Sunday, February 14, 2021

Old Hollywood Haunts: A Birthday Remembrance for the Brown Derby on Vine...

I lived in Hollywood, once upon a time, on Poinsettia between Fountain and Santa Monica Blvd., not far from Melrose.  It was the early '80s and I was working at a radio station on Sunset at North Genesee, across from the Screen Actors Guild. Ed Asner was the president of the guild then and I met him one afternoon, along with most of my co-workers, when SAG hosted an open house in the space it had just leased on the second floor of our building. This was around the time I was getting to know the Brown Derby at the intersection of Vine St. and Hollywood Blvd. Known locally as the Hollywood Derby, it was the radio station's go-to spot for good-bye and birthday and bon voyage lunches. The place always seemed to be bustling and I would never have guessed then that it would be gone forever within two or three years.

The original Brown Derby, a hat-shaped eatery on Wilshire, opened in 1926. The inspiration of screenwriter Wilson Mizner and producer Herbert Somborn, Gloria Swanson's second ex-husband, it is said to have begun with a dare. Mizner challenged Somborn, "If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat." Originally known as The Little Hat, the restaurant was built by Mizner, Somborn and, allegedly, theater owner Sid Grauman and Jack Warner. Some of its first patrons were the greatest stars of the day: Mary Pickford,Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers and Rudolph Valentino.

Cobb Salad
The second restaurant, located at "Hollywood & Vine," opened on Valentine's Day 1929. It was this site (Derbys in Beverly Hills and Los Feliz were yet to come) that drew the crush of stars and moguls and agents, assorted movie folk and hangers-on and developed a reputation as a sizzling-hot spot. Robert Cobb was 26 years old and a promising restaurateur when Herbert Samborn tapped him to manage the soon-to-open new Derby. For a while, Cobb would simultaneously serve as headwaiter, assistant chef, bouncer and bookkeeper among many other responsibilities. Legend has it that he invented the famed Cobb Salad for a famished Sid Grauman one night. An impromptu medley of miscellaneous leftovers, Cobb would finely chop the ingredients to accommodate Grauman's recent dental work.

Rita and Orson at the Hollywood Derby
The new Derby was in the heart of Hollywood, conveniently close to movie studios, theaters, and other entertainment-related enterprises. It became a magnet for a glittery clientele that regularly stopped by, sometimes in costume, for lunch or dinner or a few drinks at the end of a hectic day. It was the Derby that began the local tradition of paging patrons and bringing telephones to them so they could take calls at their tables. At its height, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cary and Ava at the Hollywood Derby
The Hollywood Derby's 50+ year lifetime spanned every decade of the movie capital's great golden era. Its history overflows with anecdotes, tales and myths - like these...

  • In early1939, Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard at the Derby's table #5. The pair soon eloped to Kingman, Arizona, where they were married.
  • In May 1942, Alfred Hitchcock and writer Gordon McDonell sat down over lunch and discussed the story that was to become one of the great Hitchcock classics, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
  • Rival gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons lunched at the Derby daily at noontime. Each held court at her own table - on opposite sides of the room.
  • An oft-repeated tale tells of the time in 1933 when Marlene Dietrich arrived for dinner wearing slacks. Her then-unconventional look caused a commotion and Cobb refused to seat her. But a 1936 article in Silver Screen magazine offers a different story. In it, an anonymous former Derby headwaiter recalled "the famous day when Miss Marlene Dietrich appeared at the Derby wearing a gray man's suit." He was very surprised, he said, nevertheless he bowed, invited her in and seated her at the first table. 

The Derby kitchen had a reputation for quality and authenticity and its menu offered a fantastic variety. The array of choices on a given day might include classic American steak and seafood entrees, casual bistro fare, enchiladas and tamales, and fresh frog legs "Chinese style." And much more. Naturally, there was great fascination with who-ate-what:

Corned Beef Hash with poached eggs

  • Claudette Colbert loved the chicken hash.
  • Norma Shearer liked the lamb chops.
  • Tyrone Power's favorite was boiled brisket of beef with horseradish sauce.
  • Gary Cooper preferred his fried chicken on the dry-not-greasy side.
  • James Cagney favored seafood salads.
  • Clark Gable and Wallace Beery ordered corned beef hash (served at the Derby with poached eggs on top). Beery usually had crepes Suzette for dessert - or, on occasion, sponge cake topped with catsup.
  • For Louella Parsons, who was always watching her weight, Robert Cobb came up with the Derby's trademark chiffon Grapefruit Cake when she requested a light dessert to complement her "grapefruit diet."

Gable and Lombard on the farm
It came to pass that certain of Cobb's patrons did more than dine and drink at the popular restaurant, they also supplied some of the ingredients for the dishes on the menu.
  • Wallace Beery provided trout from his trout farm in Studio City.
  • Broccoli came from Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor's place in the San Fernando Valley.
  • Corn was supplied by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard from their farm in Encino.
  • Wallace Ford provided potatoes for the Derby from his local ranch.
When Herbert Somborn died in 1934, he left the mini-chain that now consisted of three Derbys awash in debt. Robert Cobb took over and would do so well that by 1938 he was able to buy a new minor league baseball team, the Hollywood Stars. He had some help from a select group of investors: George Burns, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor. Then, in 1941, Cobb opened a fourth and final Derby in Los Feliz; it boasted a "car cafe" with carhops.
 
~

Lucille Ball relocated from Broadway to Hollywood when she was cast, uncredited, in Roman Scandals (1933) as a Goldwyn Girl. She became an avid patron of the Hollywood Brown Derby from her earliest days in town and in 1955 took the opportunity to put a spotlight on the famed haunt.  During its fourth mega-hit season, I Love Lucy opted for a change of scenery from Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's East 68th Street apartment in New York City. Ricky, whose regular gig was as singer/bandleader at the Tropicana nightclub, was offered the lead in an upcoming MGM musical, Don Juan. In no time at all the Ricardos, along with the Mertzes, were headed for Hollywood. After several episodes covering their cross-country car trip, the foursome would arrive in Tinseltown in episode 17, "L.A., At Last." Eve Arden and William Holden were the guest stars and a replica of the Hollywood Derby was a featured setting. Lucy, Ethel and Fred go to the Derby to do some stargazing and have some lunch. First Fred spies Ava Gardner - off-camera. Then who should be seated in plain sight in the booths on either side of the trio but Miss Arden and Mr. Holden. A starstruck Lucy makes such a scene over being in close proximity to Holden that when Ricky later brings the actor to their hotel room to meet her, Lucy dons a bizarre disguise so he won't recognize her. It is arguably the best and the funniest of all 180 episodes of I Love Lucy.
 
1948 Brown Derby menu cover with locations map
 
Eventually times and tastes would change. Old Hollywood began to fade and New Hollywood was on the horizon. The Los Feliz Brown Derby closed its doors in 1960.  Robert Cobb passed away in 1970 and the Brown Derby Corp. was sold in 1975. The Wilshire location shuttered in 1980 and Beverly Hills went dark in 1982. Due to a lease dispute, the Hollywood Derby closed in 1985 but, through a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company, it managed to live on - though very  far from Hollywood. Some years after the Vine Street restaurant closed, an exact, if unavoidably pale, duplicate of the original Hollywood Brown Derby opened at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. 

Restored: the Hollywood Brown Derby's neon sign

On a cheerier note, the  classic derby-shaped neon sign that had perched, unabashed, atop the Hollywood Derby from the early '30s was rescued from oblivion five years ago. Having changed hands several times over the decades, the fully restored beauty now resides at Glendale's Museum of Neon Art.

For those wishing to celebrate by raising a glass to the opening of the fabled Hollywood Brown Derby on February 14, 1929, I suggest a Brown Derby Cocktail. Though it didn't originate at the restaurant's Bamboo Room, the cocktail is properly named and features grapefruit juice, in keeping with the Derby's signature Grapefruit Cake. According to Liquor.com, a recent compendium of cocktails states that the drink was created at L.A.'s Vendome Club during the 1930s in honor of the Brown Derby. The website also notes that the drink appeared in a book titled Hollywood Cocktails published in 1933. More importantly, Liquor.com promises "a refreshing blend of bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey syrup...a trio of simple ingredients [that] belies the complex taste of the drink, as the honey bridges the gap between the tart citrus and the spicy bourbon." Well, let's find out. Here's the recipe:

 Brown Derby Cocktail

  • 1-1/2 oz. Bourbon
  • 1 oz. freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 oz. honey syrup (combine equal parts honey and water in a saucepan, stir 'til honey dissolves, cool and transfer to an airtight container; refrigerate for up to a month)
  • Garnish: grapefruit twist or grapefruit wedge
Add the bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey syrup into a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Express the oil from a grapefruit twist and drop in to garnish or garnish with a grapefruit wedge.
 
To the Hollywood Brown Derby!
 
All four Brown Derbys

Sources

Hollywood du Jour by Betty Goodwin, Angel City Press, 1993

Silver Screen magazine, September 1936, "Some Wait for Fame and Some Wait on Tables" as told to Muriel Babcock

The Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2005, "Once in Fashion, the Brown Derby Became Old Hat" by Cecelia Rasmussen

Life magazine 1937, Bamboo Room entrance to the Hollywood Derby


4 comments:

  1. Beery had a trout farm? I'm impressed.
    Beery put catsup on sponge cake? I'm less impressed.

    I really enjoyed this fascinating history. Plus, I want to go out to a restaurant!

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  2. Thanks, Paddy. I would LOVE to go out to a restaurant.

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  3. This was such a wonderful article. I have to admit I learned about The Brown Derby (and Will Holden) from that I Love Lucy episode (They're just people like you and me!). Thank you for the reminder of this Hollywood haunt.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Tynan. There will be more posts in the future covering other fabulous Old Hollywood Haunts, by the way.

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