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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Brown Derby

The easiest go-to for young lovers on date night has for some time now been the tried and true "dinner and a movie." However, if one happened to live in Hollywood in the glory days, occasionally this age-old ritual transferred to "dinner and a movie star." La La Land was, during the prime studio era, jam-packed with restaurants and eateries frequented by the glitziest faces in the biz. Chasen's, Googie's, Miceli's, The Cafe Trocadero... The list goes on and on. However, the most infamous of all these places, and the one that seems to come up as a reference in almost any Hollywood bio you read, is the The Brown Derby.

The original Derby at 3427 Wilshire.

Shaped like a hat and situated at 3427 Wilshire Blvd, the first branch of this illustrious food chain would open up in 1926 across the street from The Ambassador Hotel. It is said that the hat motif was the brain-child of co-owner Richard J. Cobb, who was once told by partner Harry Samborn (ex-hubby of Gloria Swanson) that if a restaurant was run well, the food could be "served out of a hat and you'd still make money." Cobb took this literally, and now that the duo had a hook for their diner, they set up shop-- or hat rather. Soon enough, business was bumping. While celebs like Mary Pickford and Bebe Daniels had more than a few meals at this branch, The Brown Derby didn't become synonymous with Hollywood until another restaurant was opened at Hollywood & Vine at 1628 N Vine Street in 1929. This eatery was not shaped like the famous hat, but it bore the same moniker, and since it was located in the midst of movie central, it became the go-to place for celebs and fans alike to grab a bite . Sometimes, actors would appear at the restaurant in wardrobe, because there was too little time on their lunch break to change. This restaurant is also credited with establishing the phenomenon of telephones at every booth, so that business could be conducted more efficiently by dining execs-- a tactic picked up by future eateries and clubs such as 21.

Hollywood Brown Derby at Hollywood & Vine

It was also at the Hollywood branch that the infamous "Wall of Fame" would be begun by a Polish artist, whose name was allegedly so hard to pronounce that he was referred to only as "Vitch," (first name Edward).  He started what was to become a restaurant trademark by offering to draw people's caricatures for a bowl of soup. His keen eye for accentuated facial features and his ability to capture the essence of a famous face in but a few broad strokes made him a celebrity of his own, and soon cartoonish, exaggerated pictures of Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Humphrey Bogart adorned and covered the surrounding walls (William Powell is seen left). (Other artists, most particularly Jack Lane, would continue the caricature tradition up into the eighties). Jimmy Durante would be the only star whose picture took up two pieces of paper, due to his notorious schnoz. Jimmy had a favorite corner booth, and if the table was taken when he came in for a bite, he would simply turn around and leave. Wallace Beery could also be counted on to sit in his favorite booth and order the specialty corned beef hash.

The menu at The Brown Derby was fancier than one may imagine. Offering much more than burgers and fries, the restaurant served a various assortment of ethnic masterpieces, salads, soups, and desserts. This is because various guests started adding their own favorites to the menu. Dorothy Lamour contributed her recipe for Shrimp Creole-- taste tested by her own mother-- and the different varieties of international foods can be attributed to the other universal clientele. The most famous meal perhaps is the Cobb salad, which Cobb himself is said to have haphazardly concocted on a whim. The story of its creation varies, and is the stuff of legend, but the accepted tale is thus: when he and Sid Grauman-- theater owner and showman-- were hanging around late one night, they both got hungry. Cobb took various leftover scraps of chicken, lettuce, avocado, etc, and added the famous House French Dressing. History was made, and the salad became a hit when Sid came in requesting it again the next day. The Cobb was even featured in an episode of "I Love Lucy" (right) when the gang finally goes to Hollywood and has a meal at the Derby. Seated between Eve Arden and William Holden, Lucy is, of course, star struck as she overhears the tasty Holden order the delectable Cobb. Needless to say, all Hell breaks loose and food winds up in Holden's lap and not his plate. (Watch hilarious clip here). Jack Warner was allegedly a huge fan of the salad and used to order it by the quart.

But the Derby represented more than a place to grab a bite. It was a kitchen away from home for many celebrities, many of whom have significant memories that occurred there. Here are a few worth mentioning:

The First Date
Prior to her big career breakthrough in I Wanted Wings, Veronica Lake was being wooed by esteemed art director John Detlie (both left).  After receiving bouquets of flowers from the anonymous admirer, John finally called Veronica up and asked her out on an official date. Wanting to impress the seemingly un-impressible Ronni, where did he take her? The Brown Derby- the meal locale of the who's-who of Hollywood. While Ronni was not easily flattered by superficial tomfoolery, she did enjoy her meal and was smitten enough to begin a romantic relationship with the man who was to become her first husband. Her mother, Constance, was also impressed, as she had tagged along to monitor her daughter's courtship. Love with a side of "Good-grief, Ma!"

The Proposal
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (right at the Derby) had been romantically involved since 1936 when they bumped into each other at the Mayfair Ball. The two had appeared in No Man of Her Own together in 1932, but it wasn't until John Hay Whitney threw this little shindig that the two would click romantically. Carole was recently divorced from William Powell, with whom she remained friendly, but Clark was still very married to "Ria" Langham. Nonetheless, a love affair proceeded, during which legendary shenanigans involving doves, broken down cars, and Carole's usual pranks ensued. Soon, Carole was in over her head and head-over-heels in love. She pursued the man of her dreams with a vengeance, despite his shuffling and procrastination in obtaining a divorce: it was solely a monetary issue, for his marriage to the 17-year senior Ria had been in name only for some time. Even the studios tried to keep them apart, fearing that scandal would destroy both of their careers. Needless to say, many MGM faces turned bright red when the infamous "Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands and Wives" Photoplay article was published, insinuating Clark and Carole as two of the culprits, in the company of such others as Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor. Perhaps with so many obstacles between them, the relationship would have gone up in smoke,but Clark realized that he indeed loved his dizzy, blonde Tom-boy too. After three years of waiting, on March 7, 1939 Clark obtained his divorce. Now a free man, he placed a call to Carole direct from his current location-- The Brown Derby-- and asked her to marry him. After thinking about it for a millisecond, she said "Hell, yes!" They were married a couple of weeks later on March 29.

The Wedding
No actual wedding took place at the Derby, that I know of... But Judy Garland's first act of matrimony came pretty close. David Rose was a songwriter who had won Judy's heart through his sincerity and kindness (both left). Since Dave was over ten years her senior, Judy also thought that he was a man who could protect her from her overbearing mother, Ethel. The two had first met when Judy was to do a radio show for Bob Hope, for which Rose was also scheduled. However, love seemed like a long shot for the two. Judy was still smarting over the recent marriage of Lana Turner to Artie Shaw, a good friend of Judy's with whom she was very much in love. Crying hysterically and banging her head against the wall, it appeared that Judy would be unable to perform. Rose helped to calm her down, even bringing her a piece of his mother's chocolate cake, once she had stopped with the waterworks. Since Judy had been on a very regimented diet nearly her entire life-- again, thanks to Mama Monster-- she broke out in a big smile and said, "How did you know that this was exactly what I needed?!" Soon enough, the two were dating and became engaged, though the studios were trying to stall the nuptials for as long as possible. Judy was still playing teeny-boppers in movies like Babes in Arms, and having her publicly proclaim herself as a grown-up could severely affect box office. One night, while dining out at the Derby (June 27, 1941 to be exact), Judy and David decided that they could stall no longer. Perhaps it was the romantic lighting, perhaps it was the fact that, as David discovered, the way to Judy's heart was through her stomach, but after dinner, they grabbed the check, hopped a plane to Vegas, and said "I do!" MGM was not happy, and sadly Judy was to have no Honeymoon. Furious, the studio demanded that she return the next afternoon to finish shooting on Babes on Broadway. Luckily, Judy's box-office appeal went unharmed.

The Brawl
It wasn't always hearts and clovers, however. John Gilbert (right) had a very embarrassing incident happen to him at the Derby. In the late Twenties, as the glory days of the silent film were hanging on by a thread, so too was one of its leading men. John's destruction lay not in the nature of his voice, which history has incorrectly remembered as being too squeaky for Talkies. His true enemy was Louis B. Mayer, who-- little did John know-- was already laying the trap for his downfall. Many theorize that the publicity surrounding John's inability to transfer to sound films was initiated by Mayer, with whom he had a long-running animosity. Mayer planted the seed of doubt, and soon enough it was accepted as truth that John was a hack and a far cry from his macho, leading man persona. One piece of evidence to support this is the article that Mayer (supposedly) had Jim Tully write for Vanity Fair, in which he labeled John as a lecherous mama's boy. This poison pen article was specifically used to tarnish John's ladies' man image and serve as the first nudge to propel his career on its downward spiral. John, a self-made man who had a very tumultuous relationship with his mother, was disgusted when he read the article. So sickened was he, that he actually threw-up. Thus, when he came face to face with Tully years later at The Brown Derby, he started a fight with the author. However, because Tully had a background in boxing, it was John who was left lying on the floor, his ego bruised more than his eye. It was a humiliating experience, and the drunk and disorderly John had to be removed from the premises, while Tully returned to his meal. Years later, Tully would admit that he had nothing against John, and had in fact never met him when he wrote the article, therefore having to basis upon which to make his lewd statements. It was simply a job and a job too well done. John and his career would soon disappear under the heap of lies, but not until after the insult of all insults: he was forced to act opposite Tully in Way for a Sailor of 1930.

The Beginning and The End
The Brown Derby would finally serve as a macabre bookend for the remaining days of Thelma Todd (left).  Her introduction to and her last public meeting with the man who is most often labeled as the mastermind of her bizarre, untimely death would occur at none other than The Brown Derby. Thelma's marriage to Pat DiCicco, a Hollywood agent with mob connections, was well on its way to divorce court from almost the moment they said "I do." Pat was secretive and abusive, and it was becoming abundantly clear that his charms had been covering up a selfish and sadistic personality. Thelma was fed up with the lies and his emotional distance from her: Where did he disappear to all the time? Who was he with? And why? She got her answer one night when dining with friend and ex-lover Roland West at the Derby. Ironically, the two were discussing the creation of a restaurant of their own: Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe, which would soon take root on the Pacific Coast Highway. In the midst of conversation, Thelma caught sight of her hubby across the way, talking to a man she couldn't see. She boldly walked over to give him a piece of her mind, or at the very least elbow her way into his life. She was shocked by what she saw: Lucky Luciano. Though far from handsome, Lucky and his power were intoxicating, hypnotizing, and Thelma found herself stuttering under his piercing gaze. He held out his hand, introduced himself, complimented her beauty, and then offered her a drink. Since Thelma was overcoming issues with alcoholism and a drug addiction, she refrained, but when Lucky insisted, one didn't refuse. This meeting would being the rapid countdown to her final days.

Thelma's own Sidewalk Cafe.

Apparently, all of Pat's secrecy had been for Thelma's protection. He knew Lucky (right) had an eye for his movie star wife, that he loved blondes, and that he was also a dangerous and far more abusive man than Pat himself would ever be. Yet, before he knew it, Pat and Thelma were divorced, and it was Luciano who had crawled into her bed like a serpent. The affair was not a joyous one. More physical abuse began, as did more sneaking, lying, and cheating. Thelma finally had her fill when Luciano tried to get his hands on her Cafe in order to use the upstairs room as a headquarters for his gambling racket. Thelma wasn't having it, and she tried to break off the affair. Again, Lucky never took "no" for an answer. He had already succeeded in sending Thelma back into her debilitating addiction to prescription pills, uppers, and booze, now he was trying to tamper with her business. One night, the duo met publicly, as Thelma had stipulated, at The Brown Derby. Again, Lucky tried to force his way into her business, but this time Thelma let it be known once and for all that she was through with him for good, even threatening to use the knowledge she had about Lucky's illegal business deals as blackmail. Legend has it that Thelma stood up to leave, shouting out, "You'll take over my restaurant over my dead body!" She made her exit, briskly and proudly. Under his breath, Lucky allegedly muttered, "That can be arranged." Soon after, on Dec. 16, 1935, Thelma Todd was found dead, bloody and bruised, in the front seat of her car in the garage above The Sidewalk Cafe. Cause of death: Accidental Suicide. Yeah, right...

Needless to say, the Derby was a busy place. And, for the most part, despite a couple of the aforementioned tales, it produced an attractive and positive atmosphere. Thus, two more branches would open, one in Beverly Hills farther West on Wilshire and a Drive-in version in Los Feliz (left). But, nothing good lasts forever. As times changed, the very first Derby was moved from 3427 to 3377 Wilshire, but a change of venue couldn't save it. All of these eateries were vacant by the eighties and half of them were demolished. The Hollywood branch, the most kickin' of them all, is completely vanished from Vine Street, perhaps the greatest loss. The space originally known as The Brown Derby in Los Feliz still stands as a Louise's Trattoria. Originally scheduled for demolition, this locale was saved by history buffs who made it a cultural landmark. The original was too destroyed, but the curious dome that was once the top of the giant hat still sits at the top of The Brown Derby shopping center at 3377 Wilshire. It is currently a Korean restaurant, so one can technically still eat in the Derbies of Los Feliz and Los Angeles, even if one is not technically at the Derby.

3377 Wilshire and the remnants of the giant ol' Derby hat.

As silly as it might be to want to hold onto something that represents but cannot bring forth the past, there is still a nostalgia felt for the most famous of Hollywood hats. The thrill of sitting at a table once enjoyed by Jean Harlow and William Powell would certainly be something any film buff would enjoy. As it is, we have to take refuge in the faded memories alone. For those hungry for more, you can still wander to that corner of Hollywood and Vine and imagine life as it was. You can even order your own Brown Derby cookbook, (I just made the "Cobb" and it was to die for) or a replicated caricature of your favorite star. Sadly, that's the most one can hope for, but perhaps it's enough. Even in Hollywood, you can't go home again. Too bad. I could really use a dish of Grable with a side of Grant...


  1. So sad that none of them are still open! I teared up a bit reading all of this. I wonder if the Brown Derby at Disney's Hollywood Studios is an acceptable substitute?

  2. Meredith. I really enjoyed this. You have done a wonderful job of bringing back a chapter of Hollywood lore. I never knew of Thelma's addictions. You are better than TMZ! I would have loved to been there when Sid and Cobb made that first salad. Thanks

  3. amz: I'm not sure! Now that I know there is one at Disney, I may have to make the trip specifically for a bite, haha!

    billy: Glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I should work for a TCM TMZ, ;).

  4. Your page is a delight! Thank you. An amazing documentary was just completed about the life of Eddie Vitch, who was the caricature artist at the Brown Derby. It will be shown at festivals worldwide. Check out to see it near you.