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AROUND TOWN

He Put L.A. on Road to Valet Parking

June 17, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 50 years of parking other people's cars, Herb Citrin has amassed "a zillion horror stories," but none to best a midnight phone call one Saturday in the early 1960s from Pieces of Eight, a Marina del Rey restaurant.

It was one of his attendants: "Herb, you'd better get down here. A car just went over the sea wall."

By 2 a.m., Citrin was watching a crane extract the runaway auto from 15 feet of water as its owner paced frantically. "The guy was fuming," Citrin recalls. "The car we lost was a classic, a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr. It was a wreck." It had been parked, brake set, and, "It sat there for 10 or 15 minutes and all of a sudden just started to roll."

The insurance company paid only blue book value--about $300--and, Citrin says in a bit of understatement, the car's owner "wasn't thinking kindly of us."

Citrin has never had another car take a swim. And any given Saturday night, 400 of his Valet Parking Service attendants may be parking cars at restaurants, clubs, hotels and parties all over Los Angeles.

Citrin didn't quite invent valet parking, but he gave it a name and fine-tuned it. He "teethed in the business" with his father, William, who in 1937 parked celebrities' Packards and LaSalles at the Swing Club in Hollywood. When Lawry's the Prime Rib opened in 1938 on La Cienega, the elder Citrin had his second account.

Young Citrin, just short of 16, was parking cars at Lawry's six nights a week after school and in summers, working three nightly shifts for his dad, starting at Lawry's, then driving his old Ford to Studio City, where the show broke at midnight at Grace Hayes Lodge, before dashing back to the Swing Club, which was open until 4 a.m.

Valet parking and L.A. appeared to be made for each other, but by 1942, the young men William Citrin had hired had gone off to war and he decided to close his five concessions. That August, Herb joined the Navy Submarine Service.

Discharged in the fall of 1945, he had a wife, a baby on the way, two years of college and an iffy future. He knew polishing cases at a jewelry store and occasionally being allowed to "wait on a customer who wanted a cheap watch" wasn't it.

One day in 1946, his father said, "Everyone at Lawry's knows you. Why don't you see if you can get the parking concession?" He did, and spent his $1,000 savings to hire two men, outfit them in surplus military uniforms and buy claim checks and liability insurance.

When Herb Citrin Concessions took over Lawry's parking, "There was no charge. It was strictly tips," Citrin says. "In one night I earned what I made for 48 hours at the jewelry store [$48]. That kind of settled what I was going to do." By 1960, he had 20 accounts, mostly restaurants, and little competition. Today, the Greater L.A. Yellow Pages lists 35 parking attendant services.

Citrin was a hands-on parker, as well as Lawry's doorman, until the mid-'60s. He remembers mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, both "very big spenders." And the night at House of Murphy when Frank Sinatra asked how many men were working; when told four, "He said, 'split this' and gave me a $100 bill." (It's no accident that fancy autos get prime lot spots.)

No famous actors once parked cars for Citrin, but film producer Burt Sugarman did, as did Realtor Stan Herman and "a lot of doctors and dentists and lawyers."

The '60s introduced Valet Parking Service's now-familiar red and black uniforms, women attendants and the current name. Over the years, restaurants have shrunk to 50% of business as valet parking has spread to hotels, offices, hospitals, malls, clubs and theaters. Citrin pioneered private party parking and the company handles 800 to 1,000 events a year, including those at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion. "He might have six people in for dinner and we send parking attendants."

Logistically, the Emmys and the Oscars, where valets direct limo drivers as well as park cars, are the biggest challenges, the latter a nightmarish crush of 800 limos and 600 private cars. "We have a tow truck and a locksmith on-site," says Citrin, as well as 125 attendants and iced Perrier, snacks and TV for the waiting limo drivers. Despite months of planning, some disasters are inevitable. Once, a door slammed on the tail of a young actress' gown as her limo sped off. She suffered a rip and injured pride.

Valet Parking Service, biggest in the business, grosses $30 million a year, with 1,300 employees and 200 accounts from Seattle to Las Vegas. Board chairman Citrin, 73, keeps regular hours at Culver City headquarters, where attendants come to learn the ABCs of parking, beginning with "Good Evening. Welcome to. . . ."

The Art of Fake-Busting

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and self-described "fake-buster," had come to talk about scams and forgeries.

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