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A New Brown Derby Tips Its Hat to Past

Times Staff Writer

Anthony de Pasquali of Hartford, Conn., spotted the new Brown Derby sign at the corner of Hollywood and Vine--and immediately thought of home.

“We’ve got lots of Brown Derby steak houses back there, so I decided to come in,” De Pasquali explained in the lobby.

“Uh, we are not associated with those Brown Derbys,” a restaurant spokesman told him.

De Pasquali stayed to have lunch anyway--and said he enjoyed it.

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Most of the other customers, however, were drawn to the official opening Thursday of the relocated eatery by the memories it evoked of Hollywood’s past: Clark Gable proposing to Carole Lombard in Booth No. 5 (he got a yes), ventriloquist Edgar Bergen lunching with his dummies, and gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper ignoring each other in separate rooms.

That Hollywood Brown Derby, which opened in 1929 half a block away, shut down in 1985 when owner Walter Scharfe decided that the aging Spanish-style building was, as he put it, “over the hill.”

It was almost like old times Thursday.

The new Derby offered its trademark Cobb salad and grapefruit cake. And many of its original numbered, black-leather booths were there as well as the hanging ink caricatures of more than 1,000 stars, including one of a young actor named Ronald Reagan, who wrote beside his name: “Hang me high!”

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But some of the glamour was missing in the new Derby, formerly the site of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant.

Celebrities were noticeably absent at the symbolic film-cutting ceremony involving Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Bill Welsh and honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant.

"(Actor) John Ritter was going to stop by at lunchtime but he decided not to because of the rain,” said Brown Derby spokeswoman Anne Ingram. She added that there was a rumor that President Reagan would call in congratulations, but that his Thursday night press conference had taken precedent.

Gawkers, however, turned out in large numbers.

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“A woman came up to me and asked if I was in ‘General Hospital,’ ” said one diner, Maggie Britt, a publisher’s representative. “When I said no, she asked if I was somebody she should know.”

But, even if the stars were present only in photos and drawings, the memories were enough for some.

“Seems like I spent most of my life in the Hollywood Derby--all the way back to 1938,” said retired television and radio announcer Dresser Dahlstead. “We had a booth on the left side. You used to see everyone in here.”

“This really makes our trip,” said Dorothy Mason of Rio Verde, Ariz., who spotted all the commotion and stopped to have lunch with her husband, Robert.

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Richard Adkins, the president of Hollywood Heritage, a preservation group, called the reopening “a very good sign because it shows the renovation of Hollywood is not just a banner--it’s really happening. This is a Hollywood institution.”

No one was more pleased than owner Walter Scharfe, now that his dream of reopening the Hollywood Derby had come true. Or half true.

He said he plans to install a second floor in the shape of a derby with seating capacity for an additional 150 people.

Even excluding the steakhouses of the same name in the East, Brown Derbys are making a comeback.

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Scharfe, who opened one in Pasadena last year (with some artifacts from the old Hollywood Derby), hopes to start a sort of Brown Derby chain, with more restaurants in Palm Springs, Honolulu and Vancouver.

Then there’s the Brown Derby Plaza shopping plaza in the mid-Wilshire district, where developers plan to house a restaurant under part of the hat that graced the Original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard.

Legend has it that the Original Derby (1926-1980) was built in that shape by restaurateur Herbert Somborn to win a bet from a friend that “if you know anything about food you can sell it out of a hat.”

Scharfe, who sold the original Derby in 1975, objects to the use of the name in the shopping center and said his lawyers have asked that it be changed.

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But for now he’s happy to hang his hat on Hollywood and Vine.

“This is more cheerful than the old Derby,” he said. “There was no daylight in that one. Here we combine Hollywood atmosphere with sunshine and lights. What we do here in 7,000 square feet we did there in 24,000 square feet.”

“When I heard it was reopening I remembered the old number and called and they answered--the same number since I started coming here in 1946--isn’t that wonderful!” said Sue Clark Chadwick, a publicist for the old “This Is Your Life” television and radio shows.


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