Donut Time, the iconic doughnut shop at Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, is out of time.
Visitors looking to grab a sugary treat at the famed filming location for Tangerine have been greeted with boarded-up windows, locked doors and a handwritten sign that offers no other explanation aside from three words: “We are closed.”
Joey Much, whose aunt Seang Mak owns the shop and frequently ran the cash register, confirmed to the Weekly that the late-night eatery is shuttered for good. Mak, 67, retired last year and is now living in Cambodia, Much told us. Records show that she still owns the property, but it remains to be seen if or when a new business will replace the legendary Hollywood hangout.
Anyone who's seen the iPhone-shot feature Tangerine or cruised by the doughnut shop at night knows that Donut Time wasn't just another of Los Angeles' dozens of purveyors of sweet, glazed pastries. Much more significant than that, it had long served as a haven for sex workers — many of them transgender women — who make a living on the streets nearby.
“The family that owned it were kind enough to allow women to sit in there and to allow locals to spend time in there,” says Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, who spoke to us from Florida, where he's currently filming another scripted movie about sex workers. “From a very practical point of view, you have an establishment that has all these windows, so if you were working the street — now this is just my theory here — you're inside and you can have a seat in there and be comfortable while watching all corners,” he says.
Donut Time was so crucial to the prostitutes in the neighborhood that Baker says he wouldn't have made Tangerine if the owners hadn't agreed to let him film inside the shop — otherwise the movie would've been an inaccurate portrayal. The physical location plays such a large role in the film, in fact, that producers toyed with the idea of naming the movie Donut Time, Baker says. (The title they finally settled on refers to the sunset-inspired colors that saturate the movie.)
Baker met Mya Taylor, the transgender actor who stars as Alexandra in the film, at an LGBT center in West Hollywood. Taylor introduced Baker to her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who eventually would be cast opposite her as Sin-Dee. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch developed the script partly based on Taylor and Rodriguez's own experiences on the street, right down to run-ins with the cops and clients who don't pay.
But even before Baker went looking for real-life sex workers to cast in the film, it was the doughnut shop that initially spurred his interest in telling the story. “If you're not from that world, if you're just some Angeleno driving by, the only glimpse into that world is what you see on the street,” he says. “And because it was such a visible location with the windows there, you could see into that little world for a moment while you're sitting there at the red light.”
Donut Time is not the only doughnut shop to cement a place in the city's LGBT history. Cooper's Donuts, which had been a popular gay hangout in the 1950s, became the site of what many historians believe to be the first gay uprising in the country, predating the Stonewall Riots by a decade. The riots on Main Street downtown — which saw LAPD officers pelted with coffee and doughnuts — were a response to police attempts to round up and arrest LGBT patrons of the doughnut shop, according to author John Rechy's account in his book City of Night.
But unlike Cooper's Donuts, which has been largely forgotten outside of LGBT circles, Donut Time has been immortalized in celluloid. Thanks to Tangerine's success — it was executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, amassed critical praise and earned back its tiny budget seven times over — Donut Time had even become something of a tourist destination, attracting in-the-know sightseers and indie film buffs from all over the country.
“I didn't think it would ever go away. It's really sad,” Baker says. “I think the film caught an end to an era.” And he's not just talking about the gentrifying stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard where art galleries have slowly begun to replace mom-and-pop fast food joints. He's also referring to the sex industry at large, which has long been vanishing from the streets and re-emerging in droves online. “It's all gone to the internet,” Baker says. “It's a whole new virtual world.”
It's a world in which there is no storefront, there are no big corner windows and no plastic orange booths. And there's certainly no place on the internet that will let you snuggle up with a warm Styrofoam cup of coffee and a piece of sugary fried dough well into the wee hours of the morning.