May 29, 2016

Photo Essay: A Hollywood Diner Campaigns for a Hollywood Candidate

On the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, across the street from the old May Company Building and kitty corner from the Petersen Automotive Museum, you can't miss Johnie's Coffee Shop.

circa 2011

If you relocated to LA from somewhere else within the last 15 years, you probably know it primarily from movies like The Big Lebowski and Reservoir Dogs. It hasn't been open for business since 2000, except for being used as a filming location (and its parking lot being used by customers of the 99 Cent Store).

And now it looks like this.

One of the few remaining mid-century "coffee shops" of LA (what non-Angelenos would call a "diner"), it was landmarked as a Historic-Cultural Monument in 2013. Like Norm's La Cienega, Pann's, and Mel's (the Sherman Oaks one), it's an excellent example of "Googie" architecture from the mid- to late-1950s, as designed by architects Armet and Davis.

But that didn't keep its current owner, and a gaggle of Bernie Sanders supporters, from removing the historic neon from the front that read "Johnie's" and replacing it with a plywood sign that reads "Bernie" to transform the space into a volunteer-run campaign office in anticipation of the California Democratic presidential primary in a little over a week.

I feel conflicted, because I was excited to finally get beyond the locked gate of one of my favorite buildings in LA...

...but when I got there, it kind of felt defaced.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like any permanent damage has been done and everything can be returned back to normal once they're through.

It's not an "official" effort of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. In fact, this is the first time I've ever seen the voting citizens of America get this excited about a candidate—enough to put this much work into it.

In some ways, the move to reopen Johnie's for the purpose of electioneering was really smart, because it drew a whole new level of attention to the campaign—and it got a voter like me through the front door.

When I arrived, the volunteers assumed I was a Bernie supporter. But, of course, I was more interested in the building than in the campaign. When they kept trying to engage me in conversation and get me to volunteer, I told them that I'm not going to go door-to-door for them, or for anybody else.

But I also told them I'm a registered Democrat (which I am) and that I'm undecided (which I'm not). "What do you mean?" they asked. They weren't ready for somebody like me.

I wanted to see what they had to say. This was a prime opportunity to convert me—I know I'm not voting for Trump (sorry Trump supporters), but maybe I could be convinced to choose Bernie over Hillary. But once they got me through the door, they had no idea what to do with me. We debated about the process. They shared their strategy for getting people to register to vote (which is a good thing, no matter who they vote for). But they didn't give me one reason to vote for Bernie. They didn't even try.

So, with their permission, I wandered off.

The restaurant first opened as Romeo's Times Square (there is reportedly a Times Square-themed design under the current dog-themed wall mural) but flipped after a year or so to become Ram's Coffee Shop. But it's been known as Johnie's since 1966.

The bathrooms are out of order.

Despite all of the American flags and political propaganda...

...the restaurant actually seems to be pretty intact.

It certainly looks like it could be reopened as a restaurant at some point.

It probably makes too much money now as a filming location.

A set designer wouldn't have to do much to it.

Even though its owners supposedly did some restoration work back in 2003, it could use a little TLC.

Parts of it are literally being held together by tape.

This is the first time that Johnie's has been open to the pubic since 2005, when the LA Conservancy's Modern Committee held a one-day-only event there.

The Bernie takeover will keep the place open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day through the California primary on June 7.

If Bernie ends up on the ballot as the Democratic Party nominee for president, they'll be back through Election Day in November.

Part of me thinks that this is a good thing—not only giving the public the chance to visit Johnie's again (or, like me, for the first time) but also to try to increase voter turnout.

But this "campaign office" is nothing but flimflam—an expression of enthusiasm for a candidate's personality rather than for his qualifications or views, with nothing substantive to say. Then again, I wasn't born yet when Eisenhower was drafted by the public to run for U.S. presidency with their "I Like Ike" campaign. Bernie Sanders's supporters flock to him like the latest popular TV show because they like watching him. I suppose that's how Reagan got elected.

circa 2011

But if it draws some attention to a historic building that very recently as been threatened by the construction of the Metro Purple Line along Wilshire Boulevard—if opening it and rebranding it for a couple of weeks makes some new fans for Johnie's Coffee Shop who'll care enough to preserve it for decades to come—then maybe it's OK.

The more attention a building gets, the less likely it is to be demolished. Whatever it takes to keep the lights blinking at night.

They'd just better find a way to reinstall the "Johnie's" neon sign.

Here's one important thing that I did learn on my visit to Johnie's Coffee Shop: Unlike the State of New York which has a "closed" primary (meaning that only Democrats or Republicans can vote in their respective primaries), in California as of 1996, anyone can vote in the primary as long as they're registered to vote. That means you don't have to commit to being a Democrat or a Republican—you can stay "Independent" (or, as they call it here, "Unaffiliated" or "No Party Preference"/"NPP") and still have a say as to who ends up on the ballot—as long as you're voting for a candidate in the Democratic, Libertarian, or American Independent parties. (Republicans don't allow voters who decline to state a party preference, so if you want to vote for a Republican candidate—or one of the Green or Peace and Freedom parties—in the primary you will have had to have re-registered as that party.)

The one hitch is that if you're an unaffiliated voter in California, you'll automatically get a non-partisan ballot that doesn't include presidential candidates—unless you ask for a presidential party ballot. Read more here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Relics from The Valley
Photo Essay: A 1911 Historic Mansion, Defaced and Defiled

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