By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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It was supposed to bethe developer’s show. But many in the overflow crowd at the Los Feliz Community Police Center turned the meeting into a fight to save the Derby.
Like the oversize neon “Manhattan” standing sentinel over the Derby bar, the Save the Derby coalition is seeing as red as a maraschino cherry the Woodland Hills–based Adler Realty Investments Inc.’s proposal to demolish the Derby to make room for an 80-unit condo/retail structure. The coalition will be one of the presenters at a November 10 town-hall-style meeting to discuss the fate of the nightclub at 4500 Los Feliz Blvd.
Spearheaded by Rebecca Goodman, a lawyer, whose onyx bob of a haircut is as full as a bowler, and whose fingernails are stop-sign red, the coalition claims to have more than 1,000 members, including many swing dancers and Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee (ModCom) members.
“I go almost every Sunday night. It’s a confluence of four things that I care deeply about: architecture, history, community and Los Angeles. If the Brown Derby goes, I really feel that we’ll lose a lot of all four of those things,” says Goodman, a native Angeleno and swing dancer.
The Save the Derby coalition serves “as a Derby hat if you will” for all these different groups that have different stakes, says coalition member Mike Resnick, a Studio City developer, and ModCom commercial chairman.
The coalition counts the Los Angeles Conservancy and ModCom, Hollywood Heritage, the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, the Glendale Historical Society, the Lively Arts History Association, the Franklin Hills Residents Association, the Los Feliz Estates Owners Association, the Los Feliz Towers Home Owners Association, and the Derby nightclub as member organizations.
“I have actually been dancing all over the world — Moscow, Korea and Europe — and everybody’s heard of the Derby. It’s a world-famous place,” says coalition member Rick Pendleton, a Glendale cameraman, and former U.S. Open champion swing dancer, who’s been dancing at the Derby for 10 years.
Having instigated a letter-writing campaign to Councilman Tom LaBonge, and brought the septuagenarian nightclub into the 21st century with its own MySpace profile, the coalition is circulating a Save the Derby petition, and is investigating the Derby’s eligibility for historic-landmark status.
Coalition member Debra Levine lives “catty-corner” across the street from the Derby in the nearly 200-unit Los Feliz Towers.
“As the gateway to Griffith Park, that’s all part of the gestalt of that intersection. I just don’t feel that a huge commercial slash residential building belongs there,” says Levine, a marketing consultant and ModCom member.
“Everyone assumes we’re further along than we are,” says Mike Adler, president of Adler Realty Investments Inc., which purchased the property in June 2004. He calls the opposition “premature,” since the tenants still have years left on their leases, and the plan has yet to be submitted to the city.
Adler vice president Rick Gable says the plan has been redesigned three times, and will be again. Recently, Adler met with coalition and conservancy members to discuss “saving the structure,” says coalition member Jay Platt, a Los Angeles Conservancy preservation advocate. Adler says the new design will investigate incorporating the Derby into the plan.
But Levine, who has been following the redesign process, says “they didn’t make one goddamn change except they put some castle shit on it.”
Derby nightclub owner Dana Leonardi, a musician, who now has the struggling Derby nightclub’s lease and hopes to make the club a jazz venue, calls the developer outreach “a smokescreen as they pretend to be these great men to come in and beautify the city.”
A study, done by Grimes Historic Preservation, found the building not eligible for historic-landmark status, “primarily due to lack of physical integrity,” says Gable.
Coalition members disagree.
“It still has a lot of historic integrity. When you look at it from the street with a post card from 1940, the bones are still there. There’s even some of the elements of the Willard’s chicken restaurant from 1929 still there,” says Platt.
“With the exception of Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, none of the drive-ins of that era exist in L.A. Just as the last remaining drive-in, it’s very significant,” says Chris Nichols, associate editor of Los Angeles magazine, ModCom member and author of a forthcoming book on “the king of drive-in restaurant design,” Wayne McAllister, “who told me at the age of 91 that he worked on the Derby’s car café.”
“It’s the last surviving Derby that has anything to do with the Brown Derby chain. It’s the last in its original location,” says coalition member Robert Nudelman, Hollywood Heritage director of preservation issues.
Next Moves: The Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council will hold a town-hall meeting on the project on Thursday, November 10, at 7 p.m. in the multipurpose building at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, 2071 Dracena St.