Gene La Pietra sits in a back corner booth at Musso & Frank, telling the story of his first days in Hollywood, when he begged for nickels in front of the Hollywood Boulevard restaurant and slept for a month in a nearby church parking lot, washing his one shirt each night in the gas-station sink across the street.
At 54, he's now a millionaire, the owner of two of the most popular gay nightclubs in town. He's also the leader of the Hollywood secession movement, to which he has contributed "at least half a million" so far, he says. His dollars and drive pushed the campaign forward so fast that it was already inches from the ballot before City Hall and much of Hollywood seemed to notice.
Today, the Local Agency Formation Commission is expected to put the proposal to break Hollywood off from Los Angeles on the Nov. 5 ballot, alongside the secession bid for the San Fernando Valley.
La Pietra's critics say his motives are selfish, that he hopes to use a new city to make more money at his clubs. He says he wants to be Hollywood's mayor, so he can fully restore its lost glory.
His own rags-to-riches tale mirrors his plan for a Hollywood city.
Between bites of orange roughy and the media calls that keep his cell phone constantly dancing on the tablecloth, he leans back in the red-leather booth and describes how he grew up in a Rhode Island orphanage and foster homes, and then hitchhiked west, tugged straight across the country by a celluloid image of Hollywood.
The Hollywood name still lures people from everywhere, only to disappoint them when they get here, he says in the slightly twangy, street-tough Rhode Island accent he's never shed.
"I'm going to bring Hollywood back to the future, to restore it to the glamour and the grandeur it once had," he said. "Right now, Hollywood is so far down in the garbage, we can only do better. We can only see daylight."
On the surface, Hollywood might seem to be on the upswing. The city has a hot bar and club scene in addition to the new Hollywood & Highland mall, built for nearly $1 billion.
But La Pietra and others in his small secessionist group Hollywood VOTE, which includes his hypnotherapist brother John, say the district has a long way to go. They point out that stores at Hollywood & Highland already are closing, and that the city is paying about $500,000 a month to cover the shortfall at the mall parking lot, which was built with city funds. They say money would be better spent on sprucing up Hollywood Boulevard around the mall and on fighting the drug dealing on the surrounding streets.
Driving east on Hollywood Boulevard after leaving Musso & Frank, La Pietra can't stop fuming.
"It's a rough neighborhood here," he says. "It gets pretty scary. And there's so much denial at City Hall about the crime and the gangsterism, which goes all the way from here to Melrose [Avenue]. Any idiot can see it's grown. Some people have made gallant efforts to turn things around. But they need an engaged government. They can't do it alone."
La Pietra recently hired a public relations representative, who sits by his side at LAFCO meetings. But Hollywood secession hardly needs professional help to attract attention.
For months now, La Pietra has been fielding calls from the likes of the Times of London and Tokyo TV. As a news story, Hollywood has more sex appeal than the San Fernando Valley. So does the Hollywood movement's leader, a very different breed of secessionist from the conservative real estate types running the Valley breakaway movement.
"I'm not as angry. I'm pretty happy," he said, laughing, while noting that the Hollywood and Valley campaigns are united. In fact, he says, he got the idea for Hollywood secession from a news article about Valley secessionist Jeff Brain, "who made it all sound so easy."
But the differences between La Pietra and other secession leaders run deep.
He is a liberal Democrat and a longtime major donor to Gov. Gray Davis, who appointed him to the state Parks Commission.
He is openly gay, and open, too, about the fact that in the early 1970s, he was convicted of state and federal obscenity charges for selling sexually explicit movies and books.
His partner, Alejandro Lopez, 28, is a popular mariachi singer at the clubs. The two men drive silver and gold Lexus sedans. They divide their time between an almost entirely unfurnished, 10,000-square-foot white mansion on Los Feliz Boulevard--complete with pool, tennis court and topiaries shaped into dogs and a teddy bear--and a cozy bungalow on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood, where La Pietra fashioned the beige marble bathroom to look like the ones at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
The Los Feliz house lies just outside the proposed Hollywood boundaries. La Pietra says he uses it mostly for fund-raising, and quips that it will be Hollywood's Los Angeles embassy after secession.