A few years ago, I went about Los Angeles trying to track down the locations of where different album covers were shot in the city. That led me to 5176 Whittier Blvd. – once upon a time the home to one of L.A.’s great movie palaces, the Golden Gate Theater, where legendary East L.A. rock n’ rollers, Thee Midniters, shot the cover of their debut LP. Alas, the theater ran its last reel in the mid ‘80s and in recent years, has been converted into a CVS. It doesn’t look like a movie theater anymore but it also doesn’t look like a pharmacy. It’s somewhere in between: a ghost in a shell.
I thought of the old Golden Gate when thumbing through the long-awaited third volume of Sam Sweet’s “All Night Menu” series (previously profiled in Artbound in June 2015). As a reminder, “All Night Menu” works with a simple but brilliant concept: each of its (eventual) five volumes contains eight stories tied to a single L.A. address. As Sweet writes in the preface card that accompanies each booklet, "All Night Menu" seeks to become “a periodic index of lost heroes and miniature histories.” This recent third volume, over two years in the making, includes stories built around 3634 Fruitland – headquarters for Tapatío hot sauce – and 12318 La Maida St. – the garage workshop where embroider Rosa Clements worked on clothes for Nudie designer Manuel Cuevas in the mid-1970s.
One of the centerpiece essays is tied to 501 N. Mednik Ave. where you can still find the Maravilla handball court, proving ground for generations of East L.A. hard knocks since the 1940s. Sweet shares the stories of Shigeru “Tommy” Nishiyama and Michiye “Michi” Hada, the Japanese American couple that purchased the El Centro Market next to the court in 1947. Over the years, Michi became respected as “La Madre de Maravilla,” serving as the informal neighborhood banker and messenger, counselor and caterer until her death in 2006.
Sweet explains that he was drawn to the Maravilla handball court because “a good part of what is seen as ‘Los Angeles culture’ and ‘West Coast culture’ originates in Maravilla. This fact isn’t widely known because unlike, say, Hollywood, which promotes its history, Maravilla protects its history.” As such, Sweet spent months visiting the area, chatting with Michi’s surviving children, tracking down O.G.s who had since been relocated out of the neighborhood. It takes time to tease out these kinds of narratives but as Sweet argues, “the truth shouldn’t be available to order.”
From a distance, “All Night Menu” may seem like a random assortment of places and people. There’s no instant logic that ties 6710 La Tijera Blvd. – home to the treasured Pann’s Diner, designed by the unsung Helen Liu Fong – with 207 Ashland Ave., site of Richard Diebenkorn’s long-time studio in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park neighborhood. However, Sweet insists that his sites, scattered as they may appear, are neither “incidental [nor] arbitrary. Every subject is specifically chosen for what it represents about L.A., and how it fits with the other subjects in the sequence.” In that sense, “All Night Menu” is constructing a jigsaw puzzle, one story at a time, yet even Sweet admits, “I know what the pieces look like, but only as a pile.”
A few pieces have also fallen out along the way. Sweet recently abandoned the story of Pedro Flores, the Filipino American immigrant, who invented the yo-yo in the 1920s. Sweet had originally heard that Flores had worked in a Santa Monica hotel, where he’d demonstrate his invention to curious tourists. Alas, through his research, Sweet learned that Flores had indeed worked in a hotel but in Santa Barbara, not Santa Monica. True, it’s not far from Los Angeles but as a denizen of either city would insist, L.A. is not Santa Barbara and vice versa. The string tying Flores’s tale to “All Night Menu” had to be cut.
That may seem a touch didactic but specificity of place is at the core of the “All Night Menu” mission. In particular, Sweet is motivated by how L.A. is so curiously written out of cultural histories that are instead credited to other places. Dancer Alvin Ailey, for example, is forever connected with New York but he grew up and learned how to dance in Los Angeles. New Orleans undoubtedly gave birth to jazz, but how many aficionados know that it was a Santa Monica record label, Nordskog, that was the first to cut a jazz recording in 1921? Sweet was motivated to write that aforementioned story about Diebenkorn’s old Ocean Park studio because, “five years in Paris was enough to associate Hemingway with the city for the rest of his life and beyond. Richard Diebenkorn spent 20 years in Los Angeles, and made his most famous paintings here, yet people still resist the idea that he is an L.A. artist.”
In mid-February, at a reading in Los Feliz’s Skylight Books, Sweet opened with a half-hour long essay that doubled as a manifesto of both his approach to Los Angeles histories as well as his philosophy of the city itself. As he triggered a slideshow of city-bound images that flashed up behind him, he suggested, “it’s only possible to appreciate the character of Los Angeles if you accept all of it, without resorting to one lens, theme, location, or ideology.” Later, he spoke of how “retired gangbangers and ex-cons” are some of the “great historians” of the city,” ones who don’t think of L.A. through “big themes,” but rather as “a collective catalog of tiny specificities.” The latter clearly seems to guide Sweet’s efforts, with “All Night Menu’s” episodic approach to exploring the character (and characters) of the city. By themselves, each chapter may seem hyper-local but it’s through those miniature portraits that Sweet hopes to eventually craft a sprawling mosaic of the city.
For the Record: this post has been corrected with a clarification. An earlier version of this story stated that 12318 La Maida St. was the Reseda storefornt.