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.

The doors to the Malibu East Coffee Shop were opened in 1979 on State Road 84, just off Federal Highway. Judy DeForest, one of the original waitresses hired, was immediately smitten by Rogers, who shared a Texas accent. "Where the Stars Meet to Eat" was the restaurant's slogan, even though the only movie stars to be found were hanging in frames on the walls or laminated onto the tables. The Malibu Country Special -- three eggs, home fries or grits, pork tenderloin, biscuits, gravy, and coffee -- cost $4.95. Although the diner's location wasn't too glamorous (next door was Cole Muffler), Rogers and Gonzalez hoped to create a mini-Malibu in South Florida, where run-of-the-mill patrons could momentarily feel worthy of a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The restaurant lasted for seven years, and a few months after it closed, the Malibu Ritz Coffee Shop popped up in Wilton Manors, just across the street from Fort Lauderdale High School on NE Fourth Avenue. Every day, the cozy diner was overrun with schoolchildren on lunch break, and DeForest continued to wait tables, Gonzalez to work the grill. But when the high school added a second lunch period, the restaurateurs decided the Malibu Ritz was no longer worth the headaches.

The Malibu East Restaurant and Coffee Shop opened in the Gateway Shopping Center in 1994. The place is packed with enough stuff to make a junk dealer consider a yard sale. A Greek-style plaster bust sits atop the soda machine, and life-size cutouts of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe compete for space with a bear alarm clock forever frozen at 8:24 and a footlocker emblazoned with the name of Lana Turner. If you loaded up the contents of the diner in a truck and hauled everything to the Swap Shop, the merchandise would not look out of place.

Circus posters and faux-cacti are among the items crammed into the Malibu East
Melissa Jones
Circus posters and faux-cacti are among the items crammed into the Malibu East

At the rear of the restaurant is a baby grand piano draped with a gay-pride flag. An archway of Christmas lights separates the piano from the rest of the diner. Until his death last year, Dominic Perry played the piano every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon. "He played all the old ragtime stuff that everybody loved," recalls DeForest. "He always missed a note, but everybody loved it." She recalls that once when she went to Texas for three weeks, Rogers called her every weekend and had Perry play "New York, New York" into the phone.

After Perry's death, Johnny Jones, another Malibu East waiter, took over as house musician. He played show tunes and standards from the '40s and '50s. Gonzalez would often step away from the grill to sing along. Rogers loved to hear him croon the Irving Berlin classic "Chasing the Blues Away." Since Jones' departure earlier this summer, the piano has been mostly silent.

Although the days of Hollywood celebrities dining on Malibu diner food were already long gone, Rogers continued to grasp at celebrity while he was in charge. In an alcove at the front of the diner is a chair with the words Carol Channing emblazoned in red marker. Behind the counter is a plate from which Channing ate during a visit in 1998. The 78-year-old star of stage, TV, and screen is a North Palm Beach resident who was introduced to the restaurant by Robert Leininger, owner of Grand Central Stationery on East Las Olas Boulevard, and Tim Smith, the Sun-Sentinel's classical music critic. They thought Channing would appreciate the diner's camp appeal.

"She was just overwhelmed with the place," recalls Leininger. "We got better service than we ever got in our life." They drank mimosas and posed for pictures with Gonzalez, DeForest, and Rogers. The alcove is now a shrine featuring pictures of Channing at the Malibu, dressed in a bright white outfit and oversize sunglasses. A framed note from Leininger and Smith, commemorating the event, reads: "She loved the attention, loved the piano playing, loved Carlos' singing, loved the food, and loved Judy's autograph!"

Elsewhere in the diner, among the hundreds of faded photos, is a picture of Von Ray, the "Texas Tornado" and a regular patron of the diner. Von Ray is more typical of the type of celebrity who haunts the Malibu East nowadays. The self-proclaimed "tassel-twirling flaming redhead" once crisscrossed the nation doing "Western novelty" shows in which "I slapped my boobs with fire twirlers, stood on my head, and wiggled my fanny." Her old business cards, dating from 1966, boast bodily dimensions of 342443 and feature a cowboy-hatted Ray with a revolver shoved into the front of her bikini bottom. At the age of 72, Ray may have lost a move or two, but she has occasionally been known to stand on her head and wiggle her fanny for the patrons of the Malibu. Rogers apparently had a keener appreciation of this talent than anyone else.

"He'd always announce, 'This is Von Ray, the Texas Tornado,'" recalls Ray. "He was a very jolly person."

Among the less exalted patrons of the Malibu East is a man known only as "Dumpster Danny." There is no picture of him on the wall or plate bearing his signature, but he is a regular visitor.

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