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He's not letting you in

Unless you're someone. Rick Calamaro aims to keep Holly's the most exclusive club in town.

April 09, 2006|James Verini | Special to The Times

THE closing of Amanda Scheer Demme's vanity cave Teddy's last week elicited gasps of fear and bewilderment from the paparazzi and Demme's 700 newest, closest friends, but for one place and its proprietor, the news was good. The toughest door in town now belongs to Holly's, restaurateur and club owner Rick Calamaro's Hollywood lounge.

"Now that Teddy's is closed, we're it," Calamaro said, making sure not to smile.

Another experiment in the minuscule-is-more theory of L.A. nightlife, Holly's is close and almost confusingly simple inside. It consists of a few plush gray booths against the walls, a shiny new digital DJ stand and a beat-up Persian-ish rug in the middle of the room, and some late-period-Rembrandt wattage lighting. That's it.

The draw, of course, is not the place itself but the (preposterously good-looking) crowd.

"There are celebrities, there are hot girls," Clifton Collins Jr., who played murderer Perry Smith in "Capote," explained matter-of-factly at Holly's on a recent Friday night. "They only let in hot girls. There are no, you know -- weirdos. I come here and I know Rick will take care of me."

Sneer if you will, exclusivity is elemental to life in Los Angeles. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how the city's social life, or its economy, would function without it. This is one of the few places in the world, after all, where people move to get into an industry they know full well they have little hope of getting into.

Yet in the economics of the nightlife business, exclusivity is a paradox. It's a good advertisement and an almost certain money-loser. Any desirable place has substantial overhead and depends on volume to cover it. A reputation for exclusivity can help get bodies to the door, but the dirty little secret is that to make money, most of those bodies must get through the door too, even if they're made to wait an hour first.

There is an exception to this rule: when an owner has enough revenue coming in from other sources to afford real exclusivity.

Thus Holly's, which Calamaro says he intends for himself, his friends, his friends' friends, and select famous and/or wealthy people who get his phone number.

"What you have to understand about what I'm doing, this whole thing, it comes down to one word," he said. "Community."

The diction might seem odd -- this wasn't an after-school tutoring program he was discussing. But when Calamaro says community, he means something like what you or I might call, say, celebrity. He spent a good deal of his youth in the Playboy mansion. Outside his home is a 1965 convertible Cadillac DeVille that his friend Charlie Sheen gave him (Sheen bought it from Roy Orbison's widow).

Calamaro is an operating partner in the club Ivar, around the corner from Holly's; Tengu, the Japanese fusion restaurant in Westwood; Nine Thirty, the restaurant at the nearby W Hotel; the Lincoln Steakhouse Americana in Santa Monica; and Nacional, on Wilcox Avenue next door to Holly's, which occupies the space Calamaro's accompanying Cuban-themed restaurant, Paladar, did until late last year.

Convoluted though it may seem, for him Holly's is the fruit -- the very small, very exquisite fruit -- of all that surface area.

"It's the place where I actually want to go to hang out," Calamaro said. Though his definition of "hang out" is closer to what conventional English speakers might call, say, work.


Lord of the rings

ON a recent Friday, Calamaro was in his apartment near Fairfax High School, where he graduated in 1979, watching the Laker game on a giant flat screen TV and making last-minute seating arrangements for Holly's. His phone was ringing. His phone is usually ringing.

Calamaro's apartment too is small and dark. "I keep meaning to buy a place, but I'm either too busy or too lazy," he said. What it lacks in size it makes up for in decoration. On mantel pieces and bureaus are photographs of him with Hugh Hefner (Calamaro's mother was a den mother of sorts at the mansion, though never a lover of Hefner's, and he lived there through much of the 1970s), of him with Muhammad Ali, him with Jerry Buss, him with models.

Though he's 44, Calamaro still has the appearance of the Hollywood Lost Boy in the pictures. He has a lined but child-like face and wears jeans and sneakers and baseball caps.

While being driven to Holly's -- Calamaro avoids driving whenever possible, despite the Orbison Cadillac, a Ford SUV and a company van, all of which he keeps parked on the street -- he talked. He got his start, he said, promoting On the Rocks, the club above the Roxy, in the early 1990s. The bar had a surveillance camera at the door, and Calamaro would study a monitor inside, issuing yes or nos to the bouncers for prospective entrants.

"I'd say, 'Make her turn around.' My friends loved doing it with me. From the start I ran a tough door. That's what made it great."

After that there was the club Granville, which helped spur the postmodern burlesque trend in L.A.

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