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Hallowed Walls of Hollywood

The Palm's ubiquitous portraits of stars and bigwigs are a feast for eyes and egos. When the eatery relocates, the famous faces will follow.

April 13, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

Fame is fleeting. Power wanes. Except at the Palm in West Hollywood.

Walk into this cavernous steakhouse and feel the eyes of moguls and movie stars upon you. There's Paramount Pictures chief Brad Grey and Steven Spielberg, whose painted likenesses occupy a wall not far from bright-hued caricatures of Mike Myers, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.

Since it opened its doors on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1975, the Palm has been one of the entertainment industry's favorite haunts. Its fabled, face-covered walls are part of the reason. Like a totem pole that tells the story of a tribe, the walls of the Palm have become an insider's directory to three decades of movers, shakers and lotus eaters.

"It's like a club," said Bernie Brillstein, a veteran Hollywood talent manager. The day his caricature showed up on the wall, "it was sort of recognition that you had made some kind of imprint in your life."

Here, the mighty intermingle with the fallen, "it" girls nudge up against has-beens. Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS Corp., snuggles with Shirley MacLaine and the late John Belushi. DreamWorks SKG's David Geffen and William Morris Agency head Jim Wiatt are across from Andrew Dice Clay and the late Eva Gabor.

If you were famous once, you're still famous at the Palm. Which is why a lot of people around town will be relieved to hear that when the Palm moves to a new location, just 75 feet west of its current address, its owners will take the walls -- the closest thing Hollywood has to a fossil record -- with them.

"We are going to spend a lot of money," said co-owner Wally Ganzi, who estimates that the restaurant, which is relocating to have more space, has 2,300 caricatures. "It will be like a giant jigsaw puzzle. A tremendous amount will go into preserving the original artwork."

There are many Palms across the country -- 30 to be exact --and each has its caricatures. The walls of the Palm in Washington are crammed with politicos and presidents. Atlanta's Palm has the likes of Ted Turner, the founder of the city's homegrown CNN. And the Los Angeles Palm, located near the Staples Center downtown, boasts such luminaries as Kobe Bryant and Sheriff Lee Baca.

But the West Hollywood Palm stands apart because it serves an industry in which success has the shortest of shelf lives. "Hollywood is an extraordinary kind of temporary place," the late movie director John Schlesinger once said. Not so at this restaurant, whose walls preserve the past like prehistoric amber. Here, time stands still.

"The people who go to the Palm change," said barrel-chested character actor Brian Dennehy, who has had a place on the wall for years. "But when I go into a Palm, it is always the same for me. It certainly is as immortalized as I need to be."

Connie Stevens, who may be best known for her guest spots on the '80s TV series "The Love Boat," agreed. When her caricature went up, "it didn't feel important." But now, it does. "It's your history," she said.

The mythology of the place can be traced to the East Side of Manhattan, where two Italian immigrants opened the original Palm restaurant in 1926. The story goes that without the money to decorate their fledgling steakhouse, partners Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi traded repasts of chops and pasta for drawings on the wall by local artists and cartoonists. The restaurant became a fixture in New York, up there with Sardi's and the 21 Club.

In the early 1970s, the management decided it was time to set up a western beachhead. Wally Ganzi, the founder's grandson, was sent to L.A. to run the business. He looked for a location in Beverly Hills, but ended up a block outside the city limits, just east of Doheny Drive.

"It was like going to another planet," said Ganzi, who works alongside partner Bruce Bozzi, the other founder's grandson. "I was awestruck. I couldn't believe Farrah Fawcett was coming in my restaurant with Lee Majors, and that they came in like three times a week."

With its clubby elitism, sawdust-covered floors and brusque waiters known for casually tossing expensive entrees at grateful diners, the Palm became irresistible for many East Coast transplants.

By the early 1980s, the Palm was a whirlwind of see-and-be-seen. An aging Fred Astaire unleashed a tap dance on the bar while waiting for a table. Sammy Davis Jr. belted a spontaneous a capella to his guests. Michael Jackson took a private room each year to celebrate Father's Day with his entire clan. Frank Sinatra was a regular.

"Frankie ate there every Sunday with his mom. She was a nice lady -- very skinny," recalled Rino Ungaro, who has served food at the restaurant since 1978. "They made you feel like you weren't a waiter."

For a certain cadre of executives, agents and actors, eating at the Palm meant you mattered. And everyone else who mattered knew it.

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