The Los Angeles Breakfast Club

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The Los Angeles Breakfast Club (LABC) is one of the city’s most enduring hidden treasures. “The Shrine of Friendship, the Temple of Sentiment and Idealism, where real people meet to get better acquainted and started the day off right” is celebrating its unbroken 93-year-old history. After years of decline, it’s putting itself back on the map.

From a group of friends the LABC grew into what became a mecca for everyone who was anyone in Los Angeles—and beyond. It is an organization whose growth and success are inherently tied to the city’s history. “It’s a secret bubble of magic,” says President Lily Holleman. “I was inexplicably drawn in by the warm camaraderie, and a spirit of fun and optimism. It is a place full of friendship, fun and outright silliness.”

What in recent years has been described as “Prairie Home Companion directed by David Lynch,” had its beginnings in Griffith Park in the fall of 1924 when a group of prominent businessmen would mount up at Al Meyer’s Griffith Park Riding Academy and set out on their weekly morning ride. A breakfast, compliments of fellow horseman, Marco Hellman’s personal (!) chuck wagon, followed. When a Chicago banker visited, Hellman hired a troupe of musicians to entertain and, as fate would have it, the visitor was a first-rate story teller.

Out of this serendipity, merchant Maurice De Mond suggested they form an organization. To get things rolling he asked for and received $100 from each of the group. Word spread and notables like writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, famed “Tarzan” creator, oil magnate Edward L. Doheny, and film industry leaders Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck and Cecil B. De Mille joined up. On March 6, 1925, the first program took place at the Griffith Park Riding Academy and De Mond was elected president.

In rapid succession, the Club bought the Crosetti Dairy property at 3213 Riverside Drive just south of Griffith Park and converted it into a clubhouse that included showers for the horsemen. “The world’s first Breakfast Club was on its way,” wrote Harold B. Link in his booklet, “The Los Angeles Breakfast Club, The Shrine of Friendship.” In 1927 entrance fees were increased from $100 to $500 and memberships climbed, enabling construction of the Pavilion of Friendship’s breakfast hall. In 1928 De Mond created a corporation and allocated 100 shares to each member, made prominent members directors and gave others blocks of shares.

The press had taken notice and, in March 1927, the Warner Brothers’ radio station, KFWB, began broadcasting the weekly programs, many of them nationwide, on a sustaining (nonpaid) basis. Before long, the LABC had become a cornerstone of the city’s civic and social life. The scope of those attracted to the Democracy of Ham & Eggs boggles the mind, but here are a few of the celebrated personalities and those prominent in business, entertainment, sports, science and the arts—from LA to New York City and in between—and from all corners of the world, who put the Club on the map: Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, Babe Ruth, Bebe Daniels, Boys Town founder Father Flanagan, Sophie Tucker, Governor-elect Earl Warren, Billy Graham and Claire Booth Luce; Fathema Ismael, woman founder Society for Rehabilitation of Crippled Children in Bombay; Olympic swimming champion, Duke Kahanamoku; Sister Elizabeth Kenny, polio treatment originator; and Jeff Davis, self-proclaimed King of the Hobos. Story has it that when Amelia Earhart showed up for the First National Women’s Air Derby she made an extravagant arrival by landing her plane in the nearby Los Angeles River.

But the Club was also renowned for its range of enlightening and entertaining weekly talks given by prestigious educators, comedian scientists, literary figures and public officials.

Early rituals, like the wiggly, “flip-the-eggs” handshake, the singing of the “Sea, Sea, Sea” ditty (a sea shanty? really?) and a rambunctious recitation of the famed cryptogram, remain to this day.

FVNEM? (Have we any ham?)
SVFM (Yes we have ham)
FVNEX? (Have we any eggs?)
SVFX (Yes we have eggs)
OICVFMNX! (Oh, I see we have ham and eggs!)

The goofy membership ceremony involves being blindfolded and sitting on Ham, a colorful wooden hodgepodge of a hobbyhorse and placing one’s hand on a plate of sunny-side up eggs.

Antics and Club lore abound. When a crowd of over 1,500 attended the visit of former President Calvin Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge, the legendary Will Rogers accepted a $100 bet that he couldn’t get a laugh from the sullen-faced president. After greeting the president he took a step, turned back and said, “What was your name again?” And Rogers was $100 richer than when he showed up that morning. On one headline-grabbing occasion, newspaper tycoons and staunch enemies Harry Chandler and William Randolph Hearst smiled and shook hands, personifying one of the Club’s golden rules, to bury the hatchet. On another occasion, Clark Gable, who’d just had his tonsils removed and suffered a raspy voice, declined to speak when first asked. But the crowds’ pleas continued and he finally stepped up to the mic: “I got here to be called a ham,” he said, “but it wasn’t the first time, so I guess everybody’s got the lowdown on me now.”

The Breakfast Club, wrote Link in his booklet, is “Not a church, Not a Lodge, Not a Service Club, but…The Shrine of Friendship…The Story of the Club of Hospitality, the Democracy of Ham & Eggs, where everybody knows everybody, and everybody is just a ‘Ham’ or an ‘Egg’, hailing each other on Wednesday mornings with the Grand Salute: ‘Hello, Ham!’ and ‘Hello, Egg!’” True to this sentiment, then, as now, pretension, politics and religion were left at the door.

But as with any organization, there’s bound to be a spot of bother. Financial troubles arose with the sudden death, in 1931, of Maurice De Mond, when “The Directors learned with a shock,” wrote Link, “that…the controlling percentage of the issued stock…rested in the De Mond estate”…and “there was a total indebtedness of $83,000.” The Club struggled with the ensuing financial issues during which time Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle was made president and attendance picked up. Eventually, though, the Club was forced to leave the Pavilion of Friendship for an interim location, and it was not until four years later that all was resolved.

In December 1933, with the Club’s very existence at stake, the directors remained committed to keeping it going, and Club manager Harold Link approached Ambassador Hotel Manager Ben Frank who allocated the Fiesta Room for the group’s meetings. With no rent to pay and minimal expenses, profits accumulated. The Club was granted nonprofit status in January 1934, and a new clubhouse became reality; a tract of land along the Los Angeles River on Los Feliz Boulevard that provided the horsemen convenient access to Griffith Park was purchased.

Additional monies came from a mortgage fund, life members and building certificates and by summer 1937, $50,000 had been raised. With “Al Levy serving a delicious (50 cent!!!) chicken picnic lunch,” wrote Link, “a cornerstone ceremony was held on Saturday, September 18, 1937.”

Work proceeded quickly on the new clubhouse, which included a breakfast hall and stage, a spacious lounge, kitchen, bar and pool. Items from the May Company, purchased at a members’ sale, completed the furnishings. And so, on Tournament of Roses morning, December 29, 1937, hundreds attended the grand opening.

But with economic changes hard times came again. The site was sold in the early 1960s and the money used to build the current clubhouse at 3201 Riverside Drive (the original site), just south of the Crystal Springs Drive entrance to Griffith Park. The new Shrine of Friendship was dedicated on Wednesday, November 3, 1965.

During the late 1950s, membership and attendance began to wane. While women had always been welcomed and often honored, it wasn’t until 1978 that they were accepted as members and it was 1989 before the first woman president was installed. But people’s lives got busier, the city’s pace quickened, younger people drifted away and membership aged. Eventually, the Club, which once drew 600 and more, was down to a faithful few and again in danger of disappearing.

Fate intervened when actress Lily Holleman arrived in 2013. She was hooked “from the moment I was greeted with ‘Good morning! Welcome to the Breakfast Club! …The sense of community and sense of place is quite real.” Holleman’s youthful energy and commitment apparent, she was invited to become its president. It was, she says, “a kind of emergency takeover,” as the former president and the board chair were eager to step down. She incrementally introduced social media and bolstered the guest speaker roster, efforts that succeeded in a continuing increase in membership and attendance.

The Club’s long tradition of civic responsibility and giving back to the community continues.  Rex Link, son of founding member Harold Link, recalls one of his earliest memories—watching Freddy Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney handing out Christmas gifts to needy children. According to Bob De Wees, the LABC Foundation’s president, the organization currently allocates about $50,000 annually to organizations as diverse as the Griffith Observatory, Glendale Salvation Army, Project Angel Food and the Braille Institute.

The LABC remains an institution rooted in friendship and sportsmanship, its history inextricably linked to a city that for decades embraced its home-spun zaniness and the glitter of those it attracted. And Los Angeles is once again taking notice. “The tone of the Club is responding now in a way it didn’t during its near demise and has recaptured the original tone of the Breakfast Club,” says Phil Leirness, board member and vice president of the Los Angeles Breakfast Club Foundation. Leirness also produces and hosts “Breakfast Club on the Air” podcasts, a merry mix of vintage broadcasts, music, current goings-on and engaging speakers.

Doors open at 6:30am. Inside Friendship Auditorium a large screen flickers with vintage images of long-ago breakfasts and other blasts from the past. Despite the near crack-of-dawn hour, everyone smiles and extends a hearty welcome; at the generous breakfast buffet friendly folks exchange the ritual “Good Morning Ham,” “Good Morning Egg.” Perhaps old-fashioned to some, the Club’s weekly program “Restores us to basic truth and disregards the pretentiousness of life,” says music director Don Snyder.

At 7:30 am Snyder plays “Hail to the Chief” and Holleman leads the Pledge of Allegiance and a sing-along of “American the Beautiful,” or other patriotic song and a vintage oldie. A few non-invasive exercises and a table-thumping rendition of “Ham an’ Eggs” rouses any remaining sleepyheads.

Ham and eggs,
Ham and eggs,
I like mind fried good and brown,
I like mind fried upside down,
Ham and eggs,
Ham and eggs,
Flip ‘em, flop ‘em,
Flop ‘em, flip ‘em,
Ham and eggs!

The room thrums with gaiety and chatter. The Democracy of Ham & Eggs is alive and kicking!

The Roosters, a handful of “trouble-makers” said to have been established by Will Rogers, call out heckles du jour. Reverend Barbara Adams shares thoughtful items in her ongoing “Adventures in Friendship.” In a kind of mid-morning stretch, everyone lines up, sort-of, to exchange the ritual handshake and wend their way to the greet those at the speaker’s table.

In a light-toned jacket and sporting his ham an’ eggs tie and a rakishly tilted cap, the octogenarian Master of Ceremonies Richard Gilson is the personification of a favorite uncle.

With a wry smile and twinkle in his eye, he merrily stumbles through names and announcements in a slow, halting stammer reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart.

As in the past, guest speakers are a draw. Recent among them are American Film Institute President Jean Picker Firstenberg, LA District 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, and…wait for it…Candace Frazee and husband Steve Lubanski, owners of The Bunny Museum, which holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest bunny collection—23,000 items strong and growing!

Into LABC’s Pavilion of Friendship have walked persons of all stripes, colors, backgrounds and religions. They called each other Ham or Egg, recited the FVNEM cryptogram, reveled in assorted shenanigans and broke bread together

In a city known for tossing out the old and exalting the new, the LABC’s 93-year-old history speaks to an enduring permanence of friendship and community of spirit. Times will change, but it is to be hoped that The Shrine of Friendship, The Temple of Sentiment and Idealism where real people meet every Wednesday morning to get to know one another and start the day right, will be around in the decades to come.

Listen to the breakfast bell,
It’s calling you and me,
Calling us to ham and eggs,
A breakfast jubilee!

~Mary Proteau

 

About the author
For many years freelance writer Mary Proteau was involved in the development and production of television and film projects in New York and Los Angeles. She has traveled extensively and lived and worked in London and Rome. She wrote and produced City Lights, a local television program that hosted guests that included Heal the Bay’s founder, the late Dorothy Green; Julia S. Russell, founder of Eco-Home Network, whose 1913 Los Feliz home was the first environmental demonstration residence in California; and Lois Arkin, who established Los Angeles Eco-Village, the first intentional urban community in the country.
Proteau also wrote and co-produced Going Green–Every Home an Eco-Home, broadcast on PBS and wrote and produced a video on Big Sur’s award-winning Post Ranch Inn, one of the most environmentally distinctive lodgings in the world.
Lastly, Mary is one of FoGP’s many volunteers/avid supporters who’s been willing to jump in, whatever the project.

Photos from top left: Friendship Hall breakfast at 3213 Riverside Dr., 1930 (LFIA archives), actor Joe E. Brown on “Ham,” Ambassador Hotel Poster announces the temporary site of the LABC breakfast, Los Feliz LABC building, legendary race horse, Seabiscuit, and the Los Angeles Breakfast Club’s famous cryptogram.
Bottom from left: Amelia Earhart (fourth from right), movie moguls Carl Laemmle (left) and Sid Grauman (far right), baseball great, Joe DiMaggio, actor Ed Wynn, LA Times’ Harry Chandler and LA Herald Examiner’s William Hearst.
Photos on side: Exterior of Friendship Hall, Shrine of Friendship tile on front, recent induction of new member, Lily Holleman leading the reading of the cryptogram.
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