Thursday, May 3, 2012

Coordinates: Santa Monica Blvd and Formosa Ave

ON THE southeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Ave there a neon green sign glows out of the darkness that surrounds.  This intersection is unusually dark for a Hollywood intersection, unusually vacant.  Quiet, even.  Or maybe I am just too fixated on the neon cursive the sad-looking reddish lobster painted awkwardly at it's side.  The nights is cold.  I am wearing a vintage coat by Dolce and Gabana and feeling very Los Angeles.

Underneath the Fromosa Café there is--very luckily--a vast parking lot, flourecently lit, mostly empty.  There are so many parking spots to choose from, it is almost eerie... like a mouth smiling without teeth.

At the front entrance, beneath a brown and white striped awning, I expect to be met my a door man, I expect a guest list or a reservation requirement or a secret password that I don't know.  But there are none of these barriers--I walk right in, unnoticed, and join the already-tipsy crowd beneath dim, rust-colored light.

The walls are painted a rich, maraschino red, and on them hang rows upon rows of black and white photographs--photographs of old Hollywood stars who once drank and dined within these very walls.  The whole place is a shrine for the creatures of talent who once roamed the streets, a nostalgic trip to a place of long lost charm.  There is almost a sadness about the cafe, as if mourning the loss of something remarkable that cannot be retrieved.  It makes me think of Joni Mitchel's lyric: "We can't return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game." The Formosa Cafe seems to acknowledge this reality, taking great advantage of the fact that we CAN look back to where we came from (i.e the past) by showing us joy and melancholy in the black eyes of Marilyn Monroe...hoping that maybe her presence will stay with us if we plaster her photo enough places.

The original owner, Jimmy Bernstein, originally operated the Formosa Cafe out of a red car trolley in 1925! Because Jimmy originally set up shop directly next to the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, Hollywood's elite quickly took to it as a nightly hangout.  For generations, movie stars have been drawn to the Formosa Cafe despite its quirky, unremarkable set-up.  Although the Formosa does not look like it is bursting with money and fame, there is an inherent sense of glamour built into the walls, stitched into the is almost as if the essence of it's classy guests has lingered.  Either that or it was built already having a beacon of decadence and wonder.

The Formosa Cafe is filled with legends.  Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable were known to dine and drink there on a regular basis.  Frank Sinatra hung around in the 1950s, supposedly watching Ava Gardner from afar, longing to have her.

Inside the cafe, as well as all over the internet, one can find a list of over 50 celebrity patrons ranging from the 1920s to 2012, that include everyone from Marlon Brando to Britney Spears.  What people do not talk about, however, is the equally strong history of drug dealing and prostitution, as the corner of Santa Monica and Formosa is not a particularly fancy one. In fact, prostitutes could be seen even during the day until 2004 when the West Hollywood Gateway shopping complex opened on the same block, ushering away the lower class.

Interesting, though, that for so long movie stars, drug dealers and prostitutes could coexist at the same corner bar.  For this reason, the Formosa Cafe is the ultimate Los Angeles spot, bringing all that is glittery and all that is filthy together in one city, all that is fortunate and all that is downtrodden, constantly blurring the lines between the two.

-- Zahra Lipson
photo via flickr creative commons

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