the greatest music in the world. And my wife put up with that! That’s the best part.

Tell me something that might surprise me about your work.

I just want people to have a good time. I like to think of myself as an “Ambience Director.” I have to make sure nobody screws up somebody else’s good time.
Everybody gets in those moods: something happened at work, something happened at home, but now you’re out having a drink, somebody bumps into you, and you just unload. People come to bars to unwind, but sometimes they unravel, and all of a sudden they’re MMA fighters.  My job is to stop that. 

Do you have to be big to be a bouncer? Are you always ready to fight?

Being big helps, makes people pay attention. But it’s not about fighting. I hate fighting. If I have to fight, I’ve lost. I couldn’t outthink a drunk person. As I’ve matured and refined my art, I’ve learned to talk people out of being stupid.
Like this: “Are you crazy? Did you look at me? I’m not the baddest guy in the world, but I’m pretty good. You’re gonna get hurt. Police are gonna come. You’re gonna go to jail. Do you really wanna do that? Is this really necessary? Let’s not do this dance.”
And that usually works, because it’s just a stupid argument over a stool, over a pool table, over bumping into somebody’s girlfriend. Being big gets them to stop and listen, and that’s all you need. I’m also a substitute schoolteacher for elementary kids, and it’s the same skill set. Get their attention and try to get in as much information as you can.

What was the roughest place you ever worked?

I used to work at a place called The Grist Mill in Northern California. Hells Angels would come in. My policy was gang colors at the door. Everyone goes in and has a good time. Pick up your colors on the way out.
One night, a real wild dude named Crazy Pete comes in. This cat— you could see in his eyes that he had a different deck. I saw him pick up a piano once and get ready to throw it. Not a keyboard. A full-size piano. He was bad. And he didn’t want to take off his colors.
And I said, “Listen, Pete. It’s not gonna work. Either you take it off, or you don’t go in. Here’s another option: we can fight. You’re a big guy, but I’m a big guy too. Is this really worth it?”
And I’m shaking a little bit, thinking that this could be a seminal point in my life. I’m looking him in the eye, and he’s looking at me.
He just kinda grins and says, “That makes good sense.” He took off his colors, handed them to me and went inside.

Does it surprise you that you’ve become a recognizable face around the South Bay—because of your size and your seat at the door?

My wife likes to tell people that there’s nowhere in the world we can go where I won’t bump into someone I know. I’ve had the opportunity to work in several great places for long periods of time (Santa Monica for seven years, Venice for five years, Hermosa for 13), and I’ve met a lot of great people through that.
I had a heart attack 10 years ago, had surgery, was in the hospital for a while, and the community really came out for me. I had no money coming in, so they did a benefit to raise money at Café Boogaloo. People were so generous. It blew me away. I’ll never forget it. It’s a great community.

If you kick me out of a bar, what can I say to you to help me get back in?

Nothing. I’ve been sweet-talked by experts. It’s over. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll be best friends again, but for now, you’re done.