CECI N’EST PAS UN CHAPEAU. In fact, it’s a shell of a restaurant in the shape of a bowler, plunked atop one of many nondescript shopping centers in Los Angeles’s densest district. Its sign and the brim are both gone. But in its bones, it’s still the Brown Derby, with a series of lives and deaths all its own. In my mind, the Derby always belonged to another Los Angeles, not mine, different enough that I rarely think to graft it onto the present-day city. But recently, revisiting Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, the place jumped out at me from her know-it-when-I-see-it list of examples. When she described the aesthetic in the 1960s, the other landmarks she named weren’t dead and gone (nor are they now): Paris’s Metro entrances, Barcelona’s Gaudi projects, Munich’s rococo churches. They have remained where they always were, while the Brown Derby has taken an unpredictable course.
Once, there were multiple Derbies floating about the city. The original was the one on Wilshire Boulevard, which opened a block from its current mini-mall location, across from what was then the Ambassador Hotel. Like the Brown Derby, the hotel and its Cocoanut Grove club dated to the 1920s. The Grove hosted early Academy Awards ceremonies and, memorably to me, the first musical number of Singin’ in the Rain. But after Bobby Kennedy’s killing in its kitchen in 1968, the Ambassador began a descent. Around the time of Sontag’s essay, Sammy Davis Jr. tried to restore the Grove and brought in new acts like Richard Pryor, but the neighborhood was succumbing to crime and had yet to experience renewal by arriving Koreans. Going the way of other historic Los Angeles properties, by the 1990s the hotel had closed to public business and become a film stand-in for itself — in Pretty Woman, L.A. Story, True Romance, and more. When it met the wrecking ball 10 years ago, it had already outlasted the ground-level huge hat. There is now a school on the site.
Early on the first Derby migrated from the corner of Kenmore Avenue to Alexandria, but in the perilous 1970s it closed for good. As a concession to preservationists, the dome has enjoyed its third-floor perch these past 35 years, which in Los Angeles is a feat in itself. The otherwise unremarkable semi-spherical structure housed a Korean bar for a while, but lately it’s been vacant. It was part of a “programmatic” design trend of novelty creations to catch the eye of passing drivers, perfect for Southern California, sharing an objective with John Lautner’s later Googies coffee shop. The Brown Derby came at a time when fewer restrictions governed the planning process. Similar mimetic buildings still exist around Los Angeles — the Donut Hole in La Puente (still in original use), the Shutter Shak in Westminster (preserved within a park), the Tamale in East Los Angeles (repurposed as a beauty salon), the Koffee Pot in Long Beach (currently being restored) — but why a hat for a restaurant? The name originated from a Vaudeville hangout on Long Island, which was shaped conventionally but named for the Laurel and Hardy–style topper of choice — not such a strange ancestry here, since beside the Chinese Theater we have a mall designed to look like a film set designed to look like ancient Babylon. The Derby’s convex ceiling presaged the curves of treasured local landmarks to follow: Griffith Observatory in the 1930s, the Cinerama Dome of the 1960s.
Los Angeles’s first Derby had been a venture of wise guy Wilson Mizner (companion of leading screenwriter Anita Loos), Herbert Somborn (sometime husband of Gloria Swanson), and Jack Warner (the founding Warner Brother). The owner of the second, at Hollywood and Vine, was Robert Cobb, who supposedly invented his eponymous salad from leftovers one late night for a tooth-achy Sid Grauman. Other original recipes, now available in a Cobb family cookbook, included chiffon pie and a cream cheese–iced grapefruit cake. True to its entertainment heritage and location, the slightly newer Brown Derby became an integral part of the show business scene. Rendered in the more common Mission style, it kept some of the kitsch: Jack Lane’s celebrity caricatures covered a wall. Maître d’s wore tuxedos, diners sat at rounded brown leather banquettes. Hit songwriters competed to be the patron in highest demand on the tableside phone. The spot became the favorite of radio actors and then of superstars like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, the informal office of both pioneering movie columnist Louella Parsons and vicious rival Hedda Hopper, and the site of many wrap parties. The guest list included Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rita Hayworth. Joan Crawford tended bar there in Mildred Pierce, William Holden got a pie in the face on I Love Lucy, and Groucho Marx made a spontaneous cameo appearance on This Is Your Life. Mickey Mouse even considered the hat as a hiding place in his cartoon. This may have been the Derby iteration Sontag had in mind. She placed it on Sunset, but there doesn’t seem to have been a franchise there.
The Hollywood Brown Derby went up in smoke in a 1980s fire. The neighborhood was also struggling then, but new owners rebuilt the location into Premieres of Hollywood, trying to bring back some Golden Age glamour. Alas, the revival was short-lived; the new place fell to the riots of 1992. Now, like much of redeveloped Hollywood, the address holds a tall but indistinguishable mixed-use complex, partly vacant, partly occupied by chain stores. Another, very similar Derby at Wilshire and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills lasted for nearly the same 50 years before demolition.
A fourth Brown Derby stood at the corner of Hillhurst and Los Feliz Boulevard. The space had opened in the 1920s as Willard’s Chicken Inn; Cecil B. DeMille turned it into a Derby in 1940. Besides the usual fine dining, this one had a drive-in carhop service area created by architect Wayne McAllister. Raised in San Diego, McAllister had gone from building bungalows to designing the first Las Vegas resorts, the original Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, and a number of long-gone Southwestern institutions (he later retired to farm ostriches). In the days before air conditioning, a system would pump water out of the Los Feliz Brown Derby’s domed roof so that it ran down the restaurant’s exterior and cooled the inside.
In 1960, former actor Michael St. Angel bought the site and converted it into Michael’s of Los Feliz, an incarnation that lasted until the early 1990s. The Michael’s stage was the initial home of the beloved lounge musicians Marty and Elayne, talent poached by a Dresden Room manager in 1982 and iconic fixtures on Vermont Avenue ever since. Back around the corner, the former Michael’s morphed into The Derby, a club that housed the 1990s swing craze and other throwbacks. One former manager rhapsodically remembers hearing Roger Daltrey play “Baba O’Riley” at a private party there. In June 2004 an LLC took over with plans to erect five floors of condominiums, but neighbors and their supporters campaigned to rescue the building. In 2006 the City Council named it an official cultural monument. One of the developers later expressed relief that the deal hadn’t gone through, since many condo projects of the time quickly met with foreclosure. By the end of 2008, though, the venue had switched to a month-to-month rental agreement — and in the early hours of a hip-hop night booked by outside promoters, an attendee pulled a gun and shot two people. The landlords decided not to renew the lease, and the club closed that winter. A bank branch moved in and split the space with an outpost of Louise’s Trattoria, based in West Los Angeles. In 2012, local investors bought the site for over $9 million, intending to keep it the same.
But the owners of Louise’s closed it and reopened as the current Messhall Kitchen: a “modernized version of an Army mess hall.” The faux-utilitarian interior features communal tables; the staff are called “Troops,” the booze menu “Survival.” Lunch options include an “SOS” shrimp salad, and a “C-3 Bomber” is an $8 glass of juice. MHK counts as a fan the self-unmasked food critic Jonathan Gold, next to whom Brown Derby regular John Barrymore would have appeared a picture of moderation. (Real-life mess halls lack such well-heeled charm; their SOS is creamed chipped beef. Of the US military dining facilities in Kabul, one Special Operations service member has said, “I’d rather eat shell casings.”)
After Hollywood’s Derby owner Bob Cobb died in the 1970s, his wife sold the assets to SoCal businessman Walter Scharfe. In the 1980s Scharfe made a licensing deal with Disney-MGM, and the latter opened a themed restaurant at Walt Disney World in Florida. Not far from the better-known Magic Kingdom there, past branded hotels and golf courses, between a water park and a grandiose zoo, the Hollywood Studios area models California-style low stuccoed slabs with tiled roofs among identical palms. Surreally, visitors can stop by the Fairfax Farmers Market, pass the programmatic Darkroom on the Miracle Mile, and dodge street performers outside of Grauman’s. While designed for maximum occupancy, the Hollywood Brown Derby® maintains tablecloths, wine flights, and a book of reservations. It would be a peculiar place to take kids, and an even more peculiar trip to take without them, but the facility has lasted almost 30 years.
Disney struck up several more agreements in the 1990s, opening short-lived restaurants at the MGM-Grand casinos in Las Vegas and Detroit, and allowing use of the concept at other Disney amusement parks. But Tokyo seems never to have made use of the license, and at Disneyland in Anaheim, the Brown Derby is only a dessert. The struggling Euro-Disney in France has a more compact version of Orlando’s reimagined Hollywood, in this case a short pseudo-street with old-time facades — including the Derby’s — hiding a functioning French restaurant on one side and a gift shop on the other.
A handful of unrelated Brown Derby restaurants, bars, and liquor stores have come and gone around the US, and the Long Island namesake closed several years ago. While the dome in Los Feliz survived respectably for a long time, the displaced one on Wilshire may triumph yet. Los Angeles’s 1933 Group — of Thirsty Crow and Bigfoot bars fame — have brought back North Hollywood’s barrel-shaped Idle Hour. A smaller reproduction of the Bulldog Café, formerly residing at the Petersen Automotive Museum, sits on the leafy patio out back. If the Koreatown hat is fortunate, it will find a steward like the Idle Hour’s reverent Bobby Green, rather than Messhall’s enterprising Bill Chait.
Since the Brown Derby’s whole lineage is one of replicas and revivals, we can likely look forward to the past. Yet while the space stands empty, it brims with possibilities: for film shoots or gunshots, rock shows or riots, like the prop cakes that could hold either mobsters or chorus girls. Might a giant apple pop out, the way it does at a Mets game? Perhaps the hat could land on the head of fellow camp designee King Kong. Think of LACMA’s massive rock — things appear in the strangest of places.