Talk about a change of scene. If he were alive today, actor John Barrymore probably wouldn't recognize his former West Hollywood estate. Where a red-tiled Mediterranean-style villa once stood at Sunset and Olive, Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Isaac Tigrett has built a rambling, three-story Delta-style spread called House of Blues to serve up soulful blues, African-American folk art and Southern home cookin'.
The celebrity-backed venture (the first two House of Blues nightclubs are in Cambridge, Mass., and New Orleans, and investors include Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi) opened only three months ago, but parts of this 30,000-square-foot outpost--like the corrugated-tin exterior--go way back. Tigrett, an avid blues fan from Tennessee, grew up chauffeuring Memphis bluesmen Furry Lewis and Bukka White around town. During trips home, he had seen an old cotton gin near "the crossroads," the junction of highways 61 and 49 outside Clarksdale, Miss., where legend has it that blues great Robert Johnson made a pact with the devil in exchange for talent and fame. In February, Tigrett bought the gin's battered siding, plus two truckloads of "crossroads" dirt that lie under the stage, and shipped it all to the Sunset Strip.
Behind the weathered roadhouse facade, the interior is an eye-popping mix of color, pattern and texture. Scenic artist Brent Spears painted ceilings and walls, peppering every surface with stars, stripes and an assortment of childlike doodles. For example, the paneled doors of the Take It Easy Baby Blues Accessories retail store (merchandise ranges from vintage Gruhn guitars and blues CDs to folk art and furniture) are painted with red cabbage roses on a field of blue polka dots. Spears never planned any of the designs, he says: "I made them up as I went along. It's about painting a feeling--it just flows out of me."
A 55-foot-long bar decorated by artist Jon Bok is the focal point of the restaurant. The footrest consists of 1934 California license plates recycled from a roof; the sides and top are covered with bottle caps, thrift-shop portraits and hundreds of hand-painted metal skeletons that Bok fashioned from cans. "I eat a lot of Campbell's soup," he says. Between 9 and 10 every night, the bar swings open and rotates 90 degrees to reveal a stage below and a proscenium arch studded with religious symbols and a sign proclaiming "Unity in Diversity." Overhead, a ceiling by English sculptor Andrew Wood features a pantheon of blues artists in bas-relief.
Upstairs, the club takes a decidedly Indian-Colonial turn in a series of private lounges and dining areas for sponsors of the International House of Blues Foundation, a nonprofit educational network that teaches history through art and music. On one of his trips to India, Tigrett encountered a maharajah dismantling his palace, so ornate architectural remnants from there and elsewhere abound: A 400-year-old Indian doorway of hand-carved wood announces the main lounge; 500-pound wood corbels adorn the bar. African-American folk art hangs on nearly all the walls, which are also lined with vintage Indian quilts for a zany juxtaposition of colors and continents. Elaborate plaster ceilings were reproduced with molds from the Biltmore Hotel. The indoor dining area, supervised by former La Toque chef Ken Frank, sports floor-to-ceiling mahogany paneling from a turn-of-the century English steamer.
Under the Hollywood billboards and swaying palms, the ramshackle-looking house that Isaac built resonates with sound and color, a celebration of African-American music and folk art.