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The Derby's Still Swinging

The club makes room on the dance floor for more kinds of music.

September 13, 2001|HEIDI SIEGMUND CUDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To swing or not to swing, that's a no-brainer. Swing low, swing high, swing often and, of course, when you swing, swing at the Derby.

The Los Feliz nightclub with the domed ceiling and the burgundy heart shot out the gate at full gallop in '93, introducing a new generation to an old-school style of music, dance and fashion. And despite the retro trendiness of it all, the Derby has managed to change with the times without losing its hardcore '40s-style fans. It's now culling from the Southland's finest rockabilly, alternative jazz and punked-up swing bands, opening up to experimental artists such as the Toledo Show and offering Royal Crown Revue frontman Eddie Nichols a shot at developing into a solo star. It's evolution, baby, and it's why the Derby remains vital.

Nearly every Hollywood nightclub success story includes interesting personalities behind the scenes. At the helm of the Derby is a modern-day Sonny and Cher. Owners Tammi and Tony Gower, long divorced, are both legendary characters. Tammi Gower is as famous for her Harley-riding ways as Tony Gower is for his wild-man antics. Those who know him view him as a contemporary Errol Flynn-the first to swing from his own chandeliers.

Knowing both of them, it's easy to see why people return time and again to the Derby. Both love music and the club-going lifestyle, and it's reflected in the nightclub. When they began renovating the place-one of L.A.'s three original Brown Derby restaurants-they uncovered original fixtures from the '40s as if they were unearthing buried treasure. Gorgeous vintage chairs were found, as was the breathtaking handcrafted wooden domed ceiling, which had been obscured by plaster and cottage cheese for decades.

The lush burgundy drapes in front of the dining booths offer guests the open-or-closed option of a nice view of the stage or romantic privacy. Its Eastside location works in its favor. Guests are treated to old-school elegance at old-school prices. The cover's always remained low, from $5 to $10, swing lessons included.

Of course, the Derby might have achieved mere cult status if a little indie movie called "Swingers" hadn't filmed there. All of the "Swingers" scenes filmed at the Derby were shot while the club was open for business, which made the movie that much better and the Derby that much hotter.

The folklore surrounding the place grew exponentially, too. For example: Tammi Gower-during "Swingers" filming-nearly had a heart attack after discovering a bunny on the bar (a metaphor for sexy "Swingers" starlet Heather Graham). That's the kind of thing that'll get a club shut down but also makes legends.

So far, the Derby's showing it's got legs. Upcoming shows include tonight's Toledo Show spectacle-think hot dancers, hot jazz and hot times-and Sunday's rockabilly night, featuring the Haywoods and Big Fat Steve. The Eddie Reed Big Band performs Oct. 10 and 24, and Louie Prima-Frank Sinatra veteran Sam Butera performs Oct. 11.

But it's Eddie Nichols' Rockin' Revue-his new solo project that's playing every Wednesday in September-that defines the new Derby for me. Nichols' tragic, magic performance makes you feel like you're in a James Cagney movie, but one directed by Quentin Tarantino. The audience for this wickedly good cocktail party is composed of zoot-suited dance veterans and spike-haired punks. It's as it should be-old meets new, a bit swing and schwing.

I guess it just goes to show you: Music and passion are always in fashion.

*

The Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz. 21 and older, $5 to $10 cover. Swing lessons nightly, except Sundays and Tuesdays. (323) 663-8979.

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