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Brentwood Sheds Another Trial Reminder

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They were standing three-deep at the bar at Mezzaluna, the now-infamous Brentwood eatery where Nicole Brown Simpson dined on the last night of her life and where Ron Goldman worked as a waiter.

But this was neither lunch nor happy hour. This was a wake of sorts, a fire sale equipment auction at the once casually hip neighborhood restaurant that closed recently after seeing its business crippled by the media and star-gazing frenzy surrounding O.J. Simpson’s criminal and civil trials. On Tuesday, the masses came not to partake of Italian dishes served hot from the kitchen but to carry off the plates themselves.

But along with the sale of paintings and menus, bags of forks and spoons, went some ghosts for free. The closing of Mezzaluna brings Brentwood one step closer to the complete liquidation of its tragic landmarks and, possibly, its bad memories. One by one, the triumvirate of places that figured directly in the slayings of Goldman and Nicole Simpson are being rendered unrecognizable and--neighbors hope--unphotogenic.

Several months ago, the new owners of the townhouse where Nicole Simpson lived completely re-landscaped the shrubbery where her and Goldman’s bodies were found, making the murder site virtually unidentifiable. Now, Mezzaluna--which, after the killings, stopped putting out signature matchbooks because people took too many--is closing. And on July 14, O.J. Simpson’s mansion will be auctioned off.

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“Maybe it’s finally over and people can finally move on,” said Jeff Hall, editor and publisher of the Brentwood News, who wrote an open letter in his newspaper right after Simpson’s 1995 acquittal on criminal charges suggesting that the football great go to Mexico “at least for a while.”

Hall himself picked up a painting of a half-moon (mezzaluna) for $100 at the restaurant auction: “I thought it would be a souvenir to hang inside the Brentwood News.”

He wasn’t alone. Memento hunters vied for pieces of Mezzaluna along with the usual auction-going dealers and restaurant owners.

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The desire to own anything related to the Simpson and Goldman tragedies proved irrepressible, even as Mezzaluna was sold off for rudimentary spare parts. In fact, auctioneer Lee Weiler of the Weiler Group was counting on it. “The curiosity-seekers here will raise the prices on some items,” he said.

“Look at this,” said collector Royce Olsen of Santa Monica. “They’re selling off the menus one by one. Usually, they sell off all the menus as a single lot. But not this place. I think that’s an indicator they think this stuff is going to be pretty hot.”

Bert L. Rogal, the attorney for absent Mezzaluna owner Karim Souki, rolled his eyes toward the heavens. Or at least the sky-painted tiled ceiling above the hordes of anxious bidders.

“Take a look around you,” he said, pointing out the spacious picture windows to the patio tables not far from San Vicente Boulevard. “Do you think you’d want to eat outside this restaurant when you had 5,000 tour buses coming by each day, people craning their necks and leering out the window to see what you were eating? The place wasn’t a restaurant anymore. It was a circus.”

After the killings, menus disappeared. Silverware walked out the door.

“This was never a Spago,” Rogal said. “It was a nice neighborhood restaurant with a loyal clientele--until the murders, that is. And when the hordes stopped coming, the locals had fallen out of the habit. After the lemmings ruined it, there was no business left.”

The circus atmosphere that has haunted this neighborhood reigned at Mezzaluna on Tuesday. Reporters nearly outnumbered bidders, sticking microphones in people’s faces as they tried to call out their bids.

“This is ridiculous,” said one frustrated customer. “I can’t even see what they’re auctioning off. There are too many cameras homing in for a close-up shot.”

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Overall, the fare was less than sexy. The first item auctioned off was an artificial plant that went for less than $10. On tables in the airy triangular-shaped bistro sat well-used serving plates, stacks of silverware, fry cookers and business cards. Brass coat racks, kitchen spatulas, unopened bottles of wine, and one last remaining Mezzaluna T-shirt rounded out the offerings.

And restaurateurs looking for a good deal were hoping that their usual competitors would be driven away by the media attention. Don Evans, owner of a Westside bakery, came in search of large food processors at small prices. “I don’t think there’s much celebrity status in a mixer,” he said.

And so, perhaps now, there will be no tourist site left.

“I see it as an end of an era,” said Hall after he left the auction.

But will all the renovating and re-landscaping ever completely obliterate the physical monuments of one night’s tragic events? The house in which Sharon Tate was murdered no longer even exists--it was razed to build another property--and still tourists find their way to the site, if only to glance at the driveway.

“I think there still might be a trickle of interest but not anything like what it was,” Hall said. “It’s already not like what it was. I think the condo is pretty much over and done with.

“I’d say once a week you see somebody. They take a picture and walk on. But not four or five people deep as it used to be,” said Hall, whose neighborhood errands often take him by the multilevel condo that Nicole Simpson called home.

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Even Rogal doesn’t believe that Mezzaluna no longer being Mezzaluna completely wipes it off the map of gawking sites.

“The restaurant may close and another may move in with another name, but I think people will always remember that as the place, no matter who owns it or what they call it,” he said of Mezzaluna.

“Brentwood can’t erase its past, no matter how hard it tries. There will always be something about that house on Rockingham [O.J. Simpson’s mansion]. And that condo. Twenty years from now, if they’re still standing, those places will carry their reputations.”

The Simpson mansion may indeed be a more enduring tourist site, Hall said. “I think people will always be a little curious to see where the blood was, and see where [the police] jumped over the fence.”

Where once Simpson himself was constantly spotted around the neighborhood, he is now rarely sighted. Hall saw him once at a Brentwood cigar shop. Another resident saw him at the movies on a Monday night in Westwood.

People in Brentwood will tell you that they are long past being concerned with the landmarks of the murders. Grave Line Tours owner Greg Smith says his company never toured the Brentwood site. He said he thought it was tasteless “because there were children involved.” And also, he said, “it’s too far away” from their other sites. But some people, cameras in hand, are still wandering the neighborhood’s streets and probably will continue to do so for a few years more, at least.

Their attentions and professional ambition eventually drove Mezzaluna bartender Stewart Tanner to seek a job elsewhere months before the restaurant closed.

Tanner, who worked with Goldman at Mezzaluna, was supposed to meet Goldman late on the night of the slayings at another bar after work. Tanner testified at both trials. He asked that the restaurant where he now works not be identified. He still fears that tourists will come and gawk at him.

“It was inevitable that it would close,” said Tanner, who still counts among his close friends the other Mezzaluna employees. “It’s sad to see it go. It is and always will be a part of my life. It’s just a memory and no longer a business.”


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