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Group tries to save L.A.’s last Brown Derby

Clark Gable is said to have proposed to Carole Lombard in the nightclub
/ Source: The Associated Press

To young and old alike, the Brown Derby restaurants have symbolized Hollywood’s “golden days.” Now the last remaining of the five Derbys may become a martini-soaked memory.

Joan Crawford once tended the carved oval bar dominating the room in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce.” The cult film “Swingers” showcased the club in 1993 and ushered in the nouveau swing dance craze of the mid-’90s.

Originally built by movie producer Cecil B. DeMille, the lushly retro property features velvet curtains and a wooden, 30-foot-high art deco ceiling.

Developers who bought the site a year ago have proposed replacing the Derby with a five-story residential and retail complex, with 81 condos and possibly a supermarket.

But the Los Angeles Conservancy and a budding group called Save The Derby hope to save the landmark.

“Many people call the Derby their home,” Save The Derby leader Rebecca Goodman recently said at the club. “It’s a location that pays homage to the old Hollywood history that’s the cultural legacy of Los Angeles and needs to be saved before we all forget.”

Preservation for the next generationAnother Save The Derby member, 42-year-old Rick Pendleton, has dipped and twirled there for 11 years. He used to bring his 80-year-old grandmother.

“She would sit in the back and drink martinis all night. We would sing all the same songs. There’s a joy for preserving and respecting what’s older here. I think it’s important to preserve this place for generations to come,” said Pendleton, a director of photography for TV documentaries.

The Derby’s dance music isn’t necessarily bound to a bygone era, however; each week also includes nights dedicated to techno, rock, jazz and modern burlesque themes.

Save The Derby was formed just a few weeks ago after Goodman, a lawyer, and others found out that Adler Realty Investments had purchased the property in June 2004 and had posted redevelopment plans on its Web site. The upstart preservation group has since started its own Web site as well as organizing public meetings and writing letters to Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area.

“If The Derby goes, then I’m moving,” said Save The Derby member and swing enthusiast Marnell Kelly, 35, who’s walked from her nearby apartment to the venue for two years.

“I like the whole vintage thing, and that’s why I like The Derby. My hair matches this place,” she said, pointing to her ’40s-inspired curls.

A storied historyOriginally called the Brown Derby Car Cafe, the landmark opened in 1940 and then closed in the 1960s, reopening as Michael’s of Los Feliz. In 1993, new owners Tony and Tammi Gower renovated the venue as the Derby nightclub, reviving the namesake and look.

“The first meetings to select the first 1,500 stars for the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame were there, in the late ’50s,” said Johnny Grant, the 82-year-old honorary mayor of Hollywood. “After (nearby) Greek Theatre performances, celebrities would be around. It was a busy place.”

In the 1920s, actress Gloria Swanson’s husband opened the first hat-shaped Brown Derby restaurant opposite midtown L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. Soon other Derbys sprouted around town, including one near Hollywood and Vine that became a celebrity favorite.

Clark Gable is said to have proposed marriage to Carole Lombard there, and it was there that manager Bob Cobb invented the “Cobb salad.”

Eventually, all the original Derbys were closed, with mementos from some of them ending up at the Derby in Los Feliz after it reopened.

In 2003, LaBonge even proclaimed April 11 as Derby Day in L.A., commemorating the reborn Derby’s 10th anniversary.

Not a historical landmark
Meanwhile, representatives of Adler Realty have been presenting their redevelopment plans to various neighborhood groups and city agencies to build community support — the first step in obtaining city approval.

Adler Vice President Richard Gable said concern for preserving the Derby only surfaced recently and with the company nearly ready to propose its redevelopment plans to the city, “I’m not sure how we would incorporate the Derby. That would be a challenge we would have to look at. That wasn’t our original plan.”

He further maintained that it doesn’t qualify as a historical site “due to lack of physical integrity.”

But Los Angeles Conservancy spokesman Jay Platt disagrees.

Platt noted the building’s domed canopy was designed by noted architect Wayne McAllister, famous for his work on L.A.’s beloved Bob’s Big Boy drive-ins.

Tony Gower refused to comment on his club’s future, but manager Jesse Hlueik showed no such reluctance.

“Look, I would love to see it landmarked,” he said. “This was the last home of the Brown Derby, the last one. It would be a shame if all this history got knocked down for condos and Olive Gardens.”