By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Sobodan Dmitrov
IT PROMISED TO BE A GOOD NIGHT FOR GENE La Pietra and his Hollywood independence movement. Some 100 Hollywood homeowners showed up for a debate on secession at the First Presbyterian Church. La Pietra worked the crowd like a pro: a warm smile, a firm but gentle handshake for everyone. Wrapped in a dark, tailored suit with a crimson power tie, the short and feisty nightclub owner can be charming. He had poured almost $1.5 million of his own money into the Tinseltown secession campaign, and, finally, people were taking the campaign seriously.
But something went wrong that night for La Pietra and his crusade.
Blame Councilman Eric Garcetti for saying that a fledgling city of Hollywood, with five part-time council members and a secretary, would not be able to answer all the telephone calls. Suddenly, Gene La Pietra jumped up to respond. He took command of the stage, and refused to let go. The moderator, Peter Barnett, tried politely to get La Pietra to sit down and stick to the evening's format. But La Pietra wouldn't budge.
"We are going to stand here until I'm heard," he said. He dug his heels in and demanded the right to respond to Garcetti. The homeowners insisted he sit down.
Eventually, cooler heads on La Pietra's crew prevailed and persuaded him to relax. But the outburst exposed some of the rough edges of this colorful millionaire. For Gene La Pietra, the aspiring mayor of an aspiring city, that night offered the audience a snapshot of a man used to getting his way, a man not comfortable with compromise, a man not prone to admit he might be wrong.
The question on everyone's mind that night: Who does Gene La Pietra think he is? He is the main voice promoting the idea of Hollywood secession: "The fact is, I started this. I funded it. I have led it."
La Pietra talks big, and can be loose with the facts. He claims to have coined the word disco when he opened one of his nightclubs in the early 1970s. He likes to make and spend money: "The ultimate obscenity is to die with a lot of money." He is a man driven by a monumental obsession to free Hollywood from the city of Los Angeles. Hearing La Pietra carry on about the secession, it's easy to forget that the breakaway idea does not seem to be catching on with the masses. La Pietra talks passionately of a sure victory. As evidence, he mentions his worldwide media exposure. "Last week I was interviewed by Italian television," he tells me. "Hollywood is known all over the world. That's why we're going to win."
His office is cramped and messy. Certificates of appreciation from the city of Los Angeles and a letter from the pope fill one wall. "It would take too long to get into it now," he says about the papal missive. As La Pietra glances out the door, his attention is diverted to a couple of teenagers tagging a white cement building across Santa Monica Boulevard. He's upset and excuses himself to go find his security guard. A few minutes later, the guard returns, followed by the culprits. "I am sorry, sir," says one of them. "We will clean it up immediately." "I know," says La Pietra, who introduces himself and engages them in light banter. They rush off to clean the wall and return a few minutes later. "Can I have your autograph?" asks the second teen, handing him a dirty towel. "I didn't know you were going to be the mayor of Hollywood." La Pietra beams, shuffles out of his chair and signs a business card. "It looks like it was a setup," says La Pietra. "But it wasn't."
THE 54-YEAR-OLD NIGHTCLUB OWNER COMBINES A NEW Age form of spirituality and an old-fashioned, up-by-my-own-bootstraps work ethic to run his Hollywood-based businesses, which include the Circus and Arena nightclubs and Book City News Inc. He never finished high school and isn't impressed by those with formal education. In La Pietra's world, if you work hard enough and create alliances with the right people, you can accomplish anything. La Pietra is also a shameless name-dropper and is especially fond of mentioning influential politicians. One-on-one, La Pietra is coolly confident, sometimes even brash. "Gene is never wrong about anything," says a current employee who works closely with La Pietra on his campaign.
He looks into your face when he talks. He looks into your eyes when he listens. He makes you feel like you are the focus of his attention. And when he takes a position, no matter how ridiculous, he sticks to it. La Pietra spent 15 minutes trying to convince me that his experience as a helicopter pilot (with fewer than 100 hours logged) is an important criterion to be Hollywood's mayor.
Whatever cause, project or organization he's worked on, ultimately, in the end, it was La Pietra who "started it all."
"Gene loves taking credit for everything he's ever been associated with," says a friend. "And in the end, he truly believes it couldn't be pulled off without his help."