Schwab's Pharmacy: The Hollywood Hopeful Hangout

Schwab's, 1980. Photo courtesy LAPL/Roy Hankey Collection

"A young blue book bachelor, whom we shall call Bob X, recently decided to give a party. All would have been fine if some wag hadn't got wind of it and had a stack of cards printed up and placed on the Schwab's Drug Store counter. They said in effect, 'Director Bob X is pleased to announce completion of his new picture and will celebrate by holding open house. Come one, come all!' Understand, the characters were seven deep at his apartment door." -- Skylarking with James Copp, 1956, L.A. Times. (PDF)

"At Schwab's they operate on the notion that Joe Doakes is just as important to Joe Doakes as Lana Turner is to Lana Turner." -- Sid Sklosky

It started with four brothers named Jack, Leon, Bernard and Martin Schwab. They were raised by their Polish immigrant parents in Philadelphia. All of the brothers became trained pharmacists, educated at USC. In 1932, the family bought an ailing drug store at Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights Boulevard in the heart of what is now West Hollywood.

Situated across the street from the famed Garden of Allah club, near a trendy residential area and RKO, Columbia, and Republic Studios, it was only natural that the store, renamed Schwab's, would be frequented by the folks that worked in the bustling movie factories. But it was through ingenuity, extraordinary service, and kindness that it became such a legendary haunt. For over 50 years it was a home away from home, an office for the office-less, and a place where thousands of actors could get a free meal and a warm hello. "We've never turned somebody down who was hungry," Leon Schwab explained. "My mother told us if anyone needed, give, never turn down."

To understand the impact of Schwab's, it is vital to understand the role of the drug store in mid-century American life. Schwab's, like most drug stores of the era, housed a pharmacy, newsstand, a shoeshine and dry goods section. It was also a place where checks could be cashed and mail could be received. Most importantly, it was a restaurant, featuring a soda fountain lunch counter. Cheap, fast diner foods including hamburgers, eggs and onions, lox, meat loaf, corned beef and cabbage, chop suey, beef stew, lentil soup, and pies were served.

Perhaps the biggest draws were the non-alcoholic, festive beverages prepared by "soda jerks," so named because of the jerking motion made when a lever was pulled on the soda machine. Soda jerks were much like bartenders, skillfully mixing flavored malts, egg creams (milk, seltzer, syrup -- no eggs), and phosphate sodas, with their sour, tangy taste.

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Hedda Hopper. Photo courtesy LAPL

The Schwabs added a row of telephones and a paging service, so that agents could reach clients at a moment's notice, and extended lines of credit to those down on their luck. Schwab's quickly became a hangout for both successful and struggling actors, a kind of booze-less bar. Word of mouth spread, aided greatly by entertainment journalist Sid Sklosky, whose monthly column in Photoplay was subtitled "From a Stool at Schwab's." Leon Schwab gave Sklosky, who claimed to have coined the term "Oscar," a second-story office at the store, which he would keep for decades. When Sklosky branched into producing with "The Al Jolson Story," he held the premiere at Schwab's. William Powell and Bette Davis ate ice cream sundaes and "rubbed shoulders with clerks and cameramen." Even the usually snobbish gossip maven Hedda Hopper had to admit, "It was wonderful." (PDF)

This comingling of movie stars and mortals was a daily occurrence at Schwab's. Robert Taylor, Clark Gable, Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, the Marx Brothers, James Dean, and Shelly Winters were all regulars. Gloria Swanson bought her makeup there. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard would come in after hours to make their own sodas, and Chaplin also often played pinball with fellow comedy legend Harold Lloyd.

Ava Gardner was known to slip behind the counter to make sodas for the crowd, while F. Scott Fitzgerald would stop in daily for his on-the-wagon supplies of candy bars, Coca-Cola, and newspapers. In 1940, he suffered a non-fatal heart attack while standing in the check-out line. Humphrey Bogart once asked Leon Schwab for something to cure a hangover. "Stop drinking," was Leon's very unwelcome advice. In later years, Sylvester Stallone, Stevie Nicks, and James Woods were regulars, as were Governor Jerry Brown and his then-girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt. Surprisingly, according to a waitress, Brown never tipped. (PDF)

Regardless of all the glitz, it was Schwab's identification with the struggling entertainer that helped make it a cultural landmark. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Harold Arlen supposedly came up with the lyric to "Over the Rainbow" while sitting at the counter, watching all the penniless dreamers sip their bottomless cups of coffee. Its reputation was sealed in the 1951 film "Sunset Boulevard," when the protagonist, a washed-up writer named Joe Gillis (William Holden), explains:

"After that, I drove down to headquarters. That's the way a lot of us think about Schwab's. Kind of a combination office, coffee klatch and waiting room. Waiting, waiting for the gravy train."

Lana Turner
Lana Turner

Indeed, until it was closed in 1983, Schwab's remained the "everyday man's friars club," where a clutch of maternal waitresses tended to their customers while they waited for their ships to come in, talking shop and clutching Variety. Waitresses spread the word about good auditions. Even Leon Scwab got in the act, calling studio heads, whose prescriptions he filled, when he saw a promising newcomer come in. Many of these dreamers were forever waiting. In 1961, the actor John Ireland was stranded in Italy, waiting, as a production he was signed on for was endlessly delayed. He joked of Rome: "It's like Schwab's drugstore." (PDF)

Of course, thanks to Sid Sklosky and the Schwab brothers, there was another reason they waited at Schwab's. It was January 1937. Judy, a lovely sixteen-year-old girl in a tight sweater, ditched class at Hollywood High to get an ice cream float at Schwab's. Director Mervyn LeRoy spotted the girl, who was soon transformed into Lana Turner, sex goddess of the '40s and '50s. Unfortunately, the story was entirely false. According to Lana, she was discovered at the Top Hat Café, only a block away from Hollywood High, by Billy Wilkerson, the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. The truth didn't matter though, not to the Schwab brothers or to legions of Hollywood hopefuls who also sat at that counter, wearing their most flattering attire. Late in life, when Leon Schwab was asked if Turner was discovered at Schwab's, he replied: "Absolutely. But she won't admit it."

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