Clifton’s Cafeteria story still has bite
The darker corners behind the story of Los Angeles are not limited to shadowy noir movies like “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” but are based as much on history as fiction. Some of that story leads to the popular Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown L.A., recently refurbished and reopened to great fanfare by nightclub impresario Andrew Meieran.
One member of the family behind Clifton’s wants to make sure that history is preserved, and recounts the commitment, charity and death-defying local activism of cafeteria founder Clifford Clinton. His grandson, Edmond J. Clinton III, an internist and longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident, has released a book, “Clifton’s and Clifford Clinton” (Angel City Press), and will discuss that history Feb. 3 at the Glendale Public Library.
His entrepreneurial grandfather arrived in Los Angeles in 1931, and within a decade would become a leading crusader against corruption. As a result, his Los Feliz home was bombed in 1937. He didn’t stop, a mayor was recalled, the city and region matured politically, and the eccentric, imaginatively decorated Clifton’s remained open to this day.
The author spoke with Marquee about the book and the history he grew up knowing.
Marquee: Why has the history of Clifton’s Cafeteria kept the attention of people so long after the fact?
Edmond J. Clinton III: A great many people remember Clifton’s, having been there as children or adults, and they remember the exotic quality of the cafeteria. It struck people’s imagination when they went there. I remember as a high school student, people telling me Clifton’s was a terrific place and it stuck in their memories.
Recently, members of my medical staff have come to me and said their parents took them there as kids and still remember it. It was such an unusual place to go. And people loved it in retrospect as much as they did when they were there.
Could you have foreseen the story around the cafeteria would still have this kind of resonance today?
I grew up in Los Feliz. That was a hotbed of L.A. history stuff. A lot of people even then talked a lot about the history of Clifford Clinton and his home at Los Feliz and Western that was bombed when he got involved in politics. My dad used to drive us by and show us the house. There was a hole on the bottom of the house from the kitchen where this bomb went off. My dad used to tell us stories about the fight Clifford Clinton had with the city and how that put him in the public spotlight.
Most dramatic when I was growing up were the records that my father had of the radio broadcast that he and Clifford did together for the recall of Mayor Frank Shaw in that era of 1937-1938.
When you heard as a kid that your grandfather’s house was bombed, that’s pretty dramatic thing to hear.
The whole story was dramatic. He was trying to get this corrupt government out and get good government into Los Angeles.
When Clifford Clinton came to Los Angeles in 1931, did he have any notion that he would get so involved in the city?
It happened by accident, but I think it was his religious and philosophical upbringing that created this impression that he was part of a larger community, and that he was grateful to Los Angeles for providing him an opportunity to run this business. So when his people came in to eat during the Depression, it was his duty to feed them. And it was his duty to get involved in things once they came to him. He didn’t believe in Christianity by words, but more by actions and deeds. He was prepared by his upbringing to confront anything that came his way.
When people are bombing your house, that says something about how deeply involved you are.
That made him so angry. He said, “They think they can drive me out of here by bombing my house? They’re just making me more committed and more deeply concerned with what’s going on. They can’t stop me.” He was a bulldog when it came to dealing with this stuff.
You had his memoirs to work from while writing your book?
I learned a lot but I also had to go back and tie in some kind of time frame about what was going on in Los Angeles during those periods. It took me seven years and a lot of research to try out aspects of this L.A. history.
What was your personal connection to the restaurant?
There was a lot of time spent there when I was a kid growing up. I didn’t have any money so I had to earn money for clothes and for stuff over the summer, and for most of that I worked at Clifton’s. It was hard work. I started at 95 cents an hour and I eventually got it up to $1.50 an hour. I was busing tables. I got to know a lot of the associates that worked there. It was a great experience for a kid growing up in San Marino. It exposed me to the way most people live.
I kind of left Clifton’s way behind when I decided to go to medical school, and I didn’t have much contact after that. My mother-in-law said somebody has to write this story about Clifford and the bombing and all this stuff, so we started taking those [Clifford Clinton’s] memoirs down from the dusty shelves to figure out a way to write this up. I’m in a good spot to write this because I had a personal connection to the story.
When did the family sell the business?
Clifford sold his part in ’45, and that was to my father, my uncle and my aunt. My uncle sold it to Andrew Meieran — who is the current owner — at least six or seven years ago.
What was your reaction to all the attention for the reopening?
A lot of people have a superficial knowledge of Clifton’s, but they don’t have an understanding of the history of L.A. and how that was influenced by Clifton’s and the other way around. It helps people’s understanding of the whole era, which I think is fascinating. There was a lot of history I had to learn on this book. I couldn’t believe how much there was.
What: “Clifton’s and Clifford Clinton” signing and talk
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, Glendale Central Library, 222 E. Harvard St., Glendale
More info: (818) 548-2020
Steve Appleford, email@example.com