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He’s been shot, knifed, hounded by police, and shut down by the city. The story of L.A.’s nightlife wouldn’t be the same without Steve Edelson
Steve Edelson lives in a white Spanish-style house on a bucolic tangerine farm with his Colombian girlfriend, Maria Cristina, and their three young children. The farm sits atop a small hill on the edge of Ojai, where Edelson also owns four hotels, a couple dozen houses he keeps as vacation rentals, one motorcycle bar, and a visitor’s center that directs tourists to Edelson’s hotels and houses and bar. Edelson bought the lot five years ago during a spending spree that cost him $25 million and included a few motels in the town of Shasta, California.
He had recently met Maria Cristina and wanted to start a family in the pastoral hamlet north of Ventura; his friends thought he might retire—tinkering on his properties, playing with his kids, watering the tangerine trees while smoking his organic cigarettes in the valley’s pinkish twilight. Edelson is an avid pot smoker, and he has also consumed a pack a day since 1972, when at the age of 12 he dropped out of school and went into whatever line of business—construction, apartment management—was closest at hand. In the late ’80s, his business became bars and clubs, first in Chicago, then Los Angeles, where he has debuted a dozen venues in a quarter century, more than any other L.A. nightclub owner. Edelson’s clubs are not A-list celebrity magnets; they reside a proud step below paparazzi fodder. “I always wanted places I could get into myself,” says Edelson, who speaks with the warm bray of the Illinois mother tongue and whose idea of formal evening wear is blue jeans, T-shirt, and tilted fedora—Joey Bishop’s fedora, not Johnny Depp’s. He is the king of the Bs.
But hotels are hard work, and Edelson found himself in over his head. Complaints posted on the travel site TripAdvisor have been off-the-charts awful: “filthy,” “beyond disgusting,” “dangerous,” “seriously injured,” “filled w/ dog crap,” “soiled tampon,” “TOAD IN THE SHOWER!,” “blood on sheets,” “Bates Motel.” The reviews have done little to alter Edelson’s view of his own success. “I’ve read them,” he says, “and they bother me because they are smoking mad. But my hotels are not the W. They’re half of that—more like the V—and I think I’m very good at them.” Still, an outsider might conclude that Edelson has been as unsuccessful with hotels as he is talented with clubs, spots like Martini Lounge, Dragonfly, the Joint, and El Cid. “He’s unmatched as a club owner,” says Lina Lecaro, who has covered nightlife for the L.A. Weekly since the ’80s. “He’s operated longer than anyone, he picks the right promoters, and his venues are the most diverse. Where Hollywood clubs will not hold a gay event for fear of being branded, Steve has no concerns.” Like L.A., Edelson’s venues are antibrand.
Two years ago Edelson began casting his eye back on L.A., looking for a club that could draw him to the city again. “His idea of retirement—buy seven hotels to manage—couldn’t keep him busy,” says Mitch Edelson, Steve’s 19-year-old son from an early tryst. For a 52-year-old man with an uninspiring health regimen (Edelson doesn’t exercise and hasn’t tasted a vegetable in decades), he is unusually active. “I got the tiger in me today!” (a riff on Charlie Sheen) is his go-to phone greeting. His daily mode of being: high school football coach. Energetic, engaging, he is best friend to his employees yet demanding and stressed to the point where flashes of anger arrive without apology. Edelson’s prodigious emotions make him seem large, but he’s bantam size, really, with a solid build, a full head of black hair, and a puckish grin. Edelson’s friends think of him as an instinctive aggressor, a muscular shark that moves to survive—“Steve thrives on the fight and the conquest,” says Greg Morris, who owned the Spanish Kitchen and now runs the Belmont—but there may also have been financial reasons for his desire to return to nightlife. “I have millions invested in Ojai,” says Edelson. “If I had invested that money in L.A., I would be earning $250,000 a month—money I’m not making up north.”
One night last summer Edelson stood in front of the club that brought him back to L.A.’s club scene: Los Globos, a black-and-red-brick building on Sunset Boulevard that could pass for the hottest Tijuana strip club in Silver Lake. He was surrounded by a few longtime business partners; by Mitch, who is lanky and baby faced and assists in managing Los Globos; and by a blue nimbus of spent nicotine. Everyone but Mitch looked a few decades older than the kids entering the two-story windowless venue, which holds some 1,000 inebriated souls and keeps a security detail that could fill a small bar. Downstairs, Los Globos resembles the interior of a large barn decked out for a trance hoedown. Its 20-foot ceilings support an upstairs dance floor and a serpentine trail of lounges, dark and cloistered “like a 1984 drug den in Mexico City,” says one of the club’s bookers. Latino, Korean, transsexual, sometimes white, or a blend of the above, the patrons are mostly under 25, the faces of Echo Park and East L.A.
Outside Los Globos, Edelson’s group was joined by a man fit as a cage fighter named Sonny Rouel. “Hey, everyone, it’s Sonny!” Edelson beamed, grabbing Rouel by a massive shoulder. Like a medieval patriarch, Edelson values family, honor, and fealty in business dealings; his clubs have been managed or co-owned by a revolving cast of permanent characters who leave, return, and leave again—sometimes with a bang. Rouel had partnered with Edelson on a Vine Street club called Forbidden City, which the pair purchased in 2002 for $1 million. The deal eventually soured for Rouel, but no matter: The men were happy partners once more. Besides Los Globos, they now own a mixed-use building a block away. After purchasing it for $1.3 million, the two raised the property’s rents from $4,000 to $21,000; it was now back on the market for $2.9 million.
Edelson’s focus jumped from Rouel to a larger, less fit man waiting at the velvet rope. “This guy,” Edelson announced, “is not to be let into Los Globos!” Edelson’s friends blinked; two security guards at the door looked blank.
“This guy,” Edelson repeated, closing the distance to the rope, “was seen last week passing drugs through the door and walking off with a wad of cash.” A security detail now numbering three examined Edelson as if for the first time. “He will never get into Los Globos again!”
Edelson has a knack for confrontation and injury. He has been shot in the chest in a club while accosting a thief, knifed, beaten about the head, and maced. On that last occasion Edelson was walking his dogs off-leash in Griffith Park when he got into an altercation with a ranger who sprayed him and had him tossed into a drunk tank. “The folklore of violence surrounding the guy is amazing,” says Laura Masura, who worked for Edelson at El Cid and his defunct Silver Lake restaurant, Zen. “Someone will walk into your bar and say, ‘Oh, you know Steve Edelson? My husband once choked him out!’ ”
On the Sunset Boulevard sidewalk Edelson sounded off with Mamet-esque iteration: “This guy is officially 86’d from Los Globos forever. Does everyone here understand that?”
Apparently no one did. The accused patron smiled benignly at Edelson as a bouncer left his position at the door and approached. “I’m sorry,” he said, almost politely, to the proprietor. “But who are you?” Edelson said nothing, ignoring the question with cool detachment. It was left to Rouel to intervene: “He’s the owner of this establishment.”
That display, tinged with self-enhanced anonymity, was classic Edelson. “Steve’s m.o.,” says Masura, “is to walk into one of his clubs, step behind the bar, grab a bottle of booze and a wad of cash, then look at the bartender and say, ‘What the fuck are you staring at?’ If you’re new and you don’t know the guy, you’re ready to clock him.”
Edelson’s clubs also operate with a particular brand of mystery. “You’re never quite sure what he owns and what he doesn’t,” says Brent Bolthouse, the city’s best-known club promoter. “It’s always hard to tell what’s true and what’s not with him.” Edelson has 21 commercial and residential properties in L.A., though he is vague on their exact breakdown. He may own a club, or the building it’s in, or have a 40-year lease on that building. Sometimes a property falls from his hands without anyone’s noticing. His Sunset Boulevard Union club (he has a 40-year lease on the building) was eventually closed over violations concerning his liquor license; to sustain its income, Edelson sublet the property to Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine. (“She’s the worst fucking businessperson ever,” says Edelson.) He is fond of buying apartment buildings that border his clubs. Renters who complain of noise at the bar next door are on their own: Either they live with the clamor or move on.
Edelson’s ventures have included Vertigo, Glam Slam, Lush, Hell’s Gate, El Centro, Sunset Social Club, and the Los Feliz restaurant Home. Unschooled in business, he is a savant when it comes to balloon mortgages and bad faith estimates. His native intelligence is legendary. Edelson’s brother, Richard, earned a double doctorate before embarking on a NASA career; he invented a method of measuring clouds with radio waves. Yet when they were boys and Edelson’s mother (who taught at Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green projects) tested their IQs, the future NASA scientist came in second. Each morning Edelson sits down to play a game of chess online. “As a kid,” he says, “my dad and brother were already good players, so there was a natural competition. It’s a great wake-up; it gets my mind racing.” (Conversely, he says, “I smoke pot to calm me down.”)
The Steve Edelson Formula for Great Salesmanship follows three basic steps. First, understand what the club buyer really wants, not what he says he wants (steady hot chicks versus steady income). Next, neutralize all objections blocking a buyer from committing (“$3 million is a lot of scratch for a dozen nights in the hay”). Finally, anticipate and mollify whatever doubts may haunt the buyer following a sale (“And if my wife finds out?”).
Sticking to this formula, Edelson says he sold his club the Larchmont to a real estate developer for $4 million and then during escrow, massaged the price to $5 million. He subscribes to the fast-food theory of nightlife prosperity: “McDonald’s keeps their own butcher shops and timber mills,” he says. “When I own multiple nightclubs, I can move parties from space to space, keeping venues full, creating my own circuit.” Purchasing an addition to the circuit, Edelson reverses the formula to discern the seller’s true motivation: “Do they want cash, or is it actually relief from the authorities or something else?” In buying Silver Lake’s El Cid, a deal Edelson says took a year to close, the deciding factor turned out to be mortality. “The owner was attached to El Cid,” says Edelson. “But he was 59, in love, and neither he or his partner had a life away from the club. I had to convince them that if they wanted to see the world, the time to go was now.”
“I partnered with Steve for ten years, and I never knew the whole truth about him,” says Greg Morris. “But he is the best salesman you will ever meet. He will sell your socks back to you dripping wet for twice what he paid, and you will thank him on your way out the door.”
Edelson is the rare operator who buys a property, designs the club, oversees the build-out, and then manages the bar—usually for a period of five years, after which he closes shop and leases the property for rent that averages $15,000 a month. Club operators in L.A. fit into several categories. At the top of the chain is SBE’s Sam Nazarian, wealthy enough to buy a building and hire a designer like Philippe Starck to fashion his club, a team to manage its operation, and a promoter like Bolthouse to fill the space with beautiful faces and Lindsay Lohan. Nazarian’s clubs are A-list: leather and chrome couches, bottle service, draconian door policies. Because A clubs rely on the moment and what’s hot, they can be short-lived; Nazarian might strike a club after a year, then open another in the same space.
Next come the investor groups, men usually in their thirties who pool resources, lease a space that’s often furnished, and find the requisite promoters. These clubs can be A-list or B-list, where far less money is spent on the build-out ($100,000 instead of $1 million), the couches (pleather and metal), the help (no bottle service), and the scrutiny at the door (everyone gets in). “An A club,” says Edelson, “creates a party that everyone wants to be part of. B clubs create a party that everyone is part of.”
Then there is the lone operator who does it all, again and again. “Steve manifests success like I’ve never seen with anyone,” says Elizabeth Peterson, who runs L.A.’s busiest club licensing business. “He imagines a deal, and it happens exactly as he wants it to.” There have, of course, been misses. Edelson once backed out of a contract for the Viper Room before Johnny Depp signed on, and the El Rey Theatre has slipped through his fingers. He’s made up for such losses with the catering company he co-owns that has staged events for Paris Hilton, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a show that eats from Edelson’s hand to this day. Even the tangerine grove, which might have proved a money pit, turns a small profit; Edelson didn’t buy it until he discovered a farm subsidy that generates earnings.
“Steve’s the shrewdest of operators, the millionaire who flies coach,” says Glenn Schneider, who partnered with Edelson before assuming his onscreen duties as party planner on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. “I went to work for him after I threw my roommate, Tom Sizemore, into rehab, and I remember asking, ‘Steve, how much is enough?’ It was $10 million then. Recently it was $30 million, but it will never stop. He has the longevity of a B club.”
The boundary that divides the shrewd from the unscrupulous is often hard to divine—especially in the nightclub business, where money can vanish before it appears. (Some operators take as much as 40 percent off the top before receipts are tallied.) Yet even for a club owner, Edelson has spent an inordinate amount of his life in courtrooms. His name, as plaintiff or defendant, has appeared in several dozen lawsuits and legal proceedings. He has been sued by apartment tenants (“illegal rent increases,” “retaliation,” “intentional infliction of emotional distress”); sued by club tenants who were unhappy with his skill in executing step three of his salesmanship formula (“breach of lease agreement,” “fraud,” “civil conspiracy”); and charged by the City of Los Angeles with at least 30 violations, usually for breaches of the fire code such as venue overcrowding.
Edelson does not seek out political allies to ease his path—making nice with police lieutenants and neighborhood councils to smooth over the occasional knife fight at a club, say, or noise complaints that can lead to citations and sometimes the shuttering of a club. Where other operators amass confederates, Edelson embraces the role of burr under the saddle, creating enemies: fire marshals, who monitor crowds and can close a venue; building inspectors, who oversee fire alarm systems and can close a venue; and city councilmen, who can step in at the right moment and rescue a venue. “Steve is smart enough to have been a major player in this town,” says Peterson. Edelson’s friends believe that, had the club owner learned to nourish accommodation with authority, he might have surpassed even SBE’s Nazarian. “But he has always been so damn arrogant with government,” says Peterson.
Often as not, however, Edelson wins in court. “Edelson 101 in courtrooms or home owners meetings is to create chaos,” says Tobin Shea, who managed both the Garage and El Cid for Edelson and spent five years as his roommate. “For a neighborhood meeting, where there are sure to be complaints,” he says, “Steve sends out a mass e-mail to his employees saying, ‘If you want to save your jobs, show up and pretend you’re happy patrons.’ ” In depositions Edelson falls wildly—and intentionally—overboard to confuse prosecutors and judges. Every now and then the tactic backfires. During an appearance before a Los Angeles housing department hearing officer this year, Edelson was thrown out of court for this exchange with an attractive female staffer:
“Are you an owner or a tenant?”
“I will be whatever it is you want me to be.”
Oddly, courtroom light best illuminates Edelson’s sprawling self: resourceful, charismatic, intuitive, combative, grandiose, reckless. Edelson belongs to that endangered type A species, Man in full maximus. It would have taken a fellow Chicagoan, Saul Bellow, to dream him up had he not existed.
To Edelson’s peers he is either a bane to their livelihoods, an operator unwilling to run his clubs by the book—“He gives our industry a shitty name,” says Peterson, who works closely with the Los Angeles police and fire departments to land the licenses clubs depend on—or he is an antihero, living outside the law to stay honest. “Steve may not do everything proper,” says Morris, “but he never rolls over when confronted with hypocrisy. City officials don’t like him because he calls them on their bullshit.”
When Edelson was a boy in Chicago, his father would take him to dinner at Slicker Sam’s each Sunday. “I never knew why,” says Edelson, “but we could always walk past 50 people waiting and get seated at a good table.” Every night at the restaurant was Mob night: Tables were filled with gangsters like Anthony “the Ant” Spilotro, whom Joe Pesci based his character on in the movie GoodFellas, and Sam Giancana, head of the Chicago Mob. What Edelson didn’t know then was that his father, Mitchell, was a friend of Spilotro’s and lawyer to Giancana’s associates.
The Edelsons lived on Chicago’s North Side in a small white house behind an unassuming front lawn. “My dad was never flashy with money,” says Edelson, whose checkbook could easily finance five times the house he owns in Ojai. “It’s something I learned from him.” As a lawyer, Mitchell Edelson divided his services among career criminals, the Black Panthers, and leading blue-ribbon commissions investigating political corruption. “My dad was an unofficial politician,” says Edelson, “the kind of guy people sought out to get things done.”
Mitchell Edelson’s most famous case took him all the way to the Supreme Court—as a defendant. In 1973, while sitting as chairman of a subcommittee investigating misconduct by Chicago prosecutors, he learned that prosecutors were enlisting accused criminals to wiretap their defense attorneys in search of malfeasance. A year later Mitchell fell victim to the same ploy when a client named Roger Camp taped their conversations at the request of a Chicago prosecutor. He was summoned before a grand jury and questioned about one consultation. When his answers diverged from the prosecutor’s transcript, he was charged with perjury. In 1978, he lost his last appeal, and the episode marred his life. Thirty-five years later it’s not hard to imagine Steve Edelson’s antipathy toward government stemming from the misfortune of his father—a man taken down by the office he was charged to investigate.
Despite his mother’s career in education, Edelson dropped out of school in the eighth grade. “It was a waste of time,” he says. “All you learn in Chicago schools is how to get beat by Irish and Puerto Rican guys.” He is hazy about his activities in the next decade, but by 1985 Edelson had amassed enough money to purchase a construction company, several pieces of real estate, and his first club, also called Union. Richie Cole, a lifelong friend who worked with Edelson in Chicago, remembers, “Union was all stainless steel with chrome tables—very hip for the 1980s.”
Around this time Edelson had a relationship with a Chicago model that ended in a broken engagement. A few years later, during a one-night reunion, she became pregnant, informing Edelson only after she had moved to the tiny island state of Malta. “She wanted the baby,” says Edelson, “but there was never any talk of raising the child together.” Mitch grew up in Malta and Chicago before he moved to Ojai at 15 to join his father. Softer, quieter, less engaging than his dad, Mitch sets out this month on a yearlong globe-crossing financed by Edelson. “He’s my best friend and my prodigy,” says Edelson. “But I hope he comes back more manly than he is.”
After Union, Edelson opened a riverfront club named the Bridge that held 3,500 patrons. “It was the biggest club in Chicago,” says Cole. “Boats would pull up, and people would spill off the river. Steve was incredibly successful, but he never made things easy on himself. He always had to do things his way.” Edelson routinely ignored an ordinance requiring customers to stay inside the club after midnight, and the Bridge began hosting nightly raids by the police. “When I managed the Bridge,” says Cole, “I must have been arrested on at least 40 different occasions.” The city stopped issuing liquor licenses to Edelson, shutting down Tough, another club, before it could open. “There is a reason he had to leave. He wouldn’t play by the rules,” says Cole. On his arrival in L.A., the Chicago Tribune reported Edelson had changed his name to “Steve Elliot.”
In L.A. he headed for the hottest nightclub, Vertigo, which filled an entire block of Grand Avenue downtown and turned him away at the door. “I had come from being the biggest nightclub owner in Chicago,” says Edelson, still amazed at the rebuff. “I drove a black Porsche, and the place still didn’t accept me?” Vertigo was owned by two USC graduates, Nick and Jim Colachis, and a Frenchman named Mario Oliver Jutard, whose engagement to Princess Stephanie of Monaco had recently ended. “He wanted out,” says Edelson, “and sold me his share for less than the price of a Toyota.” (Nick Colachis recalls Edelson buying a share of Vertigo, but not from Jutard.)
Edelson was installed as the club’s manager. “I was Patrick Swayze in Road House,” he says. “The bathroom attendants were selling drugs, the cooks were stealing food, the bouncers were taking $100 bribes. Everybody hated me.” One night, after Edelson spotted a patron passing counterfeit bills, he had him dragged to the kitchen by security. “It scared him,” says Edelson. After $2,500 had been taken off the man, Edelson distributed it to his employees before the police arrived. “After that, I was part of the crew.”
On a recent afternoon Edelson went for a drive, visiting his old haunts. He owns four Cadillacs: an STS, a pickup, and two Escalades. “If the car was good enough for Elvis,” he said, “it’s good enough for me.” Edelson idled on downtown’s Boylston Street outside the building the Colachis brothers built in 1991 when Vertigo entered its second life. “This is where the fire department wouldn’t allow Jane Fonda to have her birthday party because we couldn’t find a generator,” he said, recalling only conflict.
The musician Prince purchased 49 percent of Vertigo when it moved to Boylston; its name was changed to Glam Slam, and its popularity grew. One night when Peter Gabriel was set to play David Geffen’s birthday party at the club, Edelson received a phone call from Barry Diller’s office: “He wanted to come, I’d never heard of him, and I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re Phyllis Diller—you’re not getting in!’ ” After Diller did get in, Edelson began taking The Hollywood Reporter. On Sunset Boulevard he opened Union, where Jack Nicholson caroused with Robert De Niro, then set about buying one of the four Frolic Room bars. “The Frolics were owned by Don Gordo,” says Edelson. “He looked like the villain in Dune—fat, ugly, terrible breath, covered with warts. I had a long relationship with him.”
Edelson converted his Frolic Room on Santa Monica into Dragonfly. It enjoyed a lucrative run until the day Edelson’s partner, Brett Cantor, opened the front door of his home and had his throat slit. “The story on Brett,” says Tobin Shea, “is that he was given a Colombian necktie, his tongue pulled out through his throat.” Cantor’s family had been in the music business. His father, Paul, was Dionne Warwick’s manager, and Brett had signed Jane’s Addiction to their first record deal. Cantor was also friends with two of L.A.’s most famous murder victims: Nicole Simpson, a Dragonfly regular, and Ron Goldman, who worked for Cantor there as a manager. After the Simpson-Goldman slayings, which followed Cantor’s death, Edelson says he was interviewed by the police. “There was a tabloid story,” he says, “that accused me of murdering my partner and Ron and Nicole.” Online you can find an alternative history of the Simpson killings, written by murder junkies, that portrays Cantor as the first victim of a serial killer still at large. “The whole thing was ridiculous,” says Edelson. “At the time there were some bad feelings in Hollywood about me.” Saddened by his partner’s death, Edelson could no longer enter Dragonfly. “I sold the business after Brett got his throat cut,” he says. “Being there felt wrong, and it still does today.”
In Larchmont Village Edelson debuted Martini Lounge, another gravy train punctuated by mayhem: Its manager was stabbed after confronting pot smokers, and the venue gained attention in Rolling Stone when gunplay broke out during a hip-hop event. “A Mexican gang across the street was robbing someone,” says Edelson. “My hip-hop customers began shooting, and the Mexicans shot back.” More clubs opened: Lush; the Joint, where Neil Young, Joe Walsh, and Robert Plant played; and Hell’s Gate on Franklin Avenue, which Edelson decorated with guns, swords, skulls, and a tank of piranhas. “It was a fun kind of place,” he remembers.
In Silver Lake Edelson purchased a bar he named the Garage and asked Shea to run it. “The Garage was the longest legal after-hours club in L.A. history,” says Shea. “We’d close at 2 a.m., reopen at 6 a.m., then run all the way to two in the afternoon.” The operation brought in as much as $5,000 a day from patrons who’d already been up all night. “They were jacked on GHB and Special K, grinding their teeth at the bar,” says Shea. “I moved a lot of cocktails, saying, ‘Take this because you’re freaking me out.’ ” Each night he found himself stabilizing people who’d OD’d by sitting them down and pouring ice water over their heads. “We never called 911 because we were making too much money,” says Shea. “But we never had a death, either.”
Edelson’s real troubles with the Los Angeles Fire Department and the Department of Building and Safety began with Forbidden City, which opened in 2003. Peterson, who acquired the club’s permits for Edelson, says, “Steve convinced me he was going to go legit with that club and do everything by the book.” Peterson admires Edelson; she wanted to see him thrive with Forbidden City, his most ostentatious venture yet. “His vision was great,” she says. “But it ended up a complete disaster anyway. He treated inspectors like they were crazy and thought he could charm the city when he could not.” Nonetheless, the venue proved another hit: GQ and Miramax threw parties at the club, which was dressed to resemble a Chinese den of iniquity. Yet for all the money Edelson poured into Forbidden City (the club featured a retractable ceiling), it was not performing much better than El Cid, a newer, smaller acquisition that had a crowd capacity of 105. “We did well for the space,” says Shea, “but Steve was unhappy with its numbers.” Nearly all patio and ringed by a residential neighborhood, El Cid drew frequent noise complaints; Shea recalls a vice officer sharing a report listing some 200 calls to the LAPD or LAFD in just two years. “But Steve thought he could earn more,” says Shea.
Edelson did earn more: He fired Shea and brought in the promoters Gregory Alexander and Goddollars, whose floating event, A Club Called Rhonda, is among the most successful in L.A. “Other owners we worked with before Steve ripped us off,” says Goddollars. “He’s a club operator who’s been honest with us.” At El Cid, Rhonda drew 600 to 700 club kids a night; Alexis Rivera of Echo Park Records remembers an evening when “Rhonda had more than 1,100 people come to El Cid.” Vice squads stepped up their monitoring.
In 2009, Edelson chose to sell El Cid to a record company executive named Scott Milano. (El Cid had witnessed a dramatic raid during a flamenco show, when officials from the LAPD, the LAFD, the Department of Building and Safety, and the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control invaded the patio en masse, searching for violations.) The day after the sale Edelson changed his mind, and Milano took him to court in a suit that lasted three years. Milano won this year, and Edelson faced a bill of close to $430,000, including attorneys’ fees. But Edelson also won: Milano’s ten-year lease increases annually and will eventually rise to $23,000 a month—all profit for Edelson, who says El Cid’s mortgage is paid off. “It was the sweetheart deal of all time,” says Shea, who thinks El Cid will struggle under its lease. “Steve found a way to fuck over Scott far into the future.”
When Milano entered his new club, which was to be passed on intact, he says he found El Cid stripped of its tables, stereo system, and booze. “Steve gutted the place,” says Laura Masura, El Cid’s current manager. “He left the refrigerators open, so all the meat was rotting.” Edelson also allegedly charged $50,000 in liquor to Milano’s tab and released 2,500 online Groupons promising free El Cid dinners that Milano would have to buy. (“I’m just gonna deny all that,” says Edelson.) “It was so smart and weird and evil,” says Masura with admiration. “Like the Grinch before Christmas taking everything for the pleasure of hurting others.”
On December 1, 2011, city councilman Eric Garcetti’s field deputy, Ryan Carpio, sent a mass e-mail to members of the fire department, building and safety, alcohol and beverage control, and the LAPD. Titled “Los Globos Club and El Cid (again),” the e-mail reviewed meetings that Carpio and the LAPD had held about Edelson. “I’ve also heard from neighbors,” Carpio wrote, “that Los Globos and El Cid may need to be investigated for not complying with permitting (maybe even ABC requirements).” Carpio cited reports he vetted concerning “perhaps unpermitted construction” and “Los Globos…operating way past 2am.” He ended his e-mail with the hope that “…we can get ahead of this.”
The request was unusual. Rarely does a councilman’s office call on so many agencies upon hearing neighborhood rumors, and Carpio’s charges were mostly based on gossip. Los Globos was open past 2 a.m.; it had been licensed by the fire department to remain open until 6 a.m. The club had no known violations of its ABC license—which outlines how alcoholic beverages may be sold—and while Edelson initially performed electrical work without a permit, he had secured one by then.
Carpio’s e-mail was the opening shot of a war on Edelson—anyway, that’s how Edelson sees it. “When the deputy of a councilman everyone assumes will be the next mayor writes ‘We have a problem here,’ ” he says, “you know what happens next will not be good.” Edelson obtained that e-mail and others through the Freedom of Information Act, compiling a book nearly 100 pages long that he claims reveals a conspiracy. “It’s fine by this city if you fuck your best friend in the ass while snorting Oxycontin,” he said one afternoon at the Echo Park restaurant Mohawk Bend. “But if I have dancing past 2 a.m., they’re going to put me in prison.” Edelson was sitting—barely—inside the restaurant’s atrium, where he’d ordered the cheeseburger and flinched after spotting a plate of kale. “Where inside the Constitution does it say that people can’t dance to six in the morning?” he asked, the words spilling out faster than they could form.
Edelson’s reaction to Carpio appeared to be as over the top as the field deputy’s request. No one was going to prison. Still, 16 hours before Carpio’s e-mail went out an LAPD vice squad descended on Edelson’s Union property, now called Libertine, and arrested its operator, Prem Joshi, on “suspicion of violating” his conditional use permit. (The permit, held by most restaurants, bars, and clubs, states limits on matters of live music, dancing, and crowd capacity.) Joshi spent the night in jail for a violation that, if true, should have resulted in a mere citation. Four months later the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office filed 17 charges against Edelson—all connected to Joshi’s arrest, all were eventually dismissed.
After the raid on Libertine, Los Globos’s final approval from building and safety was reversed, leaving its future in limbo. (Lacking approval, the club was operating on a day-to-day basis and could be closed without notice.) Edelson had already watched as a film permit for Sony Studios to shoot at El Cid was canceled by the fire department because, he says, “of a case the [city attorney] claims to have against me that has not been filed.” (The city attorney’s office, along with the LAPD and LAFD, refused to be interviewed for this story or to answer numerous requests for comment.) Now, Edelson said, he was losing $30,000 a month on his El Centro property—caught in the fray, the club could not secure a liquor license—and the fire department was reviewing options to shut him down. In an e-mail to chief building inspector Frank Lara, fire marshal Gerald Travens wrote, “Also I was informed by our legal department that Mr. Edelson is on probation and any violation what so ever with regards to the night club will revoke his probation.” (Edelson was not on probation.)
“These are gestapo tactics the city is using,” Edelson explained at Mohawk Bend. Soon, he promised, he would build a second book of woe. “I’m going to get all their e-mails. I’m going to get all these people.”
It seems an eon since Edelson and Maria Cristina moved to Ojai seeking a quieter life with a new family. Appropriately, Edelson met Maria Cristina over a loan application. “I asked for one at Wells Fargo,” he says, “and when they turned me down, I went to see who did it.” The loan officer, today an attractive 40-year-old woman, accepted Edelson’s invitation to lunch that day. Even at 52, Edelson is roguishly handsome, a babes man. “You can see why chicks go nuts over him,” says Masura. “He has the perfect amount of eye contact and touching—there’s a fine line where men go over that, and Steve doesn’t.”
On a visit to Ojai, Edelson discovered his first hotel, the Capri, after passing on the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. “They wanted to charge an extra $20 for my dogs”—$520 a night instead of $480—“outrageous!” he says. The dogs stayed free at the Capri, and Edelson bought it the same day. The Hummingbird, the Topa Vista, and the Ojai Rancho Inn came next, along with the Deer Lodge, a timber-and-river rock saloon that sits under tall trees on Highway 33. Maria Cristina, whose spirituality dips into New Age, enjoyed Ojai, a sylvan valley known to seekers for its energy vortex and gurus (Krishnamurti lived there). Once the couple had relocated, Joey Casanova was born, followed by Valentina and then Aaron. Even Edelson’s purchase of three motels in the Northern California town of Shasta seemed linked to his new life with Maria Cristina. “There’s a lot of energy up there,” Edelson said over a beer at the Deer Lodge. One by one a steady stream of gray-haired hog riders had approached Edelson’s table to pay homage. “There’s stories of vortexes in Shasta, of the lost city of Atlantis under the mountain,” Edelson said. “Lumarians, extra molecules in the water—all kinds of shit.”
Edelson was clearly relaxed in the rural setting, but he wasn’t in his comfort zone, not like when he’s talking about how the man who could be mayor has it in for him. In its first months Los Globos witnessed a stabbing and a shooting, but the club was showing no signs of slowing. Large enough to function as two venues, Los Globos employed bookers who were busy securing 14 acts a week: reggae, punk, salsa, trance, KCRW readings, and once even a fund-raiser for Eric Garcetti. But Edelson has made no friends in the neighborhood.
At a recent meeting of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, an entire hour was spent discussing Edelson and his club. The problem: noise, violence, parking, patrons, hours of operation, and the owner’s scratchy personality. “If we have another meeting with Edelson,” ventured one council member, “the police must be present. I don’t want to see physical violence.” By the evening’s close a motion was on the table: The council wanted the mayor, the media, and the police chief to meet with them about Edelson’s ousting. “This is our final chance to take a stand!” announced another council member.
Rusty Millar has seen clubs come and go in his two decades on the council. But nothing, he said the following day, has grabbed its attention like Edelson. “He has an obnoxious personality,” said Millar. “It’s ‘Damn the torpedoes,’ and he’s obviously upset this board. But I live above Los Globos, and I don’t hear people getting shot all the time as we did with its previous owner.” Today the Eastside is experiencing problems with nightlife that West Hollywood has been dealing with for years. “But to think we’re going to enlist the mayor to shut Edelson down?” said Millar. “Well, I think some of our members are living off hot air.”
By the end of October, however, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council had nothing to worry about. On the last day of the month the Los Angeles Police Commission revoked Los Globos’s dance and live music permits, leaving the club open only for private parties. As if prepared for that day, Edelson had already dug himself in at Los Globos. “I have $50 million ready to defend myself for whatever the city throws at me,” he said recently. At home in the fight, Edelson doesn’t know how to back down, even when doing so would be to his advantage. Instead he has turned the club that might have launched his second act in L.A. nightlife into a garrisoned bunker. “When you have fought your way out of nothing to the top,” says Morris, “you don’t know anything else—and Steve doesn’t know how to do anything but tussle.”
Dave Gardetta, a writer-at-large for Los Angeles, wrote about sex toy manufacturer Doc Johnson in the July issue.
This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.