Once Upon a Time . . . : A Prince and a Bear Frolicked in the Hills. Then They Met a Page.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The adage that talk is cheap clearly did not apply to the Brentwood Bla-Bla. Just a few months ago, the chatty community reader and its sister publication, Beverly Hills, the Magazine, fetched more than $1 million from a Los Angeles investment group.

The deal was supposed to bring financial stability to the reader-written magazines, which often operated in the red under iconoclastic publishers who call themselves "the Prince" and "the Bear." But storm clouds have gathered over Bla-Bla land.

The Prince and the Bear resigned or were fired last week, depending on whom you believe, after a series of disputes with the magazines' new owner, Robert E. Page.

Page said the split came because the two, otherwise known as Michael Lobkowicz and Robert Wachtel, resisted management changes. Lobkowicz and Wachtel maintain that Page carried out a crusade to tame the free spiritedness that set the Bla-Bla apart. So hell-bent on change was Page, they contend, that he even pressured them to wear ties.

"Hey, I don't wear ties," said Wachtel, the Bear. "I have an 18 1/2-inch neck."

The dispute has thrown the future of the magazines into doubt. Page, president of Page Group Publishing Inc. and former publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, has pledged to stay the course set by Wachtel and Lobkowicz. But those familiar with the old regime say the magazines will undoubtedly suffer without the creative input of the unconventional publishers.

Wachtel and Lobkowicz certainly brought a unique perspective to community publishing. Readers' reports on vacations, parties, recipes and even private passions were acceptable fodder for the publications that some considered folksy and others pretentious. Some articles were penned by the famous and near-famous, such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kenny Rogers and Norman Lear.

A painting by a Pacific Palisades postman graced the cover of one recent issue of the Bla-Bla, named in honor of the George and Ira Gershwin song, "Blah-Blah-Blah." Inside was a rebuttal to a critical review of the Bistro Garden, an essay on "The Art of Mooching," a short story and a poem titled "L.A., You Dirty Bitch."

But if the copy was somewhat unrefined, the ads were never short of sterling. Luxury car makers, estate builders, restaurant owners and even Arabian horse breeders found its demographics irresistible. The two publications, which are free, claim to reach more than 150,000 residents in the platinum triangle that includes Beverly Hills and Brentwood.

Lobkowicz, who claims royal ancestry dating back centuries, introduced the Bla-Bla in 1987. (His publishing career started 19 years earlier, when he founded the sexually oriented L.A. Star.)

Wachtel, fresh from New York's financial trenches, signed on in 1988. Lobkowicz said the burly businessman simply showed up one day and demanded to be named sales manager.

Wachtel said he saw a chance to boast ad sales from the magazines, a chance that apparently was realized. Within a month, revenues had climbed from $3,500 to $66,000.

Financial stability was never to be a hallmark of the magazines, however. Spats with investors, cost overruns and other problems forced Lobkowicz and Wachtel to cease publication in late 1989. A bridge loan from the New York investing banking firm D. H. Blair put them back in business early this year, but within months Wachtel put out the word that the Bla-Bla and Beverly Hills, the Magazine, were again in the market for investors.

Page Group Publishing, which also owns the Orange Coast Daily Pilot and the Glendale News Press, took control of the struggling magazines in June.

Lobkowicz said the first sign of trouble came with Page's necktie memo. Next, Page criticized the cover painting of a young couple by the Palisades mailman, according to Lobkowicz. "He said the people looked like they were on drugs," Lobkowicz said. Then came a showdown over an untitled poem that likened Los Angeles, in sexually explicit verse, to a woman with large breasts. Lobkowicz accused him of censorship.

Page said his publishers missed the point. "It's a matter of taste and judgment," he said. "It's impossible for me to believe that words that describe certain bodily functions and sexual acts are legitimized in any publication."

The end finally came for Lobkowicz and Wachtel two weeks ago, when Page announced that he intended to exert more control.

The publishers' exit came amid considerable acrimony, which continued this week as they were barred from attending an exhibit of works by Chaim Mekel, the artist responsible for the latest cover of Beverly Hills, the Magazine.

Page foresees a bright future for his publications. But he may have some competition. Lobkowicz and Wachtel are hatching plans for a new, statewide version of their own reader-driven magazines called Pacific Coast Highway.

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