Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Touch Club

Another experience to come out of my father's L.A. years with Playboy was involvement with a private, membership-based Beverly Hills supper club called Touch. The connections are fuzzy in my mind. I always want to say that the club was backed financially by Playboy Enterprises, but I'm not sure this is accurate. It may have just been that one of the club's owners belonged to Hefner's entourage—being one of the many who made it their business to stop by the Playboy mansion on a regular basis. Or perhaps he (I forget his name, despite having heard it regularly at one point in my life) was a salaried employee of the company, linked somehow to club/casino operations? However it came into being, the Touch Club opened in the early 1980s (perhaps it was the year 1980; it was eventually sold in 1986), and we dined there sometimes, my parents and I; this was always a special occasion I got to dress up for. I don't remember the menu, but based on the intended clientele, I'm willing to bet it was fairly sophisticated, and I know I had my favorite dishes. I remember thinking the food was very good—then again, I was hardly a qualified restaurant critic at the time. We ate in semi-circular booths, which, I seem to recall, were upholstered in a slate gray shade of rich suede; the color scheme of the club was black, gray, and perhaps maroon. I could be way off on the maroon, but gray and black were prevalent. The most stunning feature of the club's interior was an incredible work of art: upon entering the club, you'd see a phenomenal wall of etched glass, floor to ceiling and dozens of feet long, forming a transparent corridor through which guests might follow a hostess to their table, if they weren't passing the opposite direction to the dimly lit bar. The etched figures of women on the glass were Erté-like in their style, very tall and slender, very glamorous. I hate to think of what happened to those glass panels when the club was finally dismantled. I remember two visits to Touch above all the others. The date of one of these visits is completely unknown; the other I can extrapolate from the occasion, but somehow the chronology is at odds in my mind with other details of my family's history. I seem to recall that my father's fiftieth birthday party was held privately at the club. I remember us all standing around on what was otherwise the dance floor, eating and drinking; I remember some guests (especially one family friend in particular, M.), and a rich chocolate cake with candles. The confusion comes because if this memory is factual, then that would have been in January 1985, and I would have sworn that my parents had left Los Angeles by then, moving back East to split their time between New York and Miami (my father commuting back and forth for Pan Am). I had already been in boarding school for a year and a half, and I would have been transitioning from one arts school to another. Christmas 1984 was spent in New York City, I am certain. Clearly I've lost track of the date of my parents' final move from California, and I can make no sense of how I could have been both at Touch for a party and settling into a new school in Michigan at the same time. But there was my father's fiftieth (or whatever paternal event I'm confusing this with), and then the one other visit to Touch I remember, the one with no hope of linking a date to it other than to say it was years earlier than the party: my mom and I spent a Saturday afternoon in the Touch Club kitchen, where the chef, Noel Cunningham, gave us a private cooking class—a hands-on tutorial in pastry art. This was, I'm pretty sure, my first visit to a commercial kitchen. Since then, I've walked through many others, even worked in a couple. But this was special. Chef Cunningham took my mom and I through the steps of baking a professional and rather elaborate (for us) cake. It was a rum-laced cream layer cake, with ground nuts pressed around the outside of the cake and the top decorated with pink marzipan roses. It was the first time I tasted the kick of rum in pastry cream, and I loved it instantly. I'd never like plain whipped cream again. The almond-paste roses were more amazing to me than those found in nature: we molded and sculpted them petal by petal, and I remember feeling so proud of learning to make them. Chef Cunningham couldn't have been nicer to us, though I wonder whether perhaps we weren't in his way, two VIP family females, no doubt foisted upon him. He probably had better things to do, but if he thought this he was much too much the gentleman to let us know. I think instead that perhaps he genuinely did enjoy that time together. Mom and I took the cake home on a blue and white round porcelain platter that we were told to keep, and which later made many moves with us, was used often and fondly, but finally broke beyond practical repair some years ago. Chef Noel Cunningham later went to Denver, Colorado, where he opened the restaurant Strings, which is still in operation. (The link to Cunningham's profile on the Strings site is here. He is pictured with his wife, Tammy, and together they also run the Cunningham Foundation, which since 2003 has had the mission of "helping the courageous people of the impoverished areas of Ethiopia to help themselves." The foundation is www.cunninghamfoundation.org.) I also remember another chef in the Touch kitchen that day (the sous chef, perhaps), whose name was Graham; he had an Anglo accent of some sort, had close-cropped carrot-colored hair, and we heard that he ended up in Hawaii (also that he died young). The club's doors were shut for good more than twenty years ago, it seems. I'm glad that, in contrast, the door to my memory of the place and the people, the enjoyable moments spent within the club walls, is still open. Maybe I'll contact the Cunninghams and let them know I'm thinking of them, too.

1 comment:

  1. Thought I'd offer a follow-up, for clarification's sake. My father read this post and chimed in on a couple of the points that were fuzzy to me. According to him, the financing of Touch did not involve Playboy the corporation, but Hugh Hefner contributed personal money to finance the club, so the connection in my mind was valid. The man in charge of the club was John Dante, a long-time friend of Hefner's, going back to the beginnings of the Playboy Clubs. The name of the club, my father says, came from "touch dancing," along with the old movies of that time; the menu, he confirms, was sophisticated. Apparently, my memory of the decor is "perfect" (his word), so it's nice to know I can nail some of the details, despite it being a long time ago. My father was Hefner's link to John Dante on this particular project, and he (my father) still has his membership card to the club, number 0006. Known members included sports and entertainment celebrities (think L.A. Lakers, think "The Tonight Show"). As for the 50th birthday party, my father can't figure out the chronology either; he just remembers returning to Pan Am in 1984, so what we were all doing in L.A. in January 1985 is still a mystery. It must've been some other birthday. It's just that my parents didn't really throw parties for their birthdays on average years, so maybe I was just somehow assuming it was the 50th, when in fact it was... birthday number 48? Finally, my father says he's glad to know that Chef Noel Cunningham and his wife, Tammy, are still together and still in Denver. He says maybe he'll get in touch with him, and I hope he does. Renewed connections are turning out to be a great side benefit to these posts.