The interstellar crossover between literature, old buildings and film industry history all converged last week at the inaugural Los Angeles Visionaries Association (LAVA) literary salon at the Musso & Frank Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood.
Author and poet Dan Fante appeared and read from his memoir, Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving. Fante’s dad was the legendary John Fante, also known as the author who gave Charles Bukowski his entire shtick.
Fante the elder originally hung out at Musso & Frank for decades, as did many hard-boiled lions of American letters during the mid-20th century. Having hailed Fante in this space twice before, the anti-man-about-town grabbed a cheap Southwest flight, and an even cheaper hotel, just to be there.
LAVA co-founder Richard Schave has a thriving passion for books, old buildings and L.A. history, a bent menagerie of penchants that nurtured themselves when he studied with architectural critic Reyner Banham at UC–Santa Cruz.
Banham took him on driving tours of industrial wastelands right here in San Jose, and now Schave runs the Esotouric Bus Adventures into the secret heart of Los Angeles. From those L.A. tours, the idea for the LAVA salons emerged.
Taking place on a Monday, when Musso & Frank is normally closed, the salon provided the sold-out crowd of 90 with all the glorious and secret ribald history of golden-era Hollywood.
The decor of the place, as well as the menu, has barely changed in 50 years. Some of the bartenders have been there since the early ’70s. The worn red booths evoke liaisons of past decades, and the wallpaper came directly from the hometown of chef Jean Rue, who presided from 1922 to 1976.
Perhaps the most lucrative component of Musso history was the exclusive “Back Room,” a.k.a. “The Cocktail Room” or the “Algonquin West,” an exclusive lair that no longer exists but was attached to the back of the restaurant, accessed through a private door and run by a separate maitre d’.
It was here that Hollywood’s authors and screenwriters—folks like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Saroyan, Nathanael West, Dorothy Parker and John Fante—would carouse and exchange perils of the trade. The Back Room raged from 1936 to 1955, after which Musso expanded its main room eastward, creating the two-parlor masterpiece that remains today.
Last week, before the salon started, one of our hosts led us through the restaurant, explaining where celebrities used to sit decades ago. Table #10, close to the restrooms, for example, was Mickey Rooney’s favorite.
Table #1 was Charlie Chaplin’s regular spot, while table #3 was Marilyn’s main hangout. The chair at the end of the bar in the main room is where Steve McQueen always dined.
And get this: Radio and TV legend Ralph Edwards ate lunch at Musso’s every single day from the late ’50s until sometime in the ’70s. He was the only person in history to have his own phone jack installed at the booth.
And even today, countless actors, screenwriters and high rollers of Hollywood frequent the place. So much, that no one is allowed to take photos inside. One can only scribble down notes and experience the ghosts and fables as they ooze from the hallowed confines. I think I heard the wallpaper speak at one point.
The scene reminded me of Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside, steeped in Silicon Valley history, but instead of sitting at the table where Netscape was first dreamed up, one sits where Greta Garbo dined with Gary Cooper 80 years ago.
Bringing it all up to modern times, at least in Hollywood, is the LAVA Salon, and Dan Fante was possibly the most appropriate debut speaker.
Now pushing 70, Fante provides a direct link to the golden era of Hollywood’s literary lore, since his father wrote screenplays for decades. Dan read from his memoir and weaved one tale of how his dad, after departing Musso & Frank one morning, had to rescue a drunken William Faulkner, whose lover was trying to set the apartment on fire.
A few Musso employees actually remember Fante the elder, so they reactivated John Fante’s original account, #237, and gave it to Dan Fante, in his dad’s honor. Only in Hollywood. The anti-man-about-town was overwhelmed at the end. History loves company and may Musso & Frank never die.