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Tammi Gower, 51; Turned Landmark Into Swing Nightclub

August 13, 2003|From a Times Staff Writer

Tammi Gower, who with her husband Tony founded and owned the trend-setting nightclub the Derby in Los Feliz, has died at the age of 51.

Gower, a native of Los Angeles, died Saturday of cancer.

The former Tamar Ellen Chait was organizing concert tours and long divorced from Tony Gower, a nightclub manager in Spain, when she asked him to rejoin her in Los Angeles in 1989 to examine a historic building she had discovered.

The Gowers, who would remarry three weeks before her death, agreed that the free-standing 1929 Art Deco structure at Los Feliz Boulevard and Hillhurst Avenue bore promise -- especially when they discovered a beautiful wooden dome long hidden above a false ceiling.

Built by Cecil B. DeMille, the building had served successively as Willard's Chicken Inn, one of four Brown Derbys, and Michael's Los Feliz before sliding toward decay.

In 1993, the Gowers opened their refurbished treasure as the Derby, a 10,000-square-foot homage to 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, with burgundy velvet curtained booths, an ornate oval bar from the 1945 film "Mildred Pierce" and free swing dance lessons.

The dine and dance club quickly attracted a Hollywood clientele -- Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez -- along with people of all ages who liked vintage clothes, jazz and swing music and dancing.

Filmmakers also arrived -- to shoot scenes for the 1994 "Speed" and the 1996 "Swingers," starring Jon Favreau and Heather Graham. It also posed as the exterior of Arnold's Drive-In for the television series "Happy Days" in the 1970s.

In addition to her husband, Gower is survived by two brothers, Jon Chait of Chicago and Bill Chait of Los Angeles.

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