Few owned limos, although they lived in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Brentwood. Their homes were comparatively modest mansions of the day. Stars could be seen in department stores, sunning on Santa Monica beaches or playing on public tennis courts. The movie elite mixed and mingled at private parties and such public watering holes as Ciro's and Mogambo on the Sunset Strip.
Favorite restaurants were the Brown Derby, the Luau, Romanoff's and the Polo Lounge. Most popular for lunch was the Hollywood Derby on Vine Street, handy to Paramount, RKO, Columbia, Universal and Warner Bros. But stars from MGM in Culver City and 20th Century Fox in Beverly Hills gathered there too. In those days the paparazzi didn't prey on celebrities for sleazy tabloids. It was a different world.
The motion picture academy recaptures the naiveté of the era May 10-July 14; open to the public with an exhibition at its Beverly Hills headquarters of the Brown Derby's heyday.
Both the grand lobby and fourth floor galleries will offer hundreds of photographs of celebrities at the various Brown Derby restaurants, including a re-creation of an original red leather booth and the original neon sign outside the Hollywood branch. Best of all will be the original caricatures of its most famous diners, from Clark Gable to Marilyn Monroe.
In all, there were four Brown Derbys; the original (in the shape of a brown derby hat) on Wilshire Boulevard, and those in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Los Feliz.
The academy was assisted by Peggy Cobb Walsh, president of Hollywood Classic Cuisine Inc., and Mark Willems, co-author with Sally Cobb of "The Brown Derby Restaurant: A Hollywood Legend."
Peggy is the daughter of sportsman Bob Cobb who bought the Derby from founders Herb Somborn, agent Wilson Mizner and Sid Grauman, who owned famed Grauman's Chinese Theater.
Cobb introduced the famed Cobb salad, a derby classic of diced avocado, six different greens, bacon, cheese, hard-boiled egg, tomato, and bits of chicken. The salad cost 65 cents; a Bloody Mary was another 30 cents. Other menu regulars were pot roast and potato pancakes $1.65; a corned beef hash with poached egg cost 95 cents. Beef stew and sand dabs sautéed with almonds were often daily specials. The delicious grapefruit cake was made for Louella Parsons's diet -- 50 cents.
Each meal began with appetizing toasted cheese on paper-thin sliced rye bread that went perfectly with a noon-day martini.
A main attraction was the presence of the most glamorous stars in movies, who filled the spacious red banquettes with their famous bods.
On any given day, diners could find beautiful actresses (Rhonda Fleming, Carole Lombard, Gene Tierney, Kathryn Grayson), dashing leading men (Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, Glenn Ford), comedians (Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Ben Blue), and radio and TV stars aplenty.
Many were table-hoppers stopping for a drink at one banquette, at another to greet a former co-star, settling down for a luncheon tryst with a lover.
The press corps frequently held interviews there. Hollywood was a short run from downtown city rooms.
Columnist Jack Hellman, an extraordinarily ill-favored man with a nose the shape of Delaware, reserved the same booth every day. An acerbic grouch, he attacked Red Skelton regularly in his column. One day found Skelton staring at Hellman from an adjoining booth.
"So that's what Hellman looks like," said Skelton to his companion.
Assured that it was indeed Hellman, Skelton responded simply, "I'm glad."
The boisterous Lewis made a slingshot from his napkin and lofted butter pats high into the vaulted ceiling where they rained down on discombobulated diners.
Accustomed as they were to famous faces and names, Derby patrons rarely bothered celebrities.
But one memorable day, the massive doors facing Vine Street flew open and there stood New York's rotund Jackie Gleason -- the most popular TV star of the time.
Gleason held his pose, a classic Reggie Van Gleason entrance, and the usual hum and buzz in the Derby fell to funereal silence.
Then comedian Ed Wynn stood up and applauded, followed by more than 200 other diners. It was a singular moment in a singular restaurant.
The Great Gleason, wielding a large cigar, bowed deeply and strode into the Hollywood Brown Derby for the first time as if he owned the joint.
It was a memorable Hollywood tribute when MGM's annual production budget was less than Julia Roberts' salary for a single movie today.
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