A tall, neon approximation of Dean Martin's face once radiated a mysterious ambiance down on the Sunset Strip. The sign could be spotted in episodes of Dragnet, the Billy Wilder film Kiss Me Stupid and even an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Much of the time it was treated as if it were just a typical building facade that fictional characters would drive past without comment. But today, to see a giant neon Dean Martin face makes one arch an eyebrow. What in Lord's name is that!?
Dino's Lodge was a real-life Los Angeles restaurant that lasted twenty years. It is primarily remembered by fans of the television series 77 Sunset Strip. Ed Byrnes played the pseudo-hipster character Kookie, a kid working as a valet at Dino's Lodge, which was a neighbor to the private eye headquarters of the program's protagonists. When Dino's Lodge first opened it was a happening nightspot frequented by the Hollywood elite. When 77 Sunset Strip made it famous to television viewers, it descended into a tourist trap and was abandoned by its celebrity clientele. By the early seventies, this restaurant that had once hosted parties for Frank Sinatra, was part of a cornball travel agency package that advertised a two-hundred and forty-dollar "guided tour of a motion picture studio, a full day at Disneyland and dinner at Dino's Lodge."
From the very beginning the weird looking sign was one of Hollywood's campiest icons. "Dino's Lodge was immensely popular," says Shawn Levy, "serving home-style Italian food and grilled entrees in a wood-paneled atmosphere meant to replicate the great roue's den." Behind those wood-panels, however, hides a story of mismanagement, lawsuits and vindictive Jerry Lewis spite. The project, in the words of Dean Martin himself, was one of "total regret."
The address of 8532 Sunset had been home to an auction house in the nineteen forties, one that specialized in wooden furniture. Although it was a swinging place as far as Hollywood geriatrics were concerned, it was not on the radar of the Brown Derby set. By the early fifties the space had been renamed, remodeled and opened as a dining spot called the Alpine Lodge. The family restaurant had a loosely defined wooden shoe concept and was not particularly successful. Described as "an attractive Swiss restaurant which fell on hard times," the owners soon dropped the word Alpine in place of the name Dino, while leaving much of its decor intact.
Los Angeles business owners Alex Wexler, Paul Wexler and Harvey Gerry owned the Alpine. Paul Wexler approached Dean Martin and his business partner Maury Samuels with the proposition of using his name in order to save his floundering business. Dean agreed, and he was soon a co-partner in Alpine Lodge Inc. Dino's Lodge had its grand opening in the spring of 1958. When the strange sketch that became the memorable sign was raised to the sky, its base cemented to the ground and the switch turned on, most assumed this meant it was Dean Martin's restaurant. Of course, this is exactly what the owners of the former Alpine wanted. "Contrary to report," explained an April 1958 edition of the Los Angeles Times, "Dean Martin does not own the restaurant on the Strip ... They just use his name and give him a percentage." It was a large percentage. Fifty percent.
Dean frequented the restaurant during its first year. It was initially very popular with major Hollywood stars. The Vincent Minnelli film Some Came Running starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine, had its star-studded post-premiere party at Dino's Lodge. It was one of many such events during the first sixteen months. Dino's Lodge was hot. The view was great, people loved their strawberry melbas and the joint was open until five in the morning. It was soon "serving an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 am. Steak sandwiches and eggs served in any fashion by candlelight."
77 Sunset Strip joined forces with Dino's Lodge in a collective agreement that was hoped to reap mutual benefits. Dino's had become one of the most iconic signs along the Strip's already colorful allotment of venues. Warner Brothers television, having placed their new series in the neighborhood, wanted a feel of authenticity. Shots of the sign were used in the opening credits sequence and in many of the establishing shots. A mile away at the Warner Brothers studio, an exact facsimile of Dino's front door, abridging canopy, and parking lot entrance were constructed. The collaboration may or may not have helped 77 Sunset Strip become a hit, but it unquestionably served as an infomercial for Dino's Lodge, making it one of the most popular destinations in Los Angeles.
Thanks to Kookie's weekly endorsement, Dino's Lodge was thriving. Martin was increasingly enthusiastic about the venture. August of 1959, Dean re-negotiated his contract so that his brother Bill could have a job. It was arranged that in order for Dino's to remain Dino's, Bill Martin would be appointed general manager and Dean would receive an additional thousand dollars a month for the continued use of his nickname and neon face. In October Dean was a guest star on a Frank Sinatra special. He appeared on camera seated, his legs crossed, the bottom of his shoe tilted up. Plastered on the sole were the words "Eat at Dino's" and the familiar caricature. Dean and Maury Samuels made plans to branch out. They decided on new Lodge franchises in San Francisco, Miami Beach and Palm Springs. Meanwhile, 77 Sunset Strip aired an episode with special guest star Jim Backus and named his character Maury Samuels. Business was booming for the whole Sunset neighborhood. "It was pretty cool going to dinner at a restaurant Dad owned," says Martin's daughter Deana. "We didn't go there often because it attracted too many fans and Dad would spend the entire evening signing autographs and posing for photographs."
Dino's Lodge became a showcase for sultry female lounge singers, some that were also B-movie starlets, the majority of which nobody had ever heard of. Most would never be heard from again.1 Dino's Lodge could take such risks, as people were drawn to that neon sign, not the acts within. Even Gigi Galon, a CBS Television secretary was thrown onstage for a weekend of ballads. There appeared to be a strict "girl singer only" policy so that no poor masculine sap would be compared to the venue's patriarch. Years later, one of the obscure girl singers landed Lodge co-owner Paul Wexler in court. Michelle Triola was hired to sing at Dino's Lodge in the early sixties on the pretense that, "She had friends that would spend money and Lee Marvin was her boyfriend." In the late seventies when Lee Marvin was divorcing the woman, she fought for half the actor's earnings. Reports at the time explained, "she has contended she gave up her singing career to take care of Marvin and help him in his career." Marvin's defense brought in Wexler, among others, to testify that she had no talent, would never have made it as a singer and therefore was not entitled to anything.
Wexler was embroiled in another Dino's-related court case years earlier. August 29, 1961, Dean filed a lawsuit against Wexler and the other principle players "charging mismanagement and fraud in the operation." The Associated Press said, "In one complaint Martin asked the court yesterday to order disolution of Dino's Lodge, Inc., charging three of his partners, Paul Wexler, Harvey L. Gerry and Alex Wexler wasted the corporation's assets and abused authority. In the other complaint Martin demanded $24,000 under an agreement which he said he was promised $12,000 a year beginning in August 1959. Martin said he has received nothing from the corporation." January 1962, the court denied a petition "for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Sunset Strip restaurant from using his nickname, likeness and caricature." Superior Judge Gordon L. Files ruled "Dino's Lodge was entitled to use of the entertainer's nickname and likeness because of previous long use [and because] Martin had made personal appearances and actively participated in the management and control of the restaurant for more than two years." Dino was asking for one-hundred thousand dollars in damages "on grounds he has not been paid a monthly salary of $1,000 since July 31, that the contract has been broken; and that his brother, William Martin has been discharged as general manager." Dean fumed on the courthouse steps. "Any actor who opens a restaurant should have his head examined!"
Jerry Lewis should have had his head examined. October 15, 1961, Jerry Lewis threw a wad of cash in the lap of Maury Samuels, after Maury and Dean had engaged in a bitter, undisclosed disagreement. Maury left Dean Martin immediately. He became business partners with Jerry Lewis in the creation of a jealousy-laden new eatery called Jerry's. A caricature of Jerry Lewis was turned into the restaurant's sign, towering high above the Sunset Strip, three blocks from Dino's Lodge. Not to be outdone by the iconic Dino's sign, Jerry had his caricature mounted "in neon lights revolving 100 feet above the building." The menu at Jerry's was supposedly going to be in stark contrast with his competitor. Dino's Lodge was known for its overpriced Italian dishes. Jerry's, it was announced, would be "specializing in American and Hebrew viands." Why then did Jerry Lewis take another wad of cash and wave it in front of Dino's head chef Rene Robbin? Likewise, another chef named Rafael Shapiro, a taskmaster in the Dino's Lodge kitchen, was subsequently stolen. The raid was complete when Jerry took the maitre'd from Dino's Lodge, an Italian man named Luigi, who'd soon be welcoming folks to an evening of "Hebrew viands."
Despite Lewis having copied his ex-partner's restaurant in location, staff, sign and concept, it differed in one major respect. Ric Martin says that, "Dad seldom if ever ate at Dino's." Shawn Levy explains that "Jerry Lewis's was a different sort of operation altogether ... it was an extremely hands-on enterprise. If Jerry was in town, he was a good bet to be at the restaurant, table-hopping and schmoozing like a Borscht Belt hotelier. In contrast to the understated masculinity of Dino's Lodge, Jerry Lewis's was a study in gaudy textures - dark walnut paneling, silver and purple highlights, heavy drapes, huge chandeliers, deep banquettes and plush armchairs. The two massive sets of double doors that led into the place bore silver handles in the shapes of Js and Ls. The gigantic menus (ten by twenty inches closed) were covered in black velvet and embossed with grandiose silver JL logo on the front." Dino's Lodge had the initial purpose of keeping its two separate entities financially solvent. Jerry's on the other hand was borne of insecurity, petty jealousy and total narcissism. "Each elegant touch [of Jerry's]," says Levy, "was undercut by a vulgar one: In the largest of the three dining rooms, a long curved window revealed Los Angeles beneath the Hollywood Hills, but the same room sported a large framed stained-glass composition of Jerry as a hobo clown."
By February 1962 Dean Martin had had enough. He pulled out of Dino's Lodge and severed all his ties with the venue. He continued to draft plans with his attorney for "a possible appeal of a lost court action which permits present owners to continue use of his name over the restaurant." Variety said his image remaining as the establishment's trademark was "an irksome prospect to the singer-actor who wants to erase all memories of the place." Another column explained "that as a mere actor and an entertainer ... the attention he received from fans was for autographs and pictures, but as a restaurateur 2 he got only snide notes, bouncy checks, insults and threats from inebriated customers." Dean's kids still watched 77 Sunset Strip at home. The singer would join his children, with a noticeable grimace on his face. "We would sit and watch the program at home as a family," says his daughter Deanna, "and we enjoyed seeing Dad's face on the marquee ... but, sadly, the entire venture ended badly ... lost the fight to have Dad's name removed from the marquee. And so it stayed for years afterward ... we never went there again."
February 1963 - Jerry's was in trouble. The trade papers reported that Lewis was trying to sell his diner of spite. Jerry's was said to be "in the red for a quarter of a million dollars or more." The comedian's interest had waned almost completely, especially since Dino had left the food industry. A restaurant founded on jealousy lost its way with nothing to be jealous about. Longtime Angeleno Mark Evanier further surmised that Dino's Lodge outlasted Jerry's because "Dean Martin's name suggested a classy evening of good Italian food and wine, whereas Jerry's implied an evening of food being thrown at you by loud waiters." But on one occasion the waiters at Dino's Lodge caused a much louder ruckus. Sometimes it was as if Dino's Lodge was suffering from some kind of curse.
Waiter Walkout Stuns Diners at Plush Eatery
The tinkle of cocktail glasses... the aroma of fine food... murmurs of sophisticated conversation...waiters dressed smartly in black pants and red jackets with gold buttons... This mood of genteel elegance pervaded Dino's Lodge on the Sunset Strip Saturday night.
And then the waiters got mad.
Connoisseurs who went to the plush restaurant at the dinner hour Saturday night found everything normal at first. "All of a sudden there were some very loud noises in one of the corners," said Travis Key, 21, of San Francisco, a patron. "They kept getting louder and louder." Key said a group of waiters had congregated and were talking in angry voices. "I heard a man on the telephone telling one of the owners that the waiters were going to walk out because a man who worked there six years had been fired," Key said. "Then one of the waiters walked over to our table and said, "We ought to charge entertainment tax for this show we're putting on."
Then the waiters quit.
Key, who was having dinner with his fiancee, actress Paula Costy, 19, said about 10 waiters and some bus boys went into a rear room, changed into street clothes, and walked out. "The maitre'd began waiting on tables," Key added. "Then a gentleman in a T-shirt came in and tried to help."
Some well-fed customers got tired of waiting for their checks and walked out, Key said. Paul Wexler, one of the restaurant owners of the restaurant which is named after singer Dean Martin, said later that normalcy soon was restored. He declined to discuss the waiters' walkout. But as waiters in black pants and red jackets with gold buttons bustled about the dimly lit restaurant, another owner, Harvey L. Gerry, confided: "Some of our old customers are helping us out."
- Art Berman, Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1963
Dino's Lodge continued to pulsate in popular culture. 77 Sunset Strip lasted another two seasons. A violent heist film, The Right Hand of the Devil, showcased Dino's Lodge, even casting two employees in bit parts.3 House pianist Jack Elton and bartender Luigi Gardneri were credited as "Dino's Pianist" and "Dino's Bartender" respectively. Ray Dennis Steckler's Wild Guitar had an opening sequence with a bemused Arch Hall Jr. staring at the sign. An officially sanctioned LP titled An Evening at Dino's Lodge was pressed with Jack Elton on piano and Steve LaFever4 on bass, which the Los Angeles Times described as "a dark album that really swings." The Andy Griffith Show brought Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea to Los Angeles for an episode where they briefly gawk at Dino's Lodge. The Northern Natural Gas Company used Dino's Lodge in an advertising campaign, bragging that the Dino's Lodge kitchen cooked with natural gas - implying that you should too.
By the late sixties, with the actual Dean Martin long out of the picture, the venue started booking male singers. There were forgotten men like Grant Griffin, Tony Colti, Barry O'Hara, Sol West and "a Dick Haymes soundalike" named Bob Mannings. Dino's Lodge lasted until the latter half of the nineteen seventies. It was a shadow of its former self, with none of the building updated for the times. Neighboring venues had evolved from fifties lounges to psychedelic dens and, eventually, nineteen seventies denizens of sleaze. Dino's Lodge faded. Shortly before it died altogether, they brought in the most intriguing singer they had ever booked.
Duke Mitchell was a singer that had been despised by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. During the height of Martin and Lewis mania, Mitchell was part of a terrible Martin and Lewis knock-off named Mitchell and Petrillo, known solely for their one film Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Both Mitchell and partner Sammy Petrillo bared an uncanny resemblance to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, so much so that Martin and Lewis once threatened legal action. "Mitchell and Petrillo have the same haircuts, expressions, gestures and even ancestries of Martin and Lewis," explained the Associated Press. What little success they enjoyed in the comedy world was due to the similarity. So here was Duke Mitchell - a washed up Dean Martin rip-off artist that both resembled and sang like Dean Martin, performing an entire weekend at a washed up venue that had Dean Martin's face on every menu, every candle holder, every ashtray - and his neon mug beaming high above the street and long into the night. The real Dean Martin... nowhere to be found.
1Girl singers that performed at Dino's Lodge included:
Bevery St. Lawrence
2Dean said actors investing in the restaurant biz should have their heads examined, but he still maintained brief soirees with the Dean Martin Restaurant and Lounge in Miami and a tiny cabaret in the Las Vegas Riviera called Dino's Den. As far as I know, the proposed Dino's Lodge in San Francisco and Palm Springs never came to be.
3Here is an IMDB user review for Right Hand of the Devil. "Three guys rob ticket seller at L.A. Sports Arena in a TR-3. Not enough room so one is shot by buddies. Pepe (Aram Katcher) kills other guy. Pepe picks up girlfriend (ticket seller) And pushes her over cliff in a convertible. (Fiery crash) Pepe loses all the money at races in South America, goes to Dino's on Sunset Blvd. and picks up old drunk lady. At motel drunk lady is old girlfriend. Throws wig and wooden leg at Pepe then shoots him a few times; the last one in his bald spot! Pepe wanders out and spends the last 5 minutes dying around a lamppost. Wow, what a movie!!!!"
4Steve LaFever was a member of "The Wrecking Crew," the nickname given to the prolific and proficient group of studio musicians that permeated every major pop album to come out of Los Angeles in the nineteen sixites, generally without credit.
Dino's Lodge was bulldozed to the ground in 1985. A non-descript office building was built in its place. The British paper The Telegraph was aghast when it reported in 2003 that it "doesn't even have a plaque to mark the spot."