Several hundred aficionados of Hollywood kitsch, stiff martinis and red leatherette booths rallied outside the Formosa Cafe on Thursday, hoping to save the legendary watering hole from a future as a parking lot.
For more than two hours, they chanted slogans, such as “Let the Formosa Live,” waved signs, such as “Don’t Scud the Formosa,” and hurled epithets at Warner Hollywood Studios, which owns the property and has ordered the Formosa shut by the end of the month.
The crowd ranged from regulars, such as Ross Taylor who, after 41 years, gets his vodka and soda with just a nod, to relative newcomers, such as Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the rock band INXS, who sees the cafe as a cultural institution.
“We don’t have an Eiffel Tower in Hollywood,” said Steven Gaydos, a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., as he joined the swell outside the cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard. “We have things like the Formosa.”
Warner Bros., which purchased the land four years ago, has other plans for the Formosa. The company hopes to raze the small concrete box, built around an old “Red Car” from the city’s mass transit past, and its famous green neon sign to make way for a five-story parking garage to serve its expanding studios on the other side of Formosa Avenue.
The West Hollywood City Council has yet to approve the project, however, and Formosa backers are hoping they can still persuade the studio to redraw its plans to include one of the last longtime hangouts of the stars.
“When places like this go, there’s nothing to replace them,” said Rachelle Schoberg, 27, a singer-songwriter. “Pretty soon L.A. will look like Des Moines, Iowa.”
This, after all, is the bar where Elvis drank beer, Lana Turner danced in the aisles, Pearl Bailey serenaded diners and Rudy Vallee was once escorted home by the staff. Autographed black-and-white glossies seem to fill up every inch of wall space: Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra.
“We’re dead serious about this, because we know the Hollywood of yesterday,” said Elena Del Rubio, one the singing Del Rubio Triplets, who all showed up in blonde coifs, black fur miniskirts and white ankle boots.
But it’s not just a dive for stars. Under the orange glow of the Oriental lamps, patrons say, everyone is treated as an equal.
Waitresses with four decades on the job greet you with a hug. Lindy Brewerton, 79, the sure-handed nighttime bartender, never forgets a face. And from his corner booth, 81-year-old Lem Quon, who has owned the Formosa since 1945, makes sure no customer’s needs go unattended.
“It’s dark, it’s seedy, it’s got ambience, it’s romantic and they make a stiff drink,” said Judi Trevor, an actress who has been coming for 15 years.
Protest organizers, who call themselves “Friends of the Formosa,” said they collected more than 300 signatures Thursday afternoon and plan to turn them over to the West Hollywood Urban Conservation League.
If the cafe can be granted historical landmark status, they hope, it might just avoid the fate that befell other landmarks such as the Brown Derby, Pickfair and Schwab’s Drugstore.
“When you walk inside, you feel the spirits of all those stars,” said Margaret Blye, an actress and one of the protest leaders. “That’s too precious and too dear to lose.”