Last of the Brown Derbys Sadly Tips a Final Farewell

Times Staff Writer

For the first time in 59 years, Los Angeles is without a Brown Derby restaurant.

The last of the four Brown Derbys--symbols of the city's ability to lure millions of star-curious tourists--on Wednesday shut its dark-brown doors at 1628 N. Vine St. in Hollywood because of a lease dispute.

The surprise closure occurred at 2 p.m.

Waiters were told to break the news to lunchtime patrons, some of whom had already grown suspicious after seeing a large moving van, it doors open, parked outside.

Fred Lewin, a spokesman for owner Walter P. Scharfe, said Scharfe is "99% committed" to reopening the Brown Derby "just as it was here"--from the luxurious booths, to the hundreds of caricatures of stars that line the dining room's walls--at another location in "Hollywood or its vicinity."

But that pledge did little to stifle the gloom around the building Wednesday.

"It's the end of an era," said Mary Bray of Sepulveda, who was having lunch before going around the corner to see "La Cage Aux Folles" at the Pantages.

Bray said she had frequented the Derby since 1943.

"It was always great, and I was a teen-ager and I loved to see movie stars," she said.

Melting Pot

Opened in 1929, the Hollywood Brown Derby reigned through the 1960s as a melting pot of celebrities, studio executives and anyone who wanted to gawk at them.

It was the creation of Herbert K. Samborn, the husband of actress Gloria Swanson.

Samborn developed the original Brown Derby--famed for its derby-like shape--across from the Ambassador on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926. A third Derby opened in Beverly Hills in the 1930s, and a fourth was later developed in the Los Feliz District, but changed hands and was renamed.

But the legend began to tarnish in 1980, when the original Derby was closed and partially demolished, despite the protests of city preservationists.

Two years later, the Beverly Hills Derby was closed and sold by Scharfe, who had purchased the Beverly Hills and Hollywood restaurants from stockholders in 1975.

That left only the Hollywood location.

While its interior design continued to boast of its fame as a meeting place for the rich and famous, the restaurant had lost much of its celebrity and entertainment industry trade, as some studios and record companies left Hollywood for other parts of Los Angeles.

Recently, the building was sold by its owners, members of the family of the late director Cecil B. DeMille, to two Hollywood developers.

Scharfe was unable to negotiate a satisfactory lease with the new owners, Lewin said, so feeling his hand had been forced, Scharfe decided to move.

Lewin said Scharfe hopes to reopen within four to six months. Marian Gibbons, president of Hollywood Heritage, said she is optimistic that Scharfe will make good on his promise.

"What's important is to preserve the interior," Gibbons said.

Celebrities Dwindled

However, a source familiar with Los Angeles' restaurant industry said he doubts that a reopened Brown Derby would be successful, because its most crucial component--tourist business--has fallen off as the number of celebrity customers has dwindled. He and several other observers said the Derby has become dependent on trade from the nearby Pantages and Huntington Hartford theaters.

Inside the Brown Derby on Wednesday, Dave Kaufman, Daily Variety's television editor, ate for the last time at Booth 3--where he has eaten lunch most days for the last 35 years.

"It's sad," Kaufman said. "It was a very pleasant place to be."

Sonny Melendrez, a Los Angeles disc jockey and a regular customer for 12 years, said the seven members of his luncheon party bid the Derby adieu by ordering Cobb salads, named after Sallie Cobb, whose husband, Robert, was the first manager of the original Derby.

"This is like tearing down the Alamo," Melendrez said.

Susan Vanlerberg, a tourist from Nanaimo, Canada, made her pilgrimage during the final moments of business.

"What a thrill," she said. "Any child growing up in the North American continent has heard of this place."

Laura Simonds of Palos Verdes Estates was angry as she left the Derby after lunch.

"I think it's a shame," she said. "I've been going there since I was 12 years old."

She and a friend, Marcee Ferris, walked around the corner to Hollywood Boulevard, heading for the Pantages' matinee performance.

"This is what's left of Hollywood," Ferris said, gesturing to a collection of small, nondescript buildings. "This is where you'll go to eat lunch now--the Chief Crazy Horse Saloon."

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