Wearing brown bowlers and bearing red roses and a mock casket, Hollywood preservationists Monday bade farewell to the Brown Derby restaurant on Vine Street, where Gable proposed to Lombard, Chaplin mixed it up with his wife, and Dietrich stunned the world by strolling into the lobby wearing--gasp!--slacks.
It was a Valentine’s Day heartbreak for the Hollywood Heritage preservation group, which has contended that the eatery should have been renovated rather than razed after it was damaged in the Jan. 17 earthquake.
But on Jan. 24 bulldozers began plowing over the restaurant, the first building in Hollywood to be demolished because of the quake, and the group decided to turn what would have been the restaurant’s 65th birthday into a mock funeral for one of Hollywood’s most recognizable landmarks, with a huge derby perched on the roof.
As the sidewalk shook from passing tractors and the rumble of bulldozers and drilling filled the air, many railed against the destruction of so many Hollywood monuments.
“Where is management, where is the accountability--who is responsible for saving the true Hollywood?” asked Matthew Lesniak, a photographer and Heritage member. “Take a look around: Schwab’s Drugstore--demolished. Pickfair--gone. The Hollywood Canteen--gone. Don the Beachcomber--destroyed. The D.W. Griffith Studios--leveled. This policy of demolition is taking the heart out of Hollywood.”
The restaurant became famous for its proximity to the studios, and as the scene of spats among its celebrity clientele. Within its wood-paneled interior, press agents congregated for a word with the stars, and gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons held court during lunch hour. Marlene Dietrich caused an uproar by walking in wearing slacks. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard engaged in verbal fisticuffs. And Irish regulars Ralph Bellamy, Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien often tippled past closing time.
The restaurant closed in 1985 in a lease dispute and the building quickly deteriorated from damage by squatters and fires in 1987, 1990 and 1992. The quake proved fatal.
“We tried to save the building but the Building and Safety Department declared it an imminent hazard, and a threat to public safety,” said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who has been criticized for not saving the structure. “My office is still screaming and yelling to save other buildings.”
Monday’s funeral brought out the idle, the curious and those with fond memories. Richard Whitley, a screenwriter and Hollywood buff, remembers picking up his girlfriend from the airport in 1981 and driving straight to the Derby, where he proposed in Booth 5, the same one in which Gable proposed to Lombard in 1939. After 13 years, the Whitleys are still married.
“After three weeks, there’s still part of the building left. I think it’s haunted--a lot of celebrity ghosts don’t want it torn down,” said Christine O’Brien, a Hollywood Heritage member.