Brown Derby

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The original Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby

The Brown Derby was the name of a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles, California. The first and most famous of these was shaped like a man's derby hat, an iconic image that became synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was opened by Wilson Mizner.[1] A chain of Brown Derby restaurants in Ohio are still in business today.

The chain was started by Robert H. Cobb and Herbert Somborn (a former husband of film star Gloria Swanson). It is often incorrectly thought that the Brown Derby was a single restaurant, and the Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood branches are frequently confused. Gus Girves started the Brown Derby chain in Ohio as Girves Brown Derby in 1941.

Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby[edit]

Entrance to the restaurant in 1956.
The Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby today

Opened in 1926, the original restaurant at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard remains the most famous due to its distinctive shape. Whimsical architecture was popular at the time, and the restaurant was designed to catch the eye of passing motorists. The Brown Derby name originated from a Malverne, New York-based restaurant of the same name which had been a popular hang-out for vaudevillians in the 1920s.[2] It was founded by Wilson Mizner as a small cafe, across the street from the popular Hollywood hot spot the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel. Wilson was the front man; Herbert K. Somborn owned the property and Jack Warner put up the money. Wilson held court in Booth 50 'most every day.[3] [4]

The cafe was successful enough to warrant building a second branch later. The original, derby-shaped building was moved in 1937 to 3377 Wilshire Boulevard at the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alexandria Avenue, about a block from its previous location (and about a block north of the Ambassador Hotel).

Subsequent uses of the site[edit]

After being sold in 1975 and renovated, the building was finally replaced in 1980 by a shopping center known as the Brown Derby Plaza. The domed structure was incorporated into the third floor of the building and accommodates a cafe (see photo at right with the brown dome in the recessed corner). A Korean mini-mall occupies the site today.[5]

Hollywood Brown Derby[edit]

The Hollywood Brown Derby in 1952

Despite its less distinctive Spanish Mission style facade, the second Brown Derby, which opened on Valentine's Day 1929 at 1628 North Vine Street in Hollywood, was the branch that played the greater part in Hollywood history. Due to its proximity to movie studios, it became the place to do deals and be seen.

Clark Gable is said to have proposed to Carole Lombard there. Rival gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper are recorded as regular patrons.

In "Hollywood at Last". the first of the Hollywood episodes of I Love Lucy, Lucy (Lucille Ball), Ethel (Vivian Vance), and Fred (William Frawley) have lunch at the Brown Derby. During the misadventure, the trio dines in a booth with Eve Arden on one side and William Holden (who orders a Cobb Salad) on the other. This leads to the famous disaster scene in which Lucy inadvertently causes a waiter to hit Holden in the face with a pie.

In 1947's Fun and Fancy Free component "Mickey and the Beanstalk", the cartoon ends with Willie the Giant's stomping through Hollywood looking for Mickey Mouse. Before the scene closes, Willie notices The Brown Derby restaurant and picks up the restaurant looking for Mickey. Willie notices the restaurant looks like a hat, places it on his head, and stomps off with the HOLLYWOOD lights blinking in the background.

Another view of the Hollywood and Vine restaurant.

Like its Wilshire Boulevard counterpart, it was the home of hundreds of celebrity caricatures. Jack Lane drew many of these caricatures between 1947 and 1985, and in his book, A Gallery of Stars: The Story of the Hollywood Brown Derby Wall of Fame, describes his many years as the resident caricaturist there.

The Hollywood Brown Derby is the purported birthplace of the Cobb Salad, which was said to have been hastily arranged from leftovers by owner Bob Cobb for showman and theater owner Sid Grauman. It was chopped fine because Grauman had just had dental work done, and couldn't chew well.

After the Hollywood Brown Derby was largely destroyed by fire in 1987, the restaurant was closed. Only a small fragment of its facade remained after a renovation in the early 1990s.

Subsequent uses of the site[edit]

The building then was home to a restaurant and bar called Premieres of Hollywood, which catered to the revitalization of Hollywood Boulevard and the style of "Old Hollywood"; it offered an eclectic mix of American cuisine along with the original Cobb Salad (the recipe for which was found in the kitchen during the renovation). Premieres of Hollywood was destroyed during the L.A. riots in 1992. A few hand-painted wall tiles from the original Hollywood Brown Derby are held by the Jurus family, who started Premieres of Hollywood.

The land is now a parking lot.

Beverly Hills Brown Derby[edit]

Postcard image of the 9537 Wilshire Boulevard restaurant

The third Brown Derby, built in 1931 at 9537 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills, greatly resembled the Hollywood branch. It was closed in the early 1980s and demolished in 1983.

Los Feliz Brown Derby[edit]

The Los Feliz Brown Derby at 4500 Los Feliz Blvd. is the last remaining branch of the chain still in operation as a restaurant. Film mogul Cecil B. De Mille, a part owner of the Wilshire Blvd. restaurant, bought the building, a former chicken restaurant named Willard's, and converted it into a Brown Derby in 1940. It uniquely combined a formal restaurant with a dramatic domed ceiling with a more casual drive-in cafe outside.

Subsequent uses of the site[edit]

In 1960, it was purchased by actor Michael St. Angel (aka Steve Flagg) and became Michaels of Los Feliz, and in 1992, it was transformed into a nightclub known as The Derby. In the late 1990s, it became one of the centers of the resurgence of swing dancing, which launched the careers of modern swing bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Johnny Crawford. Oregon rock/swing/ska band the Cherry Poppin' Daddies recorded a song that cites the venue, titled "Brown Derby Jump", on their album Zoot Suit Riot.

Los Feliz Boulevard Brown Derby postcard circa 1940s – 1950s.

In June 2004, when Hillhurst/Los Feliz LLC purchased The Derby and adjacent lots with a view to demolition and replacement by a condominium complex, the planned redevelopment became a cause celebre for historic preservation activists. An independent coalition called "Save The Derby" fought to prevent the demolition, and, on May 19, 2006, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to designate the entire structure an official Historic Cultural Monument of the City of Los Angeles.

In January 2009, the nightclub closed its doors. The current landlord chose not to renew the lease, not long after a shooting inside the club. The Los Feliz Brown Derby space is now occupied by the gastropub Mess Hall Kitchen.[6]

Ohio chain and licensing program[edit]

In 1941, Gus Girves opened the first Ohio Brown Derby restaurant, across from the Goodyear tire plant on East Market Street in Akron. Its great success led Girves to open a second Ohio Brown Derby restaurant in 1957, and several more followed. The Girves family was able to build the successful business by being innovative, staying current with business practices, and recognizing that the demands and tastes of their customers changed with time. In the mid-1990s, the Brown Derby restaurants were changed to Brown Derby Roadhouses. Many of the restaurants are still operating under that name, while some are known as the Original Girves Brown Derby restaurants.

The Brown Derby began a licensing program[7] in 1987 with an agreement with Walt Disney Company for a replica of the original Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at the new Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. In 1990, Walt Disney Company entered into three additional agreements for Euro-Disney, Tokyo Disney and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. In 1996, a ten-year agreement was entered into with MGM Grand Las Vegas Las Vegas, Nevada; in 1998, the MGM Grand Detroit, Michigan temporary facility was added.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Rubay, Donnell. "The Rogue and the Little Lady: The romance of Wilson Mizner and Anita Loos". The Bernica Herald. Retrieved January 1, 2014. 
  2. ^ Paolini, Matthew (21 November 2007). "Historical Restaurant Mirrors Change In Los Angeles' Food And Drink Scene". IKnowNow. 
  3. ^ Burke, John (1975). Rogue's Progress. G. P. Putnam's Sons. 
  4. ^ Rubay, Donnell. "The Rogue and the Little Lady: The romance of Wilson Mizner and Anita Loos". The Bernica Herald. Retrieved January 1, 2014. 
  5. ^ Zagat Buzz Blog: Then and Now: 11 Wretched Restaurant Reinventions, June 23, 2010
  6. ^ http://messhallkitchen.com/
  7. ^ Original Hollywood Brown Derby website

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]