The Pirate’s Den, Radio Television Mirror.
During the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age, colorful and elaborate restaurants and nightclubs filled the scene. In the 1920s, programmatic architecture flourished in California, providing automobile passengers giant iconic representations of the foodstuffs available inside. By the 1930s, the fanciful, elaborate elements moved inside, with eating or entertainment establishments virtual playgrounds of fun. The show had moved from the sidewalk to the interior, providing decorative ambiance.
Many celebrities capitalized on the craze, with stars like Raymond McKee and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle building or lending their names to businesses in hopes of raking in profits from the whimsical atmosphere. A group of celebrities followed suit in 1940, pooling their resources to open the Pirate’s Den at 335 N. La Brea Ave., helping a friend in need in the process.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is now available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
335 N. La Brea, via Google Street View.
Don Dickerman, now down on his luck as a film extra, was spotted by Rudy Vallee while working on a picture. Vallee owed his career to Dickerman, the former proprietor of New York’s Heigh Ho Club, who had given the young singer his start as a crooner and band leader, from which he gained his signature salutation, “Heigh Ho Everybody!”
Dickerman operated a series of successful nite spots in New York during the 1920s, until the stock market crash and ensuing financial disaster overtook his businesses. An early presenter of themed restaurants, Dickerman’s eateries included the Blue Horse Tavern, as well as Pirate’s Den clubs in both New York and Miami.
These early Pirate’s Den niteries featured lusty wenches and sneering, rascally “pirates” serving food and drink to customers in a dark paneled room with “cells” and chains replicating the interior of a raggedy pirate ship. Radio Digest called him “one of the most strait-laced night club proprietors,” who because of Prohibition served non-alcoholic drinks. In a February 1931 article, the magazine stated, “His clubs are scrupulously clean in food, entertainment, music, and general atmosphere.” In other words, what we would now call a Disneyified version of pirates.
Vallee approached friends and fellow stars to throw money in a kitty to help Dickerman establish a Pirate’s Den in Los Angeles. The April 7, 1940 Variety reported that the new eatery would replace the White Elephant at 335 N. La Brea Ave., thanks to the help of stockholders Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Valley, Jimmy Fidler, Ken Murray, Tony Martin, Johnny Weissmuller, and Vic Erwin. They selected Dickerman, Bo Roos, Samuel S. Zogos, Winifred Van Lear, and Frances Fegelman to serve as directors.
The group remodeled the building, which had served as the home for such restaurants and clubs as Casa Brea, Three Little Pigs, El Mirador Cafe, and Sebastian’s Cubanola since 1929. On May 8, 1940, the Club celebrated its grand opening, with gaudily dressed pirates and wenches serving drinks and sandwiches to patrons. To add a touch of authenticity, Dickerman brought in Matey, a swearing parrot, who soon became a popular part of the Pirate’s Den.
RKO-Pathe shot this formal grand opening, releasing it to theaters November 15, 1940 as part of the “PIcture Play #3” newsreel, showing such celebrities as Gary Cooper, W. C. Fields, Ralph Bellamy, and other enjoying festivities.
Though the club featured strong entertainment, stockholders often performed at the Pirate’s Den, with Vallee himself almost functioning as house singer. It quickly became popular, thanks to generous free press in Fidler’s Los Angeles Times’ gossip column, with mentions of celebrities coming for a little atmospheric entertainment in the evenings.
The Pirate’s Den, Photoplay.
Dickerman often threw welcome home parties for stockholders when they returned from filming or trips, with Fidler and other gossip columnists playing up these reports, which brought crowds as well. The Pirate’s Den seemed to serve as a popular spot for college age students to celebrate special events, as well as couples bringing friends coming or going from trips. An added special attraction the club offered included special dances created by renowned dance instructor Arthur Murray, who created “Walking the Gang Plank” for the club.
The Pirate’s Den threw a lavish celebratory first anniversary party on June 1, 1941, with Bob Hope headlining the show, which also featured several of the other famous stockholders.
Thanks to its showbiz connections, the Club received plenty of free film play besides the RKO newsreel. “Screen Snapshots #5” released January 25, 1941 broadcast the club’s first anniversary party, with Hope performing stand-up and introducing Jerry Colonna, Cobina Wright, and Brenda, members of his radio show. An invisible master of ceremonies pointed out show biz guests to the camera, including Roy Rogers, Andrea Leeds, and Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers.
A juke box short, “I’d Like to See Samoa at Samoa” prominently featured the club and its headline performers, the Shamrock Boys. On October 26, 1941, the Pirate’s Den served as host for the premiere of ten juke box films, which featured red carpet and klieg lights, showing the talents of people like Vallee, Gertrude Nissen, and Jack Beekman.
In the summer of 1941, the club almost saw itself shut down after a Superior Court judge contacted the Police Commission about what he considered overcharges by the club on his tab, claiming the club charged $6 for three beers and sandwiches for him and his two friends. On July 8, 1941, the manager testified to the commission that the club normally charged 50 cents a beer at the bar and $1.50 each at tables during the week, and charge $1.25 a beer on Sunday nights. Dinner normally cost $1.25 to $2.50 a person, as the club focused on a higher end clientele.
The Commission approved the show permit application July 22, 1941, after the club removed the “No Cover Charge” sign, allowing them to continue operating as before.
Like any club, business fluctuated, especially during a time of war. As new clubs became the hits of the moment, attendance declined at the Pirate’s Den. In the summer of 1945, the club began calling themselves the Pirate’s Den Music Hall, offering strong music performances, including such people as Dorothy Dandridge. These shows were produced by Don Hankey, Leroy Hillman, and George Beatty. Ads mentioned dining, dancing, and floor shows.
By late 1945, the party was over, with consumers moving on to more popular and “hot” establishments. Over the next few years, a couple of middle brow nightclubs opened at the location, neither lasting long. The Club Donroy opened in late 1945, a more middle brow nitery. Closing within months, it was replaced by the Track in 1946 with ads proclaiming that girl jockeys would race on “horses” around the tables.
The Motion Picture Relief Fund purchased the building in early 1951 in order to combine their headquarters, medical and social service offices, and pharmacy into one convenient location. In this way, they could better provide for the care of ailing and elderly members as a way to give back for all they had contributed to the industry. In 1971, they opened the Cinema Glamour Shop in part of the space to help raise money for older veterans of movies and television.
In the 1970s, the Motion Picture Relief Fund acquired property in Woodland Hills on which to build the Motion Picture Country Home, while continuing to operate a small medical office at 335 N. La Brea. They still offer health services today at this location, now called the Bob Hope Health Center.