Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Derby

The Derby: Last of the 5 Hollywood Derby's restaurants, and LA historic landmark.

Once, the Derby's were famous for their trademark shaped, brown Derby hats that composed the roof of their restaurants. One by one, the Derby's disappeared beneath the indifferent foot of progress. The last remaining Derby lost half its trademark roof years ago when half the building was sold and turned into a Louise Trattoria franchise.

What remained became a nightclub bar; during the nineties the Derby was the heart of the Hollywood swingdance craze. Jon Faverau shot the last scene of Swingers there, its where he gets over his old girlfriend by meeting Heather Graham.

I'd get over my girlfriend, if I had a girlfriend, for Heather Graham.

With the death of the swing craze, the Derby never recovered. Unable to appeal to a new crowd, and in constant battle with the landlord who wanted to tear it down for development, the owner decided to shut down.

Tonight, we are going to have one last drink in this semi, insider-famous Hollywood landmark.

We're invited by Paul, who once commented that whenever he hangs out with Phil, Varga, and myself he feels like he's in Swingers. Maybe that's why he invited us, I always like to think that we're like Jon Faverau and Vince Vaughn, just less glamorous, less famous, and less rich.

I make my way to pick up Phil and we make our way to the Derby. It's closed. It doesn't open until 8.

Paul walks up with his brother Kevin and Shay, a bald bartender guitarist rocker with two sleeves of tattoos and goatee beard.

We decide to get a drink in Louise Trattoria. Kevin is a set painter, has been one for 14 years but is nervous because at the moment, Hollywood is dead. "It's bad right now, this is as bad as any year I can remember, worse then 2001 after 9/11. Hopefully I'll have work in February, production is starting up on the "Green Hornet."

I ask Shay if he plays for a living. "Theoretically." he answers. "It's hard going on tour, most bands are a bunch of prima donna, egotistical, assholes. It's hard to make money on the road, you have to pay for gas, a hotel."

"What about in LA? There's tons of music here."

Shay snorts. "The music scene is dead here. Nobody comes to see music in LA unless you're a name, and most of the bands here suck. The Whisky is just a bunch of spoiled rich high school kids playing for their high school friends."

"I thought music required talent?"

"Music?" Shay laughs. "Music, yes. Rock, no. A brain dead chimp can play in a rock band, and most rockers are the rats that crawled out of the sewer. There are so many terrible bands here I don't even want to go perform because I don't want to listen to them before I perform my set."

"But what about the p---y?" I ask.

Phil and Paul shush me. "Careful Leiken, use code. This is Louise Trattoria. Strange, call it strange."

"Or socks." Paul adds. "Like, check her out. That's some dirty nasty socks."

I wave my hand. "Excuse me, I'm a teacher, and I'm trying to live vicariously at the moment. So what about the STRANGE?"

Shay cracks a smile.

"You're a teacher?" Kevin asks. "Where?"

"District 6, South Gate. Between Compton and Watts."

The table whistles. That line never fails to get me respect. I pull out a couple of teacher stories, after 5 years I can recite them like a routine. I regale them with the 2006 walk out riots and how I caught a couple of kids in the hallway, took them to the counseling office and almost got in a fight with one who threatened to knock my teeth out and put me in the hospital.

"What happened?" Kevin asks.

"The principal came in, told everyone to sit down, then took off to put out a fire somewhere else."

"What did you do?"

"What could I do? The students are giggling because they've gotten away with threatening a teacher and everyone in the office, including the secretaries, is dead silent. Then I remember an older teacher telling me that I had to master the "stare." So I look at one of the kids and I pour all my rage into a gaze of pure venom, imagine his bald, cholo head bursting into flames."

I pause to take a swing of my Corona. "At first they laugh, then after about a minute they start asking if I'm gay, and if I like their ass. After a couple more minutes they start to get nervous. Finally they ask the secretaries to make me stop. After that they just get silent and put their heads down."

Finally I ask, "You boys ready to go back to class?"

Head hung low, all they could say was, "Yes sir."

"Then I took them back to class."

"Dude," Kevin gasps, "you're like my hero. What about the kid that threatened you?"

"Oh," I wave, "he got expelled."

Shay is starving, but the Derby still isn't open. We walk a half block to a Mexican restaurant full of gabaucho's. It's pricey and full of white people. I down a Dos Eques, not because I like the beer but because I love the commercial.

Finally the Derby opens. We walk up a flight of black steps and get stopped at the door by a pair of promoters, a white woman and a hulking black man. They want $10 for us to see the bands. Shay mysteriously retreats back down the stairs.

Phil, master of talking his way past doormen and sniffing out seats in an auditorium, goes to work. They ask for $5, Phil explains we just want to walk in and have a drink. We're not even staying for the bands. A minute later Phil's voodoo whisks us past the promoters without a dollar leaving our pockets.

The promoters never had a chance.

Shay's relieved. "I'm glad they didn't recognize me. I know them from years ago. I hate promoters! The guy's all right, he's just a drunk. But the woman's a c---t."


"Because that money they collect at the door, only a fraction of it goes to the band. They're like highwaymen who get to collect a tax at the door. It's not like the club sees any of that money."

We make our way to the bar, we're the first one's there. The inside of the Derby is shaped like a brown hat, it has an art deco feel like something out of the forties.

No bartender is in sight. "Hey Phil," Shay asks, "get out that fancy I-phone of yours and call a bartender."

A few minutes later our bartender, a girl dressed in black nylon, black belt and shirt comes to the bar. Phil asks for a beer, but she tells us the Derby is out of beer. It's liquor only. Paul and I split a round of drinks and we have a few laughs as the first band comes out to play. It's a guy/girl duet.

The Derby slowly draws a crowd. It's diverse, silverlake hipsters, Hollywood relics, milf's and non-milf's, geek-chic, chicas, and randoms that could belong anywhere and nowhere. Paul informs us that where we are sitting is where Heather Graham was sitting when they filmed. A small, dark Mexican bartender Paul knows starts chatting it up, and like Peter Lorrie in the Maltese Falcon, he gives us the low down on why the Derby is closing.

The owner of the property is evidently an asshole.

He gives us a round of drinks. Vodka and tonic mixed with sprite. Good drink.

We make our way to the back room where a second band plays. Here it's quieter. A slender, Asian woman serves us a second round of free drinks, courtesy of Peter Lorrie. Her name's Iyin, it turns out she's a film maker and has a short she's premiering at the Cinescape next week about a world where everyone is gay and straights are the minority.

"I thought it would be interesting to do a film where a pair of "straight" people get split up by a homosexual world." she says.

"If everyone is gay, how our people born?" Paul asks.

I have to admit it's a good question. If Christopher were here he'd eat Iyin alive with these kinds of questions.

Paul lays it on, I have to admit, the man has game. She keeps getting us drinks, now at half price and I consume more alcohol then I have in years. Shay sits back and takes it all in, like a sniper waiting to shoot for the kill the moment Paul makes a misstep.

The game, even among friends, has no mercy.

I stumble in my seat, knock over a small painting at my foot. Phil glares. "Careful Lee-ken. I'm taking that with me."

It's a gauche painting of a martini glass.

"I want a souvenir before this place closes."

We have a few more drinks, and now I'm sloshed. Fortunately Phil's stopped and driving us home. He grabs the painting and heads into the bathroom, comes out a minute later with it wrapped in his coat.

"Let's go." he orders. We march to the door when he stops. "Hold up a minute, I need to check this out." He surveys the scene with a professional eye. There's two doormen and the promoter chick. "Okay Lee-ken, you go first."

We walk outside, I stumble down the steps and a moment later we're at my car. I hand Phil the keys, he unlocks it and tosses the painting in the back.

I grab my script and stumble my way back into the bar. I hand it to Paul and make one last round of goodbyes. Between the hot bartender and the cheap drinks, he and Shay are going to be here all night.

I've only been here one time, but I'm going to miss the Derby.

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