Britons Carve Small Empire in Heart of N. Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Once a month on a Saturday night, a quiet-looking building in the heart of North Hollywood is transformed into a middle-class pub in Great Britain.

Sausage and potatoes are served for dinner, and the bar is stocked with warm beer. A crowd of roughly 200 people gathers to sing dance-hall tunes and play darts, or talk in British accents that thicken as the night wears on.

Inside, no one cares that middle-class Britain is thousands of miles away.

"We call it the crumpet Mafia," said Roy Green, a 59-year-old Glendale resident and a member of Southern California's largest nonprofit British social club. "What we do is get together here and act like we never left."

Welcome to the Mayflower Club, a haven on Victory Boulevard for servants of The Queen.

Pub Night a Mainstay

The club's monthly pub night is the mainstay of its regular activities, but the clubhouse it built 10 years ago is also a place for people with a craving for afternoon tea, a good game of whist or the latest gossip from Leeds, or London, or Glasgow, or Dublin. And it's the place to go for rousing renditions of "The White Cliffs of Dover," "I'm 'En-er-ee the 8th, I Am" or "Knees Up Mother Brown."

It is not a place for purple hairdos, punk rock or other more modern British imports.

Instead, there are ballroom dances here, along with noisy, slapstick Christmas plays called pantomimes. A chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire meets once a month, and once a year there are formal dances honoring Her Majesty's birthday.

"Some of the traditions we preserve hardly exist in England anymore," joked Tom Selby, 61, of North Hollywood. "But, then again, these are the kinds of people who thought the Beatles were dangerous."

Nearly 80 Clubs

According to figures confirmed by the British Consulate, there are nearly 80 British clubs in or near Los Angeles County, ranging widely in size and scope. Some of the clubs are extremely traditional, while others exist primarily to book charter flights to Great Britain.

By some accounts, many of these clubs are suffering today, having lost large chunks of membership during airline fare wars in the late 1970s.

But the Mayflower Club is alive and well--even thriving. Although membership is nowhere near a 1979 high of roughly 11,000, organizers say the club remains active, powered by a core of nearly 4,000 loyal members. Drawn primarily from the San Fernando Valley, but also from as far away as Bakersfield and Long Beach, this core appears to be largely composed of English families who settled in California in the 1950s.

"A lot of middle-class English people came here in the years just after the war, when the economy at home was a shambles," said Green, who left London for Hollywood in 1957. "Look around and you'll find a lot of war brides here, and a lot of veterans."

The Mayflower Club itself is younger than most of the people who belong to it. Founded in 1965 by Selby's wife, Eileen, it quickly outgrew the backyard of the Selby home in North Hollywood.

"Our first garden party drew 158 people," said Eileen Selby, 60, a retired bookkeeper who edits the club's monthly newsletter. "Over the years we kept adding functions, renting bigger and bigger halls."

In 1975, with membership funds and commissions from what was then a thriving charter flight business, the club effectively made itself an institution in the Valley by purchasing and converting an abandoned North Hollywood church building.

"There's a beautiful baptismal font underneath the stage," said Selby. "We made a few changes to bring the building up to date."

Today the walls of the two-story building are lined with maps of the Empire and pictures of the royal family. The kitchen has been expanded and a Union Jack installed near an American flag in the corner. Upstairs, a full-time secretary attends to club business, which still involves a steady stream of charter-flight arrangements.

Bagpipes to Skirl

Downstairs, a large all-purpose room houses a number of traditions. The dart boards are removed for twice-monthly teas sponsored by the Daughters of the Empire, which raises money for a senior citizens' home in Sierra Madre. Dance classes are held once a week, emphasizing fox trots and tangos. Saturday, a Scottish contingent will honor Scottish poet Robert Burns, filling the room with the skirling of bagpipes and pounding of drums.

A few of the functions are less genteel. Beginning Jan. 26, for instance, the club will stage a week of traditional British Christmas plays, based loosely on children's fairy tales. Typically, the plays involve pretty women dressed as princes, ugly men dressed as women, a tired plot and loud, boisterous crowds.

"It's something you take your family to," said Green, who wrote this year's version. "Back in England, they are something of an art."

Then there are the pub nights, which typically draw the largest and most diversified crowds. Last Saturday, for instance, there were tables filled mostly with Irish families, while others sang the praises of Wales. A 79-year-old native of Liverpool said she had driven up from Santa Monica for a Guinness Stout and some dancing. An elderly Indian with an upper-class British accent sat quietly at a table filled with relatives, while his sons slipped away for a night of serious darts.

"We're doing big business," said club member John Payne of North Hollywood, who managed the bar that night. "Funny thing is, our biggest-selling beer is from Milwaukee."

And it's served ice cold.

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