Dave Golonski, Will Rogers, and the Coral Cafe

We’re still looking through some old Burbank Leader copies, and it’s interesting to see the role that the Coral Cafe on Burbank Blvd. has played in local politics. The Coral was for many years an old Machinist’s Union hangout back when Lockheed was in town, and people like the late Ted McConkey always made it a point of having breakfast there every day.

It was for this reason that the Coral entered into our local zeitgeist a few years ago. It’s been responsible for a couple of extremely embarrassing — but to us, totally delightful — personal incidents that tell you a lot about how some of these establishment characters have operated over the years.

Before we get into some of the tales, let’s talk about at least one of the tellers.

It was as a prominent McConkey hangout that the Coral turned into a near obsession for former Leader columnist Will Rogers. Having several times been thrown out by its owner after he either overstayed his welcome or wanted to harangue a McConkey get together to which he was not invited, Will had a special animus against the place. We’ve noticed that it still clouds his thinking and makes it difficult for him to accurately portray just what was truly going on there during those good old days of populist revolt.

We just looked again at his 2007 piece about Ted McConkey– itself a piece of work in the slick over-generalization, near-pathological department– and we were struck about what he didn’t tell us when it came to his unfortunate experiences at the Coral. A casual reader would start to think that McConkey and his ilk were rank hypocrites of the worst sort, dedicated to scheming and plotting in secret at this 24-hour den of intrigue.

But that was not the case at all (if only it had been). The bitter pill for Will to swallow is that many people in Burbank just didn’t like him or want him around, because, sorry to say, they thought he had a difficult time with intellectual skills like being able to tell the truth. And, to put it straight, he made it really easy for them to think this way, too.

With this background in mind, we can proceed with a favorite Coral escapade.

One of Rogers’ frequent targets was Phil and Carolyn Berlin. You remember them, that “East Coast” couple** who supposedly had the ability to manipulate and mastermind their followers to an even greater and more perfidious degree than the worst that our high-priced, pro-growth developer class was capable of.

Well, one day Carolyn Berlin held a meet-and-greet election campaign get-together at the Coral, to which Rogers was not invited. A lot of people were not invited, either. Just like the service clubs and Chamber of Commerce would hold semi-private election forums in which council members would speak, well so did Carolyn Berlin.

But Rogers didn’t see it that way. He insisted that her failure to open up this secret meeting to the public — meaning Rogers — was proof positive that they were all a bunch of phonies and two-bit fascists and whatnots, even worse in fact than their foes, because they were emulating the kind of hardball tactics that they had always despised in others.

But such was not the case. The simple reason why Will Rogers wasn’t allowed in was, well, they just didn’t want to have Will Rogers around. It was as simple as that.

Now, Will didn’t take this rejection sitting down, so he showed up at the Coral anyway. When he was denied entrance to the meeting he still insisted upon going in, and that’s when the fun began. Witnesses tell us that he created such a scene about it that the Coral’s owner was compelled to make him leave, bodily.

Naturally, we all got to read a special column about this nefariousness, that made it seem to the casual reader as if an open public meeting at Dodger Stadium had somehow been turned into a secret Leni Riefenstahl rally behind the Reichstag.

Actually, Rogers’ dragon lady depiction of Carolyn Berlin was a lot like something out of Riefenstahl itself, sorry to say. But it worked in the end, this constant propaganda campaign and its blatant misrepresentation of Ted McConkey and his supporters.

Needless to say, Will Rogers and the Coral Cafe did not remain strangers. One Saturday morning right before the same run-off election in 1999, Rogers chased McConkey down at his usual spot in front of the restaurant and confronted him about his supporters “stealing” election issue copies of the Leader straight from the box, all in a devious plan (apparently) to thwart the will of the people, or whatever it was that Rogers thought was going on (the Leader had endorsed McConkey’s opponent in that same issue– who, by the way, was an employee of theirs).

It seems Rogers had either been camping out in front of these news racks all night, or had some other privileged information assuring him that McConkey operatives were deviously going about and simultaneously stealing all of the newspaper copies, and he was convinced that McConkey was the ringleader.

Naturally, McConkey had no idea what Rogers was talking about, and it was only because of some nimble moves on the part of the Coral staff that the situation did not escalate. So at the next council meeting McConkey made it a point to implore Rogers’ friends and family to get him some much-needed psychological help because of this wacky, near-violent incident, which again led to roars of outrage from Rogers and the Leader heirarchy.

Now here’s where we get to Dave Golonski.

Golonksi hated McConkey as much as Rogers, and he had already implored his friend and Leader-employee David Laurell (nee Hucklebuck) to run against him. He even actively went door to door for Laurell/Hucklebuck during the campaign.

Knowing just as much as Rogers did that the Coral Cafe was a longtime McConkey/Democratic/union stronghold, Dave G. helped hatch a plan.

One of his apartment tenants– who shall remain nameless but his father was a great coach at Burbank High– used to train seeing eye dogs. So the plan was, let’s “train” one of these animals by taking them down to the Coral and letting them walk around inside the restaurant with people all over the place. In fact, let’s see what happens if we try to do so, because when they throw us out we can make a big stink about it all.

Well, that’s exactly what Golonski’s tenant did, and it’s exactly what happened, and when news of this toss-out reached Dave G. he reacted in typical, pre-arranged indignation. Official complaints were filed, and Golonski and his friends used this as an opportunity to publically picket back-and-forth in front of the Coral for god knows how many days, just so they could press home the phony issue that the Coral Cafe discriminated against seeing eye dogs or something.

So the next time you drive by the Coral, imagine Dave Golonski foolishly picketing outside it looking like an idiot, or Will Rogers being bodily ejected from the doorway and yelling all the way out. Unlike other cities we may not have a heritage commission, but we sure do have a lot of colorful and tawdry history like this. Unfortunately, the worst of ours always seems to repeat itself.

And if you ever go to the Coral, say hello for us to the oldtimers, in memory of Ted McConkey. He was a nice guy who did not suffer fools or liars gladly, and it always created a few problems for him.

NOTE: ** this charmingly descriptive term about them was first coined by Todd Campbell


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