Vintage visions re-created

When 10-year-old Bobby Green arrived in Los Angeles from his native Oklahoma, he fell instantly in awestruck love with the city he describes as “a giant movie set.” He recalls thinking the palm trees were fake and admiring the Hollywood sign aglow at night; he especially loved visiting the iconic Tail O’ the Pup hot-dog stand, musing all the while that so much of the city was “built to entertain, be wacky and crazy.”

Now 48, the Altadena resident is the cofounder and lead designer of the 1933 Group, a prominent L.A. hospitality company that has created more than a dozen nightlife hotspots around town since its inception in 1999. Over the years, Green and his partners, Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman, have left their mark on such popular watering holes as the barrel-shaped Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Bigfoot Lodge in Los Feliz (their first establishment) and Highland Park’s La Cuevita and Highland Park Bowl. Now the designers are shifting their focus toward restoring classic properties like L.A.’s Formosa Café and the Tail O’ the Pup to their former glory.

“I was going to go to [Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design] to study environmental design in the late ’80s, but I was given the opportunity to take over a coffeehouse I was working at,” says Green, who shares his Altadena home with his fiancé. “We took over the tiny coffeehouse and art gallery called Cacao, in West Hollywood, and that became my college because I learned how to grow a small business.

“It’s how I learned the hospitality business, and I came up with the concept of Bigfoot Lodge because I wanted to do something in L.A. that didn’t exist,” he continues. “It was kind of like a movie set that takes people away from their daily lives, and I figured a log cabin motif was the perfect juxtaposition to the postmodern city we live in.”

The next step for Green was finding the right investors for his inventive concepts. To that end, he created a concept book detailing his ideas, which a mutual friend passed along to the men who became his partners. The trio opened the Lodge in 1999, meeting instant success. It became such a hip spot that Drew Carey sang karaoke there with fellow cast members of his former improv comedy TV series, Whose Line Is It Anyway? It even inspired the 2008 Jim Carrey movie Yes Man to set a scene in a full-size replica of the Atwater Village bar.

While his partners are also occupied running their Komarov clothing brand, carried in Nordstrom stores nationwide, Green devotes himself to all kinds of vintage Americana. He collects and rides classic hot rods and motorcycles, owns a specialty motorcycle and collectibles store called Old Crowe Speed Shop in Burbank and scours the countryside for one-of-a-kind vintage pieces he can restore or repurpose for his home or the various bars operated by the 1933 Group.

“The business is constantly evolving,” says Green, the son of a successful artist who specialized in working with stained glass from abandoned churches. “There are always new trends and fashions, and obviously the whole craft cocktail movement, so you have to keep up with the times but also stay true to yourself in the business — what you do and who you are. One thing is how strong our identity is through everything we’ve done. A few years ago we went from creating vintage-style places that could have existed back in the day to restoring vintage places that existed. It was a graduation in that, rather than building sets that looked like old places, we went to saving old places. That was more gratifying to us and more rewarding to the city we’re in.”

The 1933 Group’s headquarters is located in a former church in Pasadena. He found the space when the Burbank facility the company occupied for 14 years was due to be demolished. The new headquarters would be used not only for work, but also to store some of his vintage cars. “I came across this little church that was for sale because the preacher had died and his kids didn’t want to continue,” says Green. “It was on the market for quite a while, and luckily, because I am a creative businessperson, I love repurposing things like a church as a nightclub or a home.

“I’ve always loved anything interesting like that. It has great energy, better than a mortuary for sure,” he says with a laugh. “I turned it into my private space, where I get my work done and keep my favorite cars. When I came to L.A. in 1980, you still had a lot of great ’40s and ’50s cars on the road here. That added to the whole set-like atmosphere of L.A.”

Aside from his design work with the 1933 Group, Green’s proudest achievement has been producing and promoting The Race of Gentlemen, which he describes as an annual “automotive carnival” on Pismo Beach that featured a drag race; the event had a four-year run before ending last year.

His favorite architectural design project is the Highland Park Bowl, housed in a structure originally built in 1927. The Prohibition-era bowling alley earned the 1933 Group an award from the Highland Park Heritage Trust for its massive restoration after decades as the decrepit punk-music venue Mr. T’s Bowl. “Mr. T’s was a very dark, ugly-feeling space. You had no idea there was this beautiful world hidden behind dropped ceilings, curtains and walls,” says Green. “You have no idea how rewarding it is to show how beautiful it was, and as popular as it was in 1927. That’s one of the hardest things to do — dream of reopening old things, but finding it doesn’t always work because our lifestyles have changed. Sometimes they fail because of that, but fortunately the bowling alley concept continues to live on and thrive.”

The Formosa Café is approaching its big relaunch this spring, with the Tail o’ the Pup claiming Green’s attention after that. He acquired the famous stand shaped like a giant fiberglass hot dog from the Van Nuys–based Valley Relics Museum, where it had been in storage since shortly after its 2005 demise. Owning one of the iconic buildings he first fell in love with on arriving here is exciting, Green says, but the restoration will be hard work. Its future location is still to be decided.

“It won’t be easy. Nothing’s easy!” he says with a smile. “The dog has to be connected to a building. It was connected to a small building, and we hope to incorporate a larger outside patio and beer garden. It’ll be just as difficult as all of them are, and will likely be a year-and-a-half before it’s functional — planning, architecture and permitting before you can start construction.

“But that’s okay. I’ve always had the goal to create something that doesn’t exist and takes people out of their daily life. They crave a day of escapism.”