Snail's Postcard Post

The Brown Derby

I have a number of new postcards to share, and out of all of them, this one seems the most appropriate for Mother’s Day, as my mother and her mother (who passed away a year ago) are/were such Angelenos.

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Mama Snail pointed out that “Hollywood 28” in the address was the designation before there were zip codes! And if I’m understanding right, it was an area code too. Someone who wanted to place a phone call to the Brown Derby would have asked the operator to be directed to Hollywood 28, a switchboard for the area. An operator there would have answered, and the caller would ask to be put through to the Brown Derby. 

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The Brown Derby was named after a restaurant in Malverne, New York that was popular with vaudeville performers, an appropriate choice for a place setting out to woo movie actors. Los Angeles’ original Brown Derby, the one shaped like its namesake, opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926 as a casual coffee shop alternative to the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel across the street. Gloria Swanson’s ex-husband Herbert Somborn owned the property, and Jack Warner put up the money for playwright-turned-restaurateur Wilson Mizner to set up shop. Mizner could be found in booth 50 just about every day up to his death in 1933. (Gloria Swanson would become a regular at the Hollywood Brown Derby, favoring creamed chicken hash.) 

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Wilson Mizner c. 1922

The original Brown Derby, dome intact, moved a block down Wilshire in 1937. It remained open until about 1975. In 1980, the dome was dully worked into a shopping center.

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The original Brown Derby on Wilshire Blvd. in 1957 and 2007. 

While the original Brown Derby was an iconic landmark, it was the second Brown Derby in the postcard that was the hub of Hollywood. The mission style building seems to have been designed by Warner Brothers’ studio architect for Cecil B. DeMille, who became a co-owner of the “Hollywood” Brown Derby when it opened in 1929.   

The Hollywood Brown Derby was managed by Robert Cobb and is the birthplace of the Cobb salad. The circumstances of the salad’s concoction has become Hollywood lore. One telling says the executive chef simply created it as a signature dish for the restaurant when it opened in 1929. Another version is that in 1937, Bob Cobb came into the kitchen at midnight, starving, and chopped up a plate full of all the ingredients left over from the day. (This is the version told on the Hollywood Brown Derby website.) Or the chef may have done it for him. My favorite account is that Cobb made up a well-rounded plate of things, finely chopped, for Sid Grauman, who’d just had dental work. The Hollywood Brown Derby was also known for its grapefruit cake, and table-side telephones. 

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Bob Cobb, Gail Patrick, Marian Marsh, and Howard Hughes at the Hollywood Brown Derby. (Photo from The Brown Derby post on the blog Dear Mr. Gable.) 

Clark Gable is believed to have proposed to Carole Lombard at the Hollywood Brown Derby. Waitress Florence Knapp recalled that Gable and Lombard always ordered scotch on the rocks. She once filled an ice cream container with ice and scotch for them to-go.

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Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the Hollywood Brown Derby

Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper must have been all over Gable and Lombard’s proposal. The restaurant was unofficial headquarters to them both, since that’s where all the action was. It was such a clubhouse, stars would receive fan mail addressed simply: The Brown Derby, Hollywood and Vine. 

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Jean Harlow and William Powell, and Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, at the Hollywood Brown Derby. (Photos from The Brown Derby post on the blog Dear Mr. Gable.) 

Two more Brown Derbies followed, the Beverly Hills Brown Derby, also on Wilshire, established 1931, demolished 1983, and the Los Feliz Brown Derby on Los Feliz Boulevard at Hillhurst established in 1940. The Los Feliz location was originally a chicken restaurant called Willard’s which Cecil B. DeMille bought. The Los Feliz Brown Derby was unique in that it had a formal restaurant inside, and a 24-hour drive-in outside. Actor Michael St. Angel bought it in 1960, turning it into Michaels on Los Feliz. In 1992, it became The Derby nightclub, leading the ’90s Swing Era resurgence and launching acts like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. (The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ Zoot Suit Riot album features the song Brown Derby Jump.)

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The Beverly Hills Brown Derby

Willard's, 9625 W.Pico Blvd Los Angeles
Willard’s Far Famed Chicken Steak Dinners, 1930s. 

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The Los Feliz Brown Derby

As for the Hollywood Brown Derby, the website says it closed in 1985. Other sources say it did so after a fire in 1987. For a short while it was a bar and restaurant called Premieres of Hollywood, which tried to bring back the old time feel. The Cobb salad recipe was discovered in the kitchen, and it was respectfully added to the menu. Premieres closed following damage in the 1992 L.A. riots. The site is now an apartment complex. That’s a Hollywood ending. 

Happy Mother’s Day to the real stars! For mom-centric postcards, check out this post.

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This entry was published on May 8, 2016 at 8:17 pm. It’s filed under Americana and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “The Brown Derby

  1. my side of the story. on said:

    I lived two blocks from the Los Feliz Derby and experienced the L.A. riots. The mayhem reached as far as Sunset Boulevard. (there was looting at the old Circuit City at Sunset and Hillhurst) but it never got any more north than that. I know because I kept watch and waited for the riot to go further north. It didn’t. I miss the Derby very much but I think there were other reasons why it shuttered.

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