Duane Buckley, commander at the American Legion Post 826 in Woodland Hills, shows off the entrance area.
Duane Buckley, commander at the American Legion Post 826 in Woodland Hills, shows off the entrance area. (David Crane/Staff Photographer)
American Legion Post 826 is getting a makeover.

Its Woodland Hills hall, which hasn't really been fixed up since Ronald Reagan and other celebrities attended the grand opening in 1953, is being spruced up by an unlikely benefactor: Antonio Mystic Bellissimo, director of the Peaceful Heart Society.

"I came in to rent the hall for my dance-yoga class on Oct. 17," recalled Bellissimo, a 68-year-old Italian immigrant who's lived in the area since 1975. "I started looking around here and realized that this place needed some TLC."

The owner of the former Cafe Bellissimo restaurant in Woodland Hills, Bellissimo offered to not only do some work on the place, but he gave the post's commander, Duane C. Buckley, a flurry of ideas about what could be done with the facility.

"He offered to help me promote some of our events," said Buckley, 70, an Air Force veteran who later worked at Douglas Aircraft and Rocketdyne. "We started doing some things together and then I decided, This is the man! So I asked him if he would mind taking over all the responsibilities for renting the hall out, and he agreed to that."

With an occasional helper, Bellissimo dove into improving the property.

"I started scrubbing the floor, and with another guy scrubbed it for three days. I put lights up, other decorations, painted the walls ... I'm still not done."

Indeed, plans are afoot to improve the patio - which was strewn with trash when Bellissimo arrived - and build a stage in the main room. Bellissimo's already trimmed the foliage that obscured the Fallbrook Avenue building's entrance and strung red, white and blue lights outside.

"You couldn't even see it after dark before," Bellissimo said.

So far, Bellissimo estimates that he's spent about $5,000 on improvements and promoting both the hall's regular events - which include his own Wednesday night yoga-dancing classes - and the place as a rental space for weddings, quinceañeras, birthdays and the like.

It's a tax deduction, of course - American Legion is a nonprofit organization - but Bellissimo has deeper motivations.

"I'm not in it to make a profit," he said. "I just want to make the world a little better place. I want people to come to a place, like they used to do at my restaurant, and forget about their troubles for a couple of hours and have some fun."

Along with such already established programs as a live big band dance the first Saturday of each month, there are plans for a regular Friday night live-music-and-Sicilian-food (Bellissimo's cooking) event starting Dec. 7 and a big 60th birthday bash for the post on Dec. 15. Like all of the events the Legion puts on, they'll be open to the public.

"You don't have to be a veteran to come here," Buckley emphasized.

"We hope to get the hall visible to the community," Buckley continued. "Antonio's doing this for what he likes to do, which is to create the atmosphere for the community to enjoy. I'm doing it so I can get 'em in here to see what the veterans do. When they come, they get to see our Wall of Honor and other things, and we get to give them our website so that they can see that we support a Boy Scout troop, a church, American Legion Baseball, school oratorical groups.

"It's a good collaboration."

And one you might not expect to form between a group of war veterans and a man who says "My thing is to create peace, unity and love throughout the world.

"This is called balance," Bellissimo added with a hearty laugh. "I said OK, I'm going to tangle with these guys and see what happens."

"I have a peaceful heart, too!" Buckley piped up in mock protest.

"Yeah, this guy's got a beautiful heart inside," Bellissimo agreed.

To find out more about American Legion Post 826 and hall rentals go to www.post826calegion.org. For information on Bellissimo's organization, go to peacefulheartsociety.com.


bob.strauss@dailynews.com
818-713-3670
twitter.com/bscritic