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Haunted Grounds

They say Marilyn Monroe still makes the scene at this coffeehouse.

April 15, 1999|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio sneaked through the place on their honeymoon. An MGM dressmaker jumped out the window a few stories up. Harry Houdini's widow, Bess, held rooftop seances on Halloween to summon the escape artist's spirit. And Elvis lived upstairs in what he called "Heartbreak Hotel."

That kind of scintillating Hollywood history is what separates the All Star Theater Cafe & Speakeasy in the old Knickerbocker Hotel from all the other coffeehouses in Los Angeles. That--and the fact that the ambience of yesterday remains today.

In the Knickerbocker's heyday--the 1920s though the 1940s, long before it was converted into a retirement home--it was one of the most glamorous hotels in Hollywood. And the lounge, now home to the All Star Theater Cafe & Speakeasy--was swingin'.

In the late '60s, the bar shut down, supposedly because the place was deemed haunted. Patrons said the ghosts of former customers roamed the bar, including those of Marilyn Monroe and Roger the bellhop.

In 1993, David Fisher, a.k.a. Max, opened the shuttered bar and reinvented it as a late-night cafe in hopes of bringing back the '20s vibe--ghosts or no ghosts.

"This is the ultimate 1920s coffeehouse," Fisher says. "I wanted to create a place where old glamour returns and lives on. It's where all the stars used to come--and where they still do."

Just as in its heyday, Hollywood has taken to swinging at the cafe. Actors like Sandra Bullock and "That '70s Show's" Danny Masterson have held parties here, as have record and production companies.

The All Star Cafe is a far cry from the average coffeehouse. Sure, it's dark and cozy like every other java joint and has lots of mismatched furniture, along with a pool table and board games.

It has touches like two chandeliers--culled from Liberace's mansion--that you won't find anywhere else. Many of the baubles and beads and glittery dresses in the boutique were once owned by such glamour gals as Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn.

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And then there's the stuff that you can't touch, figuratively speaking. The lounge area was used as the hotel bar where Dustin Hoffman and Mrs. Robinson rendezvoused in "The Graduate." Legend also has it that years before her supposed lobotomy, Frances Farmer, wrapped in a shower curtain, was dragged from her hotel room upstairs, through the bar.

That history still lurks at the cafe among the scenesters who hang here. Fisher says it's not unusual to see Roger the bellhop's body floating by or catch a glimpse of Monroe in the vanity of the ladies' bathroom--or for the front door to slam shut with no apparent reason.

"I wanted something else no one else would want. You couldn't give this place away," says Fisher of his decision to reopen the site. "But it's such a great place."

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BE THERE

All Star Theater Cafe & Speakeasy, 1714 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood. (323) 962-8898. Sunday-Thursday, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. All ages. No cover. Cafe menu.

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