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Let Me Tell You About Tonight's Specials: Ordering Off the Menu with Berman and Pulcini

by Jon Danziger

Husband-and-wife filmmaking team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have received all sorts of good notices recently for American Splendor, but years before their movie about Harvey Pekar, they made a smart and wistful documentary about the closing of Chasen's, one of Hollywood's most storied restaurants. On the occasion of the DVD release of Off the Menu, Berman and Pulcini spoke with dOc about their fondness for this, their first film, the impact it has had on their professional lives, and perhaps most important, about Chasen's signature dish.

dOc: Is the chili really that good?

Robert Pulcini: Yeah. I liked it cold, actually.

dOc: Chili for breakfast?

RP: Yeah. There's so much butter in it that it really congealed well in the fridge.

dOc: Does it come with a side of angioplasty?

RP: Yeah, there is like a stick of butter in every pint.

dOc: Just watching the movie, those huge slabs of butter going into the hobo steak dishes, I felt pain in my chest.

Shari Stringer Berman: It was horrifying watching, when we were shooting it. The average age of the customer was, you know, 80, 75. And watching them eat that stuff you just were like, "Oh my God."

dOc: They were drumming up business for Cedars-Sinai.

RP: You know, it's funny, one of the stories that's not in the movie: one of the waiters told us that when Clark Gable had a heart attack, they often would go to the hospital, and serve them their favorite dinner. The stars wanted them to come, and they went to the hospital and they served [Gable] a hobo steak. And he died.

RP & SSB: He had a second heart attack.

dOc: You just kind of stumbled into this, on a trip out west, for meetings, is that right? How did you find Raymond's B&B, first of all, as a place to stay? [Raymond Bilbool was the director of special events for Chasen's, and is a recurring character in the documentary.]

RP: We just found it online.

SSB: I was still a film student, we had no money, so we were looking for the most reasonably priced place to stay. So Bob found it online, it seemed like it was in a good neighborhood, and we had to go out, we were trying to sell a screenplay, and we had our first agent, and it was this big trip to take Hollywood by storm. And of course during the day we tried to sell the script, which we didn't sell, but at night, we'd come home and hear these incredible stories about Chasen's, and the waiters who had been there for forty, fifty years, and how one waiter was on oxygen, and he was dragging the oxygen tanks, getting in everybody's way, still trying to work, and how they were closing, and it just seemed really obvious to us that this should be made into a movie.

dOc: There's a sense that when you walk into that restaurant, it's almost like you're walking into the past.

SSB: Yeah, it seemed like to us that it was almost the last gasp of Old Hollywood. And so, with very little documentary experience, we just felt like, this is a story we should try to tell. And so we did it.

dOc: And the family was amenable to this?

RP: Well, they had a No Cameras policy for years, but I think they kind of felt like it might be nice to capture something. They went for it. I think it helped that we had Raymond as our liaison.

dOc: Because there is this sense, toward the end of the film especially, this subtle labor-management issue as to why this place is shutting down in this way. It felt a little bit like the third rail of this movie, that nobody quite wanted to talk about it because they were so sad that it was closing.

SSB: Well, there were people who felt that it was a union restaurant?I don't even know how many union restaurants there are left in L.A., I know there are a few in New York, a handful?there was a feeling that there was some kind of attempt to break the union. But in the end, it seemed like the era was over. The time for the place was over. The irony of it was that just around the time that Bob and I made this movie and that Chasen's was closing was the beginning of the whole lounge revival.

dOc: Right, you could see Swingers or L.A. Confidential being shot at Chasen's without any problem.

SSB: Oh, yeah, and young people were becoming obsessed with Sinatra and Dean Martin, and there were lounge bands, and it seemed like Chasen's was a thing of the past, except that the past was about to undergo sort of a renaissance. But who would know that? Only young hipsters, who couldn't afford to pay Chasen's prices, anyway.

dOc: And they were all still wearing flannel shirts and listening to Nirvana at that time.

SSB: Right. But it was literally just after it closed.

dOc: And were they accepting of you, as young people and East Coasters? Was that all right, these strangers with a camera coming into their home?

RP: You know, the waiters loved us. They really ran the place. Mrs. Chasen [wife of Dave Chasen, the restaurant's founder] was kind of gone.

dOc: Is she still alive?

SSB: She died a few years ago. But she lived to be quite old.

RP: She was alive when we made it, but she really was out of it. And Scott [McKay, Mrs. Chasen's grandson] had kind of taken over, but he was finding his way amongst these guys, who felt like they had much more ownership of the restaurant than he did. We really hit it off with them, they took care of us.

SSB: They gave us a hard time, I remember, at first, it was hard to win over their trust. I think when we really won them over was when we did that roundtable, when we shot the last staff meeting. And they realized that we were actually making the movie about them, and we weren't making the movie about the celebrities. Once they understood that we were really telling their story, we were family. I mean, they were slipping us lunch, and making drinks for us, and we were treated really well.

dOc: Tommy Gallagher, and his son Patrick, seemed to be working out some issues. [Tommy was a waiter at Chasen's; his son later became one, too, and both are interviewed in the film.]

RP: Definitely.

SSB: I think for many of these people, one of the things that we found most fascinating is that it wasn't a job. It really was their lives. Nowadays, how many waiters are devoted to their jobs like a career? And they really cared about it, and treated it as an art.

dOc: Especially in a town where every waiter has head shots.

SSB: Exactly. None of these guys had head shots. This was their lives. And they were really professional, and really devoted, and really good.

RP: They also had a great time. It was their private club, in a lot of ways. When those doors were closed, it was them and the biggest stars in the world, and that has a cost. He [Tommy] shut his family out somewhat. It's a lot of work to get your picture taken with all those people. It's not easy.

SSB: And these guys still have reunions, all the time.

dOc: I'm sure they were fans of the film.

SSB: Most of them were. They're might have been one or two people who just didn't want to look back, it was too sad. But they were fans, they came to the premieres. They still get together a few times a year.

dOc: Are they still in the restaurant business? Or are they retired?

RP: I think most of them are retired.

SSB: But they do catering. They do private catering for some of the ex-Chasen's clientele.

RB: I don't think Claude works anymore, and I don't think Julius does.

dOc: Are they still catering?

SSB: No. Chasen's is completely gone. But they do sell the chili on a website.

dOc: Isn't there something about that that's just wrong, Chasen's having a website?

SSB: Well, the people that we focused on in the movie were not the kind of people who would know how to use a website. And I think they sell it [the chili] to upscale food stores, and I think that that's the only remnant of Chasen's.

dOc: And physically?

RP: It became a supermarket.

SSB: It became an upscale Bristol Farms, and, partially because of the movie, I believe, they were going to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch, make it look like a mall. They actually retained the fa?ade.

RP: The fa?ade was actually...the architect who designed Chasen's, I believe his name was Paul Revere Williams. There was an article in USA Today recently about him?he designed the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was African American, and one of the most famous architects in the history of Los Angeles, who really helped design the look of the city. And he wasn't welcome in many of the places that he designed. It's kind of a remarkable story?he also did the really famous terminal at LAX, he was a genius. It [Chasen's] did have landmark status, I think, because he designed the building. So it still looks the same, but not on the inside.

dOc: As filmmakers, you approached this as storytellers, and not with a lot of documentary experience. I wonder if, going back to stories like American Splendor or whatever else you've been working on, if there are lessons you learned from Off the Menu that surprised you, or that you were able to apply documentary techniques to other kinds of storytelling.

SSB: Very much so. American Splendor, we used everything that was learned from doing documentaries. We approached that movie the way we approached a documentary, which is, you use whatever tools you have to tell the story. We weren't limited by just a script. And so, that's why we used documentary interviews and stock footage; we applied the same techniques to a narrative film.

RP: And also, American Splendor was really decades' worth of comic books, which is kind of like having a lot of rough footage. It was our job to build connections between these stories, and organize them into a narrative, into a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end. So the process wasn't that different.

dOc: So as you're moving forward, there's got to be something that seems a little conventional about three-act structure for you.

RP: Yeah, I guess. We approach every project to see what it requires, what would make it work, more than we want to always be overly clever with everything we do. If it's a three-act structure that's the best way to tell a certain story, then that's probably how we'd view it. But we tend to be attracted toward more eccentric material.

dOc: And would you jump back into documentary filmmaking if the right story came along?

RP: Definitely.

dOc: So when you were out west for the whole Oscar hoo-ha, were you sad not to get to go to a Chasen's Oscar party?

RP: You know, it's funny, suddenly we were the people sitting in the booths at the Oscar parties, all dressed up, and all I could think of was when we were there, younger, and we were filming that stuff.

SSB: It was really weird?we both had the exact same reaction, at the Vanity Fair party. That Vanity Fair Oscar party is just so full of celebrities, and the only other time I had been in a circumstance like that was at the Chasen's Oscar party. And it was so weird, Bob and I both had this weird feeling of being on the other side of the camera.

dOc: Did you find any snot-nosed film students you could knock around?

SSB: No, nobody could get in to shoot, you could barely get into that party with an invitation.