The Legend of Hamburger Hamlet

Publishers Note: WEHOville is proud to welcome syndicated columnist Tony Rizzo to our family of resident contributors. Tony is the former Editor of Soap Set Magazine, and former West Coast editor of Soap Opera Digest. He currently writes weekly columns for the Hearst syndicate and is a resident of West Hollywood for over 40 years.

In 1941 Warner Brothers Studios signed a relatively unknown actor named Harry Lewis to a long term contract which led to a role in “Key Largo” with Humphrey Bogart, among many other films.

He and his wife Marilyn (Friedman), who designed fashions for movie stars and films under the name Cardinali, (particularly famously for Marlo Thomas and her “That Girl” series), had a dream to open a restaurant. In 1950 they invested their life savings of $3,500 to open a burger joint on the corner of Hilldale and Sunset. Harry wanted it to be a place actors could hang out, and knowing every actor’s dream is to play Hamlet…he named it Hamburger Hamlet.

Harry Lewis in Key Largo
Harry and Marilyn Lewis

Before he could say “To be or not to be” his “Hamlet” spread to 23 more locations in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Across Hilldale was the office of super agent, Beverly Hecht, who frequented “The Hamlet” across the street and before long was handling Harry Lewis as an actor. Among his most memorable roles was one in the epic Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza, “The Ten Commandments,” in 1956. But his greatest success was his little hamburger hangout.

In 1969 The Hamburger Hamlet went public and was thriving. Harry required all would-be waiters and staff to pass a 3 to 6 week schooling, (actually on La Peer and Burton Way), before becoming a Hamlet employee. There was a certain element of “The Harmonia Gardens” (in “Hello Dolly”) that made the staff go the extra mile to make people feel at home.

Harry and Marilyn Lewis

In the ‘90’s I personally “hung out” there on many Sundays and sitting in a nearby booth, was always treated to the vision of the fabulous Ester Williams who joined friends after they’d all been to church. Then there were the many nights Oscar winner Shirley Jones ate dinner there with her gang which included stepson David Cassidy, (at the height of their “Partridge Family” success) Shaun Cassidy, (then starring in “The Hardy Boys”), as well as Patrick and Ryan Cassidy.

But the most frequent actor/singer to “hang” at The Hamlet was Dean Martin, who lived on Mountain and Sunset. People were very respectful of his privacy, especially when he lost his son Dean Martin, Jr. (Dino), in a plane crash. After he split from his long time wife, Jeanne, in 1969, he ate at The Hamlet most nights. Once while I was walking by I saw him about to drive out of The Hamlet parking lot and snapped a picture of him. Other times I sat at the next table from Al Pacino, brunching with his daughter, interviewed Tab Hunter for a magazine and frequently dined with Jeanne Cooper, (of “The Young & The Restless” fame), her son Corbin Bernsen, (of “L.A. Law”), with his brother Collin and sister Karen.

Francis Davis at the Hamlet

Sadly, time being what it is, The Hamburger Hamlets began closing, one by one. It was a sad day when the Sunset/Doheny Road Hamlet closed. I often visited the last Hamburger Hamlet on Van Nuys Blvd., off Ventura Blvd. I thought they were going to make it work and they were even planning to open another one on the West Hollywood side of the hill, but they got into hot water after serving a minor liquor and were forced to close.

True to his vision, actors such as Dean Martin, singers such as Peggy Lee and legendary directors like Alfred Hitchcock became regulars. It was not surprising to enter The Tap Room and see Bette Davis chain smoking or Frank Sinatra meeting with his publicist. Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, Peter Falk and Rosemary Clooney all “hung” there. Once it was reported Lucille Ball was seen in the ladies room spraying her red hair. Immortal agent Swifty Lazar, who among his clients counted Cary Grant, Cher, Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart and even Madonna to name just a few, had a booth reserved just for him at all times, which even had a golden plaque proclaiming it “his” booth. In 1987 Harry and Marilyn Lewis sold their little hamburger joint to Koo Koo Roo for $29.2 million and opened “The Hamlet Garden” in Westwood and Kate Mantilini (on Wilshire Blvd. and Doheny), but that’s another story.

Dean Martin in the Hamlet
Dean Martin

The Hamlet continued to be the place for people to hang. But without Harry, Koo Koo Roo knew they needed something to replace his presence. Enter the former cover model and actress Francis Davis, former wife of jazz legend Miles Davis. She was one of the original cast of Broadway’s “West Side Story.” If you look on the original cast album you won’t find Frances Davis but you will find Elizabeth Taylor, which was her real name until she moved to Hollywood and found it was already being used. It was no surprise to see Francis burst into song in the entry room with one of her BBFs Diahann Carroll as her other BFF Connie Stevens joined in.

Harry Lewis joined that great Shakespearean company in the sky in June of 2013 but his vision of a place for actors to hang out remains vivid and alive in those of us who remember it and loved it!

Tony Rizzo
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Marna
Marna
1 month ago

I was the daytime bartender at the Hamlet on Doheny during the 90’s. Although the corporation that owned it at the time were not family focused, but instead ‘Number focused’, the restaurant was still a family hangout for old time Hollywood and their kin. And Francis Taylor was the main reason so many of them kept coming in. I loved her. We were neighbors and friends back then and I miss her. Since you mentioned Dean Martin, I’ll tell one story of him. He was a creature of habit, coming in every Sunday and always sat at the same table… Read more »

Marna
Marna
1 month ago
Reply to  Marna

Sorry, an amendment. Dean Martin always wanted the same WAITER. He sat at a table. Sorry. I typed faster than I edited 🙂

ERIC BUCHANAN
ERIC BUCHANAN
1 month ago

I grew up with HH, first the South Lake Avenue/Pasadena branch, with its loooong hallway to the hostess desk, the dark but cozy bar with the central fireplace back when it rained here, and the little diorama depicting Hamlet beseeching the Gods, or someone, in a little glass wall mount. The best shakes, ever, anywhere, and the chefs and line cooks with their toques at the grill, clearly visible to all. And those steak fries! Man, that place was it. Later Westwood and Brentwood and finally the ultimate experience of many, many meals at the Sunset/Doheny branch, hostesses by the… Read more »

Adam Lewis
Adam Lewis
1 month ago

A good story about my mom and dad but not altogether accurate. The Hamlets were not purchased by Koo Koo Roo. We were competing bidders on the purchase of the Sunset Hamlet sometime around 2000. That’s the only connection we had with them. Hamlets we’re sold in 1987 to a private New York company. I think their name was Wetherly, if memory serves. The Gardens did not come about as a result of the sale. It arrived on the scene in 1985 and was sold with rest of the chain. Then we bought it back in ‘95 and operated it… Read more »

Civilized Dining
Civilized Dining
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Lewis

Kate Mantilini would have stood the test of time, The notable design by Thom Mayne and Michael Rotundi of Morphosis also of 72 Market Street in Venice, the food great and the atmosphere civilized……just the right mix. Ahead of its time and missed. We could use another or a re- incarnation of it.

Marna
Marna
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Lewis

Thank you, Adam, for setting the record straight. i did sort of become curious when I read KooKoo Roo. As a former Hamlet employee (1990-2000) they were never my employer 🙂

Mikie
Mikie
1 month ago

Thank you for remembering Hamburger Hamlet! I worked for Marilyn and Harry from 1980 to 1987, and I have many wonderful memories and stories!
(I still have a few of the recipes too!)

hifi5000
hifi5000
1 month ago

Good little article about a place that was not pretentious like some places were on the Sunset Strip.After reading this,I felt like I missed something unique.Now when you go to some places,you go to be seen and see.

DesertBob
DesertBob
1 month ago

Had dinner there and on Highland with record industry folks many times in the ’70s. Basically highly overpriced burgers, but the Freidmans’ places had a certain cachet and excellent service. Too genteel for today’s tastes. Now they hang out at Katsuya for overpriced sushi. Great DJ there, though.

cicinla
cicinla
1 month ago

schwabs next door!!

angry gay pope
1 month ago

Once I went to HH with a friend and a glamourous old lady with her elderly entourage came in. You could just tell she had star quality. We finally figured out it was MITZI GAYNOR!

Last edited 1 month ago by angry gay pope
DesertBob
DesertBob
1 month ago
Reply to  angry gay pope

Mitzi was a reg. So was Betty White.

Last edited 1 month ago by DesertBob
Jonathan Simmons
Jonathan Simmons
1 month ago

The chain closed at least a decade or more. Time to drop the tears & find a new favorite local restaurant.

I used to really like THE DAILY GRILL.

I higher quality and higher end food, that always seemed good.

Things come & go.

I still miss kiddy-land before the Beverly Center, despite the photo retrospective that showed my childhood memories were of a dirty gross place. And those poor horses tied up and walking in a circle their whole lived. But as kid, “I loved riding the horsies”

Cy Husain
1 month ago

I must admit to the loss of not being at Hamburger Hamlet and especially not having met Frances Taylor Davis 😢 but, we do have Fatburger ❗ The Fatburger restaurants were founded by African-American Woman and Civil Rights Activist Lovie Yancey from Exposition Park Los Angeles. Currently they serve one of the best tasting plant based protein burger around know as the impossible burger. Now this is a real good fit for West Hollywood.

DesertBob
DesertBob
1 month ago
Reply to  Cy Husain

Comparing Fatburger with Hamburget Hamlet is a bit like comparjng a Yugo with a Benz 600.

Cy Husain
1 month ago
Reply to  DesertBob

Given the Impossible Burger being served at Fatburger an environmentally friendly plant based protein that tastes as good as beef, comparing Fatburger to Hamburger Hamlet would be more like comparing a Tesla to an old Benz 600❗🚀

1impbur.jpg
Scott Sigman
Scott Sigman
1 month ago

Frances Taylor Davis was a brilliant ballerina and brought the jazz guy with her. Flamenco was a dance she adored and Miles then followed up with Frances on the cover. An album inspired by a trip to Spain and Frances. She was a wonderful person even while Miles was binge gin gimlet. She and Miles performed in Vegas but since they were black had to stay in the correct hotel. Frances performed ballet around the world but not in the USA of separation of races, Hanging out with her and going to films was quite fun and informative. She was… Read more »

C90069
C90069
1 month ago

Francis the maitre d’iva! and longtime server Jim. So many fond memories of this place and miss it dearly. Great neighborhood joint. You’d never know who you would happen to be seated next to. Was between Betty White on one side and Ozzy on the other one time.

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