The Rise and Fall of the Brown Derby: A Pictorial Feature

The Brown Derby was a Los Angeles-based restaurant chain with 4 locations around town. It was also associated with a wide array of Hollywood stars. You could find the caricatures of these stars on the walls. Further The Brown Derby was credited as inventing the Cobb salad..

For nearly 60 years, from 1926 until 1985, anybody that was or wanted to seem important in Hollywood, could be heard uttering the phrase “Meet me at the Derby.” In this picture-filled article, we will explore the history of these four restaurant locations, and the movie stars that frequented them.

Wilshire Blvd. Brown Derby

The original and most recognizable of The Brown Derby locations opened in 1926 and was located at 3427 Wilshire Blvd. Its fame relates to the fact that it was shaped like a giant hat. Novelty architecture was en vogue during the “Roaring Twenties” and its appearance was designed to capture the interests of people passing by on foot, or by car.

Located across the street from The Ambassador Hotel, the restaurant was the brainchild of screenwriter Wilson Mizner. He got the name from a restaurant of the same name located in Malverne, New York, which was owned by slapstick comedy legend Frank Britton Wenzel. This original incarnation of The Brown Derby was also an infamous hangout for Vaudevillians such as Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson in the early 1920s.

Mizner teamed up with Gloria Swanson’s ex-husband, director Herbert K. Somborn, who owned the property. As well as with Jack Warner, President of Warner Brothers in beautiful downtown Burbank, who financed the operation. Mizner told them:

“If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”

Later, Cecil B. DeMille obtained a stake in the original Wilshire location. The early celebrity patrons that frequented the establishment included Mary Pickford, Will Rogers, and Rudolph Valentino. Soon, Charlie Chaplin, the Barrymore brothers (John and Lionel), and Jean Harlow were dining there as well.

In 1937, the Brown Derby moved down the street to 3377 Wilshire Blvd. They built a second Derby restaurant identical to the original, which was closed soon after.

Somborm died in 1934. His daughter with Swanson, Gloria, a schoolgirl being educated in a boarding school in Switzerland, was his sole heir. The estate was to be held in a trust until her 30th birthday. In 1952 she agreed to relinquish her interests in the other three restaurants, for complete ownership of the Wilshire location.

The Hollywood Brown Derby

The second Brown Derby opened on St. Valentine’s Day in 1929 on the corner of Hollywood and Vine at 1628 N. Vine St. It was a big hit with the movie stars due to its close proximity to the movie studios.

Shortly before the Hollywood Derby opened, Somborn had a rival for the affections of a young lady. The rival was a cowboy from Montana who was a cook at a burger stand on Wilshire and La Brea. This was 26-year-old Robert Cobb.

Somborn was impressed by Cobb’s knowledge of the restaurant business and hired him to manage the Hollywood Derby. Cobb would cater to the strange tastes of Hollywood stars. He once made a grapefruit cake for gossip columnist Louella Parsons. He also made a cake made of caviar and shortbread for Harpo Marx.

In 1939 Cobb said:

“Clark Gable has to have his coffee just right and Alice Faye’s boiled eggs can’t be left on too long. Gary Cooper’s fried chicken must be dry rather than greasy. And that’s the way they get ’em. They get ’em that way even though we have to tear the kitchen apart.”

“Stars are particular about their food because they know what good food is. Stars are used to having things the way they want them and that’s how we plan to have them. But if we didn’t the stars wouldn’t fuss. Most of them are the nicest folks on earth from a restaurant man’s point of view. No, they’d simply leave the food, exit smiling and not come back. Who’d blame them? Not me!”

Favorite Foods

Clark Gable’s favorite items on the menu were corned beef hash and pot roast. Norma Shearer enjoyed lamb chops. John Barrymore came for breakfast and would eat pancakes and sausage. Boris Karloff typically had a glass of milk and a pastry or two. Charlie Chaplin would usually order a steak, but only eat four bites.

From an article titled “Star Grazing” published in June 1939:

“Stop by (The Hollywood Derby) at noon or at dinner time and you’ll see Tyrone Power, for example, eating his favorite boiled brisket of beef with horseradish sauce and a glass of milk. Janet Gaynor will be ordering Turkey Derby, a creamed speciality. You’ll see Eddie Cantor demolishing hamburger steak, dry, no onions, Al Jolson bolting chicken chow mein and American tea, Claudette Colbert going in a big way for chicken hash Somborn. Claudette never has to diet.”

“Or perhaps you’ll find Jack Benny and Mary Livingston enjoying a snack between radio rehearsals. Both will probably be ordering ham, but his must be Westphalia and hers must be Virginia. Numbered among the Derbys’s best customers, they collect a lot of “gags” around the place. They even write radio scripts there!”

The Hollywood Derby had a courtyard in the back as well as a large banquet room. It was always a good locale for wrap parties, as well as press conferences for new releases. Artist Nicholas Volpe created artwork that was adorned on the walls of The Hollywood Derby. Each piece featured the Best Actor or Best Actress from the years 1928-1961.

The Cobb Salad

In 1937, the Cobb salad was invented at the Hollywood location. There are a few variations as to who actually created this legendary salad. One version says the salad was invented by Derby chef Paul J. Posti.

Other versions claim that Cobb had created the salad himself at midnight. This was either for himself or for Sid Graumann. Cobb had apparently grabbed a bunch of things from the refrigerator and tossed them together.

It was at this location that Clark Gable became engaged to Carole Lombard. In 1941, Lombard had Gable’s 40th birthday party catered by the Derby at their ranch. Their second wedding anniversary was also catered by the Derby, who delivered food to the set of They Met In Bombay.

It was also the last place Lombard dined in Los Angeles on January 11, 1942, before leaving Los Angeles to help with the war effort. She would die tragically in a plane crash just five days later.

In 1933, Marlene Dietrich was refused service for having the audacity to wear pants instead of a skirt or a dress (what a scandal that would have been). It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the dress code was changed to allow women to wear pants.

Lucy, Radio, and Groucho

Also in 1933, Lucille Ball began to dine here and did so frequently for decades. In the golden age of television, if she wasn’t at the studio or her home on Roxbury Dr., she was likely at the Hollywood Derby.

In 1955, Ball would do an episode of I Love Lucy at this location (actually shot on a sound stage replica) where her character interacts with William Holden. This would be repeated another fourteen years later on Here’s Lucy, this time bumping into The Tonight Show stars Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.

During the golden age of radio, it was not uncommon for the cast of a show to do a live performance for the East Coast, head to The Hollywood Derby for a meal, and then return to the studio to put on a live performance for the West Coast.

In the 1950s, television shows would often do live broadcasts from The Hollywood Derby. The most notable example is when a broadcast of the Ralph Edwards show, This Is Your Life, surprised Harold Lloyd, with Groucho Marx sitting in the next booth.

A common start to this show was to surprise a celebrity near the Pantages Theatre where the show was based. As soon as they went to a commercial break Marx began to mock, heckle and berate Edwards until he left the building.

Beverly Hills Brown Derby

In 1931, the third Brown Derby restaurant opened up in Beverly Hills. It was on the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Rodeo Dr. This location was very similar in its layout to that of the Hollywood location.

Los Feliz Brown Derby

The last Brown Derby restaurant to open was located at 4500 Los Feliz Blvd. Cecil B. DeMille had originally bought the building, to be used as a silent movie theatre. When talkies became all the rage, those plans were abandoned as it was extremely costly to convert a movie theatre for sound.

Subsequently, the space would become a “chicken joint” named Willard’s, which would eventually be closed. DeMille would then convert the space into a Brown Derby, which opened its doors in 1940.

A scene from Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford was shot at this restaurant in 1945. This location (which was closed by then) was also used as the exterior for the legendary Arnold’s Drive-In on the popular 1970s TV show Happy Days.

“The first meetings to select the first 1,500 stars for the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame were there, in the late 50s”

– Johnny Grant, honorary mayor of Hollywood

Decline Of The Derby

As the years went by, the Derby began to lose its luster with the “In-Crowd.” It was starting to become what was called “old hat.” In 1960, the Los Feliz location had permanently closed its doors.

It was a restaurant called “Michaels of Los Feliz” for a while, and in 1992, it was turned into a nightclub called “The Derby.” It became the epicenter of the swing resurgence and was featured in the movie Swingers. The building is currently shared by a Chase bank and a gastropub called “The Mess Hall.”

In 1980, the original Wilshire location closed. The building was eventually bulldozed and the land was turned into a parking lot. In 1985 it became a shopping center called The Brown Derby Plaza. The Derby’s dome survived demolition, and was incorporated into the shopping center.

The Beverly Hills Brown Derby closed in 1982, and the building was demolished soon after. In 1986 it became the One Rodeo shopping development. The Hollywood Brown Derby closed in 1985 due to a lease dispute. The building fell into disrepair and was occupied by homeless people and gang members. It was razed in 1994.

Brown Derby Licensing

In 1987, The Walt Disney Company entered into a licensing agreement with the owners of The Brown Derby brand. A replica of the Hollywood Brown Derby was built at Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World.

Sadly, nostalgic memories are all that remains of the original Brown Derby restaurants.

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