In a city of few second chances, Laura Mae Gross found a way to beat the odds.
The 77-year-old Mississippi-born woman, known as "Mom" to a generation of L.A. blues musicians, was evicted last year from Babe's and Ricky's Inn, a popular club she had operated for more than three decades on a seedy stretch of Central Avenue.
At the time, many of her longtime patrons, a racially integrated mix of blues enthusiasts who caravaned to the South-Central club from throughout the city, doubted she would ever reopen on Central or, for that matter, anywhere.
She proved them wrong.
"I'm back!" Gross proclaimed last week as musicians and former customers flocked to the opening of the new Babe's and Ricky's Inn in the Crenshaw district's Leimert Park, a small enclave where merchants have created a cultural center of shops, coffeehouses, art galleries and jazz spots.
In making the journey from Central Avenue to Crenshaw--from yesterday's hub of the city's African American community to today's--Gross and her partner, Jonathan Hodges, have re-created the feel of the old club with some new twists. Where there was once only beer, there is now wine, along with a new bar and rugs.
Gross is black. Hodges, a former movie set property manager, is white and less than half her age. "It's not exactly a logical pair, but it works," he said.
They kept the old Babe's and Ricky's Inn sign and many of the old pictures and posters of blues musicians. The silver antique cash register makes its familiar ring. ("I can tell if it's 5 cents or $5," Gross boasts.) They also preserved their traditional Monday talent night, where for a $3 cover charge patrons get a chicken dinner.
Gone is the old pool table where customers rested their drinks during the shows and where Gross--afraid to drive home on Central Avenue in the early morning--slept at night after closing. The new club has a new stage and a spruced-up kitchen. Babe's and Ricky's T-shirts are for sale. Musicians have a dress code, and they are no longer allowed to drink or smoke on the small platform stage.
"It's just like the old club, only better," said singer Mickey Champion after inspecting the bathrooms. "A lot better!"
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a blues devotee and nearby resident, helped Gross and Hodges find the site and obtain the necessary permits.
"It's a worthwhile contribution that will help revitalize the Leimert Park Village," Ridley-Thomas said.
With blues clubs sprouting from Santa Monica to Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley, Ridley-Thomas said Babe's and Ricky's would bolster the emerging entertainment and cultural enclave in Leimert Park, whose musical focus has traditionally been jazz.
To further the development of the area, Ridley-Thomas said, $3.5 million in public funds is being spent for planting trees, improving parking lots, upgrading street lights and redesigning the park. Also, he added, efforts are underway to find someone to take over the 1,000-seat Vision Theater Complex, which a bank recently repossessed from actress Marla Gibbs.
So far, some merchants have offered a chilly reception to the new club. "Some owners here are Muslims and they are opposed to beer and wine sales," one merchant said. "Right now, some of us have a wait-and-see attitude about the place."
Others disagree. Ruth Nuckolls, who owns Leimert Park Eyewear and is president of the merchants association, was ready to greet the new neighbors with open arms.
"Personally, I drink wine with dinner and I love the blues," Nuckolls said. "I'll be there."
Meanwhile, the turnout has varied--some days crowded, some days sparse--in the club, which features blues seven days a week. Musicians continue to stream in, the old ones seeking a taste of the past, the younger ones eager to absorb what they can from the old-timers. The greats like John Lee Hooker, Albert King and B.B. King performed at the old Babe's and Ricky's, and so have home-grown bluesmen like Ray Bailey and Keb' Mo' (Kevin Moore).
"This is where I cut my teeth," said Michael Corcoran, a 25-year-old singer and guitarist with the group Mama's Boys, named as a tribute to Gross.
Corcoran, who has a degree in economics from USC, shunned his formal education to pursue a career on the stage. "My mother wasn't very happy about it, but this is what I want to do," he said. "I've learned more here and have had more opportunities than many people my age and color ever get."
Legendary rock 'n' roll songwriter Mike Stoller was among those who stopped by the club opening last week for an evening of entertainment.
Stoller and his partner Jerry Leiber, who wrote for both white and black artists and borrowed heavily from African American styles, hung out on Central Avenue in their teens during the street's golden era. The pair came to Gross' rescue three years ago when she first showed signs of financial difficulty. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers attached the club's bank account for failing to pay $9,000 in back royalties.
Stoller, who co-wrote such tunes as "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand by Me," has backed her financially ever since.
"I have been here in the past for her I will continue to be here for her," he said.
Mike West--plumber by day, musician by night--grew up around the corner from the old Central Avenue haunt and stopped by the reopening the night before his wedding as a gesture of loyalty.
"This is my bachelor party," he joked. "Now I have to go home to press my tux."
One evening, just before closing, Gross turned to a group of musicians who were busy packing up their instruments before heading out. She recalled the days when there was a different routine: When the last set was finished, the musicians had to put her mattress on the pool table and make her bed.
"It's closing time," she called out. "Which one of you is the happiest that you don't have to put down my bed tonight?"
They all raised their hands.