Past Paper, pt. 4: The Brown Derby

Few things spark our interest (or a sense of yearning and regret at having missed them) as much as postcards, menus, and other memorabilia from once-popular and prominent eateries and night spots that exist no longer.

Here in NYC, there are (or, rather, were) such legendary dining and drinking establishments as the Stork Club, Jack Dempsey’s, Cafe Society, Luchow’s (the worst of it, in this case, is that we could have patronized Luchow’s when first we moved here, but what did we know?), the Copacabana, El Morocco, the Latin Quarter. Thankfully, we’ve still got Bemelmens, the Cafe Carlyle, the 21 Club, Sardi’s, the King Cole Bar, Keen’s, Fedora, McSorley’s—all but one of which we’ve patronized—but it’s all too tempting to focus more on what’s lost than on what remains.

Los Angeles has more than its share of fun culinary and night spots that are still going strong, too: The Frolic Room, the Formosa Cafe, Musso and Frank, Phillipe’s, Pink’s, Clifton’s Cafeteria, Miceli’s, Canter’s, Nate ‘n Al’s—all of which we’ve patronized (and will again). It strikes us odd as we write this that the historic places that remain in Los Angeles—the ones we’ve patronized, anyway—tend to be inexpensive and casual, while most of the venerable spots in NYC, McSorley’s and Fedora aside, are on the tony side.

But as with NYC, the list of L.A.’s gone-but-not-forgotten boîtes and beaneries is a long one. We’d give our eyeteeth to dine at Romanoff’s, Chasen’s, Preston Sturges’ the Players, or Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe or to cut a rug and sip a cocktail at the Cocoanut Grove, Ciro’s, The Mocambo or the Cafe Trocadero, but perhaps most of all, we’d love to hole up for an evening at the Brown Derby.

When we were kids, it was the Brown Derby that we read about, that was depicted on television (perhaps most famously in a memorable episode of I Love Lucy that guest-starred William Holden), that sparked our imagination.

The Derby in all its incarnations is long-gone, alas, so we’re left to settle for mementoes of an establishment we never experienced first-hand, like the postcard below:

hi-res view

It was the hat-shaped restaurant on Wilshire, seen in the upper righthand corner of the postcard, that was the original Brown Derby, by the way, and that’s the one we most regret not seeing, but the blog Dear Old Hollywood suggests that it was the Vine Street location (the one on the upper left) that was the most popular, because it drew more of the day’s celebrities, which is what drew many of the patrons to the restaurant. We’d happily accept a lift in a time machine back to any of the four locations, and in just about any decade—the 1930s, the ’40s, the ’50s, we’re not choosy.

By the way, we’d love to hear from you folks in Southern California (or just about anywhere else, for that matter) about any classic restaurants and bars we might have missed in our travels. Share!

The Karen Files, pt. 9

Another in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the life of our mother:

Some years ago, our father underwent heart surgery. We flew down from NYC to OKC for a few days, to spend some time with Dad before the surgery and to be with him for two or three days after.

He was already in the hospital in preparation for the surgery when we arrived, so there wasn’t much to do but shoot the breeze. With the surgery just 36 hours away or so and the unaddressed but undeniable possibility hanging in the air that these might be our last conversations (they weren’t, thank heaven—he came through the surgery with flying colors), we spent a lot of time reminiscing, talking about his childhood and youth.

We were already vintage-clothing buffs by then (though we’d not yet started wearing hats, which we do with regularity now), and it occurred to us that we’d never seen Dad in a hat. Did he ever wear them? Was he excited, when he became a young man, that it meant he got to start sporting a fedora?

No, he said, he and his crowd didn’t often wear hats. He owned one or two over the years, but he’d never worn them much.

Hi-res view

But when we sorted through the boxes and boxes of family photographs upon Mom’s passing in April, we came across a pair of photos of Dad in a hat (in one, Mom’s wearing a scarf, which we have only the vaguest memories of her ever doing, and in the other, she’s wearing white gloves, which we don’t ever recall seeing).

The first one dates to the early sixties, we’re guessing—Mom’s gone blond, and they’re standing in front of the house we lived in till 1964.

We like that Dad looks like kind of hipster-y in this shot—he’s got the stingy-brimmed fedora so popular today (with a higher crown than one tends to see today, and with what looks to be a center dent on the top of the crown, with no indentations in the front of the crown—hey, hat wearers notice these things!). He’s also got the David Byrne-esque closed top button (though we’re probably dating ourselves by mentioning Byrne; his days as an arbiter of hip are probably long past).

Mom looks pretty sharp, too. Healthy and happy and vital. This photo makes us smile (and not only because it confirms that Dad did occasionally wear a fedora).

Hi-res view

The second photo’s from a few years later. Mom and Dad have had a new home built (we resided there from 1964 through 1974), and it’s kind of modern and space-age-y—an angular structure with towering wrought-iron gates that led through an entryway into a square courtyard around which the house was built. It so stood out in that surburban neighborhood that our grade school pals were convinced that we were wealthy (we were not).

In this photo, taken in the aforementioned courtyard, Dad could be wearing the same chapeau as in the earlier photo, but we suspect it’s a different one (not drastically different in style, though), and, as we mentioned above, Mom’s wearing gloves, which pleases us but also surprises us—we don’t remember her ever doing so. We suspect Mom and Dad are on their way to church (perhaps it’s Easter morning, which might explain the corsage). Here, Dad looks much more Mad Men-esque than in the previous photo, a young Don Draper (only without the philandering).

So it’s nice to know that, in wearing fedoras, we’re carrying on a minor family tradition. Ours sport a wider brim than did Dad’s, but that’s a mere detail.