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Unmasking Masquers: End of a Landmark? : Hollywood Club for Entertainers Faces Demolition of Its 58-Year-Old Hangout

April 25, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Tony Caruso growled opening lines from what has become his saddest, heaviest, least entertaining role . . . as undertaker president of the Masquers and a closing act: almost certain demolition of its 58-year-old Hollywood hangout.

"Look, supposing we find a fairy godfather with $500,000 to give us, yes, give us for the building. We could pay off all our debts of around $350,000. We could bring plumbing and wiring up to code, refurbish the roof, new drapes, get everything spic and span and keep going . . . until the money runs out again.

"Because money won't solve the parking problem. It won't change this chain-and-dagger neighborhood we're in. And we just don't have enough members who come in and (financially) support us. So one more time (donation) isn't going to save us. This would still be a hand-to-mouth operation."

Downstairs at the Masquers, in a basement pub built and donated by the late Alan Mowbray (who even later has been accused of haunting the place), a young guitarist strummed for the empty bar and salvation of the landmark building.

An Aborted Marathon

He was 14 hours into what eventually would be aborted as a short-distance, virtually unattended marathon. The guitarist was followed by a mediocre piano player, an unknown comedian selling jewelry on the side, a poetry reader and Walter Koenig (the token Russian of "Star Trek" and the spaceship Enterprise) in support of Artists to Save the Masquers.

"Those kids downstairs?" Caruso snorted. "All they hear is the walls talking. All they know is the nostalgia, the good old days and please, don't tear down this place."

A long-legged preservationist stalked past Caruso trailing press releases. His conversation was a well-prepared mutter against governments and developers who destroy Hollywood's heritage.

"Ask him if he has a dollar in his pocket," Caruso grunted. He spoke to the man's retreating back. "Come up with $500,000, and I'll talk to you." Added Caruso: "This place has had it. In its time it was very successful and a fascinating place. But it has had its time."

Therefore, today there will be a moving sale of just about anything that can be moved from the Masquers' two-story California Tudor at 1765 N. Sycamore. Geographically, that's half a block above Hollywood Boulevard. Historically, it was the private watering hole, crash pad, game room, betting shop, pool hall, lunch room, loan office and retreat for John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, John Gilbert, Frank Sinatra, Stan Laurel, Humphrey Bogart, Joe E. Brown, W. C. Fields, Lou Costello . . . all of them, including indestructible over-the-shoulder-heavy ("Go get 'em boys" . . . "OK, boss") Caruso.

Saturday there will be a wrap-party- cum- wake at the Masquers; hoist one for the past, one for the future and one for the road against a mahogany bar that has been bringing theatrical respectability to alcoholism since 1927 BC. Before Chablis. Because, as one member put it, "they (today's actors) just aren't into booze like we were."

Sunday that huge, barrel-bellied bar ("The usual, Mr. Keaton? And for you, Mr. Autry?) and its Henry Clive nude murals; the back bar and carvings; mirrors and irreplaceable memorabilia of the Masquers (less some pieces lost this week to vandals) will be dismantled and trucked to 940 S. Figueroa. That's the Variety Arts Center (itself the former Friday Morning Club), owned and operated by entrepreneur-magician Milt Larsen. His neatest trick to date has been making a new future appear for the Masquers. Larsen has donated his center's third floor and theater as the club's new home.

Tuesday a lengthy, nine-month escrow on the shabby building (originally the home of silent-screen star Antonio Moreno) will close and ownership will be transferred to Urban Pacific Development Corp. of Century City. Urban Pacific paid $475,000 for the property. It has plans to build a 50-unit apartment building on the site.

And then, one day within the next 14, bulldozers will move in and demolition balls will swing. The Masquers, or at least its physical shell and an undisputed chunk of show business, will be darkened by destruction.

Or will it?

For at the 11th hour before the last ditch approaching the final rites and death throes, the preservationists are organizing.

It is a small, belated, unfunded and somewhat fragmented effort. But as of Wednesday . . .

--Two organizations--Artists to Save the Masquers and Committee to Save the Masquers--have joined camps to consider any function, contact any individual or lobby any agency to stall demolition of the structure.

Various Efforts

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