The Man Who Would Be King
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.
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"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."
La Pietra tells of how he came to Hollywood in his teens with $40 in his pocket, and how he slept on the streets behind dumpsters when he couldn't afford a hotel. Some of his supporters roll their eyes when they hear the story. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. But it makes a great story.
La Pietra, born and raised in Rhode Island, says he struck out on his own at 14 and went to work waiting tables, washing dishes and selling oil changes for a commission, discovering early on his knack as a salesman. He also knew he was gay. He says he had no struggle coming out.
At 19, he moved to L.A. "I always wanted to come to Hollywood. I remember seeing it in the movies -- the palm trees, the wealth, the opportunity." Soon after arriving, he met the man he would spend his next 22 years with, Ermilio Lemos. In 1971, he bought his first business in town, the 10-stool Hasty Tasty Coffee Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. La Pietra was the cook, Lemos the waiter. They later had a bookstore that also sold incense, some jewelry . . . and porn tapes. That last item of merchandise led to what La Pietra calls a misunderstanding: He faced obscenity charges related to the sale of sexually explicit materials in the early 1970s. He says he's not embarrassed by the incident and learned from it. "Everything in my life is an open book," he says.
They eventually opened the first nightclub in town to cater to black heterosexuals, and named it Disco 1985. Lemos died in 1990 of a heart attack.
La Pietra's current dance clubs are two of Hollywood's hottest, and attract both gays and straights. Nearly every night, he's at Club Circus until 3 a.m., often out front wearing a hat and accompanied by his cat, Baby.
Like most huge venues, Circus, which employs 52 security guards and 150 staffers, has had its fair share of lawsuits, most of them alleging that bouncers used excessive force or that unsafe conditions led to patrons getting hurt. Last month, La Pietra was sued by the family of Marcello "Nino" Maurizio, a 27-year-old executive recruiter and U.S. Army veteran who died on September 2, 2001, from an Ecstasy overdose, which he allegedly received while he was at the club that evening with friends. The wrongful-death suit claims that Circus Disco failed to control the sale and distribution of the drug and was negligent in not providing medical assistance or an ambulance for Maurizio, who was convulsing on the floor. His friends took him to the hospital, where he died a few hours later. La Pietra said the club did nothing wrong and that he cracks down on drug use. "We don't condone it, and we hope you don't see a lot of it."
La PIETRA AND I ARE DRIVING THROUGH THE STREETS OF Hollywood in his Lexus on a hot summer day. By the tenor of his spiel, I know he's done this a dozen times. We're on one of La Pietra's famous "couch tours," drive-bys in Hollywood during which he points out the incredible number of discarded couches and mattresses decorating the sidewalks of his famous city.
The array of discards really is impressive. Councilmen Garcetti and Tom LaBonge have both claimed major victories in the Couch War, telling reporters that they have special units on patrol assigned to collect the unsightly furniture. But today we count five abandoned sofas, all within just a 20-minute drive.
"Look at this," he says. He sounds disgusted. It's hard not to be. Within close view are dozens of garbage bags, split open and disgorging their contents: old tires; busted-up shopping carts; boxes of fast-food chicken filled with bones and greasy napkins; milk cartons; lots of newspapers; more fast-food bags with who knows what in them; empty oilcans. And the place stinks. "The city knows I'm giving these tours to reporters," La Pietra explains. "They know I've been driving around showing all these couches and the garbage. You'd think they'd clean it up, at least for the sake of appearances." Hard to argue with that.
He waves his hand over the garbage. I know where he's going with this. How can the city of L.A. argue that a new city of Hollywood wouldn't be able to take better care of itself? City Hall has done less than a stellar job so far.
La Pietra's largess and support are well-known in the gay community. To the folks who run gay community centers and AIDS health-care organizations, La Pietra is their patron saint. One group even gives out an annual Gene La Pietra Leadership Award.
"As a friend, a member of 'the community,' he's very generous," says Michael Weinstein, executive director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "The majority of what he does, he does quietly. And he's a very good person to have as a friend."
If garbage pickup or clean streets or even the proliferation of couches were the main issue, La Pietra would have a strong argument for Hollywood independence. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Even among the staunchest anti-Hollywood-secession players, it's hard to get someone to cheer about the way L.A. has taken care of Hollywood. But that's another story. Hollywood may indeed be better off on its own. What concerns many people is whether La Pietra is the man to lead the city if it does secede.
If you want to know how La Pietra will get things done, take a look at how he does business. Despite the success of his two clubs, La Pietra has always wanted Hollywood to host a New Year's Eve celebration on the scale of New York City's Times Square event. For the last two years, he's organized the Giant New Year's Eve street party, closing off Hollywood Boulevard for thousands of revelers, to raise money for Hollywood-area charities.
The first party, Giant 2000, raised more than $200,000. La Pietra had sold skeptical Hollywood merchants and the city of Los Angeles on that first event by teaming with up veteran Bay Area club organizer Dave Dean, who, in addition to working with a crew of party experts, had devised a prepackaged concept called Giant. Despite grumbling from some of the clubs, restaurants and bars in Hollywood, the event was successful. And besides, who could really argue against a fund-raiser that would benefit the Boys and Girls clubs, the Gay and Lesbian Center, and an AIDS hospice, among many other local groups?
Dean says La Pietra liked the marketing of the event so much that he eventually used Giant's theme in his clubs. When he first started working with La Pietra two years ago, Dean says, Arena and Circus were outdated and usually empty. Within months, Dean says, they turned around and became two of the most popular dance clubs in Hollywood. The change worked great, says Dean, until La Pietra decided he no longer needed Dean. The night he was fired, Dean says, La Pietra walked outside Arena with a couple of bouncers behind him and handed Dean a letter terminating their relationship.
But La Pietra wasn't about to part with Giant. He continued to use the club's name and logo until, Dean says, his attorney sent La Pietra a terse letter of warning. Dean is now suing La Pietra claiming breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and defamation, among other charges.
For the New Year's Eve party 2001, an event called Centre of the Universe, La Pietra tried to go it alone. Again, he tried to convince skeptical Hollywood merchants that the exposure would be good for Hollywood and that the street party would bring them all business. And again, he stressed the charitable nature of the event. He got LAPD Hollywood Division Captain Michael Downing to be an advisor, and garnered Garcetti's blessings as well.
But this time La Pietra was more ambitious. He wanted to shut down a seven-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. Clubs such as the Palace and Catalina Bar & Grill protested, as did many members of the Hollywood Business Improvement District.
La Pietra promised to work with everyone and come up with a plan that would address everyone's concerns.
Ten days before the party, Councilman Garcetti introduced a motion waiving the city's event fees of $11,542. La Pietra essentially received free traffic and police support.
There were plenty of revelers that night, and many merchants in Hollywood said their businesses did okay. After the party, La Pietra claimed the event was a complete success, telling Hollywood merchants, the news media, the city, the board of directors, everyone, that he raised more than $300,000. To make sure the organizations got their promised donations, La Pietra says he put $211,000 of his own money into the event.
La Pietra's detractors are taking matters into their own hands to make sure another New Year's Eve event doesn't take place. The Coalition for Hollywood, made up of Hollywood nightclub owners, was recently granted a permit by the Board of Police Commissioners to hold a New Year's Eve rally from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the same location. Says Joel Fisher, director of public affairs for the Palace: "We are concerned about the continuation of people staying away because of the party."
BEING A BOOSTER IS ONE THING, WANTING TO LEAD THE parade is another.
"I know everybody in Hollywood . . . and I never heard of him" before the secession movement hit the news last March, says Hollywood activist Chris Shabel. Shabel is one of those people everyone says you need to talk to when doing a story about Hollywood. She's been active in Hollywood since 1975, when people were still just talking about Hollywood revitalization. She makes it clear she's skeptical of La Pietra's professed love of Hollywood and his calling to be its mayor.
"I network at all the meetings [in Hollywood], and I've never seen him at any [of them]. How does he know what people are feeling?" she asks. Shabel admits that when the subject of secession first came up, she, like many others, was curious, even a bit supportive. Who wouldn't be, she says, if you care anything about Hollywood?
This is where Shabel's and other Hollywood boosters' arguments intersect with La Pietra's. Both sides agree that Hollywood needs fixing. But Shabel and dozens of other Hollywood activists who were interviewed for this article say they don't trust La Pietra to supervise the repairs. Shabel remembers when La Pietra and his sidekick Ferris Wehbe, who ran a failed campaign against LaBonge, started making the rounds in Hollywood, giving their "We need our own city" pitch.
"One of the things they swore they wouldn't do was to run for office. I thought that was great," she remembers. But that pledge didn't last. Shabel says she now believes it was never sincere in the first place. "As I got to know the people behind it, I said, 'No way.'"
Just about every major Hollywood neighborhood and community organization that would be the natural base for any breakaway movement opposes the idea. Among the key community groups against secession are the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the Los Feliz Improvement Association, the Hollywood Highlands Democratic Club, the Hollywood/Vine Association, the Melrose Hill Neighborhood Association, the Melrose Neighborhood Association, the Sunset/Doheny Homeowners Group and the Beverly/Wilshire Neighborhood Association.
"I wouldn't vote for Gene La Pietra to be dogcatcher," says real estate developer Tom Gilmore, who's had his share of run-ins with L.A. city officials, and now finds himself one of their allies in opposing Hollywood independence.
"My only experience is that he has been a player, but not a particularly welcome player."
Gilmore belongs to a merchants' organization involved in Hollywood redevelopment. He lives in what would be the new city and also owns the Hollywood Equitable Building at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Like Shabel, Gilmore doesn't trust La Pietra.
He says the whole idea of secession doesn't make any sense. "If you can separate some of the crap from reality, secession doesn't hold up on any level. The possibility of everything being better is extremely, extremely low. By the same token, the possibility of everything getting worse is extremely high."
Larry Gross agrees with Gilmore, and that probably doesn't happen often. But secession has created some wacky bedfellows. Gilmore is a landlord who owns several apartment buildings all over town, some of which are involved in legal squabbles with tenants. Gross, a longtime Hollywood activist, runs the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants-rights organization. But both find themselves on the same side when it's concerning La Pietra. "This guy has visions of grandeur for himself," says Gross.
"There's no grassroots movement for secession in Hollywood. It's just a small group of people looking out for their own interests," says Gross. He remembers La Pietra from his West Hollywood City Council campaign in 1986. La Pietra ran against Abbe Land, who hired Gross to work on her campaign.
"La Pietra spent more money per vote than anyone," Gross says. La Pietra spent $108 per vote and lost by more than a 2-1 margin.
"Now he's trying to create a city for him to be king of," says Gross. "This is all his idea. Without his funding or efforts, there's no mass community-based [interest] to create a city of Hollywood. It just feeds his very big ego."
Christine Pelisek contributed to this story.
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