Willie Grandison went to bartending school in the late 1950s, but what has made him the most iconic working bartender in Kansas City isn't something he could have learned in class.
"If you want to be a bartender, you've got to start by working in a bar," says Grandison, the 76-year-old master barkeep who has been a fixture at the upstairs bar of the American Restaurant for the past four decades.
"When I started out, I was called a bar porter. They're called barbacks now. You're there to assist the bartenders. And if the bar gets really busy, you jump in and help."
Grandison has come a long, long way from that first porter position - at the long-razed Famous Bar, on 12th Street - to head bartender at the American. But after a half-century in the cocktail-making business, he says he's ready to throw in the bar towel.
"I have been working all of my life, since I started sacking groceries at age 15. I've never been without a job, never collected unemployment. I raised five kids and almost always worked two jobs. It's time for me to rest. I just wanted to quit. The bar business ain't what it used to be."
Indeed it isn't. For one thing, we're living in a craft-cocktail era that has made stars of an inventive handful of mixologists. One such celebrant is Paige Unger, who is moving into the American's spotlight as Grandison steps aside. Unger, formerly of Extra Virgin, won last year's Paris of the Plains contest and also took top prize at the 2013 Speed Rack Midwest.
"Paige is very nice, but we're from two different schools of bartending," Grandison says.
His is the old school, the kind that poured a lot of fancy cocktails at a lot of swanky venues. "I left the Famous Bar to work at the Colony Steakhouse, which was in its heyday, back when Marilyn Maye was the headliner and the place was wall-to-wall people," Grandison tells me. "But the owner, Ralph Gaines, was difficult to work with. When I got the chance to move to Putsch's 210, after eight months, I took it. I worked at Putsch's 210 for 18 years, back when it was the restaurant in Kansas City. Before the American opened, it was the nicest place to eat in town."
That's saying something, but he's right - and it might also have been the town's definitive watering hole. "In those days, people drank cocktails or hard liquor," Grandison says. "No one wanted wine. We had a bottle of house wine at the bar, but the only request we ever had for it was from the kitchen, when they needed wine for a recipe."
Grandison says the shift to wine from cocktails - the old-school kind, you know - happened in the 1980s, about the time when Putsch's 210 closed and he moved to the American Restaurant full time. (For nine years, Grandison had worked days at Putsch's 210 and nights at the American.)
"I've worked two jobs for most of my life," he says. "My father died when I was just a kid. I hardly knew him. My brother Robert and I went to work early on."
Robert Grandison was living in Kansas City in the 1950s, working for Tastee Bread, when Willie left his hometown of Franklin, Louisiana, to visit. His brief vacation here turned into a career. "I hadn't planned to move to Kansas City, but I came here, liked it and decided to stay."
Grandison credits another legendary barkeep, Roy Parker, head bartender at the Colony Steakhouse, with teaching him how to live a life behind the bar.
"He was the greatest old-school bartender," Grandison says. "He showed me how to interact with your customers. You take care of them, but you don't fuss too much. You talk to your customers, but you don't say too much. He was an artist behind the bar."
Those are the very qualities, says Jamie Jamison, the American's general manager, that Grandison brought to Crown Center's signature restaurant from his first day, back in 1974.
"Willie understands the meaning of creating that sense of hospitality," Jamison says. "And he has an earnest desire to make his patrons feel happy and comfortable."
Grandison's clientele is a happy and comfortable bunch, except when it comes to watching their barman leave his post.
"They want me to move to a restaurant on the Country Club Plaza," he says. "I don't know about that. I've worked an awfully long time. I'd like some time for me."
After 50 years behind the bar, Grandison says he can mix just about any cocktail. "But blended cocktails are my favorite," he says. "The Tumbleweed, the Grasshopper, the Brandy Alexander. And I do mean blended, not shaken. I use a blender."
Now that's old-school. And he knows it. "We don't get much call for them as we did in the old days, but every so often, I've got that blender whirring. And when you pour them into a glass, they are things of beauty."