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Daily Donut a Shop With a Soul

Community: Health food it's not, but the fare served to regulars at this Los Feliz store is warm and true.

February 25, 2002|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years later, Bluett, a resident of one of the Los Feliz district's high-rise condominiums, walked in, knowing little about Cambodians but a great deal about struggle. He'd heard the stories of relatives who escaped racism in the South. He'd heard the stories of his grandfather, who armed himself with a shotgun and sat on the porch of his Bell Gardens home, fearful that the KKK would attack his family.

Bluett came of age in Southern California at a time when whites hung a black man in effigy from the flagpole at Fremont High School and blacks demonstrated for the right to swim at any beach they chose.

His exposure to racism was cushioned by opportunities stemming from his musical talents and a strong family. His mother was a cook for Humphrey Bogart, and his father drove a bus for comedian Buster Keaton.

Complaining to Clark Gable

Bluett's singing, dancing and piano-playing talents emerged at Manual Arts High School, where he was a member of the chorus. Not long after he graduated from high school, he was singing in a group called the Plantation Boys. He played an extra on the set of "Gone With the Wind." Bluett was one of three blacks to knock on Clark Gable's dressing room door to complain about "Colored" and "White" signs on the bathroom doors. Gable put in a call and had the signs removed.

Bluett's talents continued to earn him small roles in movies such as "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky." Through his friendship with Bogart, he auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Sam in the movie "Casablanca."

"I was too young, too tall and too good-looking," he says straight-faced. "I'm good looking now--but then I was gorgeous."

From the day he entered the doughnut shop, the 6-foot-4 Bluett filled the place, overwhelming the Lays' broken English. Gradually, he became their translator--the voice of the Daily Donut, the social glue that held it together.

He drove one customer around in his car until she found an apartment. He encouraged the return of another regular who stopped coming when Now told her she was gaining too much weight. These days, a dozen or so regulars socialize at parties and dinner.

"He likes the people who are there at the doughnut shop," says Bluett's only child, Nicole. "He likes the owners. They think of him as an elder and respect that."

"There is 80-something years of history in that man," says another customer, Washington Rucker, a jazz drummer.

Sharyn Walker, a USC professor of immunology, walks over and shares a chocolate butterfly doughnut with Bluett. She remembers thinking he was obnoxious the first time they met in the shop five years ago.

"I just wanted to be left alone," she says. "I kept thinking, 'What is wrong with this man?' He just seems to stay in your face."

But as with many, her distaste soon turned to affection, and she found herself inviting him to her house for a party. Bluett agreed to go but wanted to know if she had a piano. Walker took the hint and went searching for a piano for her party. When she found one, she went back to Bluett and told him.

"I didn't want you to get a piano," he told her. "I just wanted to know if you had one. I get invitations from people who want me to perform for them."

Bluett's most recent performances were in the cocktail bar at the Hyatt in Casablanca. (He was performing Sept. 11 but stayed through November.) In Morocco, he plays in a small bar made up to resemble Rick's Cafe in the 1942 movie. Behind the piano there is a large picture of Humphrey Bogart. A trench coat and fedora are on a coat rack. The most requested song is "As Time Goes By."

"Both Mother and Father Time have been good to me," Bluett says. "I'm in the sunset part of my life, and I don't want to waste a minute. I wake up early, because I'd rather be interacting with people, laughing and joking, kicking and scratching."

Now squeezes into the booth seat next to Mister Lennie and notices a gold bracelet that Bluett is wearing. Bluett says it is similar to one worn by the king of Morocco.

"You leave me that in your will," says Now, nudging his friend.

"No," Mister Lennie says, playing the rest of the shop for a laugh again. "It goes in the box with me."

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