“I was recently referred to as a pioneer in this industry by some of these young kids,” says Liz Pounds. “I think that was a polite way of saying, ‘This one’s been around forever.’” Pounds, whose birth name is Liz Taylor (high school: lots of teasing), is perhaps the most veteran bartender in the Tulsa area. She’s been standing behind the city’s bars on and off since the early 1970s, with the exception of a decadelong detour to Los Angeles in the ’80s when she took a bartending job at Liza Minnelli’s restaurant in Venice Beach. In 2017, one website called her “as close as Tulsa comes to a celebrity bartender.” People have been known to follow her from gig to gig, in pursuit of her signature drink, the French Martini, a vodka and Lillet mixture taught to her by a Frenchman named Marcel Berloux in the early 1990s. (No apparent relation to the more famous drink by that name featuring vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice.)
Pounds has been around long enough to remember when Oklahoma bartenders were still not allowed to sell “liquor by the drink” (the general term for laws that enable restaurants and bars to sell individual drinks) and would call one another to warn of coming visits from undercover authorities. (Oklahoma did not repeal Prohibition until 1959, some 26 years after the Cullen–Harrison Act.) And she’s stayed on long enough to witness firsthand the arrival in Tulsa of the cocktail renaissance, soaking up the new knowledge accordingly.
You wouldn’t tag her for a bartender on first sight. Diminutive and bespectacled, she looks more like a piano teacher. (As she once was. She also taught flute, and still plays flute and piccolo in the Tulsa Community Band.) But don’t underestimate her. Pounds knows how to handle a problem customer. Once, when a regular was bellyaching a little too much, she took his Manhattan and transferred it to a baby bottle she happened to have on hand. She returned it to him, with the message that he could have the glass back when he stopped his complaining. “We both laughed,” recalls Pounds, “and he drank the Manhattan from the baby bottle.”
How did you first get into bartending?
It was 1973 and I had filled out some applications. I wanted to become an airline stewardess; I wanted to travel. I was trying to get into the Peace Corps. Anything to get out of Tulsa. And all my friends had gone to work at this place called the Nine of Cups. In the 1970s, there weren’t a lot of restaurants in Tulsa. There wasn’t a lot going on in the hospitality business. It started out as a health food restaurant. It was a bunch of hippies. I had never been in the restaurant business. I went there to apply as hostess, and my interview entailed, “What time of day were you born and what month, because we’re going to do your astrology chart.” I started as a hostess, then went to waitress, then they said, “Do you want to bartend?” The guy who taught me how to bartend was an Irishman from Connecticut, Callie O’Keefe. He taught me 10 standard drinks. I started making cash money. Then I started hearing back from airlines and said, “Screw that.”
It was that fun a place?
It was sex, drugs and rock and roll; I’m not going to kid around. It was a wild place. We’d shut the doors and party till the morning.
How long were you there?
I moved to L.A. with a musician. But, you know, people move to L.A. to break up.
Did you bartend in Los Angeles?
Yes. I worked at 72 Market Street, the Venice Beach restaurant. It was owned by Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and Tony Bill. Dudley stumbled in all the time. He was Arthur. That part was written for him. He was kind of known as a drunk. But he was a wonderful man. There was a grand piano in the dining room. It was his. He played for me, when I left, at the going-away party.
Did you have any memorable celebrity encounters in LA?
This guy came in. He had on a seersucker suit and said, “I’ll have a Stoli and grapefruit.” I give him the drink. I asked [a coworker], “Who’s the good-looking guy over there?” The bartender goes, “What? You don’t know who that is? That’s Bruce Willis.” Later, he comes over again and says, “Don’t hit me so hard on this next one.” I coached Lesley Ann Warren to bartend in a film called Choose Me in 1984. She had to learn how to pour a Guinness stout with 3 inches of head and a shot of vodka. I was an extra in one of the bar scenes, also.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
Somebody who could read people. Somebody who’s good with people, who can take crap from people. We don’t have to take as much crap today as we used to. You have to have some pretty big people skills to be a bartender. You have to enjoy what you’re doing.
What advice would you give a young person just getting into the business?
Learn as much as you can about spirits, wine and beer. And be sure you can handle talking to people. The last couple people I trained, I told, “I’m going to teach you how to teach yourself. Because I’m not going to be around you all the time. You need wings to fly away.”