Saturday, July 5, 2014

Goodbye Hamburger Hamlet

I have lived most of my life in the same five square mile radius in the San Fernando Valley.  I was born in Van Nuys, raised in Pacoima, and started my married life in Sherman Oaks where I still remain planted.  I’ve watched the area change, and in just a few short years, I hardly recognize the place.  Now I can add another landmark to those that have disappeared.  If I had to designate a special place that meant something to my wife and me, Hamburger Hamlet in Sherman Oaks would be it.  We had so many dates there, and even when we went elsewhere for an evening on the town, inevitably we would wind up there at closing time for a baked apple or that chocolate cake.  Chicken wings with apricot sauce with a little backgammon.  The mushroom burger, the Marilyn burger, the sides that begged an order (“Eat the sides, I pray you” as the menu said).  Lobster bisque, French onion soup.  The décor:  red leather booths, dark interior but not too dark, the traffic outside on Van Nuys Boulevard.  If we were across town, there were other Hamlets to visit:  Brentwood, downtown, Pasadena, Sunset Strip.

My wife dragged me into the restaurant early on because she had been coming there since high school.  Ten dollars got a platter of those chicken wings with apricot sauce and a backgammon set.  The bill was cheap and the food excellent, but the Hamlet was always more than a burger place.  When we decided to marry, our first apartment was in Sherman Oaks, so the Hamlet remained our second dining room.  Every momentous occasion, the tragic and the glorious, was rehashed in those booths.  Often, after a great meal, we’d walk a half a block to the news stand at Van Nuys and Ventura Boulevard to get our evening’s reading material.

Our first teaching jobs in west L.A. meant we could spend many late afternoons at the HH on Sepulveda Boulevard waiting for traffic to dissipate.  We turned the other teachers on to it, and before you knew it, the place became our second faculty room.  When we switched areas and schools, we’d go to the Hamburger Hamlet on Wilshire near the Wiltern Theater with colleagues and friends and talk late into the evenings planning how to save the very poor Catholic school nearby.  It was all about hopes and dreams and memories in those leather booths.  We were on a first name basis with all the wait staff and tipped them liberally from our meager teacher’s salaries.

But always we returned home to the Sherman Oaks Hamburger Hamlet.  That was our base, our own.  The waiters knew what to bring us before we even ordered.  We watched people get promoted, from greeter to waiter to assistant manager.

The restaurant itself had a storied history, as detailed in founder Marilyn Lewis’ book, “Marilyn, Are You Sure You Can Cook?” He Asked (Ten Speed Press, 2000).  She and her husband Harry Lewis opened the first Hamburger Hamlet on the famed Sunset Strip in 1950.  The rent was $250 a month.  The name came from Harry, a character actor, and his desire to open a hamburger place.  He chose Hamlet because Shakespeare’s character is the high point of any actor’s career.  The couple, in later years, was also responsible for opening Kate Mantellini’s in Beverly Hills, which also closed its doors recently.  Hamburger Hamlet, however, was their finest hour.  One by one, they spread out across the city:  a second location in Westwood, a third in Beverly Hills followed by a fourth in the same area, and then on into downtown and eventually, across the country to Washington D.C.  When Marilyn and Harry got out of the business in 1987, they sold Hamburger Hamlet for 33 million dollars.

The stories are legendary.  In her book, Marilyn recounts how the couple threw a party at their home to test the menu before the first HH opened.  When she went to start cooking, she discovered the gas had been shut off.  She’d forgotten to pay the bill.  She begged the gas man who answered her call to open the valve, promising to feed him for the rest of his life.  He did, and she did, even when the man got married and brought his wife and kids into the restaurant.  Lots of actors and celebrities frequented their locations, especially in Beverly Hills.  The most famous episode in the restaurant’s history was when actors Jeff Chandler, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Curtis took over the cooking and running of the restaurant for a weekend while Marilyn and Harry went to Vegas to get married.  Imagine going to your local hamburger joint and having Sammy Davis Jr. ask for your order.

Hamburger Hamlet was one of the first restaurants to employ African-American women as waitresses.  Marilyn opened a waitressing school for them in the restaurant and offered them good salaries and benefits.  This did not sit well with some whites in the city.  When the Westwood location opened, the couple found their restaurant windows pelted with tomatoes.  During the Watts riots in 1965, many of their employees could not get to work because of the civil unrest.  The couple hired transportation to go into Watts and south central L.A. to pick up employees and bring them to the restaurants.  They also put many of them up in motels nearby so they wouldn’t miss out on work.  Because of this, Marilyn and Harry received death threats.

After I heard the restaurant closed, I went to see for myself.  There is a sign on the door promising to reopen, however all the restaurants in other locations have closed with Sherman Oaks being the last one.  There have been challenges before:  several owners after the Lewises and the Northridge earthquake in 1994.  The place always rebounded, but in today’s uncertain economic times, the future does not look promising.  As Bob Hope used to sing when signing off of his television specials, thanks for the memories.  So long, Hamburger Hamlet; it’s been a good run.

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