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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Once in Fashion, the Brown Derby Became Old Hat

Only the stories of film legends remain as the last of the restaurant's four former locations faces the wrecking ball.

November 27, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

In its 50-year heyday, the Brown Derby was where Hollywood hung its hat. The all-night eatery was as sublime as the top-grade, top-dollar caviar it spooned out, and as proudly low-brow as its buck-a-burger.

The first of four Brown Derbys opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926, across from the Ambassador Hotel. It was the only Derby shaped like a hat. During the 1920s, '30s and '40s, more Derbys opened, all serving as clubs for the Hollywood elite.

Legends revolved around Derby spots where Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy and Pat O'Brien tippled into the wee hours.

The Derby was where Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard. Lucille Ball and Jack Benny lunched on Cobb salads, invented on the premises and named for the owner, Robert Cobb.

Cobb catered to the strange tastes of celebrity clients, concocting a grapefruit cake for dieting gossip columnist Louella Parsons and crafting a wedding cake of shortbread and caviar for Harpo Marx.

The second Brown Derby opened at Hollywood and Vine on Valentine's Day in 1929, drawing stars whose caricatures would line the walls.

Two years later, the third Brown Derby opened at Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The fourth and last opened in Los Feliz in 1941.

The fourth Brown Derby is the last to remain standing, but it too is slated for the wrecking ball unless preservationists can save it. Its Brown Derby days ended around 1960; it has more recently operated as a nightclub and restaurant.

Its domed roof and lamella ceiling survived various remodelings. The ornate, oval bar, though not original to the building, was immortalized in the 1945 film "Mildred Pierce," in which Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford recited the line: "Why should people come to eat and go someplace else to drink?" This Derby also portrayed the exterior of Arnold's Drive-In for the 1970s television series "Happy Days."

It opened in a building rented from director-producer Cecil B. DeMille, who had built it as a theater. When talkies came in, the theater became obsolete before it ever opened.

The Brown Derby undertaking began with a dare. Wisecracking screenwriter Wilson Mizner said to movie producer Herbert Somborn, who was Gloria Swanson's second husband: "If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat."

Shortly thereafter, in 1926, Somborn, Mizner and theater owner Sid Grauman built the first Brown Derby and called it the Little Hat. But Mizner said it was big enough to accommodate the swelled heads of many a personality. Early patrons included Will Rogers, Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino.

A decade later, the Derby moved half a block away into the hat-shaped building, topped by its neon-lighted slogan, "Eat in the hat." Derby-shaped light fixtures hovered over round tables and booths, attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Jean Harlow and John and Lionel Barrymore.

Somborn met 26-year-old Robert Cobb at the Alexandria Hotel downtown, when both were competing for the same girl. Cobb was a cowboy from Montana who flipped burgers at a stand on Wilshire near La Brea.

Impressed with Cobb's knowledge of the restaurant business, Somborn hired him to manage the new Derby. Cobb also worked as headwaiter, purchasing agent, banker, assistant chef, bouncer, dishwasher and bookkeeper. He invented the Cobb salad while rummaging through the refrigerator to feed some pals.

The Hollywood Derby's proximity to the studios often made it the scene of celebrity spats. Within its wood-paneled interior, press agents congregated for a word with the stars. Gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons held court during lunch hour at separate tables on opposite sides of the room.

Marlene Dietrich caused an uproar in 1933 by walking in wearing slacks. She was even more shocked than her audience when Cobb refused to seat her. The comic duo of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who witnessed Dietrich's ejection, left and returned wearing skirts. It would be 35 years before Cobb lifted the ban on trousers for women.

Lucille Ball frequented the Hollywood Derby since her starlet days. In 1955, she paid tribute to the Derby in a classic "I Love Lucy" sketch, in which Lucy encounters William Holden at the Derby -- actually a Hollywood set replica.

When Somborn died in 1934, he left the Derbys deeply in debt. Cobb took over, catering to the tastes of his clientele.

"Wallace Beery always caused the waiters to panic when he asked for corned beef hash and crepes Suzette for dessert -- or sponge cake covered with catsup," Cobb said in a 1962 Times interview. Dietrich liked Irish stew and tapioca.

Cobb served trout from Beery's trout farm in Studio City, potatoes from Wallace Ford's ranch, broccoli from Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck's farm, corn from Clark Gable and Carole Lombard's acres.

In 1938, with money he made from filmdom's stars, Cobb joined with DeMille, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, George Burns, Taylor, Stanwyck and Walt Disney to buy a new minor league baseball team, the Hollywood Stars.

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