The Strangest Club in Los Angeles, The L.A. Breakfast Club | KCET
The Strangest Club in Los Angeles, The L.A. Breakfast Club
Every Wednesday morning for over 90 years, Angelenos have gathered together in Griffith Park to sing songs, recite a strange poem, meet new friends and breakfast on ham and eggs.
Or, as the members of the Los Angeles Breakfast Club would say: MNX.
As soon as you enter the Friendship Auditorium, home of the LABC, it’s clear you’re in for a unique experience that mixes history, eccentricity and charm. In a contemporary Los Angeles that’s rediscovering its past in the face of rapid development, it’s hard to think of a better place to be at 7 a.m.
FVNEM? (Have we any ham?)
SVFM (Yes we have ham)
FVNEX? (Have we any eggs?)
SVFX (Yes we have eggs)
OICVFMNX! (Oh I see we have ham and eggs!)
That’s the codex-style theme poem that’s shouted out loud every week, and though it might seem unbearably quaint, potential new members should know that many titans of Los Angeles have proudly recited it at this “The Shrine of Friendship, the Temple of Sentiment and Idealism, where real people meet together to get better acquainted and start the day off right.”
It was the early 1920s when businessmen who enjoyed riding the many trails of Griffith Park began to band together for a bite before they went back to the stables and work.
Local banker Marco Hellman rigged up a temporary chuck wagon – the food truck of its day – to feed these hungry movers and shakers. One morning in late 1924, he encouraged his guest, a banker from Chicago, to tell a few stories to the assembled group.
Equestrian and local merchant Maurice DeMond was so taken with the impromptu talk – and the musical accompaniment Hellman had arranged – that he proposed everyone donate $100 so they could officially form a breakfast club.
Early supporters, including oilman Edward Doheny, happily dug into their pockets, and on March 6, 1925, they held their first official meeting at the park’s Riding Academy. DeMond was elected president, and studio moguls including Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, Cecil B. DeMille and Darryl F. Zanuck joined too.
Club quarters were found at the former Crosetti Dairy Farm, conveniently located opposite the Academy at 3201 Riverside Drive. The “Pavilion of Friendship,” complete with offices, a kitchen, locker room and showers, opened in 1927 with yearly dues of $500.
The LABC wasn’t just about breakfast. There was something entertaining or enriching every week. The Warner Brothers even donated free air time on KFWB so that the Breakfast Club’s talks, lectures and shows could be broadcast across the city.
Speakers over the years have included Olympians, politicians, authors and comedians, the subjects ranging from true crime, the Middle East, graffiti and local housing policy to silent movies, puppetry, NASA missions and jazz. Some of the lady members knit during the talks, but it doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention; it’s just that kind of place.
The early LABC paid for stables, scarves and a flag for local Scout group the Breakfast Club Rangers, and the Breakfast Club Foundation still supports local charities. More than that, it seems that the Pavilion was neutral territory, a place where people came in the spirit of friendship and fun.
A famous picture from October 1930 shows Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, shaking hands with William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the Los Angeles Examiner. These men disagreed vehemently on many issues, and were more than just rivals: they were enemies.
But here, over ham and eggs and while singing songs and doing stretching exercises – and looking at the club symbols of the Golden Ruler and the Buried Hatchet – it was simply impossible to be anything other than friends (at least until the work day began).
Then there was the membership initiation pledge ceremony – unchanged even today – which involved initiates sitting on a rather unsteady sawhorse named Ham, wearing a blindfold, and putting one hand in a plate holding a sunny side up egg.
Governor Ronald Reagan did it when coming into the fold in July, 1967. Walt Disney and many others climbed on board this wooden nag too.
Humor is a big part of the LABC experience – it would have to be, since the original start time was a bleary-eyed 6 a.m. When the dour, unsmiling President Calvin Coolidge paid a visit in 1927, club legend says that member/actor Will Rogers secretly bet $100 he could make him laugh.
All visiting guests shake hands with the members – and of course offer the greeting “Hello Ham!” and get the response “Hello Egg!” – but after Rogers greeted Coolidge, he turned back and asked: “What was your name again?” He won the $100.
In the early years, the club was a huge success and attendance was regularly in the many hundreds. You could even find notable names such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Laemmle, Joe DiMaggio and Tom Mix rubbing shoulders over the hot plates.
Boat trips to Hawaii and train trips to Mexico were also part of the agenda at times, but the Great Depression hit hard. Over the years, other problems including large debts (every club needs a scandal) forced the Club to move in 1933. It spent the next few years meeting in a bar that was part of the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.
The Club became a non-profit in 1934, and within a few years things had improved. They bought land at 3207 Los Feliz Boulevard and members clubbed together to raise $50,000 to realize their idea of a 600-seat California ranch-style clubhouse. Other members bought furniture and other fittings, and on December 29, 1937 over 1,000 people attended the opening.
The club house was also a popular space for-hire, but the LABC itself started to see numbers slowly drop. In 1965, they sold the land and built the current Friendship Auditorium back on Riverside Drive, negotiating a peppercorn rent of $1 per year with the Department of Recreation and Park in return for use on Wednesdays and one Sunday entertainment night per month.
Membership stayed high into the 1990s, but the LABC, with its men-only membership policy, became seen as rather old-fashioned. Women were admitted in 1978 and the first woman president elected in 1986, but new, younger people weren’t joining. With the addition of worsening traffic, which made-the post-breakfast journey more of a grind, things looked grim by the turn of the millennium.
Happily, the club is now resurging in popularity due to their young current president, actress Lily Holleman.
Speaking on the first episode of “LABC On The Air,” a new series of podcasts which will feature their past radio broadcasts and event recordings, she said that finding the club around 2010 seemed like discovering “secret ruins that came alive before the city had risen.”
Down to just a couple of dozen members, it seemed they were going to close for good. “I just couldn’t let that happen” say Holleman, explaining that she gently convinced the senior members of the board about the possibilities of social media and digital word-of-mouth.
Almost immediately, more people came through the doors. The LABC is a nonpolitical, nonsectarian club for everybody, she says, “and if you love anything about L.A. past, present or future, this is the place for you.”
First time visitors get a free breakfast, she enthuses (usually it’s $10 a week from members for a rather hearty repast: cereal, oatmeal, eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, juice, and more. The menu changes regularly, and vegans and vegetarians won’t feel left out either).
The meeting officially begins with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a patriotic tune and sing-along of old pop songs. Admittedly, this can be rather bewildering and unexpected for a rookie, but you soon get swept along – though the arm-waving “morning exercises” can literally be a stretch if you’re not an early morning person.
More songs follow – including the essential “Ham n’ Eggs” and “Sea, Sea, Sea” (a bizarre shanty about getting seasick). Then, the week’s chairman explains the club’s history for the newbies and makes some announcements.
Someone is then called onto the stage to wheel forward the large board and lead everyone in the “F-V-N-E-M?” cryptogram. There’s a brief observation from former journalist and club “chaplain” Barbara Adams, and then it’s time for the morning’s talk or lecture.
Each member takes turns serving as host and every week is a guaranteed chuckle, especially due to the vaudeville-style piano accompaniment from Don Snyder, who stepped in about 25 years ago and has been there ever since.
As someone who recently gave a talk at the LABC, I can assure you that it’s something you really need to experience, and that I wish I had known about it years ago.
The Los Angeles Breakfast Club meets every Wednesday at 7 a.m., and membership fees are $100 per year. More details can be found at @labreakfastclub, www.facebook.com/labreakfastclub and www.labreakfastclub.com
A Q&A will immediately follow the screening with producer Amy Baer and subject Brian Banks.
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