A Short-Order War

For years Harry Rogers ran the eccentric Malibu East diner. Now that he's gone, three former employees are waging an ownership battle that may destroy his legacy.

Bruce Godfrey is sitting at a booth in the Malibu East Restaurant and Coffee Shop. Behind him is a shrine to The Wizard of Oz, adorned with images of Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Wizard himself. It is topped with a dusty papier-mâché rainbow. Godfrey sits near the door -- in case he has to make a hasty exit.

The smell of eggs and grease clouds the air as the Malibu East equivalent of the morning rush hour trickles past Godfrey's booth. The dozen or so customers are mostly regulars, immune to the smell and the irregular quality of the food. Each one pauses to exchange pleasantries quietly with Godfrey, who is unsuccessfully attempting to procure some service -- and making a show of his frustration. "Where's my coffee?" he demands of the waitress, between puffs on a never-ending procession of Marlboro menthol cigarettes. The service at the Malibu East is notoriously slow, and unapologetic rudeness is part of its charm. But Godfrey is being left coffeeless for a reason.

Judy DeForest, the 20-year-veteran waitress who now runs and claims ownership of the diner, glares at him from behind tinted, octagon-shape glasses. Earrings as big as egg yolks frame her face. "All the problems you give me," she says, a hint of her native Texas still discernible, "I can't believe you even come in here."

Until May, when Godfrey announced that he was the rightful owner of the Malibu East, he too was a waiter at the diner in the Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale. On the table in front of him is a sheaf of self-produced legal papers that make his case for ownership. One document, dated May 27, demands that the diner immediately cease doing business under the name Malibu East. Another, addressed to DeForest, lays out the legal actions he is prepared to take if the matter is not settled to his satisfaction.

Unable to ignore his presence, DeForest eventually snaps at Godfrey's bait. "I wish you wouldn't be discussing my shit in the newspapers, Bruce," she says, paying no heed to the sign behind the counter that reads, "Please do not use profane or obscene language."

"It's not your shit," is Godfrey's retort.

"It's got my name on it," she says.

After another run of dropping off orders and filling coffee cups -- DeForest's multiple faux-pearl necklaces tracking her path through the restaurant -- she is back at Godfrey's booth. "Yeah, he was real classy," she says to a reporter, ignoring her former coworker's presence. "He brings this all up while poor Harry's not even in the ground yet."

On June 9 Harry Rogers died at the age of 74. For months the former owner of the Malibu East had been bedridden, suffering from dysentery, liver problems, skin lesions, and dramatic weight loss. His wake was held at the diner, and the main course was Texas beans and cornbread, in honor of his Lone Star State upbringing. Close to 70 people crowded into the tiny diner, where Rogers' ashes sat in a container near the counter, surrounded by pictures of his beloved Marilyn Monroe.

Rogers had dreamed of being a movie star, but had only a few screen credits, including a TV commercial for a health insurance company. Instead he brought drama and flair to the small stages of his Malibu restaurants. From 1959 until his death, he, along with partner and lover Carlos Gonzalez, ran several versions of the Malibu. The first was situated along the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California, where Judy Garland, Steve McQueen, and Monroe were among the celebrity regulars. Rogers himself was famous for his cock-a-leekie soup, a predilection for gambling, and an affable, if irascible, temperament.

For the last two decades, he and Gonzalez served breakfast and lunch to a less glamorous clientele at three locations in Broward County. Aside from the prices, not much changed over 40 years. The food at the Malibu has always been standard diner fare, and the shtick has always been movie stars -- whether in the flesh or on celluloid.

But even before Rogers' death, the Malibu East had begun to fall apart. Weakened by illness in his final months, Rogers was unable to stabilize a financially troubled business that each of his once trusted lieutenants -- DeForest, Godfrey, and Gonzalez -- now believes he or she owns. Personal attacks, accusations of fraud, and threats of lawsuits are legion. Even the mail addressed to "Malibu East" is in dispute, piling up at the post office until an owner is officially declared. Meanwhile the quality of the food has suffered -- a detail supported by health-code violations -- and some neighboring businesses accuse the Malibu of buying stolen merchandise, including food.

With the Malibu East in a shambles, the feud is the equivalent of in-laws fighting over a dead relative's snake-infested trailer in the middle of the Everglades. Just who will win the fight remains to be seen, but considering Rogers' inextricable ties to the Malibu legacy, probably no one will end up a winner.


Carlos Gonzalez does not look fit for a fight -- legal or otherwise. He's sitting this weekday morning at a booth in Tommy D.'s American Eatery on Sunrise Boulevard, slowly sipping a cup of coffee. At the age of 77, he no longer sets foot in the Malibu East, where he worked as a cook. A white fringe of hair surrounds his head, like moss on a stone. He wears a pastel-color plaid shirt and blue shorts. White socks protrude from yellow loafers. Glasses hang around his neck from a thick, faux-gold chain. He looks like a stock character from Miami Vice -- which he was.

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