You can always tell a first-timer at the Los Angeles Breakfast Club. They’re usually wide-eyed and bemused, and not just because it’s seven o’clock in the morning. On a Wednesday.
At the door of the Friendship Auditorium in Los Feliz, the cheery big-badged greeter offers a handshake with a “Hello, Ham!” (The correct response, in case you’re a newbie, is “Hello, Egg!”) Over the next couple of hours, you’ll sing the “Ham and Eggs” song and a sea chantey, you’ll groan through some morning stretches, you’ll listen to a fascinating lecture, and you’ll meet lots of people. Oh, and there’s a catered hot breakfast, too.
The nonpolitical, nonsectarian weekly club dates to the early 1920s, when a peckish equestrian in nearby Griffith Park arranged for a chuck wagon to meet him and his friends after their morning ride. A visitor from Chicago told a few tales over their breakfast, and local merchant Maurice DeMond suggested that everyone chip in the princely sum of $100 to make the get-together a regular occurrence.
They called their gathering place the Shrine of Friendship, meeting in several locations over the years, including a bar at the Ambassador Hotel, before opening a luxurious clubhouse in 1937. Hundreds of members crowded the communal tables: Edward Doheny, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Cecil B. DeMille, and other moguls, politicians, and celebrities were regulars. The lectures were broadcast on KFWB-AM. The club symbols include the Buried Hatchet and the Hand of Fellowship, famously represented in a 1930 photo of fierce newspaper rivals Harry Chandler and William Randolph Hearst shaking hands at a function.
The membership eventually grew more diverse, especially after women were admitted in the early 1980s. Take Kevin R. Cartwright, who works on church organs for a living and owns a vintage green bus called Priscilla, or one-man “orchestra” Don Snyder, who has been singing and playing the piano here for nearly 30 years. He reflects the strong entertainment industry presence, but a florist, a lawyer, an accountant, a dance teacher, and nurses are also among the ranks. I am not a morning person, but I’m a fan of the weird and wonderful, and the LABC sounded like something I had to see for myself; a couple of years ago, I joined (the 934th person to do so, according to my membership card).
“Our youngest member is 18; our oldest, in his 90s,” says club president Lily Holleman. An actor, she attended her first meeting in 2013 after seeing a photo of Red Skelton performing at the club in the 1950s. “Even though there were less than 10 people there,” she says, “it was love at first sight.”
After the clubhouse was sold in the early 1960s, the group moved to the Friendship Auditorium. Any stables were long gone by then, but equine motifs are still everywhere. Every week, the chair awards the golden horse statue to the table that best introduces new guests, while a rooster statuette graces the rowdy table led by Robert Nichols, the Grand Cockelorum.
Attendance was strong into the 1990s, but vaudeville stylings began to be seen as, well, behind the times, and morning traffic became unbearable. By 2015, there were calls to close the club, but Holleman jumped in as president in what she calls an emergency takeover. “I was confident there was a plethora of people out there that would love the club and that I could find them.”
Bringing back the bizarre and hilarious initiation ceremony, lost since the 1980s, was one of her first ideas. Sitting astride a colorful sawhorse named Ham, new members are blindfolded, take hold of Ham’s ropy tail, and place their hand down in a sunny-side-up egg while the president recites a made-to-measure vow for them to repeat.
Holleman and the reenergized board members have also created a greater social media presence, arranged more field trips, and brought in a wider range of speakers. One week, the subject might be the 3-D photography of Harold Lloyd or California food fads; another, the latest developments at JPL or a look at the lost airports of L.A. In 2016, Holleman persuaded her now-husband, Phil Leirness, to come along, and he pays tribute to the KFWB days by recording a club podcast called On the Air.
Membership is now closing in on 100 people, with nearly 60 attending every week—many of them in silly hats or vintage suits. There’s good reason Holleman describes the proceedings as “A Prairie Home Companion as directed by David Lynch.”
Learning the lingo takes some practice, but what else are you doing at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday?
James Bartlett wrote about taxidermist Tim Bovard for Alta, Winter 2020.
WANT TO VISIT?
Breakfast costs $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers; for more information, go to labreakfastclub.com.