I live about a mile from the building that was once the famous swing dance club known as “the Derby.” In the mid-late 90’s, when the swing music revolution twirled its way across the streets of Los Angeles and turned regular farm boys from the Midwest into Rat Pack wannabes, “the Derby” was the swing club to frequent.
In 1996, Jon Favreau was so inspired, he made a pretty great film about it called Swingers and suddenly star Vince Vaughn had the entire town looking for “beautiful babies” and saying that everything was “money.” I passed a bootleg VHS tape of the film around my college friends and soon fell in hook, line and sinker. After graduation, I dove head first into the post-Swingers madness that raised dirty martinis all over Hollywood. Lines formed around the Hillhurst/Los Feliz street corner where the Derby resided awaiting entrance into the ultimate haven of swing-cool.
I owned 15 bowling shirts, white “creeper” shoes, Cadillac-emblazoned pants, shoulder-pad heavy sport coats, a flask, three Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CDs and a t-shirt that said “It’s Frank’s World, Were all Just Living in It.” I went to Las Vegas monthly, drank gin and tonics and swept my hair up into a James Dean-inspired pompadour. I remember feeling so confident that my “swinger” image would live with me for the rest of my days, I traveled to New York City around 1999 and searched out underground West Village swing clubs to show Manhattan that a “Real Life Hollywood Swinger” was in their presence. Somehow the façade worked and after ringing up a $290 credit card bill, I managed to make out with a girl named ‘Kitty’ who had a Stray Cats tattoo on her shoulder before retiring to her floor mattress in Brooklyn where she woke up six times during the night to smoke Marlboro Reds.
It was all because of Swingers.
And then, about five years ago, it was announced that the Derby was going to be transformed into a Chase Bank. The bar where I spent my early 20’s was suddenly going to be a place where I would curse the teller for charging me a checking account fee… The club where I once dated the hottest bartender in town was turning into a place where a gal named Evelyn would inform me my mortgage was ten days late. When I heard the news, I knew this was not good. The Derby? I thought… A bank? WWJFD? (What Would Jon Favreau Do?)
Turns out, Favreau had bigger fish to fry. Even though he could have easily bought the Derby and used it to store his Iron Man memorabilia, he ignored my twitter plea for him to buy the bar and turn it into a museum. I’m sure Vince Vaughn most likely drank at “Mess Hall,” the restaurant next door, toasting the ghosts of the barroom that made him a movie star… but he was also too busy and uninspired to save the bar. I even tweeted actor Patrick Van Horn, who played SUE in the film. He at least took the time to write me back by quipping “End of an Era.”
A week before the Derby was to be gutted, I gathered my old “Swinger buddies,” – now dads who had traded in slick sport coats and suspenders for Old Navy hoodies – and we poured out some gin for Favreau and Vaughn, for Sinatra, for dirty martinis, for the incredible wooden Derby ceiling, for the memories we had shared at the bar and for the debauched nights spent watching amazing swing bands like Royal Crown Revue sing “walk right in, walk right out…”
We even quoted the movie a few more times to make sure we still knew all the classic lines. “Get there…” “This place is deaaad anyway…” “He’s all growns up… I would never eat here.” “You’re the fun-loving out going party guy, and you’re sweating some lawn jockey?” The night went on and on.
As the evening died down, we all retired a lot earlier than we had in the late 90’s and excused ourselves back to our families. The next week, the Chase Bank transformation had begun and the last remaining memories of my first few years out of college were carried out and discarded.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in line at the Chase, staring up at the exact same wooden ceiling that I had spun girls beneath in the past. The ceiling beneath which I had done shots of Crown Royal a hundred times. The ceiling that watched over me as I tried to find assimilation with a unique sect of people during those weird times when you’re not yet quite sure who you were – who you are – or where you are going.
I got up to the bank teller and deposited my meager check, taking a moment to remark that this building was once my one-time favorite nightclub.
Without making eye-contact she mumbled, “Yep, every one of you middle-aged guys who comes in here has the same story.”
“Fuck off,” I whispered under my breath.
I took another glance at the ceiling and thought of the days gone by. Hollywood is forever a town of transformation. Very few restaurants and bars make it ten years… hence the stories you read about now defunct clubs like The Trip, The Cathouse and Gazzari’s that were the most happening places to be. In my life, the Derby was certainly my place. The place where I was part of a nationwide fad that engulfed my youth when I was a mere lump of clay awaiting to be molded into the lump of Play-Doh I am these days.
As I looked down at my bank receipt and realized how far this journey in Hollywood had taken me, I thought of the dreams I had at age 22 that were still somewhat unrealized. When places that mean so much to you as a kid disappear, you fail to immediately recognize that they will be gone for good and the memories will fade or melt into new ones until all you have left are a few photographs and some journal entries. I look back at my two years as a pseudo-swinger as important remembrances that I will take with me through all of my life. At the time I thought I’d be 22 forever, twirling cute tattooed ladies across slick wooden floors only pausing to sip drinks and wipe the sweat from our brows. I never thought I’d be 40-years-old and in the exact same room looking down at a bank statement stressing about the fact that I barely had enough money that week to cover my DWP bill.
Again, my thoughts turned to Jon Favreau. As the worlds most in demand director, he probably never imagined he would achieve the level of success he has back when he was simply searching for familiarity amongst the Hollywood night-crawlers of the mid 90’s. I reached back out to my old swinger buddies and arranged another drinking night to sit back and reminisce about the Derby days gone by, and we all agreed to get together on a following Tuesday night.
Of course, by Monday morning, everybody had flaked and the plans were cancelled so we could spend some time with our families. We all agreed to try again later, and I thought about how a little piece of all of us died the day the Derby did…
And a part of me knew, that somewhere, high up in those Malibu Hills, Jon Favreau was feeling the same thing…
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I recently came across this class picture from my elementary school in 1985. Oddly enough, I have a vague memory of taking this photo and trying to express my disappointment with the world at that time. I had no idea back then that the photo seemed to say to my parents that I’d rather be dead at the tender age of 10 than at my school picture day.
I look depressed. I look like I had already lived five lives. I resemble the type of child who would be marked as a potential serial killer in the future. Amazingly, I remember what was going through my head that day. I was dealing with things like my parents recent divorce, the fact that my “spike haircut” would never want to stand up straight like the other kids. I didn’t smile because my two front teeth resembled something that would have made all species of pacific northwestern beavers jealous. I also remember that my mother made me wear the cloud patterned shirt I am wearing in the photo that day. Maybe if I was Prince I could have pulled that look off, but as a sullen, depressed 10-year-old Jewish kid stuck in Tucson Arizona in the 1980’s, the cloud shirt just felt like a desperate plea for attention.
At the time I was rudderless. The girls were not interested in me. I had become somewhat overweight. My baseball ability had dwindled following a broken arm the previous summer and my basketball skills were starting to translate to bench time more than the starting five. To top it off my grandparents had taken my sister and I on a two-week Caribbean cruise a few weeks before where I spent the majority of the trip being bullied in the youth center by a freckly-face kid from Florida named Robbie who insisted on flicking my ears until I cried almost daily. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about that cruise was when my grandmother came down to the youth center, smacked the kid across the head and said, “Stop flicking my grandson’s ears!”
As you can imagine, it only made him go after me more.
In fifth grade I was forced to go to Hebrew school three times a week with the looming threat of a Bar Mitzvah hanging over my head presenting quite possibly a challenge that I could never live up to. My main interests lie in collecting baseball cards – which is where I spent every penny and has been well documented in my previous works. I was also trying to make my 3-year-old brother a future baseball Hall of Famer – but he wasn’t interested in the slightest. Baseball cards were everything to me and the bottom line was, when my mother came home and saw me lying on the floor alphabetizing the 1982 Atlanta Braves Fleer set, she didn’t exactly think I had any sort of bright future.
My house was less than peaceful, with my sister and mother not getting along and a new presence in the home – my mother’s boyfriend. He was a recovering alcoholic who had moved to Tucson for a fresh start and began working at a $40,000 a month celebrity rehab facility that was frequented by movie stars and rock stars. His saving grace was that he loved music, and played it constantly around the house.. and that he was pretty funny.
He also loved baseball.
My other obsession with skateboarding, which I was not very good at due to a massive fear of falling and breaking my arm a second time. Yet, I wore the clothes and accepted the fact that I was a “poser” to the cooler kids because it made me feel somewhat connected to something. I was also being forced to take piano lessons by my mom although I was technically allowed to quit in sixth grade.
I quit the day I started sixth grade. Again, another regret.
37-years-later, looking back at this photo, I distinctly remember Mrs. Knight’s fifth grade classroom. It was small – with only eight of us – because they had to separate certain students into a fifth/sixth grade combination class. Luckily the two cutest girls were in class with me. Laura Krapa (tough last name, I know…) And Tina Jarem, who I mercilessly teased and occasionally punched because she had absolutely no interest in me.
And then, there were the three other boys in the class.Ryan, Brandon and Bryan. Being the lone Jewish kid, I was constantly mocked with slurs and insults that I learned to turn into comedy – but I was never invited to their Cub Scout meetings or their swim meets. The three boys were all terrific athletes and overachievers had surpassed me in almost every single category in life at the time – from sports to girls to popularity. When you’re 10-years-old, you feel as if you will never grow out of these situations.
One day in the lunchroom, I overheard the boys discussing their three-piece band that they were going to assemble to play the talent show. Being that my obsession with the Beastie Boys had grown to absurdly fanatical following their appearance in the hip hop movie “Krush Groove,” I somehow thought that if I could just be AdRock or Mike D I could climb out of this despair in which I had been wallowing for the majority of 1985-86. It certainly helped my cause to know that the Beastie Boys were actually Jewish… So, I offered up my services as a rapper and at first, they laughed.
“Dude our song is not a rap song” they said.
I said it didn’t matter because I could rap over anything.
Lo and behold, it worked. That night, I wrote eight of the worst hip-hop bars ever assembled and brought it to school to audition for my three classmates. They were blown away and my career as a performer started just as the 5th grade began to come to a close.
The first rush of adrenaline that you get when you walk off of a stage while wearing your coolest T & C Surf Design shirt and Gotcha shorts with a pair of knock off Ray-Ban Wayfarers you had to borrow from your mother, is a feeling that cannot be described. But any person who has ever performed live knows what it is… It’s the moment when you receive that first look from a girl in your class that says, “Oh my God you’re so much more than I thought you were!” In this case, it was Tina Jarem. Still, I was too afraid to be her boyfriend. She moved away that summer.
Music helped me turn my life and outlook around. If you look into the dead eyes of the kid in this photo, you can see how that experience helped turn me into a more positive person. Within a few months I had my first non-camp girlfriend, Amy. We only lasted about a week, but for me that’s all I wanted. It was like a résumé builder. I developed more humor more confidence and as luck would have it even grew a few inches by the next year.
That summer at camp my longtime counselor Mark took me under his wing as his ‘project’ hoping to develop me into a ladies man. Looking back, it seems weird that he would spend 30 minutes doing my hair before Shabbat services on Fridays. I guess he wanted to make sure I looked ‘fresh.’ With gallons of Dep Gel being slathered into my “never wanted to spike up hair” – I was finally able to get it somewhat reaching towards the sky. Only later, when my hair went curly, did I realize that I had always had wavy hair and that a spike haircut doesn’t look too great when you’re 10-years-old and trying to look like Billy Idol.
When sixth grade came to a close, we reformed the band. The baseball cards took a backseat a couple years later when the guitar was picked up and I suddenly discovered all elements of performing.
Today, at 46, looking back at that photograph of that lost child makes me think of my own children today. I can often spot in a family photo my son’s eyes adrift, looking like there’s no reason for him to be there. My daughter occasionally blinks on purpose to ruin a picture too – the way I did many times before as a kid. The only advice I can try to give my children is that it all gets better and that they need to try new things or else nothing will ever change. I never say that they have to stick with those things, but one of them will hopefully catch their attention and change their lives the way that music did for me on that talent show night in Tucson, Arizona.
I’m not sure why I wrote this today other than the fact that I’m getting older and I think you start to look back at moments in your life where things change. As your own parents get older you start to think about how innocent it all was back then and how we all grow up so quickly and what really matters is love, care, kindness and friendship.
I still keep in touch with those guys from the band even though they have all gone onto different pursuits. I’m still releasing music, however, even though not many people listen to it. It’s still therapy. It is hands down the best medicine that there is and it comes out whenever I am lucky enough to perform live with my current band.
My only regret? I wish I still had that cloud shirt so I could wear it on stage…