Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation Cafe
Culver City was in its infancy when the Volstead Act spelled "Prohibition" in 1919. The city, incorporated just two years prior, was rapidly becoming the Heart of Screenland, with three major studios, all situated along Washington Boulevard. There were also several small studios like the architecturally distinct "Willat Studio." Culver City was fertile ground for the entertainment of the movie crowd, and everyone else.
Perhaps the best-known nightclub was Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, originally known as The Green Mill. Sebastian was already experienced in the entertainment business before he came to Culver City. In his book "Out With the Stars, Hollywood Nightlife in the Golden Era," historian Jim Heimann mentions the already successful Sebastian's Café on Windward Avenue in Venice.
Sebastian's customers enjoyed "Las Vegas type" acts at his "Cotton Club" on Washington Boulevard at National. It offered valet parking, three dance floors, and full orchestras, rivaling the club of the same name in New York. Louis Armstrong played at Sebastian's Cotton Club, and in fact, lived on Wade Street in Culver City, in the 1920s. Early residents Clarita Marquez Young and Charles R. Lugo, identified the house years ago. The current homeowners have county records showing Armstrong as its first owner, in 1923.
In the April 7, 1999 edition of the International Herald Tribune, there was a fascinating interview of Lionel Hampton, who had just concluded a week playing drums in the Meridien Hotel at Porte Maillot. In the article, Hampton acknowledged that he started out at the age of 18, in 1926 at the Cotton Club in Culver City, California, with Les Hite. Hampton remembered Sebastian being tired of his old band after a few years, so he brought in Louis Armstrong to front Les Hite. Hampton recalled Sebastian's introduction of Armstrong and Hampton as "The world's greatest trumpet player, Louis Armstrong, with the world's fastest drummer, Lionel Hampton."
Next to Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's Plantation Café was probably the next best known night spot in Culver City. Arbuckle established his nightclub on Washington Boulevard, across from La Ballona School, which Arbuckle attended as a child. The name of the club was spelled out in flowers in its heyday.
According to local lore, the Plantation Café was built by Contractor Dan Coombs in 28 days. Coombs, one of the first trustees of the city, was challenged to build the structure in a month, a challenge he met successfully.
Who was "Fatty" Arbuckle? Roscoe Arbuckle was a comic actor, director, and screenwriter, who was born in 1887 in Smith Center, Kansas. He began his work life as a plumber's assistant, then he transitioned into performing in carnivals and vaudeville. In The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz, he is referred to as "baby-faced and amazingly agile for his heavy frame," which was reported to be 300 plus pounds. His film career began as an extra in 1908. In 1913, Arbuckle joined Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops, which led to a series of short comedies, with stars like Charlie Chaplin. Arbuckle's screenwriting and directing began in 1916, and the following year be formed his own production company and gave Buster Keaton his start.
In 1921, at the height of his popularity, "Fatty" Arbuckle's career was destroyed by scandal. Arbuckle opened the Plantation Café in 1928 with design help from MGM's noted art director, Cedric Gibbons. On opening night, Fatty Arbuckle performed a comedy routine for his peers in the film world, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Tom Mix. The Plantation Café went under with the crash of the stock market. Fatty Arbuckle died in 1933 at the age of 46, never able to accomplish his planned comeback.
Although Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club and Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation were the most famous of our local nightspots, there were many others in Culver City. Most were located along Washington Boulevard. The Green Mill (precursor to The Cotton Club), King's Tropical Inn (5935 Washington), The Hot Spot Café (near the creek), Barton's, Ford's Castle, Moonlite Gardens, The Hoosegow, Casa Mañana, Frank's Bar and Grill (across from RKO) were all well attended. Kirk Kerkorian's parents owned a bar at the East End, at Adams. Kerkorian and his boxing champ brother Nish, fought frequently at Sy Saenz's Boxing Arena. Two sisters, Gladys and "Babe", who were married to local firemen, owned the Hot Spot at one time. It was known as "Gladys' Hot Spot," where gangster Mickey Cohen was spotted.