The Nightclub That Survived as a Sandwich


Today, its name is attached to a deli sandwich proffered to insomniacs with cast-iron stomachs. But for many years, the Band Box was favored by Los Angeles celebrities with a taste for raffish company and spicy comedy.

In the 1940s, when Los Angeles’ burgeoning Jewish population began leaving Boyle Heights, with its 30 synagogues and streets lined with barrels of pickled herring, Fairfax Avenue became the city’s Jewish heart. Its status was confirmed when Canter’s Deli followed its patrons west in 1948.

The 24-hour restaurant set up shop across the street and down the block from the Band Box, a flashy comedy club that had attracted celebrities to Fairfax since the mid-1930s.


For three decades, the Band Box was where racy comedians kept audiences laughing. Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Buddy Hackett, Polly Bergen, Alan King, Billy Barty, Don Rickles and Jackie Gleason all appeared there.

When Gleason began hosting a variety show for the short-lived DuMont Television Network, he tried out such now-legendary characters as the boozy playboy, Reggie Van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender and the Poor Soul on the raucous regulars at the Band Box.


Though it was owned over the years by various entrepreneurs, including comedian Lou Costello and labor enforcer Max Gold, the best-remembered Band Box proprietor was stand-up comedian Billy Gray.

Gray, born William Victor Giventer in New York in 1904, moved to Omaha, Neb., where he graduated from Creighton University. While studying to be a lawyer, he won a dance contest and decided to take up show business.

As a hoofer and comic, Gray worked the Los Angeles nightclub circuit before settling at the Band Box in 1936. That year, an incensed patron slugged Gray, triggering a brawl that spread through the crowd. Actress Eleanor Whitney was carried out in hysterics, while Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor watched the melee from a safe corner.

In 1937, Gray married the 17-year-old daughter of a prominent dairy executive. His in-laws offered him a partnership in the family business, but when that didn’t work out, they asked him how much money it would take to buy him out of the match. That worked.


The marriage was annulled, and Gray, who would go on to marry three more times, walked away a richer man.

He used part of his matrimonial windfall to buy the Band Box, officially changing its name to “Billy Gray’s Band Box.”

When Gray wasn’t warming up Las Vegas audiences for big headliners or providing the voice of the baby on the Eddie Cantor radio show, he was the main attraction at his new 210-seat club six nights a week. Among the celebrities frequently found in his audiences were Robert Mitchum, John Ireland, Veronica Lake, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Betty Grable, Harry James, Sonny Tufts, Claire Trevor and Cesar Romero.

Another regular was a celebrity of a different sort--debonair mobster Mickey Cohen. In fact, after hours, the club was the venue for Cohen’s nightly meetings with his henchmen. He also used the Band Box as his mail drop, receiving letters there under the name Mr. O’Brien. (The FBI, Cohen reportedly figured, would never suspect him of using an Irish alias.) His two bulldogs, Toughy and Mickey Jr., came in for special attention from the club’s cook, Jimmy, who prepared steak dinners for the pooches.


Cohen thought so highly of the Band Box that he forbade his associates to commit any act of violence there, because it would jeopardize Gray’s liquor license.

On payday, the club’s staff received a unique fringe benefit. At closing time, a bookmaker friend of Gray’s would snap open his trunk full of hot items, which he fenced to the waiters at bargain rates.


Saints ‘n’ Sinners, a men’s charity club, took over the Band Box one night each week for 20 years. The stag dinner meetings were emceed by Gray’s attorney, Jerry Weber, who later did a bit of jail time for soliciting a bribe.

Gray ran into legal trouble of his own over a satiric review--”My Fairfax Lady”--produced by comedy writer and lyricist Sid Kuller, who penned lyrics for its keynote songs, including “The Street Where You Eat”:

I have often walked on the street before.

But I never knew that borscht had been a beet before.

Indigestion comes, so I carry Tums

Knowing I’m on the street where you eat.

It enjoyed a five-year run from 1956 to 1961 at the Band Box, until lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe sued Gray for recording the songs on an album, forcing Gray to pull the record off the market.

Between shows, Hollywood captured Gray’s humor on the screen in several movies, including “Two for the Seesaw” and “Some Like It Hot.” In 1961, after a string of setbacks, Gray took his act on the road. Only shortly after he temporarily closed the club’s doors, the FBI--then pursuing a tax evasion case against Cohen--reopened them and seized all the club’s records. The feds had finally tumbled to Cohen’s Irish nom de guerre, but no evidence turned up.

In subsequent years, Gray’s career suffered from the public’s changing tastes in comedy, ill health and his sorrow over the death of his 13-year-old son in a car accident.

The club closed for good in 1967, becoming a bank parking lot. But it took the new owners longer than expected to erect the bank. For several months before the club closed, the waiters would steal a few bricks on their way home from work.


As Gray’s health worsened, exacerbated by heavy drinking, his fortunes continued to decline. He was virtually forgotten when he died in 1978, 73 years old and on welfare.

Today, Canter’s, still open around the clock, serves Billy Gray’s Band Box Special: an open-faced chopped liver, minced onion and chopped egg sandwich for $7.25.