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Mobilizing to Save Part of the Golden Age of Hollywood

A developer's plan to raze the last of the Brown Derby restaurants, in Los Feliz, angers preservationists.

August 31, 2005|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

For decades, the Brown Derby restaurants, a favorite of the stars, dished up Hollywood cachet to the world.

Now the last of the five Brown Derbys, which included the famous "hat" on Wilshire Boulevard, is headed for the final curtain call -- unless a loose coalition of nostalgia fans and residents in Los Feliz can rescue the building in that neighborhood.

Owned in its heyday by producer Cecil B. DeMille, "the building truly recalls another era," said Jay Platt, a preservation specialist with the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy. "It's one of the few remaining examples of buildings that were deeply associated with the city's nightlife and glamour."

Today, supporters say, evidence of Hollywood's golden age can still be seen in the building's most recent incarnation as a popular nightclub called the Derby.

The domed roof, entrance hall and unusual lamella ceiling -- constructed in diamond patterns from small pieces of wood -- have survived various remodelings. The ornate oval bar, though not original to the building, was made famous in the Joan Crawford movie "Mildred Pierce."

A developer who bought the property last year wants to level the structure to make way for 81 condominiums and commercial space in a five-story complex just south of Griffith Park.

The original Derby on Wilshire Boulevard was built by the husband of actress Gloria Swanson in the 1920s, after a writer said to him, "If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat" -- hence the famous shape of the building. The Hollywood Derby on Vine Street opened in 1929, followed by one on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in 1931.

Legendary tales revolve around those three sites. Movie moguls hatched deals in polished booths beneath walls famously lined with celebrity caricatures. Day in and day out, the likes of Groucho Marx, Orson Welles and Lucille Ball dropped in to gab, dine on Cobb salad (invented in the Derby kitchen) and simply be seen. Clark Gable proposed marriage to Carole Lombard in the plush leather of Booth 5 at the Hollywood Derby in 1939.

Derby nightclub owner Tony Gower, who leases the premises, did not return several phone calls. But Rebecca Goodman, an attorney who heads the newly formed Save the Derby Coalition, vowed to fight any attempt to demolish the building.

"There are fewer and fewer reminders of the legacy of old Hollywood, and this is one of them," she said.

Drawing its membership from music and dance groups, history buffs, architecture fans and neighborhood groups, Goodman's group already has generated scores of e-mails, calls and letters to the office of City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the property at 4500 Los Feliz Blvd.

LaBonge's office is already urging the developer, Adler Realty Investments Inc. of Los Angeles, to rework the plans, which have not yet been filed with the city but have been aired recently before neighborhood groups. Residents have raised concerns about density, traffic and other issues.

"I love Los Angeles history," LaBonge said. "I like to see buildings restored and reborn. This one has character."

Adler Vice President Rick Gable is willing to consider changes. But, he said, "it's hard to incorporate the current structure into the plans."

A consultant who worked on an environmental review of the property for Adler concluded that the building was not historical, Gable said. The company declined to release the consultant's report.

The Los Feliz building has been remodeled so much over the years that "it doesn't represent the old Derby," Adler President Mike Adler said.

Built in 1926 as a chicken restaurant, the building had an early version of air conditioning. Water was pumped to the roof and trickled across the domed shingles, cooling the interior by evaporation. In the 1940s, a "car cafe," with carhops, was added to the Brown Derby, a structure that survives as the adjacent Louise's Trattoria.

The Los Feliz Brown Derby closed about 1960, and Gower refurbished the building in 1993. Ever since, the business has catered to fans of old-style supper clubs and swing dancing.

The conservancy opposes the sort of fate that befell the original Derby on Wilshire, across from the Ambassador Hotel.

After a fierce conservation battle that included well-known personalities standing in front of bulldozers, the old-fashioned "hat" was lifted atop a trendy mall on the property and began a new life as leased commercial space.

It's barely noticed, and "one of the saddest resolutions to a preservation battle I've ever seen," Platt said.

In their time, the restaurants "were critical to L.A.'s reputation as the nightlife capital of the world," he said. By the 1980s, all the Derbys had closed.

Goodman acknowledged that the famous did not flock to the Los Feliz Derby, which operated from about 1940 to 1960, the way they did to Vine Street and Wilshire Boulevard, but she said "we've started looking" for celebrity stories.

"Los Feliz historically was called East Hollywood," she said. "In the early days of the film industry, people like Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin did movies in the neighborhood."

In the late 1950s, meetings were held at the Los Feliz Derby to select the first 1,500 honorees for the Hollywood Walk of Fame, said Johnny Grant, the walk's emcee and the honorary "mayor" of Hollywood.

The wrap party for an "I Love Lucy" episode, filmed at another Derby with William Holden, also was held there, according to Platt.

"This is a grass-roots preservation effort," Goodman said. "This building represents what's unique and memorable about Los Angeles."

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