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COVER STORY

Catalina's in the mood to move

With memories in its wake, the veteran Hollywood jazz club works on its own progression, club hopping to bigger digs.

November 27, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Wandering into the peach-and-pink interior of Hollywood's Catalina Bar & Grill in the middle of the day is a bit like stumbling in on a rendezvous -- jarring, its participants startled, half-dressed.

Instead of the glow of the usual tableside lamps, the club is shot through with long blades of white sunlight; the two-tops and four-tops not yet set with table linen and silver; its bandstand nearly empty, piano pushed to a far wall.

Just as disarming is catching the room's famously forthright proprietress Catalina Popescu -- midday, mid-thought -- in Black Fila track pants and an Op tank top, rather than her requisite sleek skirt or flowing pants; her honey-blond hair clipped up rather than wrapped into an elaborate chignon, worrying about mundane things like why the bathroom towels have yet to come back from the launderer.

And of late, add to Popescu's duties the outsize task of stripping this now-famous jazz room down to its bare walls and rebuilding it -- twice the size -- just a few blocks away.

In 17 years, against advice, against trends, against logic, Popescu -- a Romanian immigrant just 10 years in this country when she opened Catalina's -- built what ultimately evolved into Los Angeles' premiere jazz club. Now in the final days in this idiosyncratic room on this idiosyncratic block of Cahuenga Boulevard, she's upping the ante: refocusing her imagination on bigger ideas and the bigger venue she finally will have to accommodate them. The test of her ambition begins Tuesday, when the new incarnation of Catalina's, on Sunset Boulevard just down the street from the ArcLight Cinemas, has its official opening night.

New York had (and has) its Birdland, as well its triangle-shaped cellar room, the Village Vanguard. Chicago has its Green Mill and Jazz Showcase. L.A. also has, over the years, had a bouquet of rooms strewn about -- Shelly's Man-Hole, the Lighthouse, the Parisian Room, Jack's Basket, Concerts by the Sea -- that affectionate old-timers wax poetic about. The place where they met their wife or husband. First witnessed Mingus. Understood 'Trane. Saw Carmen McRae dress down a crowd. Just where Catalina's club fits in the story-spinner annals is still in the hashing-out phases.

Popescu, though, isn't feeling sentimental -- not yet anyway. As the club on Cahuenga moves from working room to memory, she's too focused on the future to worry about the past. Too many things clutter present space. The details -- all that's behind the high art, or the lowdown, of a night of jazz that few of us think or care about. Unless something goes wrong -- an incessant talker, a busted mike, a ticket snafu.

And more than usual, Popescu is swimming in these brass-tack details. The lighting, the weight of the silver, the bookings. Running a jazz supper club of note, in a city cluttered with chattering distractions, is as much about the top-drawer acts she is able to attract seven days a week as it is about smoke and mirrors -- the ambience that is "jazz," a vibe is as alluringly elusive as it is tangible; creating the rush that adds up to a night on the town.

This is on Popescu's mind as she, after all the years at this intimate 110-seat location, contemplates her move. "Not too far," she and the rest of her staff have been assuring clientele. They're settling in just six short blocks away. To a room twice the size, and nearly $1 million in the making. "With covered parking. A patio. A dance floor," says Popescu, "if the mood hits."

A day in the life

It's Friday around 2 p.m. First set is at 8:30. Doors open for dinner just before 7. But in those short hours, Popescu will have to move mountains. Check the reservation books. And the menu. Write checks. Make sure the food and laundry orders are in, and that the kitchen is running smoothly. Added to her regular checklist has been tending to the new club -- permit applications, future bookings, visiting the new site, pulling together the design elements. "I want something new," she tells Christine VanFossan, a restaurant-supply purveyor, as they narrow the selection for new table settings, "but I also want people to know it is still the same place."

Then Popescu ties up the loose ends so she can head over to the new site at Sunset and McCadden. "To see where things are ... , " she says with a hopeful sigh. She winds her way to a back office crammed with three nondescript office desks, hers piled high with ledgers, notebooks, calendars and other ephemera. "Nobody touches it. I kill," she says, laughing.

A collection of loud, musically themed ties is tacked to a sidewall, "in case one of the staff forgets," she explains. Photos of past staff members and musicians and their backstage antics fill wall space. On the opposite wall, sagging shelves hold dusty holiday decorations -- Christmas, Valentine's and New Year's. Next to them are generic medicinal bottles marked tellingly, "Stomach Relief" or "Headache Relief." The phones ring incessantly.

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