Dining with the Stars

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally publisged in LA CityBeat 2007

People in LA cherish their brushes with celebrity, no matter how fleeting; the guy who cleans Johnny Depp’s pool or walks Keanu Reeves’ dog has bragging rights over the individual who does the same for their less illustrious neighbors. Sometimes this gets downright silly, as in the place that claims to be “The car stereo store of the stars.” I assume that real movie stars have so much money that they don’t care what they pay for things. By that standard, if such places are telling the truth, I don’t automatically assume that I’ll get the best deal there.

You also see that craving to snuggle up to stardom every time you notice the row of publicity stills in area restaurants. I don’t think most stars have better taste than the general public, though there are exceptions – an autographed picture of Don De Luise in any Italian restaurant is a sure sign that the food will be good. A few restaurants claim a more intimate relationship with the luminaries of yesteryear – that their premises were once the star’s homes. Beware these lofty claims. As a wise philosopher once observed, “The history of Hollywood is also the history of hucksters,” and sometimes the truth has been twisted into odd shapes in order to claim that relationship.

Consider El Cid, the Silver Lake dinner theater that claims to have been built by D.W. Griffith and used for the movie “Birth Of A Nation.” Film historian Marc Wanamaker says that there’s a kernel of truth here – several scenes of that 1914 epic were shot in this location, including the ones involving KKK members galloping horses through a cornfield. Unfortunately for the legend, most of the restaurant as we now know it is where that cornfield was; there was only a small one-room building on the land back then. It may have been used as a filming headquarters or to store equipment, but there is little documentation, and though the restaurant might have been built around that original building, it doesn’t resemble the structure that is there now.

Some Hollywood stars became substantial landowners around Los Angeles, which complicates other claims to fame. Lucques in West Hollywood may have a valid claim to have been owned by Harold Lloyd, but Lloyd’s only connection was probably as landlord to whoever did live there – Lloyd himself lived in the Gramercy Park area before moving to Beverly Hills. Other stars including Douglas Fairbanks owned a substantial number of rental properties, but their relationship to those places were most likely limited to collecting checks.

The House Of Blues has a valid connection to one star, the silent era leading man Wallace Reid. Reid lived in a cottage situated where the House of Blues stands now, though his stay there was expected to be temporary – his mansion was being built across the street, and he wanted to watch the progress. Unfortunately, when Reid died of a morphine overdose in 1923 the project was still incomplete, so the cottage at the corner of Sweetzer and Sunset was his last home. The House of Blues site has also been connected with Erroll Flynn and Lionel Barrymore, but the link is tenuous – both men used to eat and drink at Butterfield’s Restaurant, a long-vanished watering hole at the east side of the House of Blues site.

The restaurant with the best known celebrity connection is Campanile, which was long owned by Lita Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s second wife. Whether she ever jointly owned it with Charlie is contested – Wanamaker says she bought it with money from their divorce settlement, while the restaurant’s promotional material says that it was built for the Chaplins prior to their divorce. Since the Chaplin’s broke up in 1927 and the building dates to 1928, any period of joint ownership must have been brief and during construction. It is a beautiful place and worth visiting even without the Hollywood connection, and many original features of the building have been carefully retained.

The place with the best connection to several stars is one of the less known among celebrity hunters – the Culver Hotel, which was built in 1924 and owned by John Wayne for several years. Wayne liked the old triangular building just a block from the Culver Studios office, which was also frequented by Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and most famously, all the actors playing Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz. The hotel used to have an excellent restaurant called Munchkins that was just off the lobby, but this was recently replaced by a mediocre diner called Al’s Flying Garage, which is decorated in a tacky pseudo-forties style that jars with the rest of the hotel. Wayne would have probably felt more at home in the hotel’s bar which is still called Duke’s Hideaway in his honor. There his shade might raise a glass with other Hollywood ghosts and watch the tourists who seek the touch of glamour of bygone days.

I am indebted to Marc Wanamaker for assistance with this article – his next book will be called “Early Hollywood” and will be out this fall from Arcadia Press.

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