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Pied Piper of L.A.'s Party Scene

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here comes Chris Breed, flashing that magnetic smile, and so artfully flaunting his English accent and infectious laugh that hanging out with him is like watching the best of street theater. “Me first,” he tells his two-pal entourage as they arrive at Ago on Melrose Avenue. It’s not an ego trip; fact is, nobody’s getting into this trendy and packed restaurant unless the maitre d’ spots Breed’s cover-boy face.

Once inside, Breed shakes hands with actor Scott Baio, who’s just leaving. He waves to Benjamin Bratt, dining discreetly in the back. Ring! It’s Kevin Costner on the cell phone inquiring: “Where’s the party?”

Five minutes with restaurateur and club owner Chris Breed on this starlit night is all you need to understand that the party is wherever he declares it is. Co-owner of the popular Sunset Room and 6-month-old Pig ‘n Whistle landmark on Hollywood Boulevard, Breed has been an indelible figure in the L.A. social scene since 1990 when he and his partners invigorated the sagging Sunset Strip with the world-famous Roxbury.

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From his roots in the English countryside, Breed has grown into a master party promoter equally at ease entertaining the biggest names in Hollywood as he is kicking around the soccer field with his “mates.” Tonight, Breed is party hopping in search of new faces and new fads before heading to his club to offer his blend of VIP treatment. In the morning, he will rise early to catch tadpoles with his two young children and unwind from his nocturnal pace.

“At night, I’m always going, always moving, trying to get new ideas to make our business stronger,” says Breed as he surveys the Ago dining room, beer in hand. “But when I’m off, I’m bloody boring. I’m like a Jekyll and Hyde.”

Affectionately known by his friends and admirers as the “social mayor” of Hollywood, Breed has set his sights on ushering Tinseltown into a new era that combines the elegance of the 1920s with the fun and frolic of the 1980s. It’s the same goal he and his business partners achieved on the Strip in the ‘90s with the Roxbury. For seven years, that club stood strong, attracting mega-stars and models, even inspiring “Saturday Night Live” skits and a spinoff movie featuring “The Roxbury Guys,” two head-bopping lounge lizards who couldn’t pick up a woman or get on an A-list.

Three years ago, Breed and his partners moved their dream east, dedicating themselves to creating a new heyday for Hollywood, a challenge playing out all over the social scene as club owners and promoters compete for the hottest spot. In April, Breed and partner Allan Hajjar plan to debut the Asian-themed White Lotus, adding a supper club to the already thriving Cahuenga Corridor, a stretch that includes the Room, the Burgundy Room, El Camino and the Beauty Bar. Paul Devitt opened Star Shoes in August, a Hollywood Boulevard club where partyers can get a drink and a shoeshine. Ivan Kane, owner of the funky Kane and risque Deep, also plans to strike again next year with a hotel and club.

“Hollywood Boulevard is really the soul of this town,” says Bryan Rabin, promoter of Bryan Rabin Events, which threw a 900-person celebrity bash for Nintendo this month. “She had been forgotten but you can’t beat her down. She’s having a glorious comeback now. A year ago, you couldn’t get a major corporation to spend money and come to Hollywood, but there’s no hesitation now.”

And Breed intends to lead the pack. Before “The Breed,” as he has nicknamed himself, is done, he insists, he will be anointed with a more majestic moniker: “King of Hollywood.”

“The King!” his running buddies chant in unison while one of them, Howard Balaban, drives them in his silver BMW 740I from bash to bash this evening. Saxophonist Jimmy Sommers is in the front seat jamming to his own CD, “360 Urban Groove,” and laughing at practically anything that comes out of Breed’s mouth.

“We all just had this type of experience on Sept. 11 that reignites the value of life, but Chris is someone who just knows that, who enjoys every single moment like he’s never going to get it back,” said Balaban, founder of Baby Genius, a producer, publisher and distributor of classical and instrumental CDs, cassettes and videos for children. “There is a line in my favorite poem that says, ‘Believe in yourself most of all, and you shall rise and never fall.’ That’s Chris. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer.”

The attacks, in fact, have marked a sharp decrease in business at the Sunset Room and other clubs all over Hollywood. But Breed remains optimistic. “People will need to get their minds off things and go out. We all need to be as happy as we can each day we have on Earth,” he said, as if he can make everything OK through the force of sheer will.

If there were any clues that a small-town boy from Ramsey, England, 60 miles northeast of London, could grow up to galvanize thrill-seekers in the most self-conscious city in America, his older brother, Stephen Breed, says he missed them. The man who has been trying to make his mark on Hollywood’s history for the past decade is the middle child of a cabinetmaker and homemaker who spent his very ordinary childhood fishing, collecting bird eggs, riding motorcycles and watching old Hollywood flicks with his father and brother.

From Geoffrey James Breed, the brothers learned carpentry and gleaned the history of their town as they helped him renovate old hotels and restaurants during their summer breaks. For a treat, the father took his sons to the movies.

“When the MGM picture started and the lion roared, he made such a big thing!” Chris Breed said. “I learned everything I know about designing spaces and how they should be laid out from my father. But he also planted that seed about Hollywood in my mind. It was a special place for him, and bringing it back to its glamour days, oddly, has become my ambition.”

“Chris Breed!” motorists yell out as he stands in front of the Pig, playing consummate host. Lunches and dinners are interrupted by people wanting to shake his hand or thank him for VIP treatment. His partners shake their heads in awe of his dynamic draw.

“I never imagined this lifestyle when I was coming up,” Breed said. “But I think it goes with my personality. A lot of people don’t want to deal with celebrities or VIPs, but to me, it’s fun. The most rewarding thing for me is that everybody’s had a good laugh. Especially me.”

Starting Out in a

TV Commercial

The climb to Breed’s hipster status began in 1983, the year he graduated from King’s College in Cambridge with a business management degree, and the year his father died. Breed was managing a London supper club when he was approached about a television commercial.

“I thought it was too girlie, you know, not what real men do,” he said. “It was a commercial for a soap called Soft and Gentle and they had come up with a real he-man angle .... So I go in there for a laugh and I get it. The next minute, I’m on television in this big campaign in England and the offers poured in."For two years, Breed worked for Top Models in London and Best One in Paris, where he met his wife--a Hollywood native and model. In 1986, Wilhemina Modeling in New York hired him to model sportswear on location in North Africa, Morocco and the Greek islands. On weekends, he played rugby, his passion, and often showed up for Monday shoots with injuries or black eyes.

In the Big Apple, Breed quickly found his stride, befriending club owners, bouncers and big shots who frequented the hot spots. Through model and actor John Enos (“Melrose Place,” “Sex and the City”), who became a lifetime friend, Breed made one of the most important connections of his life: Brad Johnson, a restaurateur interested in opening a nightclub.

“I wanted a partner, and Chris had a certain kind of charisma that I was attracted to,” says Johnson, who co-owned the Roxbury and co-owns the Sunset Room with Breed. “There is a talent in getting out and promoting the way he does. On a metaphysical level, you’re dealing with the energy from so many people. People come to a club with the expectation of finding someone, or having a good time, or a moment. As a host, you take that on and it can wear you down. But it energizes Chris.”

Johnson soon met Elie Samaha, who owned a dry cleaning chain and was interested in venturing into the nightclub business. The three men hit it off, and agreed on the idea of a supper club that would combine Johnson’s experience (he owned the trendy Memphis in Manhattan) with Breed’s ability to attract the masses.

“What’s really unique is that Brad is very serious and Chris is very happy and outgoing,” said Samaha, the Franchise Pictures chief and silent partner in the Sunset Room. “Chris has the same personality as me, which is why we get along. At the end of the day, you knew he was going to be a great hustler.”

The Roxbury Opens

on the Strip

In 1989, Breed and Johnson moved to Los Angeles to open the Roxbury, the nightclub that electrified the Strip for nearly a decade, and attracted such regulars as Rod Stewart, Cindy Crawford, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro and Julia Roberts. When Breed met Hajjar, a structural engineer, the Roxbury partnership expanded to include him as the club’s general manager. “I saw in Allan a different quality,” Breed said. “He had the control and discipline with the staff and the money that I never had. I want to keep the party going, and Allan’s the guy who knows when to stop.”

For all of Breed’s success at promoting his venues and attracting celebrity, “he doesn’t understand the concept of the operation very well,” Hajjar is quick to point out. By the time Breed finished designing the interior of the Sunset Room, the club’s budget had surged from $900,000 to $3 million, Hajjar said. Renovations of the Pig ‘n Whistle, which the duo opened this year (complete with queen-size canopy beds for lounging, eating and drinking), cost $2 million--twice the original allocation, Hajjar said.

“That is 99.9% Chris’ fault,” he said. “It’s always fun to have fun with Chris, but sometimes it’s hard to work with him. Chris is very good at what he does, the public relations and promotional work. He’s very creative and he likes to flow with that. We must have painted each room in the Sunset Room three times because he wasn’t feeling the colors.” By the time the Roxbury opened in 1990, Breed was taking on a new challenge: winning back the pretty, young model he had romanced for six weeks in Paris and then abandoned. He was living large in his new house in the Hollywood Hills, driving a BMW convertible, when he noticed a gigantic photograph of Alexandra on the window of a Beverly Hills hair salon.Alexandra Breed now laughs at the thought of her ultracool, popular husband taking to her bedroom window like a love-starved Romeo. “For six months, every restaurant or club I went to, he was there. He was throwing pebbles in my window, if you can imagine that.”

The couple dated for six years while Breed designed a number of clubs and restaurants with Samaha around L.A. and in Las Vegas. In 1995, Breed sold his interest in them all to spend more time with Alexandra, whom he had just married, and their newborn son, Geoffrey James. He moved his family to San Francisco, where Alexandra gave birth to Rebecca Lily.

But Breed couldn’t stay away from the nightlife for long. In 1996, he opened a supper club in the financial district that took off. Yet within two years, he was forced to file for bankruptcy. “The energy just wasn’t there for me and I’m all about energy,” Breed said. “Let’s get to the truth of it: There’s just a bunch of boring, stuck-up [people] over there.”

And Hollywood kept calling. The city’s plans for the Hollywood Entertainment District west of Highland Avenue were underway, and east of it, entrepreneurs and promoters were itching to revive the city’s long dormant nightlife. Hajjar had spotted a rundown warehouse on Cahuenga Boulevard, just south of Sunset, in 1998 and asked Breed to fly back to L.A. to see it.

Breed was so taken by the prospect that he moved his family to Agoura Hills and pored over books about Hollywood’s nightlife in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the glory days of Cuba in the ‘50s to get ideas for the sophisticated supper club that a year later came to be the Sunset Room. The cavernous space has polished floors, retro booths, a dance room with a stage area and a dining room with a massive mahogany bar.

He incorporated wildly creative ideas for attracting patrons, like the circus-style Sunset Rouge dinner show on Wednesday nights and the cabanas in the VIP patio.

“People have to be told what’s hip,” Breed said. “If they’re told it’s hip, it’s hip. It’s all done through hype and the people who are coming to the club. I’m around it enough to know what’s hip, and when I don’t, I take chances.”

The inaugural weekend of the Sunset Room drew such celebrities as Bono, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Ben Afleck and Drew Barrymore. The club partners, Breed, Hajjar, Johnson and friend Eric James, paid off their investors $1.7 million in 14 months.

Three years later, the stars still come for premiere parties and other affairs, in part, because of Breed’s willingness to spoil them. His “super VIP” treatment doesn’t just guarantee a secluded booth or cabana; it includes Breed’s personal touch. Over lunch with Nicolas Cage and dinner with Mark Wahlberg, or sharing drinks with Mexican pop crooner Luis Miguel, The Breed is always available to “share a laugh and make sure everyone feels special.”

Nobody feels more of a VIP than, perhaps, The Breed himself. Even after all these years of hobnobbing, Breed’s eyes light up as he reveals the celebrity roster invited to a recent Playboy bash at the Sunset Room. He’s thrilled when actor David Schwimmer of “Friends” recognizes him at a party, even tickled when Paulie Shore invites him to a screening. “He’s still infatuated and that, of course, has its upside and its downside,” said Johnson. “It’s great when it’s good, but it’s a rude awakening when it shifts. You have to stay grounded. It’s nice to know people, but it’s nicer to know yourself.”

“I’m the king!” Breed says exuberantly as he moves throughout the VIP area of his club, sitting in a cabana with Samaha and Enos for a few minutes and then chatting with new friend, Bill Maher in the patio. “I love Chris, but he’s not the king of Hollywood,” says Maher, host of “Politically Incorrect.” “There is no king.”

That depends on how you look at it, says Balaban, Breed’s best friend.

“Chris is someone who understands how shallow this town is and that if you know how to take advantage of that, you can have a lot of fun,” he said. “When he walks up to you and says, ‘I’m The Breed,’ nobody knows what that means but everybody goes with it. That’s how things happen in life. You make a declaration for yourself, and your subconscious reacts to that and you make things happen. When he says he’s going to be the king, you just believe him.”


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