The Zulu Hut, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Thanks to California’s inventive motion picture industry, eccentric, eye-catching examples of vernacular architecture took off in the 1920s. Though around for decades, vernacular or programmatic architecture hit its stride in the 1920s and refers to commercial buildings or signs designed to resemble what they are selling, particularly to those driving by in automobiles. Popular models here in Southern California included the Pup Cafe, the Brown Derby, Ben Hur Coffee, and the Jail Cafe, well documented in Jim Heiman’s colorful book, “California Crazy and Beyond.”
Actor-comedian Raymond McKee constructed the first example of roadside vernacular architecture in what is now Studio City in 1924 when he constructed the Zulu Hut. A long time performer, McKee began acting in films as early as 1912, working for such companies as Lubin, Edison, Kalem, Goldwyn, and Fox, to name a few. Brent Walker, author of “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory,” states that McKee joined Mack Sennett in 1924 as Alice Day’s leading man, before moving on to play the young father “Jimmy Smith” to little Mary Ann Jackson in the “Smith Family” Series for several years. Besides investing in oil and real estate in the 1920s, North Hollywood resident McKee ( he lived at 11107 Sunshine Terrace), decided to open a restaurant near his home.
The Zulu Hut, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
The November 17, 1924 Los Angeles Times notes that McKee’s quaint little restaurant at 11100 Ventura Blvd. opened on November 16 just three miles from Hollywood, bought and constructed during McKee’s vacation. The Zulu Hut was what could he described as a somewhat racist example of programmatic architecture, associating black savage Zulus with fried chicken. The roadhouse was described by New Movie Magazine as “picturesque” and “thatched with palms…where a Zulu savage dances and jabbers French and you eat chicken with your fingers in the light of candles thrust in antique whiskey bottles.”
Thatched from palms, the small eatery was basically a giant circle containing artificial coconut palms and either African-American servers or Caucasians in blackface wearing grass skirts greeting guests in the parking lot and opening their car doors, before running inside to perform a wild Charleston. Primitive, the cafe featured dirt floors and served beef, barbecue, and chicken, but was famous for its fried chicken served on cardboard plates with no utensils. Guests sat on rough benches in front of even rougher tables without cloths, per Motion Picture Magazine. Picture players quickly flocked to it, which lured civilians as well. Trades also state the restaurant was featured in the film short, “Hollywood the Unusual” in 1927.
Unfortunately, the Zulu Hut’s flimsy construction made it susceptible to dark incidents. The December 31, 1925 Los Angeles Times notes that hot water apparently became overheated and one wall caught fire, but the Lankershim Fire Department quickly extinguished the blaze.
In early 1926, the establishment was robbed twice at gunpoint. On January 7, 1926, two young bandits wearing gloves and with silk handkerchiefs covering their faces held up patrons at pistol point around midnight, collecting nearly $2,000 in cash, watches, and jewelry from patrons and $352 from the cash register before escaping. A second burglary occurred February 19, 1926, when four young men robbed the Zulu Hut of $407. One robber was caught by police after a gun battle erupted when he was stopped for a traffic violation. The main instigator of the incident, Lyle Christie, who had also robbed the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Ambassador, and other high end establishments, was sentenced to five years in San Quentin on July 29, 1926.
North Hollywood, also saw its share of coyotes in 1927, as ten-year-old Ralph Smith Jr. trapped a coyote in the hills before selling it to McKee on October 22, 1927 to exhibit at the restaurant.
Like everyone else, McKee began suffering financial problems in 1929 thanks to the stock market crash, but also because of bad business decisions. The Los Angeles Times notes he owed the Internal Revenue Service large sums for failing to pay enough income tax for several years. McKee placed his first legal note in the December 28, 1930 Los Angeles Times stating that he no longer owned the Zulu Hut; Flora Johnson purchased the restaurant from the actor a few days earlier.
On March 1, 1931, a massive fire erupted at the cafe, as terrified patrons sped from the burning restaurant. Firefighters fought to kept the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings. The quickly moving fire, which started in the left wing, quickly engulfed the ramshackle structure. The Zulu Hut was no more.
McKee would go on to compose music, act in vaudeville and in sound films, and write scripts for radio shows. By the 1950s, he and his wife, former actress Marguerite Courtot, retired to Hawaii.
Though not as memorable or as striking as still standing programmatic buildings as the Brown Derby, the Idle Hour Cafe, and the Tamale, the Zulu Hut helped interject a entertaining dash of color to the rural San Fernando Valley, and lead the way for more celebrity eating establishments in Studio City.