COLUMN ONE : Where the Stars Went Out at Night : Chasen’s. Perino’s. The Cocoanut Grove. Old Hollywood’s royalty held court in glamorous restaurants whose time has passed them by.
For 58 years--an eternity in this town--Chasen’s was the quintessence of Hollywood, as sublime as the expensive caviar that is on the menu and as low-brow as the world-famous chili that is not.
It was the spot where fans could find President Ronald Reagan with his boiled beef in Booth No. 2. Alfred Hitchcock routinely fell asleep at his table. Humphrey Bogart and his third wife fought raucously at theirs. Howard Hughes once rose from his and asked to use the house phone for a second. He was still gabbing like a wild man at 4 a.m.
There was a time when everyone who was anyone in Hollywood could have been found in one of the deep, dark banquettes at Chasen’s, on the dance floor at the Cocoanut Grove, in the foyer of Cafe Trocadero or tucking into a Cobb salad at the Brown Derby. But those were the days when a star was a star and a restaurant was not just a hangout or a plate of food but an establishment in which to see and be seen.
Now, for reasons sociological and otherwise, neither stars nor their backdrops, no matter how dazzling, seem quite what they used to be. And in a city where the bon mot of the moment is, “That is soooo five-minutes-ago,” there isn’t much room for institutions anymore, either of the human or the brick and mortar variety.
“The idea in Hollywood is to be in the prow,” said Neal Gabler, who has written extensively about Tinseltown history. “The idea is to be at that place that is the center of the center. And Chasen’s became an anachronism.”
Gabler and other historians say the closing this spring of Dave and Maude Chasen’s sprawling ersatz chateau will mark the latest--and nearly the last--nail in the coffin for Old Hollywood. Its owners promise that the West Hollywood eatery will someday return, in a new and “streamlined” incarnation, but restaurateurs and other observers of Los Angeles’ social culture contend that it is more likely that it will join such bygone glamour spots as Perino’s, Romanoff’s, Scandia, the Mocambo and the Zebra Room in that big back booth in the sky.
In the time it takes to read this article, the latest Hollywood in-spot will probably be on its way out--part of the inevitable rhythm of doing business in modern Los Angeles. House of Blues, Viper Room and Tatou are at the cutting edge of a subculture that may be more fickle than any in history.
Indeed, in the Los Angeles of the 1990s, today’s “institution” is tomorrow’s commercial-space-for-lease.
“You have to live with the realization that this town changes a lot,” said Jerry Prendergast, general manager of Sanctuary, a currently hip restaurant in Beverly Hills that previously housed the once-hip Cafe Morpheus and before that the also-hip Asylum.
“Everyone comes here to get away from tradition,” he said. “I’m surprised that there’s actually a Brooks Brothers here.”
It was not always this way. There was a time, it seemed, when icons had more than 15 minutes of fame, and a place that could last for 58 years might stand a shot at immortality.
Still, as Chasen’s moved past its prime in the late ‘70s, historian Gabler noted, “the action moved on to Ma Maison, to Spago. To be at Chasen’s was to mark yourself as a dinosaur, it was to be in the past with the Brown Derby or Romanoff’s. They’re all gone now because Hollywood is a place where the object is to be in vogue. . . . Sometime it will be Spago’s turn. They all have built-in obsolescence. They are all dependent on being on the very edge.”
Gabler, who did research on Chasen’s for his 1988 book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” said the trend reflects not only the fast-forward nature of ‘90s L.A., but the evolution of Hollywood stardom.
With the collapse of the tightly controlled studio system, glamour was transferred from a few special settings to a constantly changing cast of individuals, he said. So hot places today do not have to be designed for luxury because the spark comes “from the people who are there, not that notion of the restaurant as stage setting,” Gabler said.
Film archivist and historian Marc Wanamaker can rattle off the obituary list of restaurants and nightclubs that once were synonymous with traditional Hollywood glitz. With Chasen’s soon to join them, only Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard will remain, he said.
“It represents the typical lack of interest in supporting the old places,” Wanamaker said. “The old people are dying off or are not going there anymore. The newer people have no cultural roots here, nothing that relates them to Chasen’s or Musso’s and they couldn’t care less. The crux of the problem is that most people have no cultural or emotional ties to any of these landmarks.”
Just last year, another beloved institution--Nickodell Restaurant--was shuttered. The Melrose Avenue eatery had been a hangout for actors and technicians from Paramount Pictures, its next-door neighbor, since the 1920s.
It was a martini and club steak kind of place in a town increasingly hooked on bottled water and tuna tacos. Business fell into decline and the neighborhood got rougher.
Paramount, the landlord for three years, at first insisted that it had no immediate plans for the site after the restaurant closed. But a few weeks later, Nickodell and its towering blue-and-white sign were gone. In an example of Hollywood wizardry, the Paramount parking lot fence was extended around the property and mature bushes lined the perimeter as if nothing else had ever been there.
Then, after the Northridge earthquake in January further weakened the boarded-up and fire-damaged Brown Derby restaurant building on Vine Street in Hollywood, property owners opted for demolition of that once-proud establishment.
Preservationists insisted that the 1929 building where Clark Gable proposed marriage to Carole Lombard could have been saved. But a parking lot emerged and the protesters were reduced to holding a mock funeral. (The Original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard--an informal lunch counter that spawned the fancier Derby on Vine--was ripped down in the mid-'80s and its signature hat crowns the mini-mall on the site.)
The Cocoanut Grove Club, once the epicenter of movieland social life and the scene of several Academy Awards ceremonies, closed in 1988 after 67 years in business. The fate of the building is uncertain.
Perino’s, the elegant eatery that fed the likes of Cole Porter, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bugsy Siegel, suffered a lingering death. It opened in 1932 on Wilshire Boulevard and later moved to another spot on the street where it survived until a 1985 bankruptcy; an attempted revival did not succeed although the structure still stands.
“L.A. has never been a place to revere its history or respect its history,” said Greg Williams, a preservation activist with the Hollywood Heritage organization, which tried to save the Brown Derby. “We always like the fresh and new, build it up and tear it down. But I don’t find a lot of it is an improvement. We tear too much of it down and wind up with nothing.”
Hollywood old-timers agree.
“I’ve seen the business change and Chasen’s is a symbol of what once was,” said 69-year-old Danny Arnold, producer of such shows as “Barney Miller,” “My World and Welcome to It,” “Bewitched” and “That Girl.”
“In the old days, the industry was interested in the classics, there was a great deal more charm,” he said. “Today, I think everything appeals to raw emotions and it’s a reflection of the times we live in.”
That, he said, is apparent even in the movies themselves. “If you don’t blow up five buildings and kill 30 people in the first 40 feet of film, you’re going downhill.”
In its first incarnation, Chasen’s hardly had the look of a Hollywood glamour palace.
The place had six tables, an eight-stool counter and sold chili at 25 cents a bowl. Bar drinks ran about 35 cents. About 15 people attended the restaurant’s opening night, Dec. 13, 1936, but they were the kind of people who in those days could set a restaurant for life: Frank Capra. Jimmy Cagney. Pat O’Brien.
From then on, Chasen’s joined the Hollywood pantheon and became the sort of place that would evoke vivid memories decades hence--of the escapades that occurred there, the famous faces, the deals, the setting, the owners themselves.
“I remember Chasen’s when it was just a barbecue pit,” sighed Lita Grey Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s second wife, who is 86 and living in West Hollywood.
“Through the years it grew and grew until it became one of the most popular restaurants in town, for film luminaries and so forth.”
Walter Seltzer, the veteran producer and a former Hollywood public relations man, said he will never forget Dean Martin’s bachelor party when another well-known star “got very drunk and managed to shock even the most sophisticated friends of Dean by (relieving himself) into the potted plants.”
Shenanigans and gimmicks were the order of the day, and restaurateurs who were willing to play along were part of what made the industry run. Ciro’s became legendary as the spot where contract players were sent on fake dates arranged by studio publicists.
The people caricatured at the Brown Derby, and the placement of their cartoons, could make or break careers. The eatery also gave 50% discounts to gossip columnists simply for showing up and eavesdropping.
In a town that lives on its own P.R., Chasen’s ranked with the best of them. When a movie star--any movie star--got admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Chasen’s would ship some chili over so the celebrity would not have to eat hospital food. When Shirley Temple sobbed one night for a cocktail like the ones her mother and father had, the bartender purportedly invented a concoction of ginger ale, grenadine and fruit that still bears her name. When a pregnant Dorothy Lamour was uncomfortable at Table 12, Dave Chasen had a portion of it cut out to comfortably accommodate her.
The place, Seltzer said, “instilled the feeling that you were in a private club, populated by your colleagues and by your peers and by your bosses. It was a social event.”
And Sunday night, he added, was the prime time at the place.
“Dress code was strictly observed, a coat and tie,” he said. “And (they had) a marvelous conceit even when credit cards were available, a house account. If you had a Chasen’s account, that was a badge of belonging, of importance. That was a sociological phenomenon of the time.”
The heyday of the restaurant stretched on through the decades, through change upon change in fads, food and philosophy. Through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Chasen’s flourished, maturing from its humble origins to a sumptuous, gated mansion of a place, with soft lighting and expensive furnishings and solicitous waiters and--the selling point that would one day contribute to its demise--an emphasis on old-fashioned class and old-fashioned food and lots and lots of elbowroom.
“It represented the era when the studios ran the town . . . when the star system was in its glory,” said Herb Steinberg, former vice president of MCA Recreation Division and a Chasen’s regular since 1955.
“You went, you dressed up, you wore a shirt and tie. It was a great atmosphere.”
But what once seemed like great atmosphere came increasingly to resemble stultifying boredom as the old Hollywood haunts gave way to the new, and tuxedos and cocktail frocks were replaced by Armani jackets and jeans, regardless of gender.
“Chasen’s out-aged the new generation,” Steinberg lamented. “They don’t have the formality, they like to go to places where you don’t have a tie. They like to go to places where you don’t have to make a reservation. At Chasen’s, you always had to make a reservation.”
Eventually, economics took over. Although Chasen’s made it through the 1970s to a Reagan-era renaissance in the 1980s, the recession hit all Los Angeles restaurants, especially the big places like Chasen’s that had high overheads.
Time took its toll as well. Dave Chasen, an ex-vaudevillian who had more luck with his chili than with his comedy, died in 1973 and Maude, once an inveterate table-hopper, is in her 90s. She reportedly has scarcely gone to the restaurant during the past year.
And for today’s trendies--the GenX-ers who make and break fashion--old age made Chasen’s and places like it irrelevant. Who wanted to spend an evening rubbernecking at, say, ninetysomething George Burns when Johnny Depp might be at the Viper Room five minutes away?
Now the Chasen’s site is being sold to a developer who plans to put up a mall with a supermarket, a chain drugstore and perhaps even a scaled-down version of Maude and Dave’s place.
But a comeback restaurant might find it tough going in a world where younger stars scoff at the aura of formality that Old Hollywood adored. “The last few years, it’s been all grunge and jeans,” said Pamela Anderson, a co-star of the hot TV series “Baywatch” and a restaurant investor herself.
Angela Janklow, editor of Mouth2Mouth magazine, which caters to readers in their 20s, said Chasen’s is in a “rarefied realm of restaurants where you would make a plan to go there, you would have to dress up, and your dreams the night before would be of a Hobo steak.”
She, personally, has not been to Chasen’s since her last big family gathering, “a grand, ceremonial evening with Gramps.”
Times staff writers Tina Daunt, Ralph Frammolino, Laura A. Galloway, Kathie Jenkins, Bob Pool and Jeannine Stein contributed to this story.
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