Art Ginsburg

Art's Deli owner Art Ginsburg is shown at the reopening of the deli in 1994. It was out of business for nine months after an aftershock of the Northridge earthquake caused a gas leak explosion that destroyed the deli. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / October 19, 1994)

For Art Ginsburg, it started and ended with deli.

The founder of Art's Deli and Restaurant in Studio City worked his way through junior college building triple-decker sandwiches at a cousin's deli.

When he and his wife, Sandy, had a deli of their own, they would bring a meat slicer into their children's classrooms and introduce young people, who were simultaneously repelled and fascinated, to the wonders of tongue sandwiches. Even after Ginsburg quit running the business himself, he showed up almost daily, greeting customers and kibbitzing — a light-hearted rotund presence amid the knishes and the kreplach.

Ginsburg, who joked that his sprawling deli's huge photos of pastrami and corned beef platters were "Jewish pornography," died Wednesday after a two-decade struggle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, family members said. He was 78.

Just a matzoh-ball's throw from movie studios and stars' homes, Art's Deli became a show business schmoozing spot as well as a neighborhood institution. During a writers' strike in 1988, entertainment executives would quiz Ginsburg about how much food the out-of-work scribes had ordered — a sign, perhaps, of how close they were to a deal.

Stars like Steve Martin, Ed Asner, Mickey Rooney and Richard Dreyfuss would frequently come in for a sandwich or a cup of soup. Warner Brothers executives reserved a table every Saturday morning and at times Ginsburg would cater meals for the corporate jet.

"There would be celebrities in the dining room all the time," Sandy Ginsburg said Thursday, "and Art would say don't bother them. They just want to eat with their families, like everyone else."

As he, his wife and two of their children churned out chopped liver and stuffed derma by the ton, Ginsburg became known as one of the last old-school Jewish deli owners in Los Angeles. On a 2002 Yiddish culture panel at the University of Judaism, he scoffed at his New York counterparts' claims to superiority — especially that bagels made with New York water were somehow better.

"What are they talking about?" he asked in exasperation. "Water is water."

Ginsburg expressed faith in the future of delis — "they're places to meet, to greet, to be at," he said — but acknowledged that times and diets were changing.

"Sour cream is on the way out," he said. "And God help you if you serve canned fruit."

Born in New York City on Feb. 19, 1935, Ginsburg moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. He attended what is now L.A. Valley College, where he later donated money for scholarships.

Using family recipes and an investment of $3,000, he opened Art's Deli — "where every sandwich is a work of Art" — on June 22, 1957.

For Sandy Ginsburg, then 17, it was a thrilling time.

"I thought: How much fun!" she said. "I'll get to work for the summer with my boyfriend."

The summer lasted a lifetime.

The couple, who lived just a few blocks away, raised their three children at the restaurant. When the kids were grown and young couples knee-deep in children came in, Ginsburg would offer to hold crying babies while their parents ate.

In 1994, the restaurant escaped the Northridge earthquake with only a cracked front wall. However, an aftershock less than 24 hours later triggered an electrical fire that closed Art's Deli for nine months.

"We cried and watched it go," Ginsburg told The Times in 1994. "And then smiles came across our faces and we began to plan what we wanted to fix! It was like watching a child get hurt, and then watching it in the hospital getting chicken soup…."

Paul Krekorian, a Los Angeles City Council member representing Studio City, recalled Ginsburg not only as "a patron of pastrami," but as an activist involved in numerous civic efforts.

In addition to his wife, Ginsburg is survived by his son Harold, who now runs the restaurant; daughters Roberta and Beverly; and five grandchildren.

Services were set for 11 a.m. July 26 at Sholom Memorial Park in Sylmar.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com