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. The chain was started by Robert H. Cobb and Herbert K. Somborn (a former husband of film star Gloria Swanson) in the 1920s. The original Brown Derby restaurants had closed or had been converted to other uses by the 1980s, though a Disney-backed Brown Derby national franchising program revived the brand in the 21st century. It is often incorrectly thought that the Brown Derby was a single restaurant, and the Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood branches are frequently confused.
The original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, circa 1968
|Previous owner(s)||Wilson Mizner|
There is a non-related chain of steakhouse restaurants first founded in 1941 in Akron, Ohio, and franchised in 1962. This chain was founded by Ted and Gus Girves, and the full name of these restaurants is "Girves Brown Derby". As of 2019[update], five of the Girves chain are still in business. A former Girves Brown Derby restaurant in the past has offered Hollywood-style food.
Wilshire Boulevard Brown DerbyEdit
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 that had been a popular hang-out for vaudevillians in the 1920s. 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 L. Warner put up the money. Wilson Mizner sat in booth 50 almost every day.
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 directly across the street from the Ambassador Hotel).
In September 1980, the restaurant closed without warning. Local preservationists unsuccessfully tried to stop the building from being bulldozed, but the demolition was completed in November and replaced by a parking lot.
The parking lot was replaced in late 1985 by a shopping center known as the Brown Derby Plaza. The domed structure was incorporated into the third floor of the building, and is currently vacant; it formerly accommodated a Korean bar (see photo at right with the brown dome in the recessed corner).
Hollywood Brown DerbyEdit
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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.
In "L.A. 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.
Like its Wilshire Boulevard counterpart, it was the home of hundreds of celebrity drawings, paintings and caricatures. Jack Lane drew many of these caricatures between 1947 and 1985. Another artist whose work was displayed was Nicholas Volpe. He was commissioned by the Brown Derby to paint portraits of up to 200 top recording artists to be displayed in the restaurant's Hall of Fame Record Room. In addition, his Oscar-winning star portraits were displayed in the restaurant's "Academy Room," created for showing Volpe's art.
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.
The Hollywood Brown Derby closed for the last time at its original site on April 3, 1985, as a result of a lease dispute. The building was later occupied by a restaurant called Arbat Continental Restaurant when the building was hit by an early morning fire that destroyed the kitchen. After the fire in 1987, the building remained unoccupied and deteriorated further while suffering frequent break ins from homeless squatters and teenage gang members. As a result of damage caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the building at 1628 North Vine Street was declared unsafe by the City of Los Angeles and was the first building in Hollywood ordered to be demolished. The building was demolished the following month.
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 occupied by an apartment complex.
Beverly Hills Brown DerbyEdit
The third Brown Derby, built in 1931 at 9537 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, greatly resembled the Hollywood branch. It was closed in 1982 and demolished shortly afterwards. Developer Douglas Stitzel purchased the vacant property in 1986 to build the One Rodeo shopping development.
Los Feliz Brown DerbyEdit
The building that formerly housed the Los Feliz Brown Derby at 4500 Los Feliz Boulevard was the only remaining structure in the former chain that was still in operation as a restaurant into the 2000s. Film mogul Cecil B. DeMille, 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. The building is currently a bank.
In 1960, it was purchased by actor Michael St. Angel (aka Steve Flagg) and became Michaels of Los Feliz, and in 1992, after several other restaurants, 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.
The Derby was prominently featured in the 1996 film Swingers, in the scene where Jon Favreau & Vince Vaughn's characters bypass the line at the front door, enter through the service entrance, walk through the kitchen, and into the club where Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are playing on the stage, in an ode to the classic restaurant scene with Ray Liotta in Scorsese's Goodfellas.
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 célèbre 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. In 2012, the Los Feliz Brown Derby space is occupied by the gastropub Mess Hall Kitchen and a Chase bank, dividing the dome in half between the businesses. The interior framing details of the dome construction have been exposed and are now visible from inside the restaurant.
The Brown Derby began a licensing program in 1987 with an agreement with The Walt Disney Company for a replica of the original Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at the new Disney-MGM Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. In 1990, the Walt Disney Company entered into three additional agreements for the Walt Disney Movie Studios at Disneyland Resort Paris, Tokyo Disney Sea at Tokyo Disney Resort and Disney California Adventure Park at Disneyland Resort 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.
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The original, world famous Brown Derby restaurant has closed its doors abruptly, prompting questions from city officials and fears from citizens' groups that think the landmark may be replaced by a high-rise building.Alternate Link via ProQuest.
- Mehren, Elizabeth (September 29, 1980). "Another Version of Demolition Derby". Los Angeles Times. p. F1. Alternate Link via ProQuest.
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- Lane, Jack. A Gallery of Stars: The Story of the Hollywood Brown Derby Wall of Fame, Luminary Press (2005)
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- Wanamaker, Marc. Beverly Hills: 1930-2005, Arcadia Publishing (2006) e-book
- "Volpe: Portrait of an Artist", Beatlesportraits.com
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- Pool, Bob (July 11, 1992). "Landmark Is Abandoned--Yet Again : Young Squatters Say Brown Derby Isn't a Safe Place to Live Anymore". Los Angeles Times.
- Gordon, Larry (January 25, 1994). "Earthquake: The Long Road Back : Derby Demolition Begins Amid Protests". Los Angeles Times.
- "'Get License,' Brokers Told". Los Angeles Times. November 1, 1931. p. D3.
The Wilshire Boulevard Association of Beverly Hills... reports that eighteen new places of business have opened on that thoroughfare in Beverly Hills since July 1, including Brown Derby Cafe...Alternate Link via ProQuest.
- Ryon, Ruth (February 9, 1986). "Brown Derby Site in Beverly Hills Sold". Los Angeles Times.
- "No Martinis But Maybe Toasters: Los Feliz Derby to Become Bank". Curbed LA. Retrieved 2018-07-03.
- "Estate Sells De Mille's Brown Derby". Los Angeles Times. March 16, 1960. p. B1. Alternate Link via ProQuest.
- Cowan, Jared (January 22, 2015). "Your Favorite Movies Were Filmed at These L.A. Restaurants and Bars". LA Weekly.
- "Los Feliz Brown Derby Is Historic Monument". Los Angeles Times. May 20, 2006.
- "The Derby in Los Feliz likely to close soon". Los Angeles Times. January 23, 2009.
- Natividad, Amanda (September 14, 2012). "Mess Hall is open in Los Feliz". Los Angeles Times.
- Gold, Jonathan (November 24, 2012). "Hello muddah, hello faddah ...: MessHall takes the flint spark of Scout trip memories and coaxes it into a themed restaurant with glassed-in fire pits, upscale but homey food and strictly counselor-cabin cocktails". Los Angeles Times.
- Original Hollywood Brown Derby website
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Brown Derby.|
- Website of The Original Hollywood Brown Derby – an affiliate of the original Hollywood location.
- Website outlining the history of the Los Feliz Brown Derby and the campaign to save it from demolition.
- A visual history of Yonge and Dundas
- Re Hollywood Brown Derby - the mission style "fragment that remains" is the facade of the Dinner Bell Cafe formerly at 1604-1/2 North Vine Street next to the Taft building - it is not a piece of Hollywood Brown Derby which was further down the street
- Movie clips showing interior and exterior of the original Wilshire Brown Derby, ca.1932