Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Trip We Didn't Take to San Francisco

We are supposed to be vacationing in San Francisco with friends this weekend. But after spending three days in Sacramento earlier in the week, plus the ridiculous new regulations limiting what can be carried onto airplanes, we decided to just stay home. Instead, we’re doing “LA” things, like attending a fundraiser for the Culver City Democratic Club (last night) and going to an Angels game (tomorrow). Heaven forbid we should waste an entire weekend just sitting at home relaxing like normal people.

Tim and I love Los Angeles. We especially love the history and architecture of the city. When the two intersect, we are in our glory. No surprise, then, that we found ourselves heading east at nine in the morning to attend a tribute to the Brown Derby restaurants, which have all been either demolished or transformed into other businesses. The event, sponsored by the Southern California Restaurant Historical Society, was held at Louise’s Trattoria in the Los Feliz district. Louise’s is the last Brown Derby to remain relatively in tact despite recent efforts to raze it in order to make way for “much needed” condos (boo! hiss!). We had hooked up with the restaurant group at the huge Wilshire Blvd. centennial celebration last year and attended their first meeting a few months ago at the Hollywood Heritage Museum on Highland Ave. We had a great time and so were glad to be able to participate in today’s Brown Derby event, which we discovered after canceling our trip to SF.

The Brown Derby was perhaps one of the most recognizable of Los Angeles’s many icons in the early twentieth century. In particular, the Wilshire Blvd. Derby, shaped like a man’s hat, was the most famous and was featured in many movies and TV shows (see the 1947 photo above). Sadly, it was all but destroyed in the 1970s when a developer bought the corner where it sat to build yet another ubiquitous strip mall. After much negotiation, he perched the round part of the “hat” at the back of the shops, where it pathetically sits today, but the restaurant is no more.

An even worse fate awaited the Hollywood Brown Derby, located on Vine and Selma. After many years of neglect, it finally burned down in the late 1970s and was eventually demolished to create a parking lot. The Hollywood Derby is probably best known as the setting for Lucy Ricardo’s infamous encounter with William Holden in one of the most memorable episodes of “I Love Lucy.” The hallmark of the Vine Street Derby was its black-and-white caricatures of Hollywood’s most notable celebrities. Luckily, as we learned today, they survive as part of someone’s private collection.

There was also a Brown Derby in Beverly Hills; but the only one that still exists as a restaurant is The Derby nightclub, adjacent to Louise’s Trattoria on Franklin and Los Feliz. The Derby has become a favorite of young swing dancers and was featured prominently at the end of the 1996 cult hit movie “Swingers.”

Today’s festivities began at 10AM. We arrived a little early so we could snag a couple of seats. We even found an excellent parking spot behind the restaurant, but were taken quite by surprise when a parking attendant suddenly appeared, demanding four dollars. “It’s not even 10 o’clock!” Tim exclaimed. The attendant just shrugged his shoulders and pocketed the cash. Ah, life in LA.

The Derby is located at the back of Louise’s, atop a short flight of stairs. While Tim signed us in, I moseyed onto the dance floor under the rounded part of the “hat.” Interestingly, the Los Feliz Brown Derby originally started out as something else altogether before becoming The Car Cafe, the only drive-up Derby, in 1941. The exposed beams holding up the domed part of the hat remain in good shape, possibly because little light gets into the room even during the day. The other half of the club is the old banquet room, which was added to the Brown Derby in the 1950s. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz hosted a party there the night the William Holden episode of “I Love Lucy” aired in 1955. Apparently, the banquet room was quite the celebrity hangout back in the day.

The place was almost completely full by the time we made our way inside. Tim recognized the creators of a couple of LA-based blogs he reads every day. We also spotted pop historians Charles Phoenix and Kevin Roderick. Chris Nichols, the organizer of the restaurant group and past-president of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, was there, too. Chris always dresses in period clothing and today was no exception, wearing a bow-tie and red jacket, topped off (of course!) by a brown derby.

The speakers included: Mark Willems, author of the book “The Brown Derby: A Hollywood Legend,” which is now out-of-print and apparently worth a small fortune (we own it!); Rebecca Goodman, organizer of the Save the Derby Coalition, who described her group’s efforts to save the Los Feliz site; and Jack Lane, author and artist who drew the caricatures that once decorated the walls of the Hollywood Derby. Radio personality Gary Owens, whom Tim noticed immediately, was also there and said a few words about being a longtime Derby customer. We then watched a string of short clips shot inside the various Derbies. Everyone cheered loudly during the “I Love Lucy” segment, although we’ve probably all seen it a million times. Chris Nichols promised to distribute pieces of the famous Brown Derby grapefruit cake that someone had baked—and that I had begun to eye hungrily—but at that point Gary Owens took control of the microphone and began yet another story about his former celebrity friends. Owens may have been funny in the old “Laugh-In” days, but his anecdotes are now peppered with too many “I” and “me” statements and so we slunk out the side door.

We stopped at Dawson’s Bookstore—possibly the best source in the region for used books on LA—but couldn’t find anything we wanted that we didn’t already own and so headed home. Tim wanted to eat lunch at one of Culver City’s new trendy restaurants; but I insisted on our own culinary icon, Dinah’s Diner, located on Sepulveda two miles north of LAX. Although not as distinctive as the Brown Derby, Dinah’s is famous in its own right, unexpectedly showing up in all kinds of commercials and TV shows. Her fried chicken—arguably the best in west LA—was even featured in the new movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” which is supposed to be set in New Mexico—but we knew better!


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