Mama Pajama Parties Celebrate Caffeine, Rhythm and Rhyme : Nora Landrum’s free, experimental and non-alcoholic West Los Angeles coffeehouse is a wish fulfilled, offering artists, poets and musicians support--and a place to ply their crafts.
The recent Los Angeles coffeehouse trend includes certain common traits, namely coffee, objets d’art and the occasional spouting poet.
That may seem enough to most, but at Mama Pajama, a West Los Angeles coffee house, that list lacks a few things--such as Elvis impersonators, for instance.
“I like to encourage artists,” said Nora Landrum, owner of Mama Pajama. “It feels good to be a part of it.”
Mama Pajama is a Los Angeles coffeehouse that refuses to act like one. Located at Durango Avenue and Venice Boulevard, this espresso house/vintage clothing store has branched out in recent months to become a haven for performers and artists of all kinds in need of a space to express themselves.
“It’s very experimental here,” said Mama Pajama regular Andy Manoff. “People really feel free to try new ideas.”
It wasn’t planned this way. Landrum, 52, opened Mama Pajama with her daughter two years ago, fulfilling a longtime dream of owning their own coffeehouse, which they named after a Paul Simon song. After 18 months of virtually nonexistent nighttime business, Mama Pajama began offering much more than caffeine and classic threads. Now, amid the clutter of clothes racks and hat boxes, visitors are treated to scores of creative endeavors, including monthly poetry readings, musical acts, art openings, performing theater groups and other miscellaneous events.
Along with providing a forum for fledgling artists and musicians, Landrum’s eclectic store gives needed support to those seeking an alcohol-free environment.
“I would guess that one-third of my clientele is in recovery,” said Landrum, who gives 10% of her profits to Felicity House, a nearby halfway house that offers a sober living environment for women with substance-abuse problems.
It was while her daughter was at Felicity House that Landrum sold her home and decided to open a coffee house. A small, soft-spoken woman with bright red hair, Landrum happily reports that her daughter, though no longer a partner at Mama Pajama, is in her fourth year of sobriety. Other graduates of Felicity House, some of whom jokingly refer to Landrum as a “normie,” praise her for her constant support.
As a result, Mama Pajama has had a loyal daytime following, but the night activities were sparsely attended. Until recently, even area residents didn’t know Mama Pajama existed.
“It was as if an energy field was hiding the place,” said Jef Davis, who runs the open-mike music performances on Friday nights.
Landrum said the problem was more physical in nature.
“For months I complained to the landlord about a dumpster that was obscuring my front door and sign, but he wouldn’t move it,” Landrum said. Finally, six months ago the eyesore was removed.
Landrum said the increased visibility, word of mouth and development in the area, especially the opening of a popular fast-food restaurant and a video store, have all contributed to an upsurge in business.
Now it’s not out of the ordinary to find 100 people taking in the diverse performances at night while sipping java.
“Up until two months ago, the business was mostly the clothes,” said Landrum, who adds that the vintage apparel is still important to Mama Pajama. (Her customers include costumers for television shows that require old clothes, such as “A Man Called Joe,” starring Robert Mitchum.) “But now, most come for the night.”
The big draw at Mama Pajama is the music. An open mike is available Friday nights, and Saturday night features showcases with more experienced performers. Davis, who organizes and runs the weekly sessions, said the musical sign-ups on Friday have grown in popularity as guitar pickers, vocalists, and other amateur and professional-level musicians try out their acts on the small stage.
“We fill up every time,” said Davis, who uses a lottery system to schedule the musicians. “I can accommodate 20 acts, and I fill up 20 cards every Friday.”
Landrum said anything goes “except heavy metal” or other music too loud for the small club. But Mama Pajama will accommodate just about anybody else who arrives in time to get a card and who pays the $3 cover charge--even if it means spotlighting the occasional oddball, such as the aerospace engineer who thought he could do a pretty good Elvis Presley.
“There have been acts people here have begged me not to invite back,” Davis said.
But he said that’s the way he likes it. “I like people who can surprise me.” He recruits many of the musicians, some of whom he meets at his job at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.
Guitarist Andy Manoff, a mainstay at Mama Pajama and the architect of its surprisingly crisp sound system, said Mama Pajama is drawing many regulars from the more established open-mike venues.
“I’m tired of playing at clubs like the Breakaway who want you to bring people in to drink alcohol,” said Manoff, 35. “You don’t have to have a draw to play here.”
Manoff compared Mama Pajama to a “New York, Greenwich Village kind of hangout.” Others agree.
“This is like New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” said guitarist Nevan Starr. “It’s like a time warp in here.”
With added exposure and bigger crowds, Landrum started scheduling regular weekly and monthly events, sometimes solely at the request of customers and friends who asked her for space to perform. One of the new features is Second Sunday at Mama Pajama, a structured reading held on the second Sunday of each month. Poetry buffs pay a $3 cover charge to hear a lineup of about 15 seasoned poets. The readings started in February.
“Sandy, I’d feel better if you could come up here and beat some drum,” said a young poet in a red beret who was struggling with her emotional text. A man with long blond hair joined her and began to lightly tap a pair of bongos to pace the poet’s stirring delivery. This sort of edge is not uncommon at Second Sunday, where the content and atmosphere is more intense than at most coffeehouse readings.
“I feel a lot of freedom in this place,” said Raina Paris, 27, who organizes Second Sunday. “The poets aren’t trying to impress the others. Everyone’s very receptive.”
Joel Lipman, a veteran of the local poetry scene, said the intimacy of the small room adds a certain power to the words. “There’s a lot of emotional, muscular stuff read here,” said Lipman, 33, who regularly reads at Palette in Hollywood. “The smallness of the room lets you into the poetry. You have no choice but to get sucked in.”
“It’s smaller, and people here are older,” said Ellen Henderson, 26, whom Paris invited to read. “The stuff here is more serious, with really deep experiences, and there’s not as much funny material as you hear in other readings.”
Adding to the atmosphere at Mama Pajama is the artwork on the walls, shelves, and just about any other available space. Landrum picks an artist of the month, always an unknown, whose work is exhibited for appreciation and for sale.
“The quality and prices vary a lot,” said Landrum, who keeps 25% of art sales.
There’s never a lack of new talent. “We’re booked up for the next year,” she said.
Ceramic artist Toni Lawrence showed her work at Mama Pajama about eight months ago, and her brightly colored mugs and bowls still occupy a shelf near the coffee counter. To her, Mama Pajama is a unique opportunity for new talent.
“It’s the kind of space where you can feel you can do it,” Lawrence said. “I’ve been to spaces where they cater to names, not talent, but here an artist can grow.”
Recently, Lawrence and a friend put on a spoken-word performance called “Mata Hari Meets Van Gogh.” Lawrence says it was just another example of Landrum’s generosity in offering a platform to try out material of all kinds.
Landrum tries to be open to all talents. When a theater group asked her for a chance to practice on a live audience, she scheduled them for a monthly slot.
“I’d like to involve children more,” she said. “There’s not much for them to do.”
But for the time being, she likes the way it’s going. “I’ll just carry on indefinitely,” Landrum said. “Then I’ll pass it on to somebody else.”