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.

"Harry begged me to do this," she says. "He made it like a little family. You don't walk out on your family."

She adds that, in return for saving the Malibu East, Rogers transferred 51 percent of the business to her. As evidence she points to a certificate of registration on the wall of the kitchen from the Department of Revenue, dated May 25, 1999. It is inscribed with the names Harry Rogers and Judy DeForest. Like Godfrey, she too is registered with the Division of Corporations, but under the name J.D. Malibu Beach Restaurant. But she offers nothing to prove her ownership of the assets of the diner itself -- the pots, pans, porcelain dolls, and sepia-toned pictures of movie stars that comprise the Malibu East.

Pressed for proof of ownership, DeForest gets defensive. "I don't see anyone in here helping me," she says. "Who paid $500 this morning for a new hot-water heater?" She claims the documents proving her ownership are in a safe-deposit box, where she intends to keep them. "I don't have to prove I own it," she scoffs. "I know I own it. I'm the one paying the bills here."

Judy DeForest continues to serve breakfast and lunch six days a week
Melissa Jones
Judy DeForest continues to serve breakfast and lunch six days a week

The third claimant to the Malibu East mantle is Gonzalez, who says he had a business partnership with Rogers for 40 years. But when Rogers died, almost all the paperwork for the Malibu East was in Rogers' name. His was the only signature on the restaurant's lease, and the occupancy license filed with the City of Fort Lauderdale lists Rogers as the sole owner. The registration certificate from the Florida Department of Revenue makes no mention of Gonzalez.

"Harry was always the businessman," says Gonzalez. "I have nothing. No papers, nothing -- except Harry's will."

The will. Gonzalez says that when Rogers died, all assets were left to him, including the Malibu East. Like DeForest, though, Gonzalez doesn't offer much evidence. He at first promised to furnish a copy of the will but then reneged. And a will has yet to be filed for Rogers with the Broward County Clerk of Courts. By law it was supposed to have been filed within ten days of his death.

"Forget about the will," says Gonzalez. "It's my will and Harry's will. I don't want anyone to see the will."

Gonzalez claims that he's contacted a lawyer about taking legal action to gain control of the restaurant, and Godfrey also is threatening lawsuits: one against DeForest for $165,000 for illegal use of the name Malibu East and another for $135,000 for slander and defamation of character. He claims she has blackballed him, thus preventing him from landing another job. The dispute is not likely to end until all three parties are forced to show their cards in a court of law, a process that could take years -- and cost more in legal fees than the restaurant itself is worth.

At first glance the Malibu East hardly seems worth the trouble of legal bills and court battles. The restaurant is flanked on one side by an adult video store and a defunct pet-grooming business and on the other by a bike shop. One of the front windows has been broken for months, replaced with a piece of plywood painted white. On the sidewalk in front, the plants are turning brown and spilling out of their pots.

The Malibu operation has seen grander days. When it was founded by Rogers and Gonzalez along the Pacific Coast Highway in 1959, it was known as the Har-Los Malibu Colony Coffee Shop. Rogers had previously been a waiter at Schwab's on Sunset Boulevard, where he first breathed the refined air of a celebrity haunt, and he brought that experience to the diner. As depicted in newspaper accounts and as remembered by Gonzalez through the spit-shined prism of time, the Malibu Colony Coffee Shop was the neighborhood diner for the glitterati. Judy Garland ate there ("Such a lovely little lady," says Gonzalez), as did Paul Newman and Shirley MacLaine.

Gonzalez fondly recalls Anthony Quinn leaving his dog on the sidewalk outside while he dined. Each time someone opened the door, the pup would race inside. "Anthony Quinn, get the goddamned dog out of the coffee shop," Peggy, the diner's gravelly voiced waitress, would bark out.

Because the cook at the coffee shop couldn't stay off the bottle, Gonzalez left his job as a hairdresser and took over the grill. Rogers and Gonzalez built a home in the Malibu hills and opened a second restaurant just a couple blocks from the coffee shop. But during the '60s and '70s, Malibu began to transform from a somewhat sleepy hideaway for the stars into a Los Angeles suburb that included Pepperdine College. Gonzalez and Rogers grew weary of the place.

Their frustration was compounded by other changes in the mid-to-late '70s. The house they'd built was destroyed by mudslides, and their landlord threatened to triple the rent for the coffee shop. Deciding it was time to move on, they headed to Broward County, where Gonzalez had family and where the two lovers had first met almost 25 years earlier, in a Hollywood bar.

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