An acquaintance from one of the studios called with the hot news on the 13-week-old Writers Guild strike. The war, she said, had moved from the studios and networks to the venerable Studio City noshery , Art's Deli.
The always-unpretentious Art's is hardly a secret in an industry that takes its noshing seriously. (Probably more deals are done noshing than anytime else.) And for breakfast or lunch, Art's is a favored spot among writers, producers and studio executives. It has a lot of that old Schwab magic.
But the news was depressed. Art, she said, had decreased his June order of pastrami. In one week alone it had been down by 450 pounds.
"And that says nothing of the corned beef, smoked turkey, wurst, bagels, cream sodas and pickles," she added.
It's tough to grasp the full significance and ramifications of this news. Just how many fewer sandwiches were eaten and by whom at the deli? Who was abstaining? Were people eating at home? Were they starving in some seedy alley? Down and out in Beverly Hills and all around?
I was told emphatically by an idle writer, "The bottom line is that you don't have to make reservations anywhere ."
That claim seemed highly suspect. "No, it is absolutely true," affirmed a studio executive. "It's the only good news I can think of coming out of the writer's strike."
Still, there are a lot of restaurants from Chasen's to Canter's that seem to exist for the primary purpose of conducting movie deals. The underlying message: No deals, no meals.
The testimony on a survey conducted around town was staggering:
Five empty tables at the usually overstuffed Morton's last Tuesday.
Someone actually walked into La Scala at lunchtime without a reservation and immediately got a table!
The celebrated debutante-turned-hopeful-actress Cornelia Guest was seated in a favorable spot at Musso & Frank's. Even with an increasing number of tourists, Musso's, the Ivy and the rest weren't doing their usual capacity business.
"There's good news and bad news," explained a producer from his studio office. "Two weeks ago they took my expense account away and let go of one of my secretaries. On the bright side, I called down to the commissary to order lunch the other day and it arrived in 10 minutes. Normally it takes at least 40."
Images of Hollywood as a ghost town began to dance in the head.
At Universal, which generally has more than 2,000 Teamsters on the lot for its assorted productions, the number had dwindled to seven--all working on the same movie. Where had the others gone? Was there a sympathetic picket line composed of union technicians marching somewhere that had gone unreported?
Another writer said he didn't know of a single colleague who could afford to take even a modest vacation over the Memorial Day weekend. He'd spent his at the Beverly Center where parking spots were plentiful and you could actually find a salesperson.
"Sure a lot of writers are hurting, but that's just the tip of the iceberg," said one frustrated scribbler. "I have close friends who are in real jeopardy of losing their homes, their cars, their credit cards. If it doesn't end soon, they'll also lose their minds. Writers, like most people, never really save money. They're best at acquiring things like mortgages and loan payments."
The news of the diminishing pastrami drained the color out of yet another writer's face.
"Right now, we're living on hope," he confirmed. "But if people aren't going to Art's, it's very bad--a sure sign of a prolonged fight. Art's, and I suppose a lot of other places, serve as a place where you can mix business with pleasure. When that stops, things can turn real ugly."
Art Ginsberg, the Art of Art's for the past 31 years, was more sanguine about the implications: "If you feed people well, they're generally happy," he offered.
He estimated that he's feeding 10% to 15% fewer writers, directors, agents, actors and technicians. And as far as the report of 450 pounds less pastrami a week, that's a bit of an exaggeration. He said the figure represents pastrami and corned beef combined.
"We're not only losing the restaurant business, we've got almost no catering. This is when most of the television shows go back to work. But there's no work, there are no weekly writer's meetings on the shows, there are no deals being negotiated at our tables."
His voiced cracked as he revealed the sad truth: "If the writers are working, they're out for lunch. Otherwise they just don't come around."