by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many whimsical crazes or fads to be found in the 1920s, one of the more interesting was the rise of programmatic architecture, also called novelty, mimetic, or roadside vernacular architecture—that is, buildings in the shape of objects. Whether this was the Brown Derby restaurant, ice cream shops shaped like ice cream cones, a tamale stand in that shape, or any number of similar structures, the decade was full of these unusual buildings.
Today, there are still some of these around with one prominent local example being the 1950s Donut Hole, a drive-through stand, where you enter and exit through massive “donuts”, located just a couple of miles from the Homestead in La Puente. But, we also have one instance at the Homestead, the Tepee, built in 1927 by Walter P. Temple adjacent to his La Casa Nueva and which was used as a home office.
Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the museum’s collection and a pair of photographs, taken on this day in 1925, of the Zulu Hut restaurant, located on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, just a short distance west of Universal City, the home of Universal Studios. The quaint eatery was opened by actor Raymond McKee, though it only remained in business for about seven years.
McKee, born in Keokuk, Iowa, on the Mississippi River across from the Illinois border, lived in Chicago and Des Moines and got his start on the stage, acting in stock productions in Chicago and Atlanta and gaining attention for musical comedy. By 1912, he was acting in motion pictures on the East Coast and, when he registered for the draft in 1917 after America entered World War I , he was working for the Thomas A. Edison Studio in the Bronx in New York.
McKee served in the United States Army during the war and mustered out in 1919 after its conclusion. He remained in New York for a couple of more years before coming out to work in Hollywood. He worked in films for such studios as Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Selznick, Columbia and First National. Though he wasn’t a lead, he did perform steadily in character roles of many kinds. In all, he appeared in 173 films in over two decades between 1912 and 1935.
The Zulu Hut opened in late 1924, with news of its impending debut reported on in the Los Angeles Times of 16 November. The short piece noted that the actor took a vacation “looking for a suitable site for a small restaurant” and bought a parcel and “built the Zulu Hut, where toast a la squab will be the piece de resistance for his picture friends.” A later article in that paper credited McKee with introducing the eating of fried chicken without utensils.
In June 1925, a Times article on the doings of Hollywood actors and in a section about investments by film players stated that “Raymond McKee is afflicted with the real estate bug, though the canny Ray has made the Zulu Hut, a roadside cafe, pay handsomely.”
The use of plant materials, however attractive and thematic, posed an obvious risk and at the end of the year, the paper reported that the eatery “came near being destroyed by fire when a hot-water apparatus became overheated and the wall of the hut caught fire.” A fire department from what was then known as “Lankershim” got there quickly and doused the flames, limiting damage to just $75.
Then came another common threat. On 7 January 1926, the Zulu Hut was robbed, though wire reports observed an unusual element: “the two dapper bandits . . . had white silk handkerchiefs over their faces, and brandished fancy pearl-handled automatics in their kind-gloved hands.” As in the pictures, customers and the proprietor (not McKee, but a lessee) were lined up against a wall and relieved of cash and jewelry totaling some $3,000. It was reported that “a couple of shots were fired at the feet of two of the uneasy patrons, but none took effect.”
A few months later, an arrest was made after a gun battle followed a routine traffic stop and, in July, Lyle M. Christie, who confessed to the crime and others committed at the Ambassador Hotel, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the hotel he lived in, the Regent, as well as the Jail Cafe, which sounds like another example of programmatic architecture, was sentenced to a term of five years to life at San Quentin.
Another frequent problem with restaurants in the 1920s was the propensity of many to violate Prohibition, of which we’ve been commemorating the centennial this year at the Homestead. In late June 1928, the local Van Nuys News reported that Robert Byars was caught selling two pints of liquor to officers and he was hauled into the local justice court in Van Nuys. Byars pled guilty and Judge H.A. Decker handed down a sentence of a $150 fine or thirty days in the hoosegow for possession, but was also slapped with a month in county jail for selling the contraband refreshment.
Finally, the biggest risk for the restaurant apparently proved to be the economy. Although the Zulu Hut was mentioned in an April 1930 Times piece about Hollywood restaurants, especially novelties like “The Bad Egg;” “T-Bone Riley’s;” and “Bell’s Dinner Bell,” the onset of the Great Depression may have been the death knell (get it?) for McKee’s eatery.
At the end of 1930, McKee took out a public notice in the Times to announce that he “no longer owns or operates the roadhouse known as the ‘Zulu Hut’ . . . and therefore will not be responsible for any debts incurred by [the] new owner or lessee.”
Just a few months later, an old nemesis returned, as in early March 1931, “patrons and the staff of the Zulu Hut, cafe and night life rendezvous formerly owned by Raymond McKee, screen actor, were routed yesterday when fire destroyed the establishment.” The report added, “the place burned quickly because of its highly flammable construction of bamboo and palm leaves.”
In 1954, when McKee’s parents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary and the long-retired actor was living on Catalina Island, a Times article observed that it was Alber N. McKee, Raymond’s father, who opened the “Zulu Hut, chicken-in-the-rough place” though it was added that it burned down years before.
Given today’s sensibilities about ethnic and racial stereotypes, it seems impossible to conceive of a place like the Zulu Hut existing. Nearly a century ago, it was just one of many examples of so-called programmatic architecture to be found in the greater Los Angeles landscape, including the Homestead’s own Tepee.
Today, the Zulu Hut site at 11100 Ventura Boulevard, just west of Vineland Avenue is the site of another structure with a themed type of architecture: the Fox and Hounds Pub with its vaguely Tudor style.