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Tipping a Cap to ‘The Hat’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its prime, the Brown Derby wasn’t just a restaurant, it was an institution--a part of Hollywood lore the way Sardi’s is a part of New York. Simply saying the name the Brown Derby conjures up images of Hollywood’s glory days.

During the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, all of Hollywood’s top movers and shakers could be found lunching on Cobb salad and lamb stew at the Hollywood branch of the Derby, located on Vine Street, between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards (the location has since been paved and is now a parking lot). Gossip columnist Louella Parsons would be there every day at noon to report who was eating with whom. Clark Gable even popped the question to Carole Lombard in the red leather Booth Five at the Hollywood Derby in 1939.

“Hollywood was a small town,” recalls Peggy Cobb Walsh, the daughter of Bob Cobb, who ran the four Derby restaurants from 1926 until his death in 1970. “It was the golden age of Hollywood. People dressed up. People were pretty and good looking. Now you just put on a pair of jeans and you don’t know one star from the other.”

The Brown Derby Restaurant is the subject of an expansive new exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Located in both the Grand Lobby and Fourth Floor galleries, “Under the Hat: Hollywood’s Legendary Brown Derby Restaurants,” which opened Friday and continues through July 14, will feature hundreds of vintage photographs of celebrities wining and dining at the eateries, the famed celebrity caricatures that used to line the walls, the actual neon sign from the restaurants and a re-creation of an original booth.

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It all started with a dare. Writer Wilson Mizner said to movie producer Herb Somborn, the second husband of actress Gloria Swanson: “If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.” Thus, the first Brown Derby, located on Wilshire Boulevard across the street from the Ambassador Hotel, was built in the shape of the famous chapeau. Mizner, Somborn and famed theater owner Sid Grauman were the original owners.

Somborn hired Cobb to manage the restaurant and when he and Mizner died in the early ‘30s, Cobb took over the restaurants. The Hollywood Brown Derby opened on Valentine’s Day 1929; two years later, the Beverly Hills Brown Derby opened its doors at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. The last Derby opened in Los Feliz in 1941. It left the chain and became Michael’s restaurant in the 1950s and is currently called the Derby.

The Hollywood Derby, says Walsh, had been built as a theater by director-producer Cecil B. DeMille. “Then sound came in and it never opened as a theater,” she says. “My dad rented it from the DeMille family and made it into the restaurant. All of the studios were in Hollywood except for MGM, which was in Culver City, so it was the commissary for the motion picture industry.”

The Hollywood Derby was large--250 patrons could be seated in the main dining room. The booths near the front of the restaurant and along the walls were the most prized. The movie moguls like Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn and Jack and Harry Warner had booths permanently reserved. The American Room, which opened in 1938, was for private parties and even had a private entrance on the side of the restaurant.

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Bob Cobb, the Man Behind the Salad

Cobb was the reason the restaurants were so successful, says Mark Willems, who co-wrote the 1996 best-seller “The Brown Derby Restaurant: A Hollywood Legend,” with Cobb’s widow, Sally.

“Everyone I talked to, everyone who knew him, loved him,” says Willems. “He was charming and he was gracious. He was 26 years old when the Hat opened and from 1926 until his death in 1970, the restaurants were his life. He had an office upstairs at the Hollywood restaurant and in the afternoons he would take a nap and be ready for dinner. He was one of the nation’s great restaurateurs.”

He also created the popular Cobb Salad. When the Derby first opened in 1926, it was an all-night eatery. “He got tired of the menu and just started to save things like bacon and chicken and chopped it up and got a lot of lettuce,” says Walsh. “One night Sid Grauman came in and asked him what he was doing. He said he was making a salad. Grauman asked if he could have some and Pa said yes. Then Grauman would come in and order ‘Cobb’s’ salad. That’s how it started.”

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During the ‘30s, Hollywood was bustling; not only were the movie studios nearby, but CBS and NBC radio had their studios just down the street from the Derby. “On a daily basis, you would have Jimmy Durante, Burns and Allen and Jack Benny,” says Willems. “For virtually everyone who was in the entertainment industry over the last 50 years, the Derby was part of their L.A. experiences.”

Lucille Ball frequented the Derby from her early days as a starlet in the 1930s. In 1955, she paid tribute to the Derby in the classic “I Love Lucy” sketch in which Lucy encounters William Holden at the Derby. “I think that has kept the Derby known by other generations because that episode is on someplace once a week,” says Walsh.

Besides Cobb, all the stars knew Bill Chilias, who was the maitre d’ in Hollywood from 1929 until 1955. “You had to know Chilias to get a table,” says Willems. “His Christmas tips in the 1930s exceeded $10,000 a year.”

Tourists would also flock to the Derby from around the world in order to nosh next to their favorite star.

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“You might not be able to get the best table,” says Willems, “and if it was high noon in Hollywood you might not get a table, but it was a large restaurant.”

Oscar parties were often held at the Hollywood Derby, especially during the 1950s, when the Academy Awards were held down the street at the Pantages Theater.

NBC did a pre-show one year that was live in the Derby,” says Willems. “Tony Randall was the host and he interviewed all the nominees before the show.”

The Derby also catered parties at celebrities’ homes over the years. “Sally Cobb told me that she would go to parties years later in Beverly Hills and there would be Derby silver and serving dishes that would have been catered and never came back,” says Willems. “When Romanoff’s opened in Beverly Hills, the Brown Derby loaned them silver because theirs hadn’t come in.”

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‘Hollywood Went Downhill Pretty Fast’

By the time Cobb died 1970, Walsh says, the Hollywood Derby was a shadow of its former self. “The atmosphere in Hollywood went downhill pretty fast in the ‘60s,” she says. “We didn’t do the business that we used to. People were afraid to come into Hollywood. My mother sold the restaurants in 1976.” The original Derby closed in 1980; Beverly Hills followed in 1982 and the Hollywood Derby in 1985.

“The world changed,” says Willems, when asked why the Derby restaurants ultimately closed their doors. “When you see the exhibit and the way people looked and dressed, it seems like it was almost 100 years ago. Playwright Jerome Lawrence told me that when he was writing for radio, he lived at the Derby in the early ‘40s. He said, ‘Mark, I thought it would always be there.’”

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“Under the Hat: Hollywood’s Legendary Brown Derby Restaurants,” today-July 14 at the Grand Lobby and Fourth Floor galleries at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Gallery viewing hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Admission is free. Information: (310) 247-3600.


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