Commissary fade-out reflects changes in corporate H'wood
When the moguls ruled, so did studio commissaries.
For years Lew Wasserman sat at the same table at the Universal commissary, where he ate the same thing — tuna salad — served by “his” waitress, Annie.
Cecil B. De Mille held court in the Paramount lunchroom in a throne-like chair and had a split pea soup named after him, though he preferred to order off the menu.
At Fox, Spiro Skouras also had a special dish that was not listed: “Greek eggs” (eggs scrambled with feta cheese, olives and spinach.)
William Holden, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and Bing Crosby also were commissary regulars. The exception was Greta Garbo: The aloof starlet ate in her dressing room.
The commissary was an integral part of life on the lot at a time when studios were more like tight-knit (if dysfunctional) families: a finite number of players virtually lived and worked together. The food, which was mostly mediocre, was incidental. The commissary was a mandatory destination where ideas, stories and gossip were traded.
It was also where jobs were landed.
John Wayne ended up in “True Grit” because his table at the Paramount commissary was adjacent to Robert Evans and Peter Bart’s. Seeing the actor every day, it occurred to the execs to give him the Western novel to read.
“I started going to commissaries when I was a kid. I’d go with my dad; he was under contract at Paramount,” says former Fox prexy and MGM topper Alan Ladd Jr. “All his pals got together there and hung out. It was the social hour. That’s what you did.”
In the 1940’s Ladd Sr. was Par’s biggest player. He also did his part for the commissary, which every Monday he supplied with fresh eggs from his ranch in the Valley. (Chasen’s was another recipient of Ladd’s chicken eggs.)
Today, the commissary is no longer so busy, so crucial or as colorful a part of studio culture. Though a few studio chiefs and execs remain loyal patrons, producers, directors and talent are more likely to be found at Ago or Pane e Vino.
“Now you go to a commissary and you can’t see anybody. Everybody eats in their dressing room or goes off the lot,” says Ladd. “It’s not fashionable to eat in the commissary anymore. I had my deal at Paramount for six years and I ate at the commissary three or four times.”
The change is partly due to the breakdown of the old studio system. Studios no longer employ hundreds of contract players, and movies aren’t necessarily filmed on the lot, realities that have reduced the number of bodies that need to be fed every day. Movies that are shot locally rely on catering services. Furthermore, agents and publicists don’t make daily appearances at studios the way they once did, visits that usually included a commissary lunch.
Indeed, agencies now have their own unofficial commissaries, from The Grill to Kate Mantilini to Morton’s, where ICM employees get a discount.
Another factor is that most commissaries look as appealing as they sound. Their decor is staid, almost cold, and the food is about as appetizing.
Add to this the popularity of diets such as Atkins and South Beach, which outlaw many commissary offerings (U’s $3 Universal Fries? Don’t think so), as well as the rise of personal chefs, and it’s no surprise that nowadays studio commissaries tend to be half-filled rooms, less bustling than merely operating.
One recent noontime found U’s wood-paneled Grill semi-populated with studio staffers and a smattering of producers.
At Sony’s Rita Hayworth, a more formal Art Deco dining room, the demographics were similar, with the exception of the turn-your-head arrival of Pedro Almodovar. Sony motion picture head Amy Pascal was also there working the room.
Par’s Sherry Lansing is another studio head who eats regularly at the commissary where, the joke is, the chefs regularly reinterpret her special salad, bringing out a different version of it every time.
Disney’s domed commisary, situated in the Team Disney building designed by architect Michael Graves, is shot through with corporate iconography, including Mickey Mouse insignias on chairbacks and salt and pepper shakers. But execs lament that the food is bland and over-priced, and they’d just as soon sup at Arnie Morton’s down the street.
One commisary that remains a hub of studio activity is the dining hall at DreamWorks Animation. The company’s Glendale campus, with its expansive stucco courtyard, inspires a busy lunchtime scene, though that may have something to do with the fact that the food is free. It’s also located on a gritty industrial cul-de-sac with few other gastronomical offerings.
Yet for the most part, today’s commissaries are not the way Dale Olson, veteran publicist and a reporter for Variety in the late 1950s, remembers them.
“The best example was MGM,” Olson recalls. “It was a huge commissary and you’d walk in the main door and over on the left against the side, the entire row was producers. If you were a journalist it was great, because you could go down the row and chat with every producer and get like 25 stories.”
Writers, directors and execs also had unofficially designated tables.
Olson continues: “You’d see Elizabeth Taylor sitting with all the press guys, because she was fun and they were fun. At Fox, you’d see Victor Mature at the publicity table every day and late in the night, because they’d drink together. All the PR people liked to drink.”
There have been attempts to reverse the dinosaur effect on studio dining.
A decade ago, Warner Bros. revamped its eatery and hired a fancy chef when the lunch-time exodus off the lot was so bad it caused traffic jams.
When Ron Meyer arrived at Universal in 1996 he ordered an update of the commissary, modernizing its menu and decor. Fox recently introduced vegetarian and vegan items on its menu, and Sony chairman Michael Lynton has expressed an interest in making the menu at the Hayworth more like the Daily Grill’s.
However, despite such efforts, Fox’s VP of food services and special events Paul Werner says, “There’s always a challenge associated with profitability within commissaries.”
At Fox, about 130 people eat in the commissary every day — an occasional diner is Rupert Murdoch –compared to the 600 that line up at the studio’s cafeteria-style buffet. Most popular is the News Cafe, a market-like setting with food stalls serving pizza, rotisserie chicken and Starbucks coffee. Open throughout the day, the cafe gets a crowd of 1,300.
Historically, commissaries have never been profit centers. Unlike most restaurants, commissaries only serve one meal a day and are required to be reasonably-priced despite costly overhead.
Yet what the old commissaries might have lacked in coin, they more than made up for in spirit and community.
At Paramount in the 1940s and ’50s, a special table in the middle of the commissary — The Golden Circle — was reserved for up and coming talent like William Holden and Susan Hayward.
A.C. Lyles, who started at Par in 1928 as Adolph Zucker’s office boy, was in charge of selecting the Golden Circle stars, a rotating group of 10 actors. (Lyles is still on the Par lot as a producer.)
“Young contract people were very anxious to work their way into the Golden Circle, because they would be on display for producers and execs to see them,” he recalls.
Back then it was not unusual for actors to drop by hair and make-up, and sometimes wardrobe, before heading to the commissary.
“They were really well-groomed at the commissary,” says Lyles. “They were trying to get the parts (so they could) work.”
Of course, sartorial savvy was expected back then. Once, Louis B. Mayer ordered Joan Crawford out of the MGM commissary because he didn’t think she was dressed elegantly enough for a movie star.
Thesps weren’t the only ones with their own tables. Producers, writers, musicians and cameramen all congregated by profession.
“At the music table we had Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Evans and Livingston, Jimmy Van Heusen…” says Lyles. “They had their own table and would talk music.”
There was also the “stag table” for single men.
“Guys that were alone would sit at that table,” says Lyles. “When I started producing, Jimmy Cagney and I had offices together. Jimmy and I would sit there. Once in a while we’d invite a lady to join us. It was sort of a rule: the women had to be invited.”
Commissary food was basic back then. Chicken a la King, New York Cut steak, and a fried filet of sole were options. For desert there was fruit Jell-O, cobbler and custard cups.
Needless to say, Columbia was not serving up molasses pepper smoked salmon wraps or Asian chicken salad, the way it does today.
Martinis were available, but most people went off the lot to drink — to the Brown Derby or Musso & Frank or Nickodell. An underground tunnel connected the old Warners lot on Santa Monica Boulevard to the Formosa Café, allowing talent to sneak across the street for a libation.
The Paramount crowd often crossed the street to Oblath’s for after-hours imbibing and, in the morning, to nurse hangovers.
In the 1960s, the movie contract players at the studios were replaced with an influx of television contract players, which destabilized the cozy insiderdom of the lot and, by extension, the commissary.
“When TV came in and the contract system changed, stars who were not under contract would come in (to the commissary), but they were strangers,” says Olson.
Unlike the tight-knit community that film had inspired, the TV folks didn’t all know one another and by nature of the medium they came and went, as opposed to virtually living at the studio.
“I remember when Dick Chamberlain, whom nobody had ever heard of, was signed to contract at Metro, he did that medical show (“Dr. Kildare”) and was suddenly a huge star. But he didn’t feel like one. I had an interview with him, it was at lunch time, and he ordered some salads and things in his dressing room, because he wasn’t going to see a ‘family’ in the commissary anymore. This was just a job.”
The agenting business was undergoing a shift as well, and by the 1970s, agents were glued to their phones, only appearing less frequently on studio lots.
“Agents don’t leave their offices anymore,” says Ladd, an agent at CMA from 1963 to 1968. “It used to be you weren’t doing your job unless you were out covering a studio and servicing clients.”
By 1984, when The Grill — whose regulars include John Calley, Brad Grey, Jim Wiatt, Bernie Brillstein and Brian Grazer — opened in Beverly Hills, the town was ripe for a thriving off-lot lunch biz.
Today, even that is being somewhat threatened by 21st-century-style workaholism, which has turned desks into diners, breeding a new genaration of finicky dieters who prefer personal chefs.
Director Luke Greenfield, who’s based on the Fox lot, occasionally eats at the commissary when he has meetings with execs, but, he says, “To be honest, my personal assistant cooks me some mean penne arrabbiate.
Greenfield adds, “Occassionally a slice of pizza somewhere does me pretty well, though.”