In the 1980’s, the highly successful television sitcom, Cheers, opened its show with an immediately recognizable theme song about the neighborhood bar, “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see, the troubles are all the same, you wanna be where everybody knows your name.” For every city, town, and hometown in America, there lies a watering hole, bar, or restaurant that fits the Cheers theme song perfectly and in Westchester, that establishment is undeniably Tower Pizza.
This local hangout has been a mainstay of the Westchester/LAX/Playa del Rey community for more than three decades. The wide and diverse crowd found at this restaurant/bar at any given time includes a host of locals, families looking for a night off from the kitchen, LMU faculty, staff, students and alumni, and kids of all ages celebrating the latest win on the field or court. I caught up with Tony Seruto, Tower Pizza’s proprietor, shortly after completion of a mural by Jonas Never honoring Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble at Tower’s back entrance.
How did Tower Pizza come about?
Seruto: Tower Pizza sits on the site of a former bar called Jack’s Tavern and when it became available, I was approached by a friend to help manage a new restaurant enterprise. At the time, I wasn’t interested because I was already doing just that for another restaurant. However, I was interested in running my own restaurant so I made a deal with my friend and came in with my father-in-law who was a general contractor. We gutted the place, added a kitchen, and then added the restaurant. I wanted to be the first pizza delivery place in Westchester. I saw the market potential because no one was doing it. Since Jack’s Tavern was already a bar, I left the bar where it sits today thinking I would also have a sports bar since there were no sports bars in the area.
How did your relationship with LMU Athletics begin?
Seruto: One of my first customers was Brian Quinn (LMU Athletic Director from 1985 to 1998). He came in one morning when I was setting up before we opened and we started talking. He said he liked what I did to the place and that he would send some business my way. Brian said he would be back with some coaches and staff because he wanted them to see the place. Eventually, basketball head coach Paul Westhead came in with his assistants and baseball head coach Dave Snow brought his kids with him. One thing led to another and I started catering for the athletic teams and summer campers. We then began a long-term relationship where I supported the athletic programs and have ever since. Over the years, I have gotten to know many of the LMU departments, faculty, and staff and developed strong relationships as a result.
Has Tower Pizza changed over the years?
Seruto: I’m not sure that we’ve changed much. We still focus on maintaining a family environment where people feel comfortable bringing their kids in for lunch or dinner. My philosophy hasn’t changed at all. It’s about treating people well and making them feel welcome and it will always be that way. I’m certainly getting older and new bars are coming in and they have partners and financial backers and all that, but I’m still a family-run business with a niche and they can’t take that away from me. Tower Pizza will always be a LMU place.
What was Tower Pizza like when the basketball team played?
Seruto: My goodness, this place was packed. Back then I had one little TV over the bar and another larger television tucked into one corner towards the entrance. At the time, we were the only sports bar around and when the LMU basketball team was playing and scoring all those points, it was a lot of fun. Those years and that final year in my mind, remain some of the greatest events that ever happened in the city of Los Angeles. It was magical when those teams went on a tear, and it’s the reason why I have all these sports memorabilia.
Describe what you mean when you say that the time period was magical?
Seruto: You have to understand that in that period, Los Angeles sports was at its peak. The Dodgers were in the World Series and we watched Kirk Gibson hit his home run to win the game over the Oakland A’s, marking the turning point in the Series. The Lakers were doing their thing for so many years winning title after title. However, nothing tops the run that LMU made on its way to the Elite Eight. I mean 60 Minutes was in here filming when LMU was beating Michigan and everyone was going crazy. They filmed all of that right here at Tower. There was so much emotion. For me, that was the greatest moment in the 30 years that I’ve been in business. No one gave LMU a chance after losing its star player. Then things started to happen – Bo shooting his free throws left-handed and Fryer hitting 3s from everywhere. All of a sudden LMU wins the game and it is on virtually every national newscast. The LMU basketball team from right here in Westchester had the entire nation rooting for them and became America’s Team. Nothing was as electric as that moment and it remains the greatest sports accomplishment in this community.
Has any of the team come back to Tower Pizza?
Seruto: I see Jeff Fryer when he comes back to games on campus. He always stops by and I also see Brian Quinn fairly regularly. When the 1989-90 Team was inducted into the LMU Athletics Hall of Fame, the team visited to celebrate afterwards. Hank’s mother, Lucille, came in and saw a photograph on the wall that she didn’t have and she took a picture of it. I’m looking forward to seeing Terrell Lowery again when he is back in town for his induction into the Hall of Fame in February 2017.
You recently completed a mural of Hank and Bo on the wall of your back entrance. How did that come about?
Seruto: A friend of mine, Mike Mininsky, told me about an artist named Jonas Never, who was interested in creating a mural at Tower Pizza as a tribute to Hank after seeing Hank’s jersey on the wall. I did some research on Jonas and found out that he is a very talented artist with incredible artwork throughout Los Angeles. Initially, Jonas wanted to do a mural in the restaurant but simply looking around at our layout and sports memorabilia throughout the bar, there simply was no room for such a project. I told him I would give it some thought. I called him back and said ‘Let’s do the entire back wall in the alley.’ I thought the back wall lent itself to Jonas’ style as a muralist.
Never: I’ve always wanted to do a mural of Hank but was looking for an opportunity that was site specific and made sense in the neighborhood. Much of my work explores areas where perhaps things or people may have been forgotten. I research things that were once a big part of a particular area hoping that through my work people might reminisce or start talking about those things again. My projects are for the people who were there at the time of the event, or have stayed in the neighborhood and are able to appreciate those seminal moments. Every time I had worked on a mural in Westchester, I’ve been inspired to do a mural of Hank and Bo, and have been on the lookout for the perfect spot to do so. Recently, while I was doing a mural for the new bowling establishment down the street, Bowlero, I had lunch with my friend Mike Mininsky at Tower Pizza. We sat in a booth directly beneath a framed Hank Gathers jersey. I told Mike that I was a former ball boy for the LMU basketball team when Hank played, had attended summer camps with Coach Westhead as a youngster, and was always interested in doing a mural of Hank and Bo but had not yet found an opportunity or appropriate location in the community. During our lunch and while sitting under Hank’s jersey, it dawned on me that Tower Pizza was the perfect place for the project. I had been coming to Tower Pizza since I was a kid. My dad used to take me there after games to grab a slice of pizza. The project and inspiration became very clear to me at that moment, so it was sort of serendipitous.
What was the inspiration for your work and the project?
Never: For me, I was reminded of Hank by the recent passing of baseball pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins when his teammate, Dee Gordon, hit a home run wearing Fernandez’s batting helmet in the team’s first at bat after his death. It was such an emotional event for Gordon and brought back memories of Bo Kimble shooting his first free-throw left-handed in honor of Gathers. That was such a cool thing and that experience was just a big part of my past. That team was one of the original examples of a Cinderella story. I also remember watching LMU beat U.S. International University at Gersten Pavilion by the ridiculous score of 181-150 (1/31/1989), long before any high powered offenses came to prominence. It was great to see a small school like LMU, which at the time was only known in the West Los Angeles area, grow into a national media phenomenon. As a result, I wanted to commemorate that passion and remember how everyone rallied around that team and the LMU community.
The mural includes the quote, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” Does the quote have a special meaning for you?
Never: I tried to find a quote about Hank or from Hank’s era that resonated. However, I couldn’t find a solid quote that captured the sentiment of that team or era. The quote on the mural is from Babe Ruth and has been repeated in movies such as The Sandlot. I think the quote fits what they did on and off the court and how they should be remembered.
How much time and effort was involved in the project?
Seruto: I was confident that Jonas would do a great job. There was never a question whether I was going to accept. It was a great idea. I asked Jonas how much the job would cost. He said it would not cost me a penny. He wanted to do it because it was a special time in his life and that Hank’s memory should live on in this city and that Tower Pizza was just the place to do it.
Never: Tony is such a great part of the community and has been a pillar of Westchester since the mid-1980s. It was something I wanted to do and I didn’t want anyone to have to pay for it. I wanted to donate my time. Tony is a great guy and Tower Pizza, in my opinion, is a landmark institution in Westchester. When I select a project and site, I specifically look for locations that link the community to the subject matter and for the project to have meaning. For this project, it worked out perfectly. There was no better place than Tower Pizza. I remember this place as a kid being an LMU place where everyone came together to watch the Lions play.
How long did the project take?
Never: The project took about 4 days from start to finish. I began on Monday (10/24) and though we had rain days for two days this week, we were still able to complete the project very quickly by Friday afternoon. Tony is planning on adding lights to the mural to keep it lit until the place closes each night.
Though it’s been more than 25 years since LMU made its “magical” run to the Elite Eight in the 1990 NCAA Tournament, it is amazing to me that those memories and experiences still resonate today through the work and commitment of many individuals like the Seruto Family, Tower Pizza, and artist Jonas Never. I sincerely hope that Never’s work of art helps keep the spirit of the 1989-90 LMU Men’s Basketball Team alive and in the forefront of our memories, and inspires us to dream the impossible while never forgetting our important history. For Hank and rest of the 1989-90 squad, they have nothing to worry about because Seruto and Never took one giant step to ensure that “everybody knows your name.”
About Tony Seruto: Seruto has worked in the restaurant business since the age of 16 and opened Tower Pizza in 1985. For more than 31 years, Seruto has served the Westchester community and has been an active and loyal supporter of LMU Athletics as well as numerous local youth sports programs. Seruto and his wife Joanne have been married for 36 years and have three adult children – Nicole, Danielle, and Joseph, and four grandchildren – Abby (10), Charlotte (6), Samantha (3), and Jonathan (2).
About Jonas Never: Never is a highly accomplished and talented muralist and has painted numerous amazing works of art throughout the country, particularly in the Greater Los Angeles area. Never is a graduate of Santa Monica High School and was an aspiring baseball player for the University of Connecticut, UC Riverside and in the minor leagues before a shoulder injury curtailed his promising athletic career. For more information on Never’s work, please visit www.cult-classics.com. Here is a video background of Jonas Never.
Instagram and Twitter: Never1959