Almost a century before Robert DeNiro bankrolled Nobu, Ryan Gosling backed Tagine, and Lisa Vanderpump pumped up Pump, celebrities were jumping into the restaurant game.
Hollywood's first celebrity restaurateurs included actress Thelma Todd, who ran the Sidewalk Cafe just off the Pacific Coast Highway, and filmmaker Preston Sturges, who opened the Players Club on the Sunset Strip. The former was homey and comfortable. The latter was glitzy and glamorous. Both were big hits… until they weren't.
It’s scant comfort to modern restaurateurs struggling to survive in a vastly changed landscape, but one thing hasn't changed in a century of slinging hash: The restaurant business isn't an easy one.
Listen: LA's earliest celebrity restaurants were a smashing success — until they weren't
Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe
If you'd caught one of Thelma Todd's movies in the 1920s or '30s, you might not have pegged her for a hard-headed businesswoman. Born in 1906, she was 19 years old when she was crowned Miss Massachusetts and caught the eye of a talent scout. She came out to Hollywood, where she joined Paramount's studio system, landing roles in several Hal Roach comedies. Roach, the producer who helped make Harold Lloyd a household name and churned out movies in the “Our Gang” and “Laurel and Hardy” franchises, liked Todd's moxie and signed her to a contract.
Todd was nicknamed the “Ice Cream Blonde” or “Hot Toddy” after a series of films where she was paired with legendary comedian Zasu Pitts, and later with Patsy Kelly. She also appeared in films with Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and Joe E. Brown.
"Thelma Todd was a really wonderful comedian in early slapstick comedy,” says journalist, historian, and historical LA tour guide Hadley Meares. “She was this beloved starlet on the Hollywood scene [who was] known for her generosity, her high spirits, and her mean lamb chops, which she broiled over charcoal."
Todd had always seen herself as more than just an actress.
"She has this great quote where she talks about how she sees all these other Hollywood starlets who had their place in the sun. Then, they get a little bit older and because of misogyny, they lose their careers and they're lost and bewildered,” Meares explains. “And she said, 'I decided I was not going to be one of these people. I wasn't going to mind if I gained weight or got wrinkles, because I could use my brain. And as long as I could use my head, it wouldn't matter how I looked.'"
Todd loved to cook. So she and her much older married lover, the director Roland West, pooled their resources and decided to open a restaurant. The plan was to use Todd's fame to entice people to come dine at the establishment.
"Thelma was able to kind of start a second act of her life that wasn't dependent on Hollywood 'It Girl' status," Meares says.
Todd missed the seafood dinners of her New England upbringing, so she chose a spot in an exclusive neighborhood on PCH. She had another reason for picking this locale: West already had a house in the neighborhood.
“They were able to purchase this really beautiful property that is still there today,” Meares says. “They poured their heart and soul into creating a restaurant that they hoped would bring back a more fine dining approach to eating."
The Sidewalk Cafe opened in the summer of 1934. It was a beautiful venue with a pricey menu. It also boasted a private club, Joya's Room, where patrons could enjoy fancy food, fancy drinks, and probably some light gambling.
The menu focused on maritime fare. "You see crab, lobster, shrimps, oysters. There are a lot of things with heavy sauces, like Allison Sauce, that we might not want so much today. And, of course, a lot of alcohol," Meares says. Todd's signature drink was three fingers of rye.
Todd once told gossip columnist Louella Parsons about her inspiration for the cafe.
"I've heard so much about the choice foods of these days preceding Prohibition, when eating was still a fine art,” the actress said. “Always I read with great interest about the bon vivants of the gay '90s, when people dined with pomp and ceremony, before they became addicted to grabbing a sandwich, a slab of pie, and calling it a meal."
The restaurant was a hit, especially with the Hollywood crowd.
"A big part of the reason was because Thelma worked tirelessly to make herself the face of the restaurant," Meares says. "She essentially made herself a brand. She would be working at the counters. She gave countless interviews to newspapers about new recipes she was uncovering.
“Because she was so beloved and such a smart cookie, people wanted to come and check out what Thelma was up to. Even though West fronted the money, Thelma Todd is the person who made the Sidewalk Cafe such a success."
That all came to a screeching halt on December 15, 1935. Todd had stayed out late, partying at Cafe Trocadero on the Sunset Strip at a shindig thrown in her honor by director Stanley Lupino and his 17-year-old daughter, Ida. As her still-married beau, West, left the party, he reportedly told her, "I want you to be home by 2 a.m." She laughed and shot back, "Oh, I'll be home by 2:05. Don't worry."
Earlier in the evening, she had teased a few Hollywood execs, saying, "Hey, I bet you won't come to my restaurant tomorrow."
"She was always playing up the business, always trying to draw customers in," Meares says.
Drunk and melancholy by the end of the evening, she allegedly waved goodbye with a flourish and left the party. Todd arrived home in a chauffeured car around 3 a.m., much later than the time she had told West she would return.
That day, no one saw Thelma. In the evening, when the studio execs that she had partied with the night before did in fact show up to the restaurant, they asked, "Where's the hostess? Where's Thelma?" West replied, "Oh, I don't know. I guess she's with her mother." Still, no one was worried.
It wasn't until the next morning that her body was found, slumped over the steering wheel of her Lincoln Phaeton in a private garage that West owned, just up the road from her restaurant. Todd was still in her shimmering blue evening dress that she had worn the evening of the party. A little bit of dried blood caked her mouth and nose. She was 29 years old.
The inquest into her death was a spectacle, with all sorts of theories floating around about her demise. One theory centered on her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco.
"[He] was kind of a shady underworld character who later became famous for being the abusive first husband of Gloria Vanderbilt. He had been at the party at the Cafe Trocadero the night before, and it was said that they had had a fight," Meares says.
Other rumors claimed that the mob had offed Todd because she wouldn't let them gamble in her restaurant. People whispered that perhaps West had had something to do with Todd's death because he was angry that she had come home late and intoxicated.
The most likely scenario regarding Todd's death is simpler and far more depressing. She was probably drunk when she got home and didn't want West to be angry with her, so she climbed the staircase behind the restaurant to his private garage and figured she'd sleep it off.
"It was a very chilly night. She was only wearing this beautiful but not warm evening gown. She probably turned on the car to try and get warm, and was killed by carbon monoxide fumes. And she was too intoxicated to realize what had happened," Meares says.
"These rumors swirled around and were made worse by the fact that there was an absolutely power-mad grand jury foreman in Los Angeles who had control of this case," Meres says. "[That] really made this into a spectacle and it was just an absolute mess. It destroyed her reputation as this really wonderful actress, really wonderful person, and really wonderful innovator and restaurateur."
Located at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway, the building that housed Todd's Sidewalk Cafe still stands.
Preston Sturges' The Players
Preston Sturges has the distinction of directing some of the smartest and most enduring comedies ever made: "Sullivan's Travels;" "The Palm Beach Story;" "The Lady Eve." Born to a wealthy family, he had brains, talent, flair, and good looks.
"He was a fascinating man," Meares says. "And in the 1940s, he was really on top of the world directing this string of innovative, socially conscious, and really funny and poignant movies."
"He was also tireless, the kind of guy who had a million ideas. In 1937, he opened a place called Snyder's Cafe on the Sunset Strip." Three years later, he purchased a rambling private residence underneath the Chateau Marmont, at 8225 Sunset Boulevard. It sat across the street from the Garden of Allah, which was "really in the heart of the very tip of the beginning of the Sunset Strip," Meares says.
Sturges renovated the building, transforming it into a two-level restaurant and supper club. He named his baby The Players and soon added a nightclub known as The Playroom. He pored over every detail of the venue, helping design the interior, hiring the staff, and overseeing the menu, according to Meares.
"He really had a director's eye. It was constantly evolving. Preston was so madcap, so probably manic depressive, we would say today. [He] had a real maniacal energy about him," Meares says.
At various points, The Players featured a drive-through burger stand, a barber shop, and a revolving stage where Sturges' friends would perform in one-act plays that he had written. Supposedly, there was also a secret tunnel so VIPs could move between The Players and the Chateau Marmont.
The food was mostly American, with a few European touches — steaks, fried chicken, turkey with celery stuffing, pork chops, salmon, and "Schnitzel a la Holstein."
Although The Players was popular and gossip columnists spilled plenty of ink over the spot, it was always in the hole. Then, in 1944, Sturges partnered with airplane-obsessed business magnate and film producer Howard Hughes. Together, they formed the independent movie studio California Pictures. It didn't go well. They completed only one film together, “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.” It went way over budget and was a box office bust. Hughes took control of the studio and forced Sturges out.
During the latter half of the 1940s, The Players sputtered along as Sturges' career declined. His reputation was tarnished by multiple movie flops and two poorly received Broadway shows. By 1953, Sturges’ cinematic career was kaput, the Sunset Strip had dramatically changed, and The Players was far from a hot property.
"It kind of continued on its infamous way [under new names and different owners],” Meares says. “It was the Imperial Gardens. It became the Roxbury and then Miyagi's." Since 2012, it has housed an outpost of the Pink Taco chain.