The ghost of Karen Toshima is still haunting Westwood Village. Some 10 years after the young woman from Long Beach was gunned down in the crossfire of two rival gangs on a crowded Westwood sidewalk, Toshima’s murder remains a powerful touchstone among Village residents and merchants.

Today, Toshima’s ghost is hanging over Duet Restaurant and Nightclub, an upscale nightspot that opened last April on a run-down reach of Westwood Boulevard north of Kinross Avenue. Despite the fact that it is one of the few viable businesses on the block, neighborhood activists, led by the doyenne of Village politics, Sandy Brown of the Holmby-Westwood Homeowners Association, are lobbying to block Duet’s application for a dance permit.

Largely as a result of such agitation, Duet’s owners — actor Larry Manetti of Magnum P.I. fame and a Dallas-based impresario named Chris Mallick — have been cited four times in as many months by the LAPD for the crime of allowing dancing without a permit. (There is, in fact, no place to dance legally in Westwood.) As Brown says, “Westwood doesn’t need a nightclub with dancing.”

But the battle over Duet’s permit application, to air at a public hearing next week, is about more than dancing. Brown has nothing against dancing per se — she has even been known to cut a little rug at Merv Griffin’s Coconut Club at the Beverly Hilton. Rather, it is about Westwood’s long economic slide and its much-anticipated revitalization. “If this business came along three years from now and the village was thriving, this

wouldn’t be an issue,” says one longtime community volunteer. “But right now people are terrified that we could slip back to where we were 10 years ago.” Which is to say, it is a battle about race.

It was just before midnight last Saturday when Sergeant Abney from the LAPD’s West L.A. Vice Squad arrived at the velvet ropes outside Duet with two uniformed officers in tow. An anonymous tip had been phoned in — one of many such calls received in recent months, Abney says — alleging that Duet was hosting a bogus “private party” to skirt the no-dancing rule.

While Abney made the rounds of the dance floor — packed that night with revelers bumping to hip-hop beats — the patrol cops, by now familiar with the drill, recounted for a reporter the last few months at Duet. “Frankly, we’d rather not be out here tonight,” said one. “We have better things to do than to see if people are dancing. I mean, dancing?” The cop shook his head. “But there are certain people in this community who come by here every night, and they have the ear of the city councilman, who calls the captain, and so we get sent out.” (Councilman Mike Feuer’s office has not taken a position on Duet’s dance permit.)

Part of the cop’s frustration stems from the fact that, notwithstanding its multiple and seemingly willful violations of the no-dancing rule, Duet is an unusually well-run nightclub. In the year since it opened, according to Abney, there have been no police calls to Duet — for fighting, drugs, whatever — other than the complaints phoned in by what Abney calls a “small group of neighborhood activists.”

Do you think the complaints have anything to do with the type of clientele at Duet? the cop is asked. “Absolutely.”

The complaints about Duet, according to Abney, began late last year, about the same time, as it happens, that Chris Mallick hired two new promoters to boost the club’s flagging fortunes: ICON Entertainment, which caters primarily to an upscale black clientele, and Albert Torres, whose weekly salsa night drew a mostly Latino and Asian crowd. “It’s funny,” says Mallick, “but nobody complained when we had swing dancing here on Sundays.”

When Mallick heard the complaints, he says, he started calling community leaders to find out what was going on. One was Terry Tegnazian, co-president of the nonprofit development lobby Save Westwood Village. Tegnazian, Mallick recounts, was blunt. “You have a black hip-hopper crowd there,” Mallick says Tegnazian told him. “You know that is the element that ruined Westwood before.”

For her part, Tegnazian, whose organization has no official position on Duet, claims that Mallick sandbagged her. “He said he was from Dallas and not that familiar with the area, and I discussed some historic concerns about Westwood with him. Did he know there was a murder? Did he know the police had to barricade the streets? . . . I am really taken aback by his involving us in this.”

Did he know there was a murder? The ghost of Karen Toshima is alive and well in Westwood.

LA Weekly