On Election Day in November, 1976 Democrat Jimmy Carter beat Republican Gerald Ford and became the first president from the Deep South since the Civil War!
And one evening in my apartment I received a phone call from a woman I didn’t know. She introduced herself as Marilyn Lewis and she told me that that she and her husband had restaurants in Los Angeles called Hamburger Hamlet.
I was somewhat taken aback and told her that I was a native Angeleno and of course I knew of Hamburger Hamlet! I had grown up loving the Hamlet and their revolutionary Hamlet Burgers! I even told her that when I was hospitalized with hepatitis at Lenox Hill, my brother flew in from LA to bring me a Hamlet Burger!
I’m not exaggerating when I say “revolutionary” as their burger was the first in my memory to come with a Lazy Susan of condiments and sauces and accessories with which to dress a basic large sized hamburger patty on a very large bun — what later would be known in Manhattan at least as “a California Burger”!
When I first moved to Manhattan I went to P. J. Clarke’s because I’d read that it was the quintessence of New York. I ordered a hamburger and was surprised when it arrived: a small round meatball on an English muffin.
There was no mayonnaise, mustard or any condiment. Just a bottle of ketchup on the checkered tablecloth.
I asked the waitress for some mayonnaise and she gave me a Look. I also asked for some lettuce and slices of tomato and onion.
“So you’re ordering a salad”? she asked.
“No” I stammered and then, intimidated, said that it was okay and to just forget it.
I wanted to tell her that the Hamlet had a lazy Susan with a panoply of condiments along with a cornucopia of vegetable additions. And of course, a large, generous hamburger patty on an even larger bun. But I didn’t.
Hamburger Hamlet had begun as a small operation on the Sunset Strip near what later became The Whiskey a Go Go. But even in 1950 (when it opened) it was a prime location!
Marilyn Lewis’ husband Harry Lewis had been a Warner Brothers contract player; one of the supporting actors in the Studio’s films. But with the establishment of HUAC, The House Un-American Activities Committee of Senator Joseph McCarthy et al., the studios ended the contract players situation. And Harry, out of a job, thought it might be a good idea to open a restaurant. Marilyn agreed!
Harry had a featured role as Humphrey Bogart’s nemesis in the Warner Brothers film, Key Largo.
When they found the location for the restaurant, Harry asked Marilyn if she really thought she could cook. She couldn’t but quickly learned. Soon after, they were successful and married!
While running the restaurants with Harry, Marilyn also developed a line of clothing she named Cardinali, a reference (she said) to her Italian grandmother!
Even though her headquarters were in Los Angeles and she lived in Beverly Hills, her clothing line was sold in better stores nationwide! In fact, there’s even a current interest in Cardinali with some of the pieces being sold by collectors!
Marlo Thomas asked that her television wardrobe for her show, That Girl, be designed by Marilyn. This actually helped launch a 1970s look that, according to Women’s Wear Daily, reverberates and is relevant today!
Marilyn called me that evening to ask if I was interested in illustrating new menus for the Hamlet. She was opening what was to be the first one outside of Southern California, in Washington D.C. I told her that of course I was interested and actually I was just as curious and interested in meeting her!
She and Harry were legendary around Los Angeles and especially around the entertainment crowd! Bobby Short and Dorothy Dandridge had even worked at the original Hamlet on the Strip!
At the time, Marilyn was staying at her house in Silver Spring, Maryland and sent me a plane ticket to come and meet with her while staying in her home.
When I arrived there was a light snowfall and I was picked up at the airport and taken to her pretty suburban home where she welcomed me warmly.
After I was shown to a guest room Marilyn excused herself sharing with me that she was having a meeting with students from a class she was teaching at a university — a master class in business management. She had her house man bring me a hot chocolate suggesting that I take a comfortable seat in front of the fire in the library. She also showed me some designs for Hamlet uniform accessories and asked what I thought of them and if I had any ideas about them.
I was enjoying the delicious hot chocolate and looking at the accessories designs. I didn’t like them. I had some ideas, asked for some paper and started sketching. After a while Marilyn joined me.
I’d taken the signature colors of the restaurant and its logo and designed a geometric border that resembled a simple but elegant couture passementerie trim. The designs she’d shown me resembled standard run-of-the-mill restaurant designs with nothing special or unique and the uniforms at the Hamlet were more like clothing — day dresses that Marilyn had designed herself. Cardinali dresses in fact!
Marilyn loved the look of it and said that it was time for dinner. I was having a virtual Hamburger Hamlet dinner cooked by the owner of the Hamlet, a kind of curious thing to wrap my head around!
We never actually did that menu illustration but Marilyn went ahead with my accessory designs! She then recommended me to the uniform design company and they paid me to be a regular freelance consultant. I ended up designing accessories for Burger King, a national pizza company, Nathan’s Hot Dogs and some others.
I realized that the common colors of fast food uniforms were ketchup, mustard, and bun colors! Pastry companies are pastel-y colors! And what would your reaction be if a burger establishment had pink uniforms? Have you ever thought of that?