Only a very small percentage of establishments in the food & beverage industry and entertainment business survive the test of time. Most go for a few years and disappear for a variety of both legitimate and suspect reasons that individuals like myself, are all too familiar with seeing in the world of hospitality and nightlife. They can be here one day and gone the next.
The Gardenia Room has been my occupational hub away from home off and on, in and out, for close to 30 years now. A length of tenure unexpected of me. With working the bar at the club, it’s allowed me the flexibility to also work with many other establishments and outfits, practicing and expanding what I do, which included a 10-year stint writing for the industry magazines, and now being the creator and site runner for the online global directory of all things Bitters. I’ve entered into the world of apothecary !
I guess I’ve grown and come to some sense of maturity over 37 years in this field where I’ve learned to accept and let it go more than contend and repair. A relief for me of sorts, when your mind is a creative castle of ideas and production, it became a necessary outlet. A metabolism built for speed finally paces itself into cruise control for the long run.
Of course, that was the main reason and /or problem for any early arguments that Tom and I had back when we were younger, of which were mostly my fault. I was still growing and getting used to LA. Well, that and just a few unnecessary dramas. It’s the restaurant business. Scuffles and mistakes exist and happen when juggling the many moving parts. Tom and Bruce, the owners of the club have always kept the door open for me, even at times when I didn’t know it. We’ve seen each other go from our late 20’s and 40’s to our late 50’s and 70’s, employers and their employee.
At times, Tom would come and sit at the bar, just after the doors open when the bar is set-up and the room/floor is ready for another night, as he hands me the bank to count into our 1944 “old school ching-ching” National cash register, the caught glimpse silently saying to each other “We’re still here”. After so many years, we could run the place sleepwalking. A surreal quality haunting the hallowed ground created 38 years ago. The same goes for Nichole and Leonel who’ve been on the clock for a combined 40 years, those numbers also easily qualify. It’s a small room. The less staff come and go, the better.
The Gardenia is the longest-running Cabaret Supper Club in the United States. It deserves some recognition for its staying power. The credit goes to Tom and Bruce. They could have cashed out long ago and made life easier on themselves, but sometimes it’s better just to have something to do than to exist with too much open everyday time, unless you have a large garden to tend to at home. I think it was the right move, for dual purposes of longevity and keeping a rare art form alive. Today it’s gained even more in popularity and trend over the last decade.
The room has become a club of legend, with numerous luminaries of Hollywood, stage, film and television having frequented the venue many times over the years. The four decades of shows and performers at the club are more than likely in a ‘lost count” status, though I believe Tom has kept all the annual performance/reservation date books and has them in a safe place, in case the history channel calls for a Chasen’s-style documentary. One time he mentioned that he had an offer some twenty-plus years ago from the studios to have a television show produced about and in the club itself, but declined for reasons unknown.
It’s one of those old style places with the ambiance being that of classic and period, not modern, so when you walk into the room it takes you back in time. If you’re not initially hip to that, than it may take a little getting used to. But after a great cocktail or two, you’ll be fine and fit right in, even if a celebrity icon is sitting at the table next to you, or in my case, at the bar, where I’ve served many who’ve simply preferred to lounge back in the very comfortable, cushioned raised seats and become unknown, since they’ve already achieved the opposite status. I enjoy serving the ones who prefer to disappear.
Holding only 60-70 people, every seat is basically an orchestra pit. But we can get some persnickety individuals wanting this or that table for various reasons, without realizing that when it’s a packed house the choice becomes limited due to the deuces, three and four-tops of reservations that more-less design the seating arrangement so that everyone fits with no seat open and empty. Not an easy thing to do in an L-shaped room of this size. But we still try to accommodate all that we can, especially for some of the more regular supporters in the Cabaret community. We just can’t always guarantee anything and everything.
If you consider the numbers over this journey of time, we’ve had well over a thousand singers through the room, and ones that still perform here today into their own decades-long careers. The art of the intimate performance; it’s like saloon singing, but without the high stage. And you never know who’s going to be in the audience, so it’s always good to hit it out of the ballpark. After entering the club, the eyes adjust to the lighting on low, and the mind is soon transported into your own musical film noir where one can turn into any character they so desire for the night. Welcome to the town of make-believe !
The Gardenia is also home to the longest-running open mic night in Los Angeles, now in its 20th year. This gives newcomers a chance to feel welcomed into the Cabaret community, where they can gain equal footing and confidence to sing their craft and build a show of their own all the while experiencing and hearing other singers, voices and interpretations. A camaraderie into the art of the song.
This is the venue where Michael Feinstein got an early start, along with Andrea Marcovicci, and Maude Maggart, who’s younger sister is Fiona Apple. Barbara Brussell early on as well who recently performed this year back at the club after many years away. These are just to note a few of the too many to mention. Then you had already established legends like Margaret Whiting who performed at the club way back many years ago, as well as Julie Wilson before they passed. Janis Paige and Neile Adams did shows as recent as a few years ago, and they’re in their 80’s and 90’s, respectively. You’ve got to hand it to the older Hollywood gals, they just keep on rolling!
And there’s one that still stands out in my mind that I remember from back when I started working behind the bar, and that was actress/performer by the name of Clare Peck. She only played the room a couple few times and then disappeared, but she always packed the place. Her son is soap actor, Austin Peck. Another that recently popped into my head that performed at the club years ago as well, and that’s Phillip Officer. I never know when the past will come up to greet me again with other singer memories.
The biggest supporters of the club who live in the area are just too many to mention, and I know I’d accidentally leave a name out and feel bad about it, but you all know who you are and are on my personal FB page as well as the Gardenia FB page. Not to mention all the club goers who come in to see shows of all kinds who are not performers themselves, as well as ones who work in all the other areas in back of the cameras of the entertainment business, but don’t do Cabaret. Scotty Bowers and his wife, Lois, before she passed, had been coming into the club for many years. Scotty, a bartender way before my time, is the author of the recent New York Times Bestseller “Full Service”, sharing his experiences doing what he did in Hollywood for over 60 years.
The one great thing that separates The Gardenia Room from other like-venues across the country is that Tom kept the club open out of the passion for the art as an environment for new talent to grow. This has to do with his own previous career as a dancer, singer, actor and choreographer on Broadway. He also worked at New York’s famous Latin Quarter that was owned by Barbara Walter’s father, Lou. He was on stage with Lauren Bacall in “Applause”. He auditioned Rita Hayworth. He choreographed Ann Margret’s Las Vegas nightclub act. Tom has told me many of his stories over the years. Why he never wrote a book/memoir of his own is beyond me. And I asked him to. We’re also the only club of its type that doesn’t take a cut of the performer’s cover charge.
Cabaret is like the nicer sister, with Burlesque being its naughty twin!
Though it started out more just as a restaurant for lunch and dinner in the very early years, it included a back patio for afternoon seating. Industry types running businesses in the area known as the Hollywood media district would walk down the alley between Sycamore and La Brea and turn right up into Tom’s lunch patio. In fact, the original chairs used to be corner-stacked up against the fence and brick wall of The Guitar Institute next door, out in what used to be the patio, now weathered by rain and rusted from years of non-use.
The Record Plant Recording Studios are right down the alley from us. Down Sycamore just walking distance one block South at the corner is the old Howard Hughes art deco building that he acquired shortly after it was built in 1930, and was used as the main headquarters for his company’s movie/film division. It has always been kept in pristine condition, and has recently been submitted for landmark status. Down the boulevard heading West one block is the famous and now newly reopened Formosa Cafe. And right up La Brea a couple blocks near Sunset is the now Henson Recording Studios, but used to be A & M Records owned by Herb Alpert, and before that is was the historic Charlie Chaplin Studios. The Gardenia is surrounded by Hollywood history.
Change happens over this length of time, and links to the past can be hard to let go of, when you don’t quite want to say goodbye yet. As you get older, memories can seep in deeper in the mellow attempt of holding on to what’s already gone. The youth in the mind still remains. Knowing me, I’d be the same way, for building good experiences makes for lasting memories later, creating a never-ending smile inside from participating in something historic for the record books. There’s a sentimental feeling with being the boy behind the bar at a place of note for so long. When you have the same original owners, and the staff’s low rate of turnover, we all know each other well. We come in and do our jobs. We don’t have to be told what to do.
I remember when I first got hired. It was in 89’or 90’. I was looking for more work in the yellow pages after checking out the want ads, as I also liked calling establishments that weren’t necessarily hiring at the moment. I lived in Burbank at the time, and drove up Olive Ave. into Hollywood to fill out an application, not knowing if they could really use me or not. But I had just left a downtown gig that I couldn’t stand anymore, on 444 Flower Street right across the way from the Bonaventure Hotel, so I needed to fill my work schedule out as quickly as possible to avoid a financial nosedive.
Tom and I talked, along with his manager at the time, about me actually coming in to start shifting behind the bar with a beginning schedule. Poof, I was in. But what I had gotten into, I had no idea at the time. It was a weird period of adjustment for me at the onset, getting used to the vibe and my place within it. And I had to cool my energy down to fit in to how the room rolled from the beginning to the end, finding my place in the script. Tom was the director, and took a chance on me as the young bar actor. The position carried with it a center of attention as the opening act. It took me awhile, but I learned how to control it and ride the wave to shore.
The reservation books dictate to a large degree of how busy a night is going to be, and they wanted me behind the bar on some slow nights too, of which there was a slight misunderstanding at first until I figured it out, that sometimes included calling in to see if they needed me, or them calling me, as the numbers in the books can and do increase day-by-day up until a performer’s show date. I was a newbie to this rare kind of venue in Los Angeles, as anybody would be with this few and far between theme, so it took me a while to adjust to the life of activity in the room before I settled in with everything I needed to be aware of in my overall job description, which included being in charge of the house music and volume, the phones, coffees and waters, and disappearing into the shadows of the bar when the show starts.
One of the odd things that happens every night unlike anywhere else is, when it’s show time at 9:00 pm, after full seating and dinner and drinks have been completed, the room goes dark except for the stage lights, the bar is dimmed, and I’m the only one left out on the floor (behind the bar) being quiet as a mouse, even to the point when making drinks during the show, all martinis have to be shaken during the applause so the sound doesn’t interrupt the performance, which is why we don’t use blenders anymore, too loud for the room no matter what. I like that! We even had to get rid of the soda gun because the compressor would never fail to turn on in the middle of the show.
There was a few times in the last couple years when a performer was in the middle of a slow, quiet medley of songs and the crowd wasn’t huge, at the same time I was jammed with a few martini orders from the waiters, so I went outside on the sidewalk of Santa Monica Boulevard and rocked my full bullet martini shaker for a good 10-15 seconds, came back into the club, raised the bar gate, and poured into the already chilled martini glasses.
With all the traffic going by, it’s good no squad cars caught me. Who knows what would have happened. Imagine me going to jail for preparing cocktails on the street. However, one thing I can say about that is, this part of the boulevard in Hollywood is also part of the last extension of Route 66 that goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean’s edge in Santa Monica. Therefore, I can officially say that I have shaken martinis on Route 66, however late it may be for the history books.
These types of clubs survive on a shoestring more or less, so as a community of like-minded artists, everyone supports each other as much as one can, as it tries to keep a toehold of exposure and recognition in American entertainment. Facebook not only helps get the word out, but images, video and bio content as well. I’ve been the administrator of the Gardenia page since it began eight years ago. It’s funny out of all this time I’ve never sat in the main room to see a show on an off night. Occasionally when I’m alone in the room early on setting up the bar, I’ll turn on the mic and music system and practice belting a few songs just for fun, as I used to perform twenty plus years ago in a singing server restaurant called Café Bellissimo.
It all remains a grassroots effort to keep it alive and kicking. An avenue for talent, of which it has in abundance, both new and established, and making money at it as a performer depends on the size of your band. Musicians have to be paid. You have a small room in which to fill up. The only advertising the house does is with the marquee on the boulevard and the Facebook page. It’s up to the performer to promote. These factors go into the price of your cover charge, all with a prayer that your besties come in to see the show and are not out of town. Most of the time, you’re just happy to break even. And about musicians, we happen to have had the best of the best in Los Angeles perform in this room over the decades, and it has been an honor to sit back and listen in awe.
But you see all kinds in the world of Cabaret, from super-talented singers who are completely broke and get little to no help or support, to performers in a financially easier position but may not possess as much talent. What I’m saying is there are all kinds from all walks that come here to this great city of chance and give it their best shot. The one universal centerpiece that doesn’t budge – you need to have talent and luck on your side. No other combination works, not even money and nepotism. When executives invest in talent, they count on it for as long a run as they can, so you also have to be professional and intelligent with your craft and in the business, and a charming and workable-with personality doesn’t hurt either.
Even though Tom is no longer with us, his spirit is always present in the chair in the back of the room where he sat with Bruce to watch and enjoy many of the performances in a space that he created for the very purpose of attempting to help others with their dreams of making it in show business like he did. This is his legacy. And we continue it today in the same room in Hollywood that he opened back in 1981, in honor of what he gave to so many that embrace the heart of his purpose and intention with the greatest of appreciation and respect.
Below is a listing of some of the celebrities that have graced the room at The Gardenia since I’ve been there.
Clint Eastwood Ann Margret Charles Bronson Michael Learned Tom Bosley Annette Bening Chevy Chase Raquel Welch Richard Mulligan Rita Moreno Henry Jaglom Carol Channing Michael Madsen Natalie Schafer Kevin McCarthy Charlene Tilton Stevie Wonder Maria Shriver Henry Mancini
Cheryl Bentyne Norman Lear Lesley Ann Warren Robert Goulet Carol Lawrence Gil Gerard Marion Ross Michael Feinstein Nancy Sinatra Mel Brooks Anne Bancroft Gregory Harrison Lainie Kazan Sidney Poitier Bonnie Franklin Ron Glass Phyllis Diller Martin Landau Shirley Jones Bruce Vilanch
Nancy Dussault Tim Curry Sally Struthers Richard Benjamin Judith Light Patrick Swayze Bea Arthur Nick Cassavetes Jean Simmons James Garner Michelle Lee Mike Stoller Carl Reiner Joanne Worley Rex Reed Peri Gilpin Mr. Blackwell Peisha McPhee Leonard Maltin Sally Kirkland
Gary Collins Joan Van Ark Jack Klugman Barbara Bain Dick Sherman Anne Rutherford Elliot Gould Carole Cook James Cromwell Yvette Mimieux Robert Urich Karen Morrow Richard Gautier Melissa Manchester Ray Evans Amanda McBroom Ken Berry Anne Kerry Ford Robben Ford Lee Meriwether Tyrone Power Jr.
Tyne Daly Ray Jessel Fiona Apple Jason Alexander Sally Field Richard Chamberlain Charlotte Rae Lawrence Pressman Betty Garrett Leonard Nimoy Marcia Wallace Dick Van Patten Mary Ann Mobley Peter Gallagher Pia Zadora George Chakiris Jackie Collins John Glover Adrienne Barbeau Keith David
Michelle Phillips Bruce Davison Anne Jeffreys Frank Strazzeri Susan Blakely James Pickens Jr. Mary Jo Catlett Sammy Williams Margaret O’Brien Rob Reiner Sally Kellerman Buddy Collette Cloris Leachman Billy Vera Estelle Getty Robert Wuhl Lydia Cornell Chris Noth
Jim. J. Bullock Deborah Van Valkenburgh Robert Guilliame Beverly Sanders Alan Mandell Jackaye Harry Michael Ironside Robert Forster Dale Olson Stephen Schwartz Richard Dreyfuss Kelly Lange Mews Small Kate Vernon