For Marty & Elayne, with love and rage
Like Taix, the Dresden Room is a coral reef, filled with little darting creatures of the night, all sharing the gentle currents of a space made of music and friendship. Such places must be preserved.
Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, now offering digital programming until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love.
Tuesday night, after seeing a post from Marty & Elayne’s daughter on Facebook, we shared the sad news that jazz musician, fashion plate and sweetheart Marty Roberts had died, aged 89.
For anyone lucky enough to experience the Marty & Elayne show—which ran five or six nights a week for just shy of four decades in Los Feliz’ Dresden Room (established 1946)—it was a gut punch. There was nothing else like these two, and they were a perfect instance of the authentic Los Angeles culture we fight to protect through our historic preservation advocacy.
Here’s why. When Marty & Elayne started performing in the south room of the Dresden in 1981, Vermont Avenue between Hollywood and Franklin was a sleepy, slightly gritty commercial district with a Little Italy vibe, serving well the needs of the local residential community and hospital district.
A glance over a 1987 city directory shows a useful and appealing mix of watch repair shops, tailors, bookstores (including William Koki Iwamoto’s Chatterton’s, which became Skylight), the Los Feliz cinema with its art films and gay-friendly fare, beauty and surgical supply shops, locksmiths, health foods, a sari shop, sewing supplies, House of Pies (a Charles Bukowski haunt), the post office, and red sauce Italian joints Luigi's, the tragic Caffe Dell' Opera and Palermo clustered around the famous Sarno bakery (1946-2000). One could spend an interesting day just wandering up or down Vermont.
And while the name suggested otherwise, the Dresden Room was Italian-run, too, a compact booth-style Continental restaurant and piano bar that became, with Marty & Elayne’s musical residency, a destination.
When you first walked into the Dresden, affable Marty would look up from the drums and take your measure, learning your name and favorite song. Anyone with the nerve to lean against the rail and belt one out could sing with the duo. After decades on the cocktail lounge circuit, from Honolulu to Palm Springs to Lake Tahoe, Marty & Elayne—she was the headlining “Elizabeth Taylor of the piano” and Marty Nathan took the name Roberts, too, when they became a duo— were effortlessly, contagiously cool, in a way that elevated every person in the room.
These sweet, grown-up jazzbos showed how doing what you loved with your best friend could bring people of different backgrounds, generations and musical skill together to share in a meal, a cocktail—the Valentino-inspired Blood & Sand is the house specialty—some laughs and a song.
There were no strangers there. The organic community that thrived in that room welcomed Midwestern transplants like actor Vince Vaughn to feel like Angelenos, and inspired the screenplay for Swingers, which brought the neighborhood’s friendly retro culture and Marty & Elayne’s show to the world.
And it would never have happened without the Dresden. Here was a mid-block, family owned bar-restaurant decorated in a style that had briefly been smart, but in those pre-Swingers years looked hopelessly old fashioned. There was plenty of parking in the back, and while the room was usually packed, nobody got turned away.
It should go without saying, but soul-satisfying spaces like this need to be protected from development and displacement, and their continued success made a priority in City Hall. Angelenos have been coming together to enjoy themselves at the Dresden for 76 years, creating a palpable, healing energy woven of memory, pleasure, comfort and care. Have a look at the comments on Marty’s obituary on the industry website Deadline and you’ll find regulars pouring their hearts out.
You won’t find an act like Marty & Elayne’s in many places, and certainly not in the brand new, trendy bar of a brand new, trendy hotel. The Dresden crowd wouldn’t feel welcome in that kind of environment, either. You need older venues in uncool neighborhoods with independent owners willing to take a chance on an act if you want organic art scenes to grow—and we do.
The Roberts family says there will be a memorial for Marty at the Dresden Room at some future date, streaming live so all can attend. We’ll share the details when we know them. Even if you never were a regular, you belong and are welcome, and we’ll see you there.
With or without Marty & Elayne, the Dresden is a special venue still in the care of the Ferraro family that has owned and operated it since 1954. (The family created a fundraiser to help Elayne navigate the loss of her husband and musical partner.)
What a troubling contrast it was to learn of Marty’s death just hours after City Council’s PLUM Committee reheard the matter of landmarking Taix French Restaurant, due to a court challenge over Brown Act violations that disenfranchised the public.
Like the Dresden just two and a half miles away, Taix (est. 1927) is a pedestrian-friendly, multi-generational family business featuring a bar, Continental dining room, performance space and convenient parking, and it’s as treasured by Echo Park locals as the Dresden is in Los Feliz.
But that’s where the similarities end. Hands off owner Mike Taix first relocated to Utah, then sold the building and parking lot in an off market transaction to a billionaire out-of-state developer who aims to demolish it for an ugly box.
Developer Clyde Holland and Mike Taix both claim that a brand new, miniature version of Taix will be opened in one of the new buildings—you can see wee signs above the red awning—but during public hearings before the Cultural Heritage Commission, Mike Taix sounded exhausted by the prospect of relaunching what he described as a failing business.
The proposed project could be slowed or changes required to the design if Taix was declared a city landmark. So some time after the nomination by local preservation non-profit Silver Lake Heritage Trust successfully cleared the Cultural Heritage Commission, councilman Mitch O’Farrell stepped in to help... no, silly, not the community members. He was there for the Washington state developer. His constituents SLHT couldn’t even get a meeting with a council deputy!
At PLUM on Tuesday, after enduring comments by many concerned Angelenos, the five committee members didn’t even pretend to care. Without discussion, they passed O’Farrell’s amended “landmarking” nomination, which cynically calls for the salvage of a few pieces of junk off the building before “landmark” Taix is demolished.
In this town, what a councilman wants, he gets. Next it’s on to full City Council, where we expect it to be unanimously passed “on consent” with no chance for any additional public comment.
So that was blue Tuesday.
It is really sad to lose Marty Roberts and realize we’ll never again be able to slip into the Dresden on a rainy night and be carried away on the beat of those two lovebirds. But that’s a sadness tinged with gratitude for having had this experience, along with countless friends and strangers—though of course there were no strangers there. Losing Marty was the least sad thing that happened on Tuesday.
Because somewhere out there, maybe still in grade school, there’s a kid who plays the piano like they were born to do it, and another kid who swings on the drums or the bass. They’re bound to find each other, and when they do, it would behoove us all for there to be Dresden Rooms and Taix lounges and other authentic, accessible spots where they can find a groove and their life’s calling. It should go without saying, but for some unknown reason, Mitch O’Farrell can’t say it. Oh hell, it’s no mystery. It’s because he loves donor money more than he loves Los Angeles.
That’s his problem, and sadly it is also ours. We have to get much better people into City Hall, and limit the powers that corruptable politicians have over land use and landmarking decisions. Until then, we have to fight like wildcats to protect the places that matter. That’s the theme of Sunday’s webinar, It’s Up To Angelenos To Save Los Angeles: Here’s How, which you can watch live at 4pm or later on-demand.
If you love Taix and would like to see it stick around long enough to be sold to a local operator who believes in it, and for any new development to be appropriate for the site and respectful of the landmark (like is happening around Dinah’s on the west side), throw a little something into the legal defense kitty.
At the end of a bittersweet week, we’ll let Elayne have the last word, in a generous interview she gave to KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis, about making music and a life with her beloved Marty, and her immediate plans, which are to stop crying, because that’s what he would want. Thanks for everything, Marty. It was wonderful.
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—On Chicago Street in Boyle Heights, if you stand very still and wish very hard, it's still 1895—is a virtual tour of the time capsule wooden church where Occidental College was founded, featuring stained glass windows worth shouting about.
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