Mae West and the Brown Derby

by Lorin Michel Thursday, July 14, 2011 11:06 PM

I spoke to my Aunt Beryl this afternoon which is always something to celebrate for two reasons: she's 92 (almost) and full of interesting stories, the details of which she remembers like they happened yesterday even when they took place nearly 50 years ago, like the one we discussed today.

She took me back to when I was maybe four. She decided that it was before my brother was born, though I think I may have been older. She and her husband, Clarence, had purchased five lots in a tiny town near the Maryland border called Confluence. The property was above a “crick” (translation: creek) that was above a lake formed by the Youghiogheny Dam. When they bought it, there was nothing but a small trailer with two tiny bedrooms, a kitchen and no electricity. They used gas to cook and for light. Eventually they built a house which I remember as huge but probably wasn’t. She rambled on about my mother actually agreeing to leave me overnight with her and her sister Eleanor as my mom and dad and another couple they were with went shopping. Maybe it was my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Harry. Everything was fine until I stepped on a bee, barefoot, and got stung. My little foot started to swell and knowing how over-protective my mother was, they decided they needed to take me to the hospital before I died. Evidently, my mother would not have liked that.

Confluence 1940

Confluence is currently a town of about 800 or so people. It exists in a borough of Somerset County in the Johnstown area of Pennsylvania, just above Maryland. It is so named because of the three streams that flow together: the Laurel and Casselman creeks and the Youghiogheny River. It is near nothing and also near Fallingwater, the famous house designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

We went to a building in town that I thought was really cool. When it finally dawned on me that we were there to see a doctor and that we were in a hospital (gasp), I evidently became unruly, agitated, angry. I cried. But the doctor, a man I believe was named Dr. Price, came in and he was very nice, bringing me a lollipop, pulling the stinger out of my toe and giving me this nasty black salve to put on my foot for the next few days.

Barbaric. But it was 1965.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

I remember the house that Clarence built to replace the trailer, high on a hill overlooking the river/lake and dock. I remember my parents arriving by boat and they seemed to be so far away. I suspect that’s because I was less than 4 feet tall. I remember hobbling to my mother, my foot swollen and bandaged, milking it for all it was worth, being a drama queen, wanting my mommy. I’m sure I was incredibly pampered. I hope Aunt Beryl didn’t get in trouble.

She regaled me with stories of the “camp,” of building the house with jealousy windows on the doors. She talked of the pink kitchen with the pink appliances; of the fireplace inside the big room inside. Of how they would drive over on the weekends in the summer and always stop at the Brown Derby. It was a dive, with greasy food and a pool table, but Clarence liked to shoot pool. Beryl and Eleanor would sit and have a beer while he racked up a game or two. Then they’d continue on Route 40 toward Confluence. They’d turn on a road they called Mae West because it was nothing but curves. The property had a crick running nearly through it, the lake below. She couldn’t remember if it was the Laurel or the Casselman.

They sold the house in 1978 for $12000, cash, to one of Clarence’s daughters, Babe, and her husband, David. Clarence died shortly thereafter.

The Brown Derby roadhouse, Route 40, 17 miles east of Uniontown

Aunt Beryl has lived her entire life in Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh in McKeesport. But she has also lived in Hollywood, in her mind. She loved the stories of stars from the beginning and followed their exciting lives in the magazines of the day like Photoplay. She appreciated the goings-on at the hot-spots here in Southern California, one of which was and still is The Brown Derby. Her Derby wasn’t related to the famous Hollywood eatery but she liked the synergy. I could hear it in her voice. That dive was a connection to a more glamorous life. The name took her to Hollywood even as she downed an Iron City beer and her husband shot pool with a broken cue.

I did some research today. The road they had nicknamed Mae West is now actually called Mae West Road. It curves off of Route 40, just like she said, and eventually leads to the area they called “camp” in Confluence.

Aunt Beryl remembers it all. The Brown Derby, Mae West road and her summerhouse. Those three things become their own confluence. And just one more reason I celebrate my great aunt on this July 14, just 12 days before her 92nd birthday. 

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Comments (2) -

7/15/2011 5:18:32 PM #

I was drawn into the story because I was wondering how on Earth Aunt Beryl was tied to THE Brown Derby and Mae West. Having been to the original Brown Derby on my very first visit to LA before it was demolished only to be replaced by a Starbucks or a Walgreens, it inspired me toward a more glamorous life too. I think I'm still looking for it. Aunt Beryl and me.

Bobbi United States

7/27/2011 6:00:40 PM #

Wouldn't Aunt Beryl just love this blog. But, there's no doubt she'd have a comment or two on accuracy, etc. Keep in mind, her memory is almost 'savant-like'.

mom United States

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