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Thelma Todd's Tragedy: The Forgotten Life of the Original Celebrity Restaurateur

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Thelma Todd. Image courtesy LAPL Photo Collection.

"I realized long ago that it is only a case of a few years for an actress, before she gradually, sometimes almost imperceptibly, loses popularity, and younger ones start to take her place. Look at some of the one-time famous stars of a few years ago. Whoever hears of them now? Most of them are unhappy and rather bewildered. It's pretty hard to have your life long career at an end...So I decided long ago that I wasn't going to be one of them...The years are not going to bother me as they do so many of my colleagues; wrinkles won't worry me, neither will increasing weight, because as long as I can use my head, it won't matter how I look." -- Thelma Todd

Before Ryan Gosling's Tagine, Eva Longoria's Beso, and Rose McGowan's Dominick's, there was Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café. But the story of Todd's life as a pioneering businesswoman has long been overshadowed by her tragic death on December 16th, 1935, in a garage above the restaurant that was supposed to secure her future. She was only 29 years old.

Thelma Todd was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1906. An intelligent, personable girl, she trained to be a schoolteacher. But after being crowned Miss Massachusetts in 1925, Thelma was soon on the fast track to Hollywood. Beautiful and vivacious, she found a home at the Hal Roach Studios, where she became a popular personality in slapstick comedies. She was part of a comedy duo with the legendary Zasu Pitts, and later with Patsy Kelly. She would also appear in movies with Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Joe E. Brown. Nicknamed "the Ice Cream Blond" and "Hot Toddy," Thelma was beloved by her co-workers because of her unaffected charm. She was known as a hard-partier on the L.A. social circuit, and was often heard ordering one more round of three fingers of rye, her signature drink.

From the beginning, Thelma seemed to see behind the façade of Hollywood. She despised the casting couch system, and longed to get out of the slapstick movie mill. To relax, she often cooked comfort foods for her friends. Lamb chops cooked "over a charcoal broiler" was one of her specialties. In 1931, Thelma fell in love with the much older, very married director Roland West during the filming of the movie Corsair. The affair ended, and Thelma rebounded by marrying playboy Pat DiCicco (future husband of Gloria Vanderbilt) in 1932. But Thelma and West couldn't deny their attraction, and they were soon back together.

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A 1935 movie still. Image courtesy LAPL Photo Collection.

In 1934, West had an idea. He wanted out of the directing business, and Thelma wanted more security ... and better New England style seafood. They decided to open a restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway, in the tony neighborhood of Castellammare. The couple threw themselves into opening the café and even moved into adjoining apartments on the second floor. Thelma explained her inspiration for the café to the gossip columnist Louella Parsons:

"I have heard so much about the choice foods of those days preceding prohibition when eating was still a fine art. Always I read with great interest about the Bon Vivants of the Gay Nineties, when people dined with pomp and ceremony before they became addicted to grabbing a sandwich, a slab of pie and calling it a meal."

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Image courtesy LAPL Photo Collection.

Using Roland's money and Thelma's name, the couple opened Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway in the summer of 1934. The café, which included a swank full bar, was an immediate hit with the movie elite, who didn't mind the cafe's high prices. There was a private area upstairs called Joya's Room, where customers dined on frog legs and grouse, and where some causal gambling may have been permitted. A typical advertisement for the café read:

"Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café...serving a Long Island shore dinner, fish with Alison Sauce, unequaled; French-Italian dinner, pancakes suzette, unsurpassed...the reason- from the Savoy-London and the Crillon-Paris comes our chef."

Thelma was the consummate front woman. She was often at the café, sitting behind the counter to make change. Pictures of her posing in the kitchen, or standing in front of the café's marquee were distributed to newspapers and fan magazines. Tips were slipped to gossip columnists that Todd was "studying menus to get ideas for her own beachside café." By October 1935, the café was doing so well that the L.A. Times reported that "Business is so good that Thelma Todd is going to build a new addition to her sidewalk café... She plans to spend approximately $10,000 on improvements."

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On the chilly winter night of December 15th, 1935, Thelma attended a party at Café Trocadero thrown in her honor by the 17-year old actress Ida Lupino and her parents. West, who worried about Thelma's drinking, warned her to be home by 2:00 a.m. She laughed and countered that she would be home by 2:05 a.m. That last night she was all business, talking movie ideas with Lupino's father and betting a table of Hollywood heavyweights that they wouldn't come to dine at her café the following evening. Around 3:30 a.m., a chauffeur dropped an unusually pensive Thelma at the café. He was the last person to see her alive.

The following evening, the party of studio executives came into the café to make good on their bet with Thelma. They asked where she was, and West told them that he assumed she was with her mother. On Monday morning, Thelma's maid found Thelma in a private garage, owned by West, up the road from the café. She was still in the shimmering blue evening dress she had worn on Saturday evening. She sat slumped over, in her Lincoln Phaeton, a little blood dried on her nose and mouth. She was dead.

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Believe it or not, the Herald-Examiner added the graphic to the photo. Image courtesy LAPL Photo Collection.

Her death was a sensation. The media was in a frenzy, as was the movie colony, whose dramatic sensibilities were inflamed by the untimely death of this beloved personality. Tales of murder, suicide, and mob connections began to fly around Hollywood. People suspected West, Thelma's ex-husband Pat DiCicco (to whom she had spoken at the Trocadero), and even the gangster Lucky Luciano, although there is no proof the two ever even met. Many said Luciano had bumped her off because she refused to let gangsters gamble at the café. The tale was made more salacious by the fact that Thelma had recently been sent numerous extortion letters by an insane fan. Although the fan, who signed himself "Ace of Hearts," had been caught, connections between the letters and her death were still irresponsibly made. An inquest, encouraged by a power-mad grand jury foreman and attention seeking politicians, dragged on for weeks.

The story that emerged was more sad than scandalous. The most likely scenario is this. An intoxicated Thelma realized she was locked out of the café, and did not want to wake West up. She probably either walked up the road or the set of winding stairs that led to the garage, to sleep for a few hours until it was daylight. It was cold that December evening, and she probably turned the car on to get warm. She was quickly overcome by the fumes, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The coroner confirmed that she was intoxicated, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and did not have any bruises or cuts that were evidence of a beating or struggle, despite media reports to the contrary.

Only four days after her death, West announced the reopening of the café, in the Los Angeles Times:

We wish to take this opportunity of thanking Miss Todd's many friends and admirers for their kind thoughts during our recent bereavement. We also wish to advise that we are going to endeavor to carry on as Miss Todd would have liked, doing business as Thelma Todd's Inn.

But he soon found Thelma's name now conjured up sadness and unease, not business. He changed the café's name to Chez Roland. Nightclub acts were added, and West found another young hostess, named Queenie Shannon, to be the face of the business for a number of years. He eventually remarried Lola, one of the famous Lane sisters. After his death, Lola gave the café building to Paulist Productions, a popular Catholic production company.

Thelma's death remained the stuff of legend. Years later, both Hal Roach and the actor Chester Morris would claim West had killed Thelma. Morris even claimed West had confessed on his deathbed. Salacious TV movies (one starring Loni Anderson) and books, like the infamous Hollywood Babylon, painted Thelma in a distorted, sleazy light. She is only remembered as a victim of Hollywood. She should also be remembered as one smart cookie.

Further reading: The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, by William Donati.

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