The Zomba Cafe in “The Loved One,” about the 1:38 mark.
Thanks to its geographic location and its proximity to entertainment industry businesses, Studio City has served as the home for eclectic restaurants and nightclubs providing a variety of amusement and atmosphere. Several film industry professionals operated their own niteries, such as screen villain Jack La Rue and Academy Award winning cinematographer James Wong Howe. Others featured eclectic decoration or strong celebrity clientele. Some venues hosted variety performers entertaining guests, such as clubs at 11502 Ventura Blvd. and 12449 Ventura Blvd.
11502 Ventura Blvd. has hosted a revolving clientele of clubs since at least 1936, when Rex’s White Cabin operated at the location. The Everglades premiered at the location in December 1939, featuring singing star Beth Williams, accompanied by Harry Powell and his Gladesmen, per the December 7, 1939 Van Nuys Valley News. The club offered dinner and dancing, and such special cuisine as Chicken a la Maryland.
The Zomba Cafe proffered colorful entertainment to men looking for a little excitement, opening in 1941. A blurb in the September 5, 1942 issue of Variety stated, “Unusual atmosphere at the Zomba Cafe, 11502 Ventura Blvd. Radio’s Jimmy Jackson greets you with song. Also orchestra leader Eugene Jackson (formerly of Our Gang Comedies) gives you “a bit of Africa.” (Jackson played Farina’s older brother, “Pineapple,” in Our Gang Comedies).
Zomba operated mostly as an upscale burlesque club for men looking for an “afternoon delight,” with B-girls performing on raised and separate platforms as well as in choreographed numbers, per the American Guild of Variety Artists yearbook. Comedians acted as emcees, trying to inject some humor and energy into proceedings, especially between acts. Atmosphere and decorations carried an African and safari theme, suggesting exotic pleasures.
The club produced all kinds of events and promotions hoping to lure in clients. They annually hosted the “Top Stripper” competition. They added wrestling in 1950, but that didn’t prove too popular. In 1961, Zomba offered old-fashioned burlesque, but that didn’t add huge crowds, either. The club featured topless Watusi dancers late in 1965. 1967 ads in the Van Nuys Valley News mention they serve steaks and burlesque to complement the cocktails and dancing. Owner and comedienne Mrs. Nell Shannon began featuring comics as well in 1968, hiring Carol Abbott as the first headliner.
Randy Mickey Rooney supposedly offered a ring to one of the striptease dancers in 1952, according to the gossip columns.
In 1953, proprietress Shannon won a court case against professional model Connie Cezon, who sued after discovering an eight-foot-tall semi-nude photograph of herself displayed outside the club, one which she had never entered. She had, however, signed a release giving the photographer who made the picture permission to use it any way he wanted.
Gaining a measure of fame as its business was winding down, the Zomba Cafe’s neon sign appears in a location shot for the 1965 film satire, “The Loved One,” the screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s takeoff on the funeral business. A scene follows in what is purported to be the club. A Production Code censor suggested revising the scene featuring the stripper, to hide too much skin and other objectionable movements.
Sometime in 1968 the Zomba Cafe closed, replaced by current tenant, the gay cowboy bar, Oil Can Harry’s, still a happening spot.
12449 Ventura Blvd. has functioned as a restaurant or club for most of its life as well. Arthur Lyons, later a mystery novelist and founder of the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, opened the Saddle and Sirloin with his brother David at this address March 27, 1947, before opening other restaurants in Palm Springs, Bakersfield, and Glendale. The Los Angeles Times noted the steakhouse featured red leather booths and an old time atmosphere, with Fortnight magazine calling it “an attractive restaurant of Western decor” specializing in charbroiled steaks, prime ribs, and chicken.” Meals cost $2-$3.50, served from 4 PM to midnight daily. The facility offered variety entertainment featuring comedians, singers, and performers.
Variety reported that Mae West sent a huge floral arrangement to the restaurant’s opening, coming faithfully whenever Matt Dennis tickled the piano keys. Actress Faith Domergue regularly enjoyed Saddle and Sirloin steaks. Others who came to enjoy the atmosphere or entertainment included such film celebrities as Susan Hayward, Jess Barker, William Bakewell, and the Leo McCareys. Variety also revealed in May 1947 that Frank Capra’s Signal Corps unit, 150 men strong, rented the house for their reunion, with such guests as Capra, Anatole Litvak, and Dimitri Tiomkin.
Saddle and Sirloin signed veterans and relative newcomers as performers. Vaudeville and film stars Rosetta and Vivian Duncan spent almost thirteen months entertaining at the club in 1952 and 1953. Hired in early March 1952, the sisters sang and performed comic bits, but were forbidden to portray their “Topsy and Eva” characters, by right of selling their life story to Paramount Pictures. They were succeeded by the 4 Jokers on March 12, 1953. The group consisted of Bill Pettit, “Joe” Bianca, “Ricky” Matthews, and “Buddy” Casanova, who Variety called “loaded with endless talent and material” in a November 8, 1953 review. Buddy Rogers, husband of Mary Pickford and star of the classic silent film, “Wings,” occasionally performed with them.
In the 1960s, the Showcase replaced Saddle and Sirloin, still offering entertainment, with ads stating, “No cover, no minimum.” Celebrities such as Gene Autry, Edgar Bergen, and Robert Montgomery sometimes visited the nitery. “The Locker Room” opened for a short time at the Showcase on December 28, 1965, featuring headliner Rosy Grier and the Fearsome Foursome, “Deacon” Jones, “Olie” Olson, “Wreck” Cowan, and Lamar Lundy.
By the late 1960s, the club changed hands, reopening as the gay nightclub, the Queen Mary, which often featured drag queens or female impersonators. A few years ago, Serra’s Restaurant opened at 12449 Ventura Blvd., keeping alive the tradition of dining and entertainment at the location. The site has even featured filming by the television show, “Parks and Recreation.”
The Zomba Cafe and Saddle and Sirloin are just two examples of colorful restaurants serving the needs of Studio City residents, providing eclectic atmosphere and variety entertainment to Valley denizens.