ONYX CAFE – My first cup of coffee, art show and open mic.

1802 Vermont will always be in the Onyx Cafe for me.

I had my first cup of coffee, art show, and did open mic poetry there. I taught my sister how to play chess there. I thought a lot there. I was safe there. I was there, there. So there is part of here now. John Leech was a father figure to all that walked in. Whether they knew it or not. Whether he wanted to be or not.

  • Robert E. Schmolze
see photos and full article at Wiki: http://onyxwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Onyx_Cafe

This article was written By John Leech shortly before his death in March 2009. Although John wrote it to be included as an entry in Wikipedia, we decided to preserve it here as he wrote it, rather than subject it to the whims of the wiki-editing public. Therefore we have locked this entry to editing. However, several of the images for the article are missing or could not be identified. If you have any of these images or notice any errors in the article that ought to be corrected, please send an email to [email protected] and we will update the article.

ONYX CAFE, Los Angeles, California (1982-1998)[1]

Pioneered the re-creation of the classic ‘beaux arts’ cafe in a distinctively modern format, designed by co-owner Fumiko Robinson. Catered to emerging artists in the visual arts, music, poetry/ spoken word. A trend setter in bringing elaborate espresso drinks to the public psyche, along with nouveau pastries in a sushi bar mise en place (including tiny fruit sushi). It became the iconic late-night arts gathering place in Los Angeles (as late as 4a.m. 364 days), where patrons came to discuss their own work, the art on the walls, and were free to perform if they chose (they did). ELLE said, “The Onyx was the original coffeehouse….(it) created a coffeehouse code: Art, …. must adorn the walls; poetry readings and impromptu sing-alongs are welcome….” [2] Over the years, the walls featured a new solo show every 60 days in each of two spaces. In addition it held 3 or 4 open group shows every year, with as many as 150 artists in each, packed in ‘salon style’ – plus several parking lot shows (“bring it, we’ll hang it”). Influences included – for Fumiko – a classic Japanese design heritage[3], and fond memories of cafes and museums of Europe from a recent sojourn; for her partner the clubs and coffeehouses of San Francisco[4]. They agreed that they had to reach for the comfort and style of European cafes.[5] Fumiko in particular also admired the old [[Onyx Club in New York.]] The music of the jazz greats that performed or were discovered there was a large part of the background music at the first location. And, in keeping with the tradition of the original Club, the second Onyx location also relied heavily on the original work of locals, supplemented by jazz radio. In both live performance in the Gallery became a staple. Both felt that brilliant artists were being frozen out of the ‘gallery scene’ and desperately needed a way to reach the public – a space that would not demand up to 60% commission (no commission at the Onyx).


A Gallery With Coffee


Roberto & Michael Carpenter at the original Onyx
The visual focus of the Onyx was clear from Ms. Robinson’s design. None of the humdrum browns and golds of the later chains. Her design contrasted the jewel colors of 50’s chrome and formica tables with the black and white of a checkerboard floor.

The gleaming glass and black of the ‘sushi bar’, which was the cake case, set off the crisp, bright colors of the Fiestaware dishes and the cups and plates Ms. Robinson had made herself.[6] But what subsequent knockoffs failed to understand was that the real purpose of the Onyx was the art. The lighting was always focused on the art so that it could be seen clearly, and the ceilings were high enough to accommodate large pieces. There were no ranks of drinks refrigerators; no lighted signs. Other than the menu board, there was no commercial advertising – just art. The art was not wallpaper. As intended, it drew strong conflicting opinions, but each new show was eagerly awaited. Patrons were encouraged to stay and read, write and draw, and, above all, talk to strangers. GAULT MILLAU GUIDE[7] said, “The atmosphere is….. wonderfully bohemian, with denizens who actually have meaningful… conversations…or…read a book.” An opinion apparently shared by DETAILS.[8] This included the real people behind the bar, who were famed for their intelligent and knowledgeable interaction with patrons. They were not called ‘baristas’ in those days, and in fact several of them went on to become award winning teachers,[9] published authors,[10] painters,[11] poets[12] and musicians,[13] film editors,[14] and managers.


The piano at the Onyx on Vermont Ave.
When Onyx moved to larger quarters in 1988 (four times the size) both café and gallery incorporated as “Community Coffeehouse Gallery Operators.” This embodied the goals and spirit of the venture – to become an art gallery for the community, and the community living room. The addition of a baby grand piano allowed everything from rock jams to practice for classical concert pianists, to a jazz trio sworn to play only original work.[15] Beck’s bandleader, David Brown,[16] learned to play saxophone practicing there, and Beck tried out his stuff on numerous occasions[17] – his dad and brother, Channing,[18] were ‘regulars’.

Lots of Help From Friends Flier for Peter Shire’s show. Billy Shire‎.


Jonathon Rosen

Assistance came from several established figures in the art world, particularly Peter Shire[19] (two shows), his brother Billy[20] from Wacko/La Luz de Jesus[21] (1 show), Adolpho V. (Al) Nodal,[22] curator of the Otis Parsons Gallery and later Cultural Affairs Director for the City of Los Angeles, and Gronk, a supportive customer whose napkin art inspired the 1992 Napkin Art Calendar. His work graced its cover and a wall at the first location on Sunset drive. The execution of the latter was a live performance piece in its own right.

In fact the Onyx arts programs ran almost entirely on a dedicated volunteer base. Jonathon Rosen[23] did seminal work in establishing the diversity of Onyx. He curated shows, organized musical events (his was the electric saw in “Sacred Antennae”), created graphics for all the early events, and helped design demitasse cups and saucers (they became the café’s most stolen items).

Michael Carpenter
Like Michael Carpenter before him Michael Whitmore started out working behind the bar. He began playing in the café, and then found himself pestered, like Carpenter before him, by others who wanted to perform too. Ultimately Whitmore[24] was responsible for the most famous of the music bookings at the Onyx, and was behind several of its off-the-wall performance set pieces.[25]

Michael Whitmore
Whitmore booked Beck[26] on numerous occasions in his early days. Mark Stewart[27] first performed at the Onyx in December 1988.[28] He also brought in Nels Cline Trio,[29]Anna Homler,[30] Vinny Golia,[31] the Geraldine Fibbers[32] and many others who wisely used the Onyx as a platform to polish their act. An audience was guaranteed, not the least because the resulting show was always free, and no minimum purchase was required. File:Andy.jpg File:Bliss.jpg In the 90s, Andy Takakjian[33] produced a flood of memorable graphics over many years. And, Tomas Bliss,[34] best remembered for his 19 hour long cabaret mounted on an improvised stage directly over the service bar where it could be seen by stunned pedestrians gathering in the street.

Food & Drink

Mia Simmons

As witness Peter Shire’s “Flying Tea pot Show”,[35] the initial focus was as much on tea as coffee, and thanks to the influence of Ms. Robinson, on food and drink as art. Both partners had recent memories of tea experiences in their travels. John in the tea growing highlands of [ [Malaysia]], and Fumiko in the ceremonies and rituals at Japanese temples and tea houses. It was ‘no’ to tea bags, and ‘yes’ to fine Darjeelings and botanicals. ‘English Tea Time’ was observed with pearl teas, and wisp thin, crustless cucumber sandwiches. Onyx was one of the first European style cafes to serve individual brews of Vietnamese coffee, and to offer beans roasted and ground at the customer’s table. It became famous for its rich frothy unsweetened hot chocolate from Ms. Robinson’s friend Carl Deidrich Sr., in Costa Mesa.[36] And, as long as the old fashioned soda siphons were still available genuine old-fashioned high foam egg creams were served.
Only light food was served such as quiches, sandwiches, homemade soups and empanadas. A tradition of more elaborate Sunday brunch was started by the late Mia Simmons who brought her sensibilities as a sculptor to the task. Deliberate effort was made to get away from the cheap wine and cheese fare for openings with gourmet hand-prepared treats served by the owners,[37] the objective being, once again, to direct attention to the importance of the artist. Traditional barbecues[38] were held in the parking lot on most of the big summer holidays. They were always free, with bands and performances in the Gallery and art in the parking lot. In the winter there was always a Once-a-year All-are-welcome Holiday Feast of medieval proportions.


The last show at the Vista Theater location comprised costumes designed and made by Lunna Menoh,[39] framed as art, hung on the walls, and worn by the artist as she performed in a jewel box setting in the window of the café.[40] But, this ending was just a new beginning, not only in the life of the Onyx, but also for the people involved, and it encapsulates so many things about the Onyx. Fumiko went off to New York to further her interest in tea, eventually becoming the Darjeeling Tea Lady. While helping Fumiko select avant garde music tapes for the café, one of the ‘regulars’, Carl Stone[41] introduced her to Lunna. Fumiko gave her a show, and through that show Lunna met Tosh Berman.[42] They went on to collaborate during his stewardship at Beyond Baroque, and eventually to marry. Lunna has since collaborated with Steven Okazaki. This closing show was Rosa Tsukinoyo’s[43] first public performance. She continued to perform eventually working with the well known Japanese-American film maker Steven Okazaki.[44] Although the café continued as the Onyx Sequel at a new location on Vermont it was much larger, less intimate, and lost some of its design flair (e.g. no more checkerboard floor, or fresh flowers on each table). But, in the process it gained a larger, more participatory clientele which led to more poetry/spoken word, music and performance. As Lucinda Knapp said in her article, “Blank Verse Generation,”[45] “The Onyx became ground zero for the creative outsiders of Los Angeles in the late ’80s and through the …. ’90s.”. Especially since it was now able to accommodate larger pieces of art, large group shows, and artists with a large body of work, like Kari French’s[46] “Barbecued Barbie” show. File:LAURA HOWE.jpg The original purpose of the Onyx partners was to create a space that would start careers in the visual arts, maintaining that space through the sale of coffee (etc) instead of taking commissions. The goal was to put art into people’s lives, to get them to focus on it, think about it, form an opinion, talk about it, and above all, participate. The Onyx did that. Of course there were many critics – “Oh, this is the worst show I’ve ever seen!!!” Little realizing that the next person in line would express the exact opposite view. Both were living proof that it was working.
The expansion enabled the Onyx to make a considerable contribution to the spoken word scene in Los Angeles, both directly as a free venue and as a catalyst pushing others to compete – especially the Pik-me-up, and other early copies. Several books came out of it.[47]


Lionel and Nigey
The spoken word tradition was started by Lionel Rolfe and Nigey Lennon at the old Onyx next to the Vista Theater, and was continued sporadically by Whitmore. But, it did not really get under way until S.A. Griffin stepped in (again voluntarily, and unasked) and started putting together complete spoken word programs. Eventually Ben Porter Lewis and Milo Marten decided it was time to compete and started producing their own roster of poets and performers. Their format was somewhat different, and involved an attempt to recapture the old ‘beat’ atmosphere by using an improvisational music back-up or accompaniment for those reader/performers who would have it.


S.A. Griffin
As the following lists of participants show, the essence of the Onyx was its diversity. It was not bound to any one style or to pleasing an elitist customer base as many galleries are. Yet, it did not lack focus. The focus was on helping emerging artists gain momentum, not on any particular style, medium, heritage or iconography.

Community Outreach

Over the years Onyx made an effort to reach out to the broader community.

These are some of the “off campus projects”:
Art in the Park at Barnsdall By special arrangement with Al Nodal, the Cultural Affairs Director for the City of Los Angeles, the Onyx took an espresso machine, art and music up to the lawns at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in the Barnsdall Art Park as a ‘warm-up act’ for the F.A.R. lectures given in the auditorium by the City.[48]

A similar outreach was made to several L.A.C.E events at their old location in what was then the gritty part of downtown Los Angeles.
Booth at Art Expo. Onyx packed a booth ‘salon style’ with paintings, masks, and 3-D pieces. Exhibitors at the Onyx booth included: Paintings — Patricia Ancona Ha, Mario Calvano, Jane Chafin. Mike Cronin, Lisa Gordon, Stephen Holman, Greg Jezewski, Lauren Mendelsohn, Francis Nazarius Almazol, Lucas Reiner, Frank Rieber, Lisa Teasley, Amanda Toy, Arturo Urista, Cynda Valle, Vinzula, Robert Youngman plus masks by Deborah Bird,[49] and 3-D cut outs of zoot-suited rockers cutting up, by Stephen Roullier.

L.A. Fringe Festival
For each year that the City of Los Angeles held an Art Festival, the Onyx participated in the Fringe Festival[50] which was intended to stimulate art in the neighborhoods in conjunction with the big City sponsored events downtown. Onyx placed work in most of the store windows on the two adjacent blocks, and had a full program of music, poetry and performance plus a group visual arts show that spilled out of the Café and the Gallery into the parking lot.

The Onyx Echo

This was opened as an overflow performance space on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. It had its own very energetic ‘scene’ thanks largely to Ulysses Jenkins, and Eloy. It was only open for eighteen months before closing due to financial constraints.


These were a mixture of public service and recruiting tool. They were free public events with free food. Circulars went out through the neighborhood to encourage people to bring their art on the day of the event and space would be found to hang it. For many this was their first public showing. For others it was a way to ‘audition’ for a show at the Onyx.

ONYX Changed the Neighborhood

A few small ‘hip’ businesses had started to appear on the adjacent block of Vermont Ave., but when the Onyx moved in the pace accelerated rapidly. As Christopher Hitchens recently wrote in Vanity Fair: “It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers developers, chain stores, generic restaurants and railway terminals. This little quarter should be the preserve of – in no special order – insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; ……. aspirant painters and musicians ….. misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships……”[51] File:Quebedeau.jpg With the Los Feliz (movie) Theater, Chatterton’s/Skylight Books, Milton Katselas’ Skylight Theater, George’s and the Dresden Room at hand, and Onyx staying open later than all of them, such a neighborhood was founded. Its success was its downfall. It inevitably attracted gentrification. What follows is a sampling of the visual artists, musicians, poets and performers, not already mentioned above, who helped put Onyx on the cultural map of Los Angeles. 20 Examples of Visual Arts Solo Shows

This page copyright © 2009 onyxwiki.com.

I reposted this page for the special place the ONYX holds in my life and to archive it. onyxwiki.com does not exists any more. Robert Schmolze