Professor Jay Ruby is on a quest to unravel the history of a Malibu property that became the unlikely decussation between an avant-garde coffeehouse, comedian Bud Abbott, and the 1993 fire.
By Michael Aushenker / Special to the Malibu Times
There was a place and a moment in time when you could spot Allen Ginsberg sipping a cafe anisette, order a Mondrian sandwich for a buck, play chess with the screenwriter of the “Beach Party” movies and watch a Christopher Isherwood production. The place was Coffee House Positano on Pacific Coast Highway; the period was 1957-1963. Today, a one-time regular is working to unravel the story behind this eclectic cafe, and the eccentric “Budwood” estate it stood on.
Located a mile and change north of Topanga Canyon Road on a 130-acre property at 19543 Pacific Coast Highway, Coffee House Positano was the love child of the Duttons-Mike Dutton, a pioneer radio writer/producer, and Lorees Yerby, an aspiring San Francisco-born writer. Yerby was on her way to Positano, Italy, when she met Dutton. They married in New York, had two children and moved to Malibu, where they opened Positano in 1957.
The person who has amassed a fair amount of scholarship on the defunct cafe was once a fresh-faced, 22-year-old UCLA student from the Midwest who stumbled upon it. Jay Ruby, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia, is currently in the throes of composing his e-book on Positano. Ruby, 75, has embarked on compiling its history for a simple reason-Budwood has become his Rosebud.
“One of the things people my age do is think about what they did in their lives,” Ruby said. “It’s too important a place to have it disappear.”
Positano’s colorfully itemized menu sandwiches were named after famous artists. For $1.50, one could order the Michelangelo, “a mural of ham, cheese, salami…,” or a Matisse, “a collage of turkey, Russian dressing and tomato.” A buck got the Modigliani, the Van Gogh or the Pagac.
If the latter’s namesake is unfamiliar, that’s because Ed Pagac was not a well-known artist but a local one who frequented Positano.
Accomplished UCLA professors often lectured there, including Neal Oxenhandler, Hans Meyerhoff and William Melnitz, the theater arts scholar whose name for years graced UCLA’s cinema facility. Entertainment industry types patronized Positano, including Malibuites Dudley Murphy, David and Gloria Stone Martin, Jane Russell, Rock Hudson, Peter Graves (from neighboring Pacific Palisades), Ray Bradbury, Mort Sahl and John Houseman, a Malibu resident and active supporter of Lorees’ writing. One of Ruby’s regular chess mates was Robert Dillon, screenwriter of “Muscle Beach Party” and “Bikini Beach.” Artists such as Keith Finch, Pagac’s mentor, offered art lessons at the cafe, where another regular was Norm Shifren, “the surfing rabbi.”
“Positano was the center of bohemian life in Southern California” during its brief existence, Ruby said.
The Duttons befriended a Pacific Palisades resident, the swimmer/movie star Esther Williams, whose cook Adah sold her legendary apple pies at Positano. The Duttons even opened the Playhouse Positano (separate from the coffeehouse), where film composer Leonard Rosenman participated in several experimental theatrical productions, as did Isherwood and others from the Santa Monica Canyon artist enclave.
It was after Ruby had arrived in California from his native Oak Park, Illinois in his younger years that a tip by hipster-poseur Johnny Orvis sent him to Positano. “He thought I would like it,” recalled Ruby. “I started as a dishwater [there] and I graduated as a janitor.”
The Dutton family lived in the main building while Ruby lived in the chauffeur’s apartment. “I lived and worked there from… the fall of 1957 until I got married in the spring of 1959,” Ruby said. “I returned with my wife, Carmela, who had been Positano’s barista, and my two children, Aaron and Maria. After the coffee house shut down in the fall of 1963, we lived there with Lorees and her kids until the summer of 1964.”
The estate that Positano was built on, bordered by Pena Canyon and Big Rock Canyon, was first owned by the Santa Monica Mountain Park Co., a spinoff of Santa Monica Land and Water Co., in the early 1900s. By 1914, Land and Water had sold most of its holdings. The property went to L.A. Park Co.
Comedian Bud Abbott, of Abbott and Costello fame, and film director Sam Wood bought the property from Asa V. Call and Title Insurance and Trust Co. shortly after they met in 1942 while collaborating on Abbott’s first film, “Pride of the Yankees.” They nicknamed it “Rancho Budwood,” and constructed a main building and a series of cottages.
“Rumor has it that Abbott and Wood acquired this estate to keep their horses and mistresses,” Ruby said. “They didn’t have it very long because Sam Wood died in 1949 and something terrible happened to Bud Abbott that happened a lot to his generation. He didn’t pay his income taxes. He died penniless [in 1974]. Thus, Rancho Budwood may have existed from 1942-52.”
The property was purchased from Clara L. Wood and Enid Wood (Sam’s widow and daughter, respectively) on June 20, 1952, by a UCLA French professor, Marius I. Biencourt. Actress Gloria Marlowe acquired the property and sold it to John and Erna Kralik around the time the Duttons moved to what was then still called Rancho Budwood in 1957. Erna, the sole proprietor by 1963, became a bane to the existence of Positano and, later, the Budwood community. She repeatedly tried to shut down Positano (and may have ultimately succeeded).
After the Duttons divorced, Lorees married Bertrand Castelli, the producer of “Hair,” and became a successful writer. Dutton moved to the cottage next to where Playhouse Positano had been located, living with several people, including TV writer Jerry Ziegman (“Peyton Place”). Dutton moved to Santa Monica Canyon in 1966, and Ziegman assumed the role of property manager.
“The wonderful surprise that sprang up after the coffeehouse closed was that it was turned into an artists’ colony [under Ziegman],” Ruby said.
For three decades plus, the “Budwood” colony flourished, with, most notably, artist Lita Albuquerque, and writers David Seidler and Jacqueline Feather (“Tucker”) living there, until the 1993 Malibu fire consumed it, taking with it the last vestige of Positano: the Italian Espresso machine that once made Kaffee Schlags and Mocha de Malibus.
Yet what the flames could not claim were the burning embers of memories for those such as Ruby, who were fortunate enough to find Xanadu in Malibu.
“Budwood had such a dramatic impact on their lives that some return to the ruins on the anniversary of the fire,” Ruby said. “Twice, the ashes of deceased Budwood dwellers have been scattered over the ruins during a reunion.”
Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Ed Pagnac, former waitress Joanni (last name unknown), and anyone else associated with Positano or Budwood, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.