Younger veterans took control of Post 43 and lured a cool crowd with Art Deco bar and movie house—plus free parking
Cover photo: Photo: Jon Endow
HOLLYWOOD—Here are words not often seen together in a sentence: American Legion and cool.
The young guns who have seized control of American Legion Post 43 are trying to fuse them together in the minds of a new generation of combat veterans, rebranding their venerable Egyptian Revival building, with its underground Art Deco bar, as “the coolest private club in Hollywood.”
“We have the cheapest drinks, the nicest people, the best-looking bar,” says Post Commander Fernando Rivero, a 42-year-old TV producer who engineered a bloodless coup that overthrew Post 43’s old guard. “We have free parking, which is of tremendous value in Hollywood. There’s really no other place I want to go.”
The American Legion has an image problem. Though the group is immersed in good works, its name summons visions of crotchety vets nursing beers in linoleum-floored posts. An “old-timey funny-hat club,” in Mr. Rivero’s words.
At one California Legion convention, he was aghast the program mostly featured ads for hospices and cemeteries. He waved the booklet in frustration. “You realize your advertisers are branding you?” he said. “Welcome to the American Legion—prepare to die.”
The organization also has a demographic problem. World War II and Korea vets are indeed dying at a rapid clip, with the Vietnam generation next in line. Despite constant war since the Sept. 11 attacks, the country’s veteran population is expected to fall to 13.6 million in two decades, from 20 million today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Hollywood post, which opened in 1929, has in its new incarnation managed to prosper and attract vets for whom hip isn’t necessarily a prelude to replacement.
“I never thought in a million years that I’d be so into this,” says Second Vice Commander Jennifer Campbell, 35, a former Army truck driver turned personal trainer. “I’m as surprised as anybody.”
Down the road from the Hollywood Bowl, Post 43 has long ties to the entertainment industry. Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and Rudy Vallee were members. Shirley Temple was an honorary colonel, and photos of her curls stand out in the Post museum amid the machine guns, a dog-tag stamping machine and an Adolf Hitler pin cushion. (Suffice it to say he’s bent over.)
In recent decades the Post business model provided ample money for good works, from Boys State to patriotic oratory contests to projects to help veterans navigate the VA. The legionnaires rent their parking lot during events at the Hollywood Bowl. Movie and TV producers film at the Post; a young Jim Kirk lost a fight in the Art Deco bar in the 2009 movie “Star Trek.” For nine years starting in 1984, the entire clubhouse was a stage for the immersive production of the play “Tamara.”
But there was little effort to make the Post a social center for new vets.
“We appreciate the generation that came before us,” says Ms. Campbell. “But we don’t want to hang out with 80-year-old men all night.”
To join, vets previously had to show up in person when the Post was open, find their way past the locked side gate and pay the $33.50 annual fee with a check. “The only way to communicate with the office in 2011 other than phone was with a fax—it was like 1986 in there,” says Mr. Rivero, a Navy lieutenant commander who served in Afghanistan.
Membership was limited to 500, partly out of concern that, if more joined, there would neither be enough parking nor enough food at the twice-monthly free dinners.
In 2014, Mr. Rivero and seven other members—mostly post-9/11 vets—met secretly at a Burbank steak house to devise a plan to take control of Post 43 and make it more fun. They code-named the operation the 1st Reformational Congress, then changed it to more voter-friendly Future 43 movement.
They drew up a party ticket and challenged the old guard in elections for leadership positions. “We thought we’d be run out of town,” recalls Mr. Rivero, who produces trailers for “American Horror Story,” a show on FX Networks, which shares common ownership with The Wall Street Journal.
It turned out the old guard was no match for the high-tech electoral prowess of the young guns, who used email and text messages to round up votes. Mr. Rivero softened his own image by putting a photo of himself with his mother on a campaign flier.
The cabaret room went silent when it was announced that three Future 43 candidates had won spots on the executive committee, enough to form a ruling junta with some sympathetic old timers.
Subsequent elections secured the Future 43 party a majority of seats, with post-Sept. 11 vets now holding the posts of commander, first vice commander and second vice commander.
Their first move was to set a goal of doubling the rolls to 1,000 by 2019, parking be damned. Suddenly, the bar—a classic speakeasy—opened more than one night a week. There was karaoke, comedy and live music. Members formed a shooting club, a motorcycle club, a running club. They held barbecues on the plaza in front of the building, where passing vets could see signs of life and inquire about membership.
A Hollywood group, Veterans in Film and Television, began meeting at the Post.
In January, the new management put up a website allowing vets to join by clicking and paying dues by credit card. (Vets must email a Pentagon form showing that they served honorably during wartime.) The site shows attractive vets hiking, and posing for glamour shots in the speakeasy.
So far this year, more than 260 have signed up, compared with 19 inducted in 2011.
“At first I was referred to as the girl with purple hair,” says Danielle Baker, a 35-year-old former Army chemical-warfare specialist with purple hair. “But I’m not the only girl [at Post 43] with purple hair.”
The Post trumpets its diversity by gender, race and orientation, but still wrestles with rules from the past. The Legion auxiliary was created for members’ wives and daughters, which means the spouses of lesbian veterans can join, but husbands of gay vets cannot.
The younger vets pushed through a $2 million project to convert the big meeting hall into a 482-seat digital movie theater where, after construction is complete next year, studios will be able to screen military-themed movies. “They’re going to go with the polished concrete floors the young people love today,” says Tim Shaner, 70, a Vietnam-era Coast Guardsman.
“It’s going to make Grauman’s Chinese Theatre look like a second-rate place,” says Jimmy Weldon. Now 94, Mr. Weldon served in Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp and, later, performed the voice of Yakky Doodle duck in the Yogi Bear cartoons, a character that still creeps into his daily conversation.
The new-generation leaders try to show respect for the old ways. Mr. Weldon still wraps up the monthly business meeting with the words, “Let us close with Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America.’”
Still, the young guns’ offensive has met with light resistance.
Some older members worried about taking on debt to fund the theater renovation. Some feared the young vets were going to take away the free dinners at post meetings. Mr. Weldon is unhappy that not all meetings open with prayers: “This was a shock to us.”
It is, old timers admit, the way things have always worked at Post 43. “The Vietnam vets, much as we wanted to make changes, were dragged down by the WWII vets, who were dragged down by the WWI vets,” recalls Mr. Shaner. At one point, the WWII vets—who sometimes treated the Vietnam vets with you-lost-your-war scorn—refused to disclose the full membership roster to the Vietnam vets, he says.
Even supporters of the new generation find the new branding a bit jarring. “I’ve never used the word ‘cool’ in my life,” says legionnaire Les Probst, 84, who patrolled the demilitarized zone for North Korean infiltrators in 1953. “I don’t know what ‘cool’ means.”
Resistance, however, has melted away before the undisputed recruiting success of the post-9/11 legionnaires. Says Max Thayer, a 71-year-old Vietnam-era Army medic: “It has been like a blood transfusion.”