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L.A.'s oldest eating group hams it up

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It's 7:45 a.m., and 40 or 50 people are lustily chanting, "F-V-N-E-M? S-V-F-M! F-V-N-E-X? S-V-F-X!" over the remains of breakfast.

This club has recited its mysterious "cryptogram" every Wednesday morning since 1925. The final line makes the secret meaning clear: "O-I-C-V-F-M-N-X!"

Or sort of clear. It's "Oh, I see, we have ham and eggs!" (Get it? O-I-C= "Oh I see," V-F= "we have," M= "ham," X= "eggs," N-E= "any" and S= "yes.") In its defense, it was devised by a newspaper cartoonist, so you have to make allowances.

For more than 40 years the group has been meeting at Friendship Auditorium. That's the big hall on Riverside Drive that many a motorist has puzzled about while whizzing south from Los Feliz Boulevard.

The cryptogram chanters are the Los Angeles Breakfast Club, the oldest food-related organization in town. They're also known as the Ham and Eggers, and not only because of the M-N-X chant. Members like to greet each other with "Hello, ham!" and "Hello, egg!" while giving their secret handshake, which involves turning the hands over ("flipping the egg") during the shake. They see breakfast and friendship as a natural match, and many friendships forged over ham and eggs here have lasted for decades.

Also in a food vein, every week they sing a lively ditty called "Ham an' Eggs" to the old New York tune "Tammany." Once upon a time, officers were obliged to swear their oaths astride Ham, a sawhorse with a horse's head and tail, while resting one hand on Ham's hindquarters and the other on a plate of fried eggs.

With its droll club symbols -- including the Golden Ruler and the Buried Hatchet -- the Breakfast Club suggests a none-too-serious version of the fraternal organizations that used to play a huge role in civic life around here (it has close ties with the Shriners). What makes it unique is that it's a living link with the heyday of the movie studios.

But it didn't start with showbiz. "The original Breakfast Clubbers rode horses," says Breakfast Club secretary David Overholt, a second generation member. "Some actually rode to meetings as late as 1992 or so."

The founders were businessmen who'd go for a morning horseback ride on the bridle paths in Griffith Park and then have a chuck wagon breakfast before work. In 1925 they formed a club and soon built a clubhouse complete with riding ring near Crystal Springs Drive.

The new club quickly attracted Hollywood royalty such as studio heads Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner and various producers, directors and actors. Its first secretary was Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the character Tarzan. Down to the 1950s, radio station KFWB broadcast the club's Wednesday meetings.

During the Depression, the all-male club lost its original clubhouse but eventually opened a new one in Atwater Village. In 1961, it built the present Friendship Auditorium on Griffith Park land, for which it pays the city a nominal rent. Happily, it's right across the street from where the 1920s clubhouse stood.

Over the years, the Breakfast Club has evolved into a nonpolitical, nonsectarian friendship club for people from all walks of life, not just equestrians and movie moguls. It just happens that a lot of members are retired entertainers. And, says Overholt, "we got smart in 1980 and let women in."

For anybody who has ever wondered what goes on in that Friendship Auditorium place on Wednesday mornings, here's a glimpse inside.

First, of course, there has to be breakfast. At 7 a.m., members file in and load their plates with American breakfast favorites -- eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes. The menu varies and sometimes includes quiche.

Twenty minutes later, the meeting officially begins with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a patriotic tune, such as the Air Force Song ("Off we go, into the wild blue yonder"), and singalongs of old pop songs such as "Red Sails in the Sunset."

With high solemnity, a member leads the group in the Breakfast Club's boisterous "morning exercises," which mostly involve waving the arms around (the moves look a bit like the Chicken Dance). Then everybody sits down and sings along on three or four more songs, always including raucous versions of "Ham an' Eggs" and "Sea, Sea, Sea," a World War I ditty about seasickness. (Nobody seems to know how that one entered the mix.)

The program chairman leads the members in reciting the meaning of the club's symbols (such as the Golden Shovel, which "digs up nothing but the best and finest in the human clay of our fellows") and makes announcements. The crowd raises the roof on the "F-V-N-E-M?" cryptogram, and there's a brief inspirational talk followed by jokes.

Finally, all the members file up to the speaker's table and give everybody sitting there the old ham-and-egg handshake, and the day's guest speaker comes on. After all the fun, the talks can be perfectly serious -- recent subjects have been homelessness in Glendale and conditions in the Middle East. The meeting always ends with a guest entertainer, perhaps a pianist performing Chopin etudes.

What gets anybody out of bed for a 7 a.m. meeting? "For the average club member," says speaker chairman Bill Siefke, who's belonged to the Breakfast Club for 19 years, "the appeal is the camaraderie, the friendship, the fellowship. And the conversation. There's a lot of conversation there, endless stories -- you just stay glued."

So now you know the story, ham. Or egg, whichever you are.

The Los Angeles Breakfast Club, 3201 Riverside Drive, L.A., (323) 662-1191

charles.perry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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