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.

"Once they get a taste of my place, who would want to go in there?" Godfrey boasts.

He admits, however, that his investors now have cold feet, thanks to the prospect of legal battles. But Godfrey says that he's expended so much time, energy, and money in his battle with DeForest already that he can't simply give up.

Godfrey is not alone in searching for ways to make ends meet post-Harry Rogers. Carlos Gonzalez is also near bottom. It's a weekday afternoon, and he's sitting in the Fort Lauderdale house he shared with Rogers for the last four years, drinking from a can of Busch beer. The house is stuffed with an assortment of ornamental oversize lamps, tattered throw rugs, and landscape paintings in thick wood frames.

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

Although he has always aspired to be a Hollywood actor, Gonzalez was basically a short-order cook for 40 years. He is now looking to move out of the house because he cannot pay the bills. Along with Johnny Jones, Gonzalez has taken on a new cooking gig, serving breakfast and lunch at the Curve Club. The club advertises the pair as "formerly of Malibu East" and is directly across Sunrise Boulevard from the diner. As for Rogers' will, which supposedly turns all of his assets over to his former lover, Gonzalez says it's almost worthless. Rogers' frequent gambling sojourns and costly medical bills wiped out most of his savings.

Gonzalez gets succor now from Jones, who moved in with Gonzalez prior to Rogers' death. The two spend most evenings at the Curve Club, where Jones plays the piano and Gonzalez sometimes sings. (Jones -- one of many aliases, according to people who know him -- was out of town during the reporting of this article.) Gonzalez has consulted a lawyer to figure out what legal action he might take to get the Malibu East back, but he's wary of trouble.

"I hate to make problems," he says. "John is the one that pushes me now, into doing things that I don't want to do. John is very good to me and very nice to me, and that's what I need. Everyone needs somebody to love them."

Judy DeForest would argue that she's the only one who takes care of the Malibu East. On a recent afternoon, right around closing time, the dregs of the diner crowd are all that remain. A young family of three is finishing lunch, and DeForest keeps the little girl entertained by repeatedly setting off a flowerpot that spins around and plays "In the Mood."

It's DeForest's belief that nothing has changed at the Malibu East, that the spirit of Harry Rogers lives on. A motley assortment of cooks and waiters, varying from day to day, has taken over the workload that Godfrey and Gonzalez once shouldered. Most of the regular breakfast crowd -- a dozen or so patrons at a time -- continue to show their faces.

"The food is here, but half of 'em don't come for the food," DeForest says, seemingly repeating a mantra passed on by Rogers. "They come for the entertainment. There's always something happening."

But at the moment very little is happening. A woman who sometimes waits tables at the Malibu East is visibly drunk at the counter. She scrutinizes a lottery scratch-off card, then celebrates as she wins $70.

DeForest is well into her own cocktail, a vodka-and-whatever's-available, sipping from the drink between wiping down tables and putting away food for the day. She pauses from the work, takes a puff on a Winston cigarette, and declares herself nothing more than a loyal employee, adding, "I only did what Harry asked me to do."

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