The Lonely Clubs of Los Angeles

Susan J. Matt (Homesickness: An American History) calls out one of the least understood qualities of L.A. in the early 20th century by quoting Carey McWilliams' bleak observation that the city he chronicled was beset by an "aching loneliness -- the really terrible loneliness -- that for years has been so clearly apparent in the streets and parks, the boarding houses and hotel, the cafeterias and 'lonely clubs' of Los Angeles."

Lonely clubs? There were many on West Coast, but Los Angeles seems to have had the majority of them. Steve Vaught's Paradise Leased site -- an invaluable resource for local history, beautifully illustrated -- offers a detailed look at how one "lonely club" successfully answered the "aching loneliness" of the city's newcomers.

Called the Lonesome Club, it offered two nights a week of polite conversation, card playing, amateur shows, and dancing to the tunes of the Lonesome Club Orchestra (one of the grimmest names for a band before the era of Death Metal).

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The Lonesome Club was begun in July 1921 by Dr. M.A. Hatch of Minneapolis, who had come to Los Angeles -- like many in the first decades of the century -- to recover his health. (He may have also been recovering from a troubled past. According to the Minneapolis newspapers, Dr. Hatch had been convicted of manslaughter following a botched "illegal operation." While awaiting sentencing in 1917, his office assistant -- and chief defense witness -- committed suicide, although the circumstances of her death were odd. She died of chloroform poisoning in Hatch's medical office, where he later found her body.)

Dr. Hatch's entrepreneurial remedy for loneliness caught on immediately. Paying members (50 cents for men, 35 cents for women) grew from 13 in July 1921 to over 300 by the end of November and eventually to 20,000 by the end of the 1920s. Los Angeles Times reporter Alma Whitaker looked in on the club in its early days, and found modest, "genteel" men and women -- mostly past middle age, but younger too -- who seemed to find Los Angeles particularly friendless.

That may have been because some had come alone as "lungers" to Los Angeles and whose tuberculosis was now in remission. And some might have been the youngish widows of retired Midwestern farmers and merchants. They had done well in the prosperous years of World War I and had come to Los Angeles for the climate. Aging bachelors and women thought to be past the age of marrying filled out the club roster.

All of them were "joiners" who might go to one of Aimee Semple McPherson's gaudy services at the Angelus Temple or to one of the state picnics that brought out thousands to reminisce about "back home" in Iowa, Ohio, or Indiana.

The Lonesome Club made good money for Dr. Hatch, who continually moved the growing membership to a succession of bigger rooms and finally to its own building downtown. As Vaught notes, "The elegant Lonesome Club Ballroom was designed by famed Los Angeles architect Alec Curlett in sleek art deco style, covering a very spacious 152"² x 97"², which could easily accommodate as many lonely souls as Los Angeles had to offer."

The Lonesome Club prospered until the elderly no longer danced and the young found wives and husbands and Los Angeles -- although no less lonely -- was less a place of exile for the modestly well-to-do. The "lungers" were treated by better medicine than sunshine and optimism or they died.

Dr. Hatch died after his son was killed in 1927 during a failed holdup of the club's receipts -- $400 -- at the Hatch's bungalow at 2149 Echo Park Avenue (the house still stands, a little forlorn in its Google Streetview).

The Lonesome Club and its art deco ballroom at 936 West 7th Street are gone, too. They didn't survive the Depression.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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