l.a. times:
reed johnson
barbara king
laurie frank

LA Times "Mastering the mix" [ part 1 | part 2 | part 3 ]

* The table's beautiful, the food's a delight, but what truly sets apart L.A. screenwriter Laurie Frank's creative and dynamic dinner parties is her gift for the guest list.

By Reed Johnson, Times Staff Writer

In the ditzy, post-feminist parable "Making Mr. Right," which Laurie Frank co-wrote, the heroine played by Ann Magnuson is a go-go career gal who has mastered the fine art of applying makeup and shaving her underarms while barreling down the freeway in a red Corvair convertible.
It's all very '80s, very L.A. — though the film is actually set in Miami Beach — and it depicts the kind of helter-skelter life that Frank has known during her bicoastal existence as a documentary-filmmaker-turned-big-studio-screenwriter and art gallery impresario.
But as she steps into the sun-glazed kitchen of her Italianate home in the Hollywood Hills, arms filled with groceries, fresh-cut sunflowers and pussy willow stems, Frank is as poised and serene as a Botticelli portrait. "I have dinner parties down to a science," she says evenly. "I don't have to do anything."
That's a mild exaggeration. But it perfectly captures Frank's deceptively laissez faire attitude toward home entertaining. As a recent get-together at her home demonstrates, this transplanted, Ivy League-educated New Yorker seems to have mastered the trick of creating dinner parties that seem simultaneously laid-back and meticulous, elegantly choreographed without ever feeling micromanaged to create a haute-couture effect.
It's a shade past 5 o'clock on the year's first truly summery afternoon. In about three hours, 25 or so guests — Frank never bothers with precise head counts — will stream through the front door, where they'll be hugged and kissed by the hostess, individually and warmly. Then they'll walk down a short flight of steps, past a wall lined with stunning Depression-era photographs by the legendary Horace Bristol, and into an art-strewn living room where Adam Vignola, an actor who moonlights tending bar, will place a martini, a mojito or perhaps a very full glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in their hands while they're still busy gawking at the floor-to-ceiling views of the hills rising above the Hollywood Bowl.
It will all look so effortlessly inviting that Frank's most recent acquaintances may wonder how many hours she spent pondering the menu and slaving over the floral arrangements. But regular visitors know that Frank's dinner parties are less about the food or the surroundings, enticing as they are, than about the mix of personalities, ideas and creative obsessions.
"Everything in L.A.'s a secret, and I love that. It's like a giant treasure hunt," says Frank, by roundabout way of explaining how she picks the right ingredients for her intimate affairs. Even so, she concedes, "for a lot of people it's hard to penetrate that secret," and the sprawling metropolis can feel isolating and indifferent. Getting to know and appreciate the human richness of Los Angeles, she believes, is "an antidote to that loneliness."
Because Frank was an only child who "forgot to get married and have children," her extended family is made up of concentric circles of film, TV and art-world colleagues, cherished neighbors, old Yale pals and youthful acquaintances from Paris and other previous lives. And as a busy single working woman who likes to throw dinner parties at least twice a month, she takes an approach to hostessing that's as much Madame Curie as Martha Stewart: It's all about getting the right chemistry.
"I've been at Laurie's many times and it's always really interesting people and it's never the same people," says painter Dorothy Braudy, who attended last week's soiree with her USC professor husband, Leo. "The other thing about Laurie, I've never, ever heard her say one mean thing about anybody."
So how has she survived nearly 20 years in Hollywood? It's a tale that emerges over the next couple of hours as Frank bustles about getting ready for her arrivals without ever appearing rushed. Earlier in the day she'd gone grocery shopping at Mayfair and Trader Joe's, two-thirds of her usual party-shopping holy trinity (Whole Foods is the other regular stop). Setting her bags down in the kitchen, she pauses for a cigarette.
When hosting company, Frank favors food that's tasty, unpretentious and relatively easy to make in large quantities. For tonight's main course: a whole salmon, deboned, poached in white wine, stuffed with garlic, scallions, lemons and chives and topped with a teriyaki, mayonnaise, sour cream and dill sauce. She'll accompany that with caviar potatoes and three salads: mixed greens, eggplant and a fine carrot râpée.
Usually, Frank says, she'll whip up the latter two salads the night before a party. But she spent the previous evening hosting a reception for artist Larry Bell at her itinerant gallery, whose latest incarnation is Off Main at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, where she has shown for the last year. Frank began organizing art shows with her screenwriting partner, Floyd Byars, several years ago and has since mounted dozens of them under the name Media Rare Gallery at such venues as Miau Haus and Les Deux Cafés in Hollywood.
The morning of her party, Frank had accompanied Bell to a TV interview, leaving her somewhat short on party preparation time. No worries. She confesses she "cheated" a bit and bought two of the salads at Beriozka Grocery, a Russian deli on Santa Monica Boulevard that displays a painted mermaid swimming in a caviar sea in its front window.
Putting the potatoes on to boil, Frank, dressed in green cargo pants, a black pullover and Dolce & Gabbana crocodile skin boots, takes a few minutes to savor the amber light and balmy air spilling through the open kitchen windows. It's an ideal moment for appreciating the playful wit that Nic Valle, an artist friend, used to help reinvent the formerly cramped space shortly after Frank moved into her home 13 years ago. "I really live in my kitchen and my bedroom," she says. "The rest of the house is for my friends."
Riffing on a Southwestern motif, Valle laid down a base coat of deep-blue paint, which he then whitewashed, suggesting a pale desert sky. A floor of dark gray Mexican marble and a wall-mounted steer's skull between the slender see-through refrigerator and the stainless-steel sink create the sensation of wandering into one of Georgia O'Keeffe's burnished landscapes.
Adding the final touches to a style that Frank dubs "rustic modern" are an antique butcher block table; a vintage O'Keefe & Merritt stove, red as a fire engine; and a red telephone that looks as if it should connect to Nikita Khrushchev's desk at the Kremlin through some Cold War time warp. It rings loudly for the second time in 10 minutes. For now, Frank lets it go.
But she does remember to feed Mega, the female boxer who keeps Frank company along with Hot Dog, a 20-year-old "feminist cat." Frank slips some anti-gas pills into Mega's metal dish, cheerfully explaining her pooch's tendency to telegraph her presence at packed social gatherings.
With the potatoes hissing away on the stove and the baby greens and Belgian endive awaiting their bath in the sink, Frank sets the dinner table. It's a Guatemalan altar table, maybe 150 years old, and capable of comfortably seating 14. Frank purchased the carved relic from some former tenants, and it has morphed from found-art object into a kind of conversational talisman.
At one end of the table a huge mirror bestrides the floor, reflecting the guests' bonhomie back at themselves. At the opposite end, French doors open onto a patio where a large, round, metal table seats an additional eight to 10 guests. Frank is particularly fond of its unusual top: a mosaic of smooth white splinters, flecked here and there with color. It's made up of the remnants of Frank's mother's wedding china, which smashed during shipping from New York to the West Coast, made into a smashing objet d'art by artist friend George Stoll.
Carefully, Frank lays out sterling silverware (another bequest from her mother), rose-colored wine glasses, bottles of Evian, small round ashtrays and medium-sized white plates inscribed with a picture of a camel. "You really know you're in the home of a smoker when the plates come from Camel cigarettes," she says. She also begins peeling the wrappers off the dozens of candles she'll use to illuminate the dining and living rooms and fill the Moroccan lanterns out on the patio.
It's just gone 6:30 when Vignola, the bartender, slips through the front door and begins setting up the libations on a small, wooden, 1920s classic Monterey bar stand in a sun porch tucked below the dining room. There's a variety of beers and wines (a Francis Coppola Blanco, a 1998 Marques de Riscal). There's also a pitcher of pre-mixed martinis, "and lots of different juices and sodas for people who are in AA," Frank says with her usual forthrightness.
Vignola, an Army veteran who has just made his first film, says that Frank's guests pick up on her easygoing vibe. "They seem to let go of whatever armor they have," he says. "Maybe it's the art."
Ah yes, the art. Tons of it, everywhere you look. In all manner of materials, media and genres, from the elegant solemnity of Jeff Dunas' photos of American Indians to the full-frontal camp of a stuffed bighorn sheep named Mario that commands the far end of the living room. Practically every nook and cranny of the 1926 house, whose previous owners included Maurice Chevalier, imparts a sense of drama. Small wonder that it has guest-starred in a Sheryl Crow music video, a Jaclyn Smith clothing line ad and a Tampax commercial that was filmed right in her kitchen, Frank proudly notes.
More helpmates arrive. Patricia Foulkrod, a movie producer who's temporarily lodging with Frank, comes bearing peach-and-pink roses that Frank proclaims the most beautiful she's ever seen. Another friend pitches in filling small bowls with green olives.
A little after 7 o'clock, the fish flashes a crooked grin and disappears into a long silver broiling dish. "I like to leave the head and the tail on because it reminds me more of the fish," Frank says, adding a dash of Provençal seasoning.
As Frank's assistants thread their way from room to room, dodging furniture and two photographers and a reporter from The Times, a glass cake dish dome gets knocked off the shelf under the butcher's block and shatters. Frank instantly appears, utterly unfazed, with a vacuum cleaner. She has changed into a sea-green velvet dress with a plunging neckline, a crystal-and-pearl necklace and red lipstick. As per her dinner-party custom, she is brazenly barefoot. Soon the floor is safe to walk again.
By 7:40 the party is shifting into high gear. The phone rings again and this time Frank grabs it. Hello. Oh yes, she assures her caller, the more the merrier. "I can't stop inviting people," she says, returning to her lemons.
Another neighbor and party perennial, screenwriter-producer Jan Sharp ("Wide Sargasso Sea") arrives. "Well, this is very fabulous," she says in a plummy Australian accent. She and Frank exchange smooches. "You look very fabulous," Frank replies. Alas, Sharp's husband, Australian director Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American," "Rabbit-Proof Fence"), is at home convalescing from an old rugby injury.
The first CD of the night goes on the stereo as more guests come strolling down the 15 steps that lead from street level, past a sculpted cactus plant, to Frank's front door. She always makes a point of introducing each of her guests to one another. Like any good dramatist, she loves creating spinoff relationships, sequels as it were. Soon the house is awash in serendipity, in free-floating coincidences and newly discovered connections involving friends and friends of friends, former roommates, distant cousins. Six degrees of separation instantly dwindle to two or three at most.
Michael Besman, the "About Schmidt" producer, sips a mojito and swaps industry chat with Sharp. Allan Mindel, a movie director-producer who also founded the Click and Flick modeling agencies, is roundly congratulated for the buzz generated at Cannes by his feature film "Milwaukee, Minnesota," starring Troy Garity, Josh Brolin, Bruce Dern, Randy Quaid and Debra Monk. How'd he put together that cast, the reporter asks? "Everybody in the film was either someone I knew or a friend of a friend," Mindel says. "You use the people you've met in your life."
By 8:30, the setting sun's glorious ochre has been overtaken by candlelight. "I love the night," Frank says, "because it covers a multitude of sins. This house is a little frayed at the edges." In truth, the encroaching candlelight lends an enchanted quality to the evening. Informality reigns. The only two men who came in ties quickly shed them. Vignola is preparing his third pitcher of mojitos when suddenly Frank's voice breaks through from the living room: "Hey, hey! Mega's into the cheese!"
On the long table, dinner plates are taking shape as Frank serves up the salads while Foulkrod drizzles teriyaki sauce on each salmon portion. Extra chairs are rustled up from the kitchen and soon the guests are finding their places, though not by design. "We never do a seating arrangement because I think it works out better if you don't," Frank says. Most couples have been separated and are busy recombining with new partners.
At the patio table, photographer Robert Stivers, who has exhibited with Frank, is talking with Shoshannah Stern, a young actress who's just been cast as a hearing-impaired FBI computer expert in ABC's upcoming Thursday-night drama "Threat Matrix." Stern, who comes from a fourth-generation hearing-impaired family, says it's been her dream since she was a little girl to live in L.A. and be an actress and "wake up every day with a smile on my face."
As the guests clean their plates, platters of green grapes and crackers and brie arrive. Two men have left the dinner table and are talking on a sofa. Other guests are starting to arrange themselves in new configurations.
Meanwhile, Frank heads for the kitchen to make coffee and slice up two Gelson's cakes: a fudgy extravaganza whose jutting shards of hard chocolate remind Frank of the spiky futuristic architecture in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and a green marzipan number.
Stacking plates in the kitchen, Foulkrod says she's realized something about Frank tonight.
"She makes everyone feel like the most amazing person, and that whatever they're doing is the most amazing thing." That doesn't happen enough in this world, Foulkrod says.
A few feet away, late arrivals Lisa Bittan, an attorney, and Mickey Kaus, the trenchant Internet blogger, take in the scene. "I realized half the people I knew in Los Angeles I met in this room," says Kaus, a native Angeleno who recently moved back to his hometown, in a wondering tone.
It's 11:45 p.m. and most guests have begun to tear themselves away from the long table, with its brimming ashtrays and jumble of empty champagne flutes and coffee cups. Vignola is still hovering, dispensing refills. In the background, the lady of the house, now with a mandarin blouse thrown around her shoulders, can be heard affectionately introducing Kaus to some friends as a "neo-con."
By half-past midnight the party finally starts to break up in earnest, and the last guests bid their goodbyes and reluctantly head for their cars. Outside, a mockingbird is singing to wake the dead, while just below street level the candles in Frank's house are still visible, and their warm glow endures like a longtime friendship.

LA Times "Mastering the mix" [ part 1 | part 2 | part 3 ]