Jimmy Utley: LA’s Utterly Underrated Criminal

James F. “Jimmy” Utley,” alias James Baxter/James Bradley, known “Iowa Jimmy” and “Jimmy the Eel” was anther one of those mystery men like Nola Hahn Slim Gordon found knocking around Los Angeles after Repeal and embraced without question by Hollywood. 

Miscatine Journal 8/7/1922

Born in Connecticut on December 4, 1902, by 1921 he was living in rural Atalissa, Iowa where he manufactured illegal liquor (Iowa had enacted dry laws in 1916, ahead of national Prohibition). He was arrested at his farm in August 1922 after Sheriff’s deputies confiscated a still, found at the railroad depot, addressed to Utley, sent to him by a Chicago manufacturer. The Muscatine County grand jury investigated. and on September 10, 1922, he indicted for manufacture of intoxicating liquor. But on November 24, 1922, the charges against him were mysteriously dismissed.

His wife Mabel divorced him in February, 1923. Married just two years, the union had resulted in one child. On June 8, 1923, he married Lillian Alborg in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Utley was working in Omaha, Nebraska for an “import” company. Mostly what he was importing was liquor to and from Chicago. A daughter, Audrey, was born in Chicago in December 1923. However, this second marriage did not last long, either. The couple divorced by 1930. 

As of 1932, Utley was living in Los Angeles. In 1934 he was running a club in Hollywood, Chateau Madrid, which opened August 31, 1934. Film gossip columnists touted the star-studded gala event. No one asked “Who is Jimmy Utley?”

Hollywood Citizen News 8/31/1934

Ad for the opening of Utley’s Chateau Madrid at 8400 De Longpre Ave. Hollywood Citizen-News 8/30/1934

LA Illustrated Daily News 9/1/1934

Club Madrid in any case didn’t last long; it was raided by the Sheriff’s vice squad in October for asserted violations of the gambling, liquor and zoning laws.

9131 sunset blvd

9131 Sunset Boulevard c. 1935. UCLA photo.

LA Times 2/5/1936

LA Times 2/8/1936

In February 1936, he was running another club, this time right on the Sunset Strip at 9131 Sunset Boulevard. Previously known as the Hangover and The Centaur, the location had an already checkered history of liquor ordinance abuses and Utley was denied a liquor license by the State Board of Equalization (SBE). He continued to operate it anyway and was subsequently raided and arrested by the SBE for selling alcohol without a license.

LA Times 1/25/1937

LA Daily News 1/25/1937

On January 23, 1937, Utley was arrested after delivering a packet of opium to an apartment house at 849 S. Normandie Avenue. He’d walked into a trap. The police had been tipped off that he was coming. Utley was arrested for violation of the State Narcotics Act as well as suspicion of robbery. Curiously, he was also found in possession of a police badge that could be altered to display the name of various major cities, as well as blank arrest warrants and bail bond applications. Even more curiously, Utley soon walked free. No charges were brought. 

On June 29, 1937 he was in trouble again. Another club he operated, at 8230 Santa Monica Boulevard, was raided on orders of George Contreras, then head of the Sheriff’s vice squad. Utley would do a brief stint in the County jail for bookmaking. 

It was around this time that Bugsy Siegel, with assistance from lackies Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna, was attempting to take over the Los Angeles vice rackets.

The remnants of Charles Crawford’s old “Spring Street gang:” Farmer Page, Guy McAfee, Bob Gans and others, controlled LA’s bookmaking, prostitution and illegal table gambling with many clubs operating on the Sunset Strip, most notably the Clover Club at 8477 Sunset.

Jack Dragna had muscled in on the Spring Street gang’s bookmaking operations shortly after Prohibition ended. Then Bugsy Siegel had come to town and muscled in on Dragna’s rackets, forging an uneasy alliance with (now subservient) Dragna

At the same time cafeteria owner Clifford Clinton, as a member of the 1937 county grand jury, was hearing a lot of criminal complaints about various vice operations. Realizing vice could not operate on that kind of scale without official protection, he tried to get his fellow grand jurists to take action but they had no interest. He formed a citizen group to investigate independently, allying his effort with that previously launched by some religious leaders, including Dr. A.M. Wilkinson (See my post The Angels Take A Bath). Clinton relied on underworld informants to gather data on the city’s vice activity. One of them was Jimmy Utley. Another was Bob Coyne, owner of a nightclub property at 8383 Sunset. Since 1933, Coyne had been complaining to a group of religious leaders and other concerned citizens about vice operating in West Hollywood (then unincorporated) under the protection of the sheriff’s office. George Contreras in turn accused Coyne of fronting for an underworld group that merely wanted to use the sheriff’s office to close up his competition and had “duped” the religious leaders into supporting his effort. That may well have been true! It is also likely that both Coyne and Utley were allied with Siegel in the effort to take over from Page and McAfee, and used Clinton’s sincere efforts for their own purposes. But the old Spring Streeters knew this game. They’d invented it.

In September 1937, the County grand jury did, at last, launch an investigation. Not of vice racketeers but of religious leaders accused of shaking down the vice racketeers! Dr. Wilkinson was accused of accepting $4400 from Guy McAfee. On September 10, 1937, Coyne was indicted by the grand jury on extortion and bribery charges, accused of having shaken down two Huntington Park café owners for $500 each and trying to bribe Santa Monica’s Mayor Gillette and Police Chief Dice into letting him run a bookmaking operation there.

The day before the indictment was handed down, Utley, still serving time in County on the bookmaking charges, swore out an affidavit stating that one of the café owners visited him in the jail and told him that D.A. Buron Fitts’ office was trying to frame Coyne. Then on November 17, 1937- the eve of his trial- Coyne suddenly pleaded guilty. He was not eligible for parole due to having served a prison term in 1896 for the “malicious use of dynamite,” even though he received a pardon for that conviction when another man confessed to the crime.

But if the Spring Street gang thought they had succeeded in silencing Coyne, they were mistaken.

The 1937 county grand jury concluded its service at the end of the year. Clinton’s report on his vice investigations, it seemed, would never see the light of day.

January 14, 1938 changed that. Former detective Harry Raymond was nearly killed in a car bomb, soon traced to the LAPD and the Mayor’s office.

On September 16, 1938, Superior Court Judge Fletcher Bowron defeated Mayor Shaw in a recall election that Clinton had championed.

Many a mayor before him had promised reform. Shaw himself had run on a reform platform. Up until now it had been a joke. Bowron, however, meant it. He was going to clean up the city. Bowron was unaware that his reforms were helping Siegel get rid of the competition. 

The Spring Streeters made a big show of leaving town, but didn’t go quietly. LA Times reporter, Ben Ezra Kendall, formerly a crime reporter from Chicago, got himself hired by the Bowron administration as a “public relations” rep, although his salary was covered by Clifford Clinton.

In March, 1939, the Bowron administration began purging the LAPD of 23 high ranking officers suspected of being on the Spring Streeters’ payroll. As later revealed, Mayor Bowron had secretly (or so he thought) sought the help of ex-bootlegger Tony Cornero in identifying the supposed bad apples within the department. Cornero supplied a list. An investigator for Bowron, Alexander Jamie (whose uncle had been a lawyer for Chicago’s “Secret Six”) followed up and verified Cornero’s allegations.

But, it seemed the Mayor’s office had a mole, who revealed Bowron’s meeting with Cornero to the press in an attempt to make the mayor look corrupt. Kendall was the mole. Having discovered the traitor in his midst, Bowron fired Kendall.

On April 10, 1939, Jimmy Utley was arrested for extortion, accused of shaking down people who’d been arrested at Hollywood night clubs by presenting himself as a “fixer.”

LA Times 4/11/1939

Two days later, D.A. Fitts brought additional counts against Utley, dredging up his old, January 23, 1937, narcotics and robbery arrest, telling reporters that 3 policemen who had a hand in helping secure Utley’s release back then might be questioned. Of course, Fitts had been D.A. in January 1937. It’s unclear why he didn’t pursue the charges himself at the time. Now, Fitts himself was under fire from Clinton for his lack of action in going after the underworld (Fitts had, for example, never followed up on any leads from Clinton’s vice investigations) and would in fact be unseated the following year by the Clinton-backed candidate John Dockweiler

On April 25, 1939 Ben Ezra Kendall was arrested on bribery charges. He used the opportunity to try to smear both Bowron and Clinton, claiming they were beholden to eastern gambling interests.

One of the 23 purged LAPD officers was called as a witness for Kendall, and he too was keen to smear the mayor and his allies. The prosecution noted that the officer had been the one who secured James’ Utley’s swift release following his January 23, 1937 arrest for narcotics peddling and robbery. The officer admitted that he had, but insisted it was only for the robbery charge, and further asserted that Utley had been an informant to the robbery squad since 1936 and as such had helped the department on a number of cases. He claimed Clinton tried to bribe him to leave Utley alone, and it was his “belief” that Utley was using his connections to Clinton to protect 1520 vice resorts in Hollywood for which Utley received a percentage of the payoff. His characterization of Utley as a police informant was later found to be “inaccurate,” a contender for Understatement of the Year.

Utley was nevertheless branded as a rat. Mickey Cohen, long after the fact, would brag in his “as told by” memoir of having delivered a beating to Utley on Vine Street for being a stoolie. 

In July 1939, Utley went on trial for the April 1939 extortion charges and was acquitted by the jury on August 2, 1939. More good luck followed on September 11, 1939 when the narcotics charges against him were quashed in LA Superior Court.

LA Daily News 10/18/1939

Things turned sour for Jimmy on September 20, 1939. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on the same narcotics peddling charges. His lawyer, Bringham Rose (who also represented Clifford Clinton) called the case a frame up engineered by Fitts as payback for Utley having investigated Fitts on Clinton’s behalf. Which it probably was. Nevertheless,this time, the Utley luck didn’t hold and he was convicted. It wasn’t too bleak, though. Utley remained at large, free on $5000 bail, while the case was appealed.

Utley in fact would serve about 2 years. LA Daily News 10/21/1939

Meanwhile, the County grand jury was again investigating Bob Coyne.

As noted earlier, the old Spring Street gang did not go quietly, nor had they removed themselves from Los Angeles as they would have the public believe. For, while Mayor Bowron had been effective in cleaning up the city, his jurisdiction did not extend to the unincorporated county areas where gambling, prostitution and other vice still flourished, notably on the Sunset Strip. Siegel was still trying to take over those interests.

In February 1940, the County Board of Supervisors voted to regulate pinball machines, marble games and devices as gambling apparatus. Bob Coyne appeared before the board on February 27 and accused George Contreras of having a controlling interest in some 2000 slot machines operating within county territory and was prepared to go to the grand jury with his evidence. Contreras hotly denied the charge and smeared Coyne as an ex-con, submitting his prison record to the Board (failing to note that he’d been pardoned after someone else confessed to the crime he’d been convicted for). Utley (“one-time aide of Clifford Clinton”) was called by the grand jury as a witness to tell what he might know of gambling in the Sunset Strip area but refused to testify on the grounds that it might harm his appeal in the narcotics case.

Utley’s appeal was denied anyway. He immediately filed a petition for his case to be reviewed by the US Supreme Court, but this too was denied, on January 6, 1941. With all other avenues closed to him, Utley then made a plea for probation in lieu of jail time. Clifford Clinton wrote to the judge on Utley’s behalf that he believed Utley was the victim of political persecution by D.A. Fitts. The probation request was denied, however, and finally later that month he would at long last begin serving his 2-year sentence at Terminal Island 

After World War II, Utley settled once again in the city of LA and was aligned with Dragna, who operated Siegel’s race wire service for him. In March 1946, Utley was arrested on the charge of failure to register as an ex-convict- a requirement dating back to 1933. The charges were later dropped. He also ran the lucrative bingo concession for Tony Cornero’s floating casino, The Lux, which opened on August 6, 1946. The ship’s operation was shut down two nights later, Utley and Cornero arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate state gaming laws. 

The aftermath of Utley’s beating at Lucey’s. San Pedro News-Pilot 8/19/1946

Utley was released on $2000 bond. A few days later he had the misfortune to run into Mickey Cohen again. Cohen, like Dragna, worked for Siegel, who was then busy in Las Vegas trying to do an end-run around federal restrictions on non-essential construction in order to complete his Flamingo resort hotel-casino. On the afternoon of August 16, Utley entered the popular Lucey’s restaurant at 5444 Melrose Avenue near Paramount Studios. Cohen followed on his heels and severely beat Utley as another low-level hood, Joe Sica, held a gun on the horrified celebrity crowd. Then the pair escaped on foot. Utley suffered a fractured scull and other injuries but in the code of the underworld, refused to identify his attacker, telling police he wouldn’t press charges even if they caught a suspect. “I’m no stooge. I’m no copper,” Utley said.

Authorities speculated that the beating may have been administered by an “out of town” gang trying to muscle in on the Lux’s profits expected “when and if” it resumed operation (The Lux did reopen during Labor Day weekend, continuing through mid-September). Or it might be related to a bookie war, like the murder of Pauly Gibbons in May of that year. 

Hollywood Citizen-News 4/19/1947

Less than a year later, on April 18, 1947, Utley suffered another beating at his home, 7143 Hollywood Boulevard, and supposedly had a gun pulled on him. This time, a suspect was arrested: Herbert Robertson of 1907 W. Sixth Street.” But they had to let him go when Utley again refused to sign a complaint.

LA Daily News 11/20/1947

LA Daily News 11/20/1947

Utley was again shot at in November 1947 and again refused to name names. By now, Siegel was gone- murdered on June 20, 1947. Dragna and Cohen were supposedly fighting it out for crime boss of LA. In July 1949, Utley was questioned in the alleged attempt on Cohen’s life outside Sherry’s restaurant at 9030 Sunset on the Sunset Strip.

In November 1949, there was a bogus effort to recall Mayor Bowron. Utley was involved. It failed in a landslide.

In February 1950, Utley was questioned in the bombing of Cohen’s Brentwood home but denied all knowledge.

Jimmy the Eel. LA Mirror 2/8/1950

LA Times 2/14/1950

In April 1950, the US Senate Crime Investigative Committee (aka the Kefauver hearings) named Utley as one of several persons trying to establish a bookmaking syndicate among Nevada, Eastern gangsters, and local gamblers. Jack Dragna was another. John “Curley” Robinson (coin-op games vendor affiliated with Bob Gans) was another.

On November 18, 1950, Utley testified before the Kefauver Committee in Los Angeles. Other witness had previously testified that the attempted recall effort against Mayor Bowron in 1949 was backed by underworld gambling interests. Asked about this, Utley said he became interested in the recall after the LAPD revoked his bingo license, having classed such games as gambling operations, but later “lost interest” in the recall bid. Utley, who had indeed ran a bingo parlor in Venice, insisted it was perfectly legal. He claimed he was currently in the “jewelry business.” His name had came up in Cohen’s earlier testimony to the Commission about the 1946 beating of Utley at Lucey’s restaurant. Utley told the panel he did not know who beat him, nor did any of his friends who witnessed the beating. But did note that shortly after the incident, Cohen called him to ask for a “loan” of $3000, which Utley claimed he refused.

In January 1951, it was revealed that Utley, along with Jack Dragna, was one of the “Big Five” gamblers, who had planned the 1949 recall of Mayor Bowron. The 5 had been secretly recorded discussing the effort and how Los Angeles would be organized into territories, Chicago style, after Bowron was gone.

Hollywood Citizen News 1/30/1951

In March 1951, he was arrested for running a dice and poker game in rural Imperial County. He was fined $200 and let go.

LA Daily News 3/10/1951

In August 1951, Utley was questioned in the “Two Tonys” double murder in Hollywood. He huffed to the press that he was a “usual suspect,” blamed for every underworld crime in town. 

Legal troubles continued to follow Utley. On February 22, 1953 he was hit with a tax lien. On December 23, 1954 he was arrested on a burglary charge, accused of stealing jewelry, but released the next day. In April 1955 his name cropped up in yet another gambling inquiry.

The Valley Times 9/1/1956

Then on August 31, 1956, Utley was arrested in Long Beach, accused of running a $500,000 a year abortion ring along with “Dr.” Leonard Maxwell Arons, who was practicing without a medical license. Abortions, known in the family press at the time as “illegal operations” had been outlawed in California since it became a state in 1850. It was, in fact, the first law enacted by the new State (all male) legislature.

It was an extremely profitable enterprise for the underworld.

This time the charges would stick. Utley and Arons were convicted on December 18, 1956. On January 26, 1957 Utley was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. Exit Jimmy.

Long Beach Press Telegram 12/18/1956

Long Beach Press Telegram 1/28/1957

It got worse for Utley. On June 6, 1960 a judge ruled that he would have to serve 6 months in federal prison after his state time was up for failure to report thousands of dollars in income made in 1956 off his illegal abortion operation. 

Long Beach Press Telegram 3/31/1960

In a way, Utley would beat the system one last time. He never served that federal term. He died in Folsom Prison of natural causes on October 19, 1962. He was buried in Potter’s Field. No one attended his funeral.

Long Beach Press Telegram 10/31/1962

***

Notes:

His death certificate erroneously records his birthplace as Colorado. His 1923 marriage certificate and responses to the US Census of 1940 indicate Connecticut. These sources also list his parents names as John Utley and Marion nee Andrews.

Mabel Utley filed for divorce in Atalissa, Iowa in February 1923. She said they’d been married on February 28, 1921 and had one child. His marriage certificate to Lillian that June in Council Bluffs, Iowa, lists this as his “first” marriage, which was false.

Mickey Cohen states in his “as told by” memoir that Utley was a henchman of Jack Dragna.

Utley served part of his term in LA County jail and at Terminal Island prison, in LA Harbor near San Pedro. The prison was taken over by the Navy in February 1942 following the US entry into World War II.

It is probable that Utley and Coyne knew each other before this. A nightclub on Coyne’s property at 8383 Sunset was at times affiliated with Eugene Jarvis, who also operated out of 9131 Sunset, where Utley had managed a club in 1936. Both addresses operated for a time as “Club U-Gene.”

7101 Sunset: McDonnell’s Drive-In / Tiny Naylor’s

 

Melvin Andrew “Rusty” McDonnell was, along with Harry and Charles Carpenter, a pioneer of what would become a multi-million dollar eat-in-your-car cuisine industry in Los Angeles.

Born in North Carolina in 1875, McDonnell joined the Army while still in his teens. He served in the Philippines during the Spanish American War.

After leaving the military, he worked in and operated restaurants in Kansas City, Missouri for several years in the early 1910s before relocating to Los Angeles in 1916, where he managed a restaurant, Crawford’d Famous Chicken Fry Steaks, at 311 W. Sixth Street.

Located at 311 W. 6th St., Crawford’s “Famous” Chicken Fry Steaks didn’t last long. LA Record 1918

After the US entry into World War I, he became proprietor of the restaurant at Camp Kearney in San Diego.

By 1921, he had returned to Los Angeles and opened an eatery at 440 W. Pico known as “McDonnell’s Ever-Eat.” By 1922, he had five outlets.

There were 5 McDonnell’s Ever-Eat locations by the end of 1922: 440 W. Pico, 405 W. 8th St., 1237 S. Main St., 603 S. Figueroa, and 207 E. 5th. The Tidings, 12/15/1922

At the end of 1926, two “Ever-Eats” locations had been added: 454 S. Hill St., and 711 S. Hill St.LA Times 12/31/1926

By 1930, McDonnell was expanding to drive-in cafes, featuring chickens raised on his own ranch. The idea was a success. Despite the Depression, McDonnell continued to expand his chain of restaurants, both sit-down eateries and drive-in cafes, throughout the 1930s.

McDonnell’s Ever Eat drive-in cafe at Figueroa & Santa Barbara, opened April 19, 1930. Southwest Wave, 4/18/1930

The early McDonnell’s Ever Eat drive-ins were modernistic masterpieces. This location was at La Brea Ave. & Beverly Blvd. California State Library photo.

McDonnell got a permit for the drive-in at 7701 Sunset Boulevard, at the northwest corner of Sunset and La Brea, in July 1936. The architect of record was H.S. Johnson.

Another view of the Sunset & La Brea McDonnell’s drive-in c. 1937. LAPL photo.

Night view of the Sunset & La Brea McDonnell’s drive-in. LAPL photo.

May 1938 ad for McDonnell’s restaurant chain. There were now 8 sit-down dining locations and 6 drive-ins, including Sunset & La Brea. “Everything from a sandwich to a complete meal served in your car” – a sentiment destined to appeal to Los Angeles. LA Times.

In 1948, another restaurateur, W. W. “Tiny” Naylor, took over about a dozen of McDonnell’s then-17 locations, including the 7101 Sunset drive-in.

William Warren Naylor was born in Keswick, Iowa in 1898. He continued to live in Iowa, working on the family farm, into the 1920s. By 1927, he was living in Merced, California, where in November he bought an existing cafe, Mack’s Coffee Cup, only to turn around and sell it a week later. As of January 1929, he was operating the Monte Carlo poolroom in Fresno. A year later, January 1930, he leased space at 1034 Broadway, Fresno, for a waffle and coffee shop. It opened February 15, 1930. The whole wheat waffles sold like hotcakes.

The first Tiny’s Waffle Shop, Fresno. Fresno Morning Republican 2/15/1930

At a time when many businesses were going under, Tiny’s thrived. Before the year was out, he’d opened a second Tony’s Waffle Shop in Reno. In addition to running his own shops, Tiny and his partner, Bruce Breckenridge, also sold franchises. Soon there were Tiny’s Waffle Shops in Sacramento, Modesto, Stockton, Marysville, Merced, Los Banos, Salinas, Bakersfield, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. A second Fresno outlet opened on Mariposa Street in 1936, as well as a motel on Highway 99. Cocktail lounges were added after Repeal.

Naylor opened a second Tiny’s Waffle Shop in Reno on December 13, 1930. Nevada State Journal 12/13/1930

Tiny brought in beer by airplane to his Fresno waffle shop right after it became legal to sell it. Though beer and waffles doesn’t seem like an ideal combination. Fresno Bee 4/6/1933

Tiny’s Bay Area locations: Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose. The ad claims that the first Tiny’s Waffle Shop was at 24 Turk Street in 1927. That address housed a Tait’s coffee shop as well as a notorious poolroom and gambling dive run by Frank Cator. SF Examiner 10/2/1937

Ad for Tiny’s Waffle Shops, 1939. “Chicken in the Rough” was a franchised restaurant chain that began in 1936. Fresno Bee 2/4/1939

Having relocated from the Central Valley to the Bay Area by 1940, after World War II, Naylor turned his focus to Southern California, where he was a familiar figure in horse racing circles.

Tiny Naylor, far left, with Geneivieve Woolf, actor Leo Carrillo, LA County Sheriff Gene Biscailuz in November 1949. Nayor donated the sale of a horse to help raise money for a George Woolf memorial. The famed jockey had been killed in an accident at Santa Anita race track in January 1946 while riding one of Naylor’s horses, Please Me. Naylor had since sold off his racing stable, citing heath reasons. LA Times 11/3/1949

In August 1948, Nayor opened the first of his namesake southern California restaurants at 1715  Cahuenga Boulevard.

Hollywood Citizen News 8/20/1948

In February 1950, Naylor got a permit to rebuild the former McDonnell’s at Sunset and La Brea. Architect Douglas Honnold would design the new, modern edifice.

The Tiny Naylor’s building replaced the old circular McDonnell’s drive-in building at Sunset & La Brea in 1950. LAPL photo

Tiny Naylor’s at Sunset & La Brea 1952. Julius Shulman photo

 

Hey, homely girls- don’t even bother applying! LA Times 3/25/1951

Ad for Tiny Naylor’s, 1955 The Sunset & La Brea location was one of 3. LA Mirror 6/14/1955

In addition to his namesake restaurants, Tiny Naylor also operated Biff’s eateries, named for his son. LA Mirror 6/14/1955

This spectacular Marvin Rand photo of the Sunset & La Brea Tiny Naylor’s is labeled 1949; however, permits to rebuild the round former McDonnell’s structure were not obtained until February 1950.

Melvin McDonnell died in December 1958 at age 83. Tiny Naylor died in August 1959. His namesake restaurant chain continued, however. The 7101 Sunset Boulevard location closed in early 1984 and the fixtures were sold at auction that March. The building was demolished in June 1984.

Thanks, I’d love to. 7101 was still doing the business, along with 16 other Tiny Naylor locations, in November 1982.  LA Times 11/14/1982.

Ad for the auction of fixtures at 7101 sunset. LA Times 3/4/1984

***

Notes

Top image: LAPL photo.

McDonnell’s name was often spelled with one “l”, except on the restaurants.

The first McDonnell’s restaurant at 440 W. Pico continued to operate as McDonnell’s until 1962 when the McDonnell Corp was declared bankrupt.

6760 Sunset: Simon’s Drive-In

Simon’s hamburger stand at the SE corner of Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue opened in early 1939, one in a small chain of locally-owned drive-in cafes started in 1935. It was the second Simon’s on Sunset Boulevard- the first was at 8801 Sunset on the Strip- but this location across the street from Hollywood High School was an instant hit.

A permit for this location was granted by the City in December 1938. The architect/engineer on record is S.B. Barnes.

Simon’s Sunset & Highland under construction. LAPL.

The Simons were brothers William Harold Simon and performer-turned-restaurateur Mike Lyman, who were partners in a string of eateries and nightclubs along with their other brothers Albert Simon and bandleader-songwriter Abe Lyman and others.

Michael “Mike” Lyman was born Issac Simon in Chicago in 1887 to Fannie and Jacob Simon, who had come to the USA from Europe in 1885. In 1910, as Michael Simon, he was working as an actor/singer in a cafe in his native Chicago. By 1916 he’d changed his name to Mike Lyman and was living in Los Angeles, a singer at Baron Long’s Sunset Inn in Santa Monica and Long’s Vernon Club.

Mike Lyman performing with “Blondy” Clark at The Sunset Inn. LA Record 11/15/1916

Detail of Mike Lyman’s WWI draft registration card.

Mike Lyman appearing with Lon Stepp at the Ship Cafe, Venice in 1919. LA Evening Record 8/28/1919

No one ever called Baron Long a gangster. He masqueraded as a respectable citizen. He was closely affiliated with Spring Street gangsters like Charles Crawford, Farmer Page, Zeke Caress, Tutor Scherer and his joints, run by fronts, were notorious for liquor violations, gambling and other illicit activities.

In November 1917 the City of Los Angeles passed the Gandier Ordinance, which banned the sale of strong liquor, effectively closing saloons within the city limits. Outlying communities like Vernon, Venice, Santa Monica and other beach towns, attracted the patrons looking to skirt the law. In addition to the Vernon Club, Baron Long operated the Ship Cafe in Venice and the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica. Mike Lyon performed at all three.

In 1918, Long turned the Sunset Inn over to the Red Cross. It was open as a cafe only on certain nights. LA Times 7/7/1918

By late 1919, Mike’s younger brother Abraham (“Abe”), who had also adopted the stage name Lyman, had come out to Los Angeles and was appearing at Baron Long’s Vernon Club.

Abe Lyman appearing at the Vernon Club, 1919. LA Evening Express 12/16/1919

In 1920, Mike was in charge of entertainment at the reopened Sunset Inn, while Adolph “Eddie” Brandstatter, lately maitre’d of the Victor Hugo restaurant downtown, ran the hospitality side of things. National Prohibition was now the law of the land.

Mike Lyman in charge of “diversions” at the Sunset Inn after its reopening in  1920. Eddie Brandstatter ran the hospitality side of the business. LA Evening Express 6/21/1920

Abe Lyman at the Sunset Inn, 1921. LA Evening Express 8/17/1921

Abe  Lyman, having formed his own orchestra, was soon in demand as the house band at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove nightclub, and as a songwriter and recording artist.

Peggy Dear was an early hit for Abe Lyman’s new orchestra. 1923.

Mike Lyman, meanwhile, moved away from performing and was running cafes and nightspots full time with brothers William H. “Big Bill” Simon (born in Chicago in 1896 and known as Harry as a child) and Albert (born in Chicago in 1889 as Alexander Simon) and others. In December 1920 they formed the Winter Garden Corporation, taking over a longtime Los Angeles cafe, McKee’s, at 520 South Spring Street upon the “retirement” of proprietor Sam McKee. The new Winter Garden cafe, addressed as 518 S. Spring, opened in February 1921.

520 S. Spring Street as McKee;s Cafe, 1905. LA Record 11/14/1905

In December 1921, Mike Lyman was managing the newly opened Palais Royal club at 616 S. Hill Street with his former partner V.B. “Blondy” Clark. The venture was short lived.

Opening of Mike Lyman’s Palais Royal on Hill Street. LA Evening Express 12/26/1921

In May 1922 the Lyman/Simon syndicate purchased land on Washington Boulevard in Culver City for another new nightclub, the southern-themed Plantation Club. It opened in June 1922.

Announcing Mike Lyman’s purchase of land for the Plantation Club, Culver City along with his old partner V.B. “Blondy” Clark. LA Times 5/23/1922

Opening of Mike Lyman’s Culver City’s The Plantation Club. LA Times 6/24/1922.

The Winter Garden Corporation dissolved in August, 1923 and the cafe closed as did the syndicate’s Sunset Inn. The Sunset Inn would reopen that year in Tijuana, where Baron Long operated the turf club. Mike Lyman reopened 518/520 S. Spring as the States restaurant.

In October 1923, Mike Lyman also opened The Rendezvous at 616 S. Hill Street. It too was short-lived.

Ad for The Rendezvous, October 1923 “under the personal management of Mike Lyman.” Note “Fanchon’s Fancies.” Bill Simon married Fanchon of the brother and sister dance/choreographer duo Fanchon & Marco, who for a time would operate a dance school at 5600 Sunset.

In early 1925, the Lyman/Simon group began work on a dance hall/ballroom to be called the Palais de Dance at the same location in Hill Street of Lyman’s failed Palais Royal and the Rendezvous. A gala grand opening, with appearances by heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and the Abe Lyman Orchestra, was planned for April 1925 but had to be postponed when the police commission would not issue a dance license due to an ongoing investigation into dance halls and cafes where dancing was allowed, for potential violation of the Prohibition laws. The opening was finally held in August 1925. But the venture was again short-lived.

Ad for the delayed opening of Lyman’s Palais de Dance. LA Times 8/28/1925.

In 1926, Mike Lyman opened the frormer McKee’s/Winter Garden/States location as the southern-themed Lymans’ Club Alabam, addressed as 520 S. Spring.

Lyman’s Club Alabam, 520 S. Spring St. LA Times 3/5/1926.

In 1927, Bill Simon, who had up until now been basically operating behind the scenes, opened the first of several Dairy Lunch cafes, which would bear the name Simon. Simon’s Dairy Lunch was located at 6630 Hollywood Boulevard in the new Cherokee Building.

Simon’s Dairy Lunch in the new Cherokee Building at 6630 Hollywood Boulevard, early 1928. This location operated into the 1940s. California State Library photo.

Simon’s Dairy Lunch at 6630 Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Daily Citizen, 1/5/1928

Other Simon’s Dairy Lunch spots opened in downtown Los Angeles. In May 1930, Bill Simon leased the former company dining room of the Pacific Mutual Building at Sixth and Olive streets for a large Dairy Lunch location.

Bill Simon’s Dairy Lunch. LA Times 5/18/1930

The Pacific Mutual Building at Sixth & Olive streets.

The early 1930s were a difficult time for any business. Many failed. The Lyman/Simon brothers not only survived but steadily thrived with the dairy lunch counters. The repeal of national Prohibition in 1933 gave a boost to the restaurant industry, as cafes could now legally serve alcohol. Glamorous cocktail lounges were built or added to existing establishments to create an atmosphere of sophisticated tippling.

On April 23, 1935, Mike Lyman opened his first namesake cocktail lounge and grill at 751 S. Hill Street, location of the former Herbert’s Cafeteria.

1937 ad for Mike Lyman’s first Grill and Cocktail Lounge, 751 S. Hill St., featuring Frank Fay- who would go on to have his own namesake nightspot in the Valley.

Lyman would open a second Lyman’s Grill in Hollywood, in the former Al Levy’s Tavern at 1623 N. Vine Street in November 1941. Levy, like Sam McKee, was a pioneer restaurant owner. He’d opened the Vine Street location in 1930 and ran it until his death in May 1941. A fire swept through the night spot in July 1941, and in September 1941, the Simon/Lyman brothers leased and renovated the space.

Mike Lyman’s Grill at 1623 N. Vine St. in the former Al Levy’s, c. 1941. LAPL photo.

Ad for Mike Lyman’s Grill in Hollywood, 1623 N. Vine St., in the former Al Levy’s Tavern.

After Bernstein’s Fish Grotto at 424 W. Sixth St. closed in April 1942, this location became the new Mike Lyman’s downtown grill.

Mike Lyman’s Grill at 424 W. 6th St., in the former Berstein’s Fish Grotto.

Interior view of Mike Lyman’s new grill, 424 W. 6th St.

In 1949, Simon’s Sunset and Highland Drive-In was used as a filming location for the gambling expose, 711 Ocean Drive. In the still below, Hollywood High School can be seen across the street.

In December 1951, the brothers sold 12 of their Simon’s drive-in restaurants and 5 of their cocktail lounges to Stanley Burke, Sacramento drive-in owner. This Simon’s is one of the 12 that became a “Stan’s.”

The Simon/Lyman brothers sale of 12 drive-ins and 5 cocktail lounges. Hollywood Citizen News 12/10/1951

The former Simon’s at Sunset & Highland as Stan’s Drive-In. LAPL photo.

Mike Lyman died in November 1952. Albert Simon died in December 1956. Abe Lyman died in October 1957.

Mike Lyman’s Hollywood grill continued to operate until April 1959 when Bill Simon decided the time had come to close it. The building was demolished in 1966. Lyman’s namesake bar and grill on West Sixth St. continued to operate until December 1965, when the fixtures were sold at auction and the building subsequently demolished. The Stan’s drive-in at Sunset and Highland was demolished in 1971.

Bill Simon died in April 1976.

***

Notes

The Simon brothers also had two sisters: Sarah and Dorothy. Dorothy also used the name Lyman for a time.