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Jewish Journal

A Bite Out

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 23, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Playwright Leon Martell was dining at Canter's when his thoughts drifted to Billy Gray, the Jewish comic whose name had graced a 1950s nightclub on Fairfax.

Billy Gray's Band Box had been a sexy, Hollywood gangsterland kind of joint where stars like Lou Costello had schmoozed with mobster Mickey Cohen. But the club was long gone and Gray's name had faded from Fairfax, Martell noted -- until he glanced at the menu and saw the Billy Gray Band Box special.

"Billy lives on in the Fairfax -- as a chopped liver sandwich," he said.

The special helped inspire a play, "The History of Fairfax According to a Sandwich," which traces how the neighborhood evolved while "preserving elements of the old inside the new," according to Martell. "You may be a headliner today and chopped liver tomorrow, but what we do while we are here echoes. And the Fairfax is full of echoes, from the Gilmore Adobe to the Silent Movie Theatre to Canter's."

The play opens at Canter's as a fictionalized version of Gray performs for "meshugge guitar kids" who wander in from the hipstery Kibitz Room next door. Other historical characters include Portuguese immigrant Antonio Jose Rocha, who owned the 1830s cattle ranch at what's now Third and Fairfax; E.B. Gilmore, who created the Farmers Market a century later; Mickey Cohen, who smuggled arms to the Irgun; and Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, who commissioned new Jewish music for his Fairfax Temple in 1937.

"To stay alive, tradition must evolve," as that character says in the play.

"Sandwich" evolved when the artistic directors at Greenway Arts Alliance, located at 544 N. Fairfax, commissioned historical playwright Martell to write a piece on their neighborhood last year.

"There was surprisingly little written on the area, especially compared to Hollywood, so our project was like an archeological dig," Greenway's Whitney Weston said.

"Sandwich" includes juicy historical tidbits that Martell ("Beautiful in the Extreme") unearthed during his research. For example: how a young, homeless Costello slept in the baseball dugout where The Grove is now; and how Cohen clashed with "respectable" Jews such as studio mogul Louis B. Mayer.

"What I hope to do is open up the Fairfax District -- its many levels and peoples -- and get a look at where it all came from on a personal level," Martell said. "History is a million personal stories interacting.... Together they've made the present what it is."

The play runs Oct. 1-Nov. 7 at the Greenway Court Theatre. For more information, call (323) 655-7679.

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