For months, Ellyn White had been looking for the perfect site for romance.
She had driven up and down Ventura Boulevard between Tampa Avenue and Universal City hundreds of times, rejecting numerous choice locations, she said, because "nothing spoke to me." Finally, she spotted it: An old worn-out, gutted building with boarded-up windows and graffiti-sprayed walls.
"I knew the moment I saw it," the 49-year-old mother of four recalled recently. "It was the perfect place."
White saw not what it was, but a romantic vision of what could be.
Now decorated inside with soft peach walls, stained-glass windows and smoked-crystal lamps, her Pure Romance store in Sherman Oaks fancies itself the Cyrano de Bergerac of retail stores, offering clients a way to express their more amorous emotions. But instead of writing love letters for others as the play's protagonist did, the store helps arrange such special events as candlelight dinners in the mountains, elegantly catered picnics on yachts and moonlight helicopter flights over Malibu.
The store also offers a wide variety of retail items, such as hand-embroidered silk pillows, limited-edition lithographs, delicate porcelain statuettes, perfume and lingerie.
"I'm always looking for things that are more personal, that will make a statement about the feelings of the person who is giving," White said, running her hand lightly over a two-foot swan carved from a piece of driftwood.
"If you came in and said you wanted to do something special for someone, there would be no package to choose from," she said. "It's all individualized and personal, the way love and romance is supposed to be."
White runs Pure Romance with the business expertise of her husband, Don, and her 23-year-old son, Kevin Plassaert. Her son, she said, "is always out looking for perfect spots, and making certain that every detail is considered." If someone wanted a lavish picnic at the seashore with a violinist and waiter adding to the moment, she said, "It wouldn't be very romantic if there were transients there, asking for a quarter to buy coffee."
Although conceding that she is new to the business of romance, White says her background has prepared her for presenting people's emotions in the best possible light.
A former dancer and choreographer, White said she came to the United States from England when she was 18 to work with Olympic gold medalist Esther Williams. Later, she said, she and her first husband choreographed shows for Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elton John, among others.
"A choreographer presents other people's talents in a show, and it's similar here," White said, motioning in the direction of orchids, roses and tulips behind a glass case in the store. "I try to present what others are capable of expressing--after they've been given a helping hand."
Customers Confused Focus
When the store first opened for business last year, however, many people confused her focus on romance with another, frequently offered commodity.
"I got a lot of calls from people who thought we were selling sex and wanted to know if we provided an escort service," she said, laughing. "That's not what we're about."
Pure Romance frequently works with outside companies to help create affairs to remember. One such company is Heli L. A., based at Van Nuys Airport, which whisks couples off for a dinner for two somewhere in the mountains, or out over the ocean at sunset. The company also offers a "California Romance" package that is independent of Pure Romance.
Canoga Park resident Joe Patricca, who wanted to propose to his girlfriend, arranged with Pure Romance for a limousine to pick them up for dinner and later drive them to Van Nuys Airport for a helicopter ride over Malibu.
"The moon was shining off the ocean, and we were both laughing," he said. "Then I kissed her, and took the ring box out of my sock. I asked her to marry me, and she just started crying." And consented.
Pure Romance's clientele is equally mixed between men and women, White said. Also, not everyone who comes into the store has a lover or spouse in mind. One mother who wanted to do something special for her daughter's 12th birthday decided on a limousine trip for the girl and her friends to the Ice Capades. White said she also received a call from a man in Washington, who wanted to plan something special for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary.
As in life, sometimes there's a hitch to Pure Romance's special moments. White recalled one man who wanted to take his girlfriend on an old-fashioned horse-and-buggy ride to a picnic table that was set up on an island on Century Park Boulevard. Even when it rained, however, it failed to put a damper on the couple's feelings for each other. When he proposed, she said, "Yes."
"A lot of people feel very deeply, but it doesn't come out easily," White said. "In fact, I think that sometimes the people who don't say things are the ones who feel the most. And often, they tie up with people who need to hear it the most."
White lifted a pewter rose off her desk absently, then set it back down.
"If we can be an intermediary for them, it's wonderful because they don't have to say another word. There's no way to interpret any of it, except to mean: 'You're important to me. I care about you.' "