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Landmark Is Abandoned--Yet Again : Young Squatters Say Brown Derby Isn't a Safe Place to Live Anymore

July 11, 1992|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teen-age runaway Gary Coin was looking for a place to hang his hat when he found the Brown Derby.

The legendary Vine Street building looked inviting. The kitchen and dining room were long gone. Its electricity had been cut off. Most of the interior furnishings had been carted off. Its windows were boarded shut. It was perfect.

So four months ago, Coin, 17, peeled back the sheet of plywood nailed over the rear door and happily moved in.

On Friday, he gloomily moved out. The neighborhood, he complained, was going to the dogs.

"This is a neat place. But there are too many gangbangers," Coin said as other inhabitants of the 65-year-old building nodded in agreement.

Said 19-year-old Jennifer Brungardt: "The gangsters came in last night and beat one guy up. When I saw what they were doing, I ran back into my room and cried."

Second-floor rooms above the landmark dining room where Hollywood's elite had dined for 56 years served as home in recent months to about 25 young street people and runaways.

They rigged up a makeshift shower with a garden hose downstairs. They decorated the walls with their own poetry. They pooled their resources and dined on fast food together each night.

"We were like family here," said Dawn Catalano, 16.

"We \o7 were\f7 a family. I'm serious. We took care of each other," said Stevie Salmon, 22. "I felt safe until last week, when the street gangs started taking over.

"We've fallen in love with this place. You can feel the history here. Wow, we were staying right here where the stars came. We love this place. But it's not worth dying over."

David Jones, at 29 one of the older residents, pointed to the words "Est. 1929" painted over an interior doorway that once had served as the stars' automobile courtyard entryway.

"Lucille Ball filmed a movie scene right there," he said, pointing through the doorway. "She was filmed waving to Bob Hope. Clark Gable, all the big stars came here."

Jones said his family of squatters talked of approaching the building's owner and volunteering to help refurbish the place, perhaps turning it into a youth hostel. But they never got around to it.

"We could help rebuild it and show it off like it used to be, and give people living here a job at the same time," Jones said.

Plans are afoot to reopen the building as a restaurant, co-owner George Ullman Jr. said late Friday. His family purchased the building in 1985, after the restaurant closed.

Because the site is historic--"They say Cecil B. DeMille had his office there," Ullman said--the owners are working with the city's Community Redevelopment Agency before negotiating any leases.

"I've called the police about them (the youths) being in there I can't tell you how many times," Ullman explained. "I counted 30 people coming out of there 10 days ago. I'm planning to go in with the police on Monday and clean it out."

A police sweep may not be necessary. The Brown Derby may be empty again by then.

"I'm going home tonight to San Gabriel," said Catalano, who moved in May 10. "I've patched things up with my mother."

Brungardt and Coin piled their belongings into plastic trash bags and took one last look at the ornate, sky-lighted upstairs living room the group had shared.

"I'm sorry to leave. But I'm glad I'm going," Coin said.

"We found another 'squat,' but I don't want to tell you where it is," Brungardt told a reporter.

"It's a house that's safer."

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