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Wizards of Aaahs

There's a little hideaway right here in town where a diverse crowd comes to soak, schmooze and kvetch. At the City Spa, they mix it up and sweat it out.

May 20, 1996|CATHERINE JORDAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a sooty stretch of Pico Boulevard populated by the likes of M & T Auto Body and Maurice's Snack 'n' Chat, a black limousine pulls up outside a prison-like building and stops next to a creamy Rolls-Royce Corniche. In a parking lot a few yards away, a burly Russian guard with a buzz cut strolls up and down, whistling and keeping an eye on the Mercedes-Benzes, Jaguars, Porsches and various other chariots under his watch.

"Good evening, Mr. Travolta!" shouts another guard, who comes barreling down the sidewalk to greet John Travolta as he gets out of the limo. "Hev a good time!" he says in a thick Russian accent as Travolta disappears into the building.

Inside City Spa, a semi-legendary in-town competitor with Southern Californian luxury havens such as La Costa Resort & Spa and Two Bunch Palms, the evening's activities are in full swing. But if those state-of-the-art resorts are paradigms of modern spa living, this operation might be called, well, the anti-spa. While the raison d'etre of most contemporary spas is a mix of fitness, pampering and prestige, City Spa is more like a tony Roman bathhouse, where toga-clad patrons of all ages, races, religions and nationalities gather to sweat, schmooze and kvetch. Where else in town could you find a prominent local rabbi kibitzing in the Jacuzzi with a politically active black Muslim?

On a typical evening here a visitor will likely find a herd of corpulent Eastern Europeans gathered around the TV in the men's locker room, yelling enthusiastically about the Lakers game and refreshing themselves with shots of vodka. Cries of "Come on, ya schmuck!" can be heard a hallway's length away.

In the Russian rock room, a wet sauna that reaches searing temperatures of 200 degrees, super-agent Bill Block sits in self-imposed solitude, purging tension after another high-pressure day at International Creative Management. Next to Block, British journalist William Cash, who was recently labeled a "magnet for trouble" by USA Today after he appeared at Marlon Brando's news conference to make his own apology for allegedly anti-Semitic remarks, sweats out the day's frustrations and hopes that the Jewish Defense League's Irv Rubin doesn't show up today, as he frequently does.

Upstairs, Jesse Jackson works out on an exercise bike under the eye of a personal trainer, while a group of young women attend a weight loss seminar in a room next door. As they get diet tips, the rich fragrance of smoked sausages wafts up the stairway from the coffee shop.

There, Cappy Capsuto, 81, is having a dinner of toast and eggs, and arguing with Sid Rich, 75. Capsuto is remembering how it was in the 1940s, before City Spa & Health Center, when everyone went to the Monte Carlo bathhouse downtown.

"What?" Rich says. "You're full of hot air! That was the second place--the first was Pecan Street Baths."

"No, no," shouts Capsuto, and the debate rages on.

The two friends have been coming here since 1955, when the spa opened and it cost $2 a day. Chicago-born Capsuto, who has shining eyes and twice the energy of your average slacker, says he's known Rich so long, he knew Rich when Rich was poor. Today, Rich owns "millions" in real estate, allowing him the leisure time to spend three afternoons a week at City Spa yakking with the guys in the rock room or the officially sanctioned "Bull---- Room."

For Capsuto, the spa is a lifestyle. He's there every day among friends, eight hours a day, nurturing his body and spirit. Capsuto and Rich knew ages ago about the restorative powers of a nice spa, a concept that a new generation is just learning.

In a decade when "stress" has evolved from a humble condition into a billion-dollar business and a potentially deadly affliction suffered by most of the U.S. population, the ancient Roman bathing ritual, with its powers to soothe and heal, is suddenly golden. Beverly Hot Springs in Koreatown is also booming and drawing a big Hollywood crowd. The premiere issue of Spa, a glossy national magazine from Seattle, is the latest evidence of Americans' mad race to relax. Spa reports reverently on the "worldwide revival of mud," and is chock-full of ads showing stressed-out men and women getting seaweed wraps in paradisal settings.

*

"If you want to be left alone, you got it. If you want to talk money, you got it. And if you want to talk sex, you got it," says an elderly man who commutes to City Spa from Compton.

Rubin is king of the Jacuzzi schmooze. Rubin, the national chair of the Jewish Defense League, can often be found holding court in the enormous Jacuzzi, where lively debates are conducted amid the bubbles. He uses the spa as much as a place to do research as a place to schvitz, Yiddish bathhouse slang for "sweat" or "steam."

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