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A New Day for an Old Derby

August 22, 1993|BILL HIGGINS

Any fearless soul attempting to restore a Hollywood landmark experiences a defining moment when the project stops being just a rehab job and becomes a Spielbergian quest for glory. That's when the project takes on a life of its own.

For Tammi Gower, the moment came when her partner and ex-husband, Tony Gower, crawled above the false ceiling of what was then a neighborhood bar, took a look upward and said the fateful words uttered by all Raiders of the Lost Architecture: "You won't believe what's up here."

What was above Tony Gower was a 35-foot domed ceiling that is now one of the most striking features of the Derby.

This is the supper club at the corner of Los Feliz and Hillhurst that shares the same roof and menu with Louise's Trattoria, but offers a radically different atmosphere. The two are connected by a set of burgundy leather padded doors, but they might as well exist in separate universes.

Tony came to stand in the Derby's attic from the Spanish island of Ibiza, where he managed a club. His former wife had called and asked him to come to L.A. to take a look at the building, a free-standing art deco structure built by Cecil B. DeMille in 1929. "When I seen the dome," says Tony Gower in his cockney accent, "I thought, 'You know, we could do something with this place.' "

They definitely did something with it. The building has been restored in a way that evokes a lush 1920s and '30s Hollywood ambience and brings it into the '90s. "We knew we re-created the right feeling," says Tammi Gower, "when people came in and started ordering martinis and Manhattans."

What Old Hollywood looks like at the Derby is set in a 100-by-35-foot room lined on one wall with six private booths hung with burgundy velvet curtains. Near the entrance is a heavy 1930 Brunswick pool table.

Anchoring the center of the room is an ornate oval bar that saw service in the 1945 film "Mildred Pierce." This is the drama in which Joan Crawford said the immortal line, "People have to drink somewhere. Why not here?"

Even aside from the DeMille and Crawford connections, the building has quite a history. It was Willard's Chicken Inn from 1929 to 1940. The restaurant, which kept live poultry in cages on the premises, had the slogan: "Chickens whose feet never touch the ground."

After this stint, the structure was from 1940 to 1960 one of L.A.'s five Brown Derbys. From then until the present, it was Michael's Los Feliz which had an aging, though loyal, clientele. "They haven't gotten over the fact we took the cheese toast off the menu," says Tammi Gower of the Michael's regulars who come to the Derby.

But the current patrons are by no means all young. There's a wide age spectrum, primarily because of the live music. The basic selection is '20s and '30s swing and jazz. On a recent night, there was Johnny Crawford (best remembered as the son, who always seemed to be yelling, "Pa! Pa!" in "The Rifleman") with his six-piece 1928 Society Dance Orchestra.

Watching from the front table was actress Anita Page, who began her career in silent films. On the small hardwood dance floor, young couples danced as best they could to the music of their grandparents. One twosome appeared to be professionals; most were rock 'n' rollers creating a Charleston/jitterbug mix. Awkward though the dancers were with the beat, between the decor and the music Derby does manage to recreate another era.

At least enough that Tony Gower could look toward the dance floor and say wistfully, "I was born in the wrong time. I should have been born in 1920."

* Name: The Derby.

* Place and Time: 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., (213) 663-8979. Open at 11 a.m. for lunch, 5 p.m. for dinner. Closes at 2 a.m.

* Cost: Dinner entrees are approximately $10. The food is from the Louise's Trattoria menu. Drinks are $3.50 for beer and $4 for well drinks. On Friday and Saturday nights, there is a $5 cover charge.

* Door Policy: The owners would prefer that patrons dress up, but consider it almost hopeless to get Californians to do this.

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