The Fascinating 25-Year History Of Three Clubs, Hollywood's Landmark Bar

Just like Hollywood, Three Clubs—a dark and moody strip-mall bar that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary—has been reinventing itself over the decades. The watering hole that once employed Renee Zellweger as a bar-back and served as a set for Swingers is now cozying up with a different clientele: live-theater folks.

While downtown L.A.'s bar scene may be getting all the attention lately, Three Clubs co-owner Marc Smith is predicting that Hollywood Theatre Row, a mile stretch along Santa Monica Boulevard, is going to be the next it neighborhood. There's a chance Smith could be right. The bar veteran (and potential soothsayer) is usually one step ahead. He's been a vanguard in launching bars in rather dead neighborhoods that flourished soon after, like Burgundy Room in gritty '80s Hollywood and Golden Gopher in downtown in the early aughts.

In order to understand the new direction Three Clubs has been gearing towards, we first have to understand its history. We chatted with Smith and his current and former employees—from old doormen to bartenders—about those crazy early years when Three Clubs was like a speakeasy and cops would bust them all the time, to when A-list celebrities were just struggling actors ordering martinis at the bar.

"Young, Wild and Free"

When Smith first opened his iconic dive Burgundy Room in the Cahuenga Corridor in 1988, people told him he was foolish. At the time, who could blame them? Hollywood, once a hot destination, had become a desolate and rough neighborhood that wasn't even desirable to tourists, he says. Downtown, which was then home to some of the top clubs, was sitting shotgun, and Hollywood was in the back seat.

Smith could tell people were beginning to grow weary of the club scene and having to trek out to downtown. "People started wanting more of these mellow evenings, one-on-ones, less dancing, more talking," he says.

This sentiment was the impetus for Smith and his partner Matthew Webb to open Three Clubs. Like with Burgundy Room, Three Clubs, which opened on December 27, 1991, was positioned in an even more undesirable location, near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Avenue. It was in a dingy strip mall that they shared with the Bargain Clown Mart discount store, whose towering yellow sign would end up serving as a marker for patrons trying to find the then-nondescript Three Clubs. Now, the bar has "Three Clubs" emblazoned across its exterior walls.

Three Clubs had taken over a space that formerly housed a down-and-dirty dive bar, the kind that opened at 6 a.m. for all-day drinking. Smith, who designed his lounge, gave it a late '50s Las Vegas, Rat Pack feel. The bar was dimly lit, had leather tufted banquettes, mahogany paneling, casino-like carpeting and even black glitter popcorn ceiling. It was very different from the bars that were around at the time.

"We liked Vegas, we were very into Frank Sinatra. I have to thank the Rat Pack crew for being very pivotal in that world," Smith says. "I had a '66 T-bird, a '66 Triumph. We just wanted old things. It was kind of old Hollywood."

DJs would spin newer renditions of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra tunes. There was a strict dress code: Patrons had to dress up, wear suits, collared shirts and dress shoes. Three Clubs had a speakeasy vibe to it, where there was a door with a slider that you would have to knock on to get in. Smith and Webb wanted their clientele to consist of couples and small groups—not a crew of 10 frat boys—to hang out at the bar.

“We were nice,” Smith says. “We weren’t that snobby. We just wanted to tailor an aesthetic, really.”

Three Clubs quickly garnered a following and long lines. Smith says he hated the lines, but they had to run them because if they exceeded capacity, the fire marshals would come in and bust them. When this did happen, someone had to take the fall, take the citation, spend a night in jail and go to court. "I've been to jail like three times on this place," Smith says, adding that he and his co-owner would take turns on who was going to get arrested on those busy nights. But for them it was a financial decision that was a price worth paying. It was either allowing just 50 people in the bar, or making a lot more money on a night with 150 patrons and taking the hit.

He credits the authorities for making them take down the iconic Bargain Clown Mart sign; even though the discount store had already shuttered, the sign still sat on the roof of the bar. Smith says they tried to keep it as long as they could, but police and fire marshals told them it was an electrical hazard to keep that sign. They would either have to get rid of it or redo the sign, which would have cost them $25,000. They didn't have the money and reluctantly took it down, but they did save the gels. "They just wanted to f—- with us because it was one of those times," Smith says.

What also made Three Clubs stand out at the time was that they were serving classic lounge cocktails. The idea of slinging old-school martinis instead of the average vodka-and-cranberry drinks that were more common seemed novel at the time. "I remember talking to a magazine writer about [serving martinis at my lounge] and she was like, 'What do you mean? That sounds really boring, like [a place] my parents went to. Are you sure?'"

But guests loved drinking martinis out of the stemware and it became a hit.

"You're so money and you don't even know it."

With the old Las Vegas and Charles Bukowski vibe of the joint, it only seemed apropos in hindsight that the iconic L.A. film Swingers, which was released in 1996, was filmed at Three Clubs. The guys behind the movie made bar hopping the central feature of the film, and hit up all their favorite haunts, from the Dresden to Three Clubs and the now-shuttered Derby.

The Swingers crew, folks like Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, were regulars in real life at Three Clubs. They were friends with Smith and his doorman-turned-bartender Rio Hackford, who now owns several bars including downtown L.A.'s El Dorado and Monty. Hackford, who worked at Three Clubs throughout his 20s during the '90s, cut his teeth at the lounge. He credits Smith for being his mentor and essentially being the inspiration behind the design and feel of his current bars.

Hackford, who's also an actor, says he was a struggling one at the time, same as his buddies Favreau and Vaughn. He helped them secure the filming location at Three Clubs, and because they had such a low budget, they couldn't afford renting out the whole place or hiring extras; they just filmed while regular patrons were hanging out at the bar. Hackford ended up with a role in Swingers: He played Skully (a.k.a. House of Pain), the dude that confronts the guys during that tense sense in the parking lot where a gun gets pulled out.

In regards to the bar hopping, Hackford says, "That movie encapsulates what was going on at the time, and the excitement that was going on in that bar scene with the Derby and Three Clubs and other spots."

"Show me the money!"

Celebrities would come in all the time to Three Clubs. It was dark inside and it was a different time when paparazzi weren't hiding at every corner, those pre-TMZ days. "There was always something going on in Three Clubs in those early years of pre-cell phone and pre-social media where you'd go and hide away and have a good time and not worry about it being in the press the next day," Hackford says.

Smith recalls Steven Spielberg often chatting with Tom Cruise in their back booth, and Quentin Tarantino was a regular. Hackford remembers that before anyone knew Matthew McConaughey, he used take off his boots at the bar and do a "Texas scoot dance."

Perhaps Three Clubs' biggest claim to fame was that Renee Zellweger was a bar-back for a few months there. "Renee Zellweger was dating a friend of mine and she needed a job because she just came out here from Texas," Hackford says. "She was my bar-back for a short time, but a memorable time."

"There's this tiny girl, and young and so sweet and just busting her ass, just hard working, cleaning glasses and moving things," Smith says about Zellweger, adding that he remembers she used to wear yellow rubber gloves to clean glasses so her hands wouldn't get dry.

After Zellweger left Three Clubs and made it big (Jerry Maguire had been released by this point), she returned a few years later to rent out the bar for her birthday party. Every big name in town attended, from Jay Leno to Tom Cruise. Zellweger even put on yellow gloves again for old time’s sake.

"I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll All Night"

After a few years in business, Three Clubs began using its back-bar stage, a separate room connected to the bar, for live concerts. Everyone from John Mayer to Elliott Smith and Billy Idol performed on that stage.

Smith was buddies with the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they attended Fairfax High School with him. They ended up performing at Three Clubs as well. Perhaps one of the more interesting stories was that before the late Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots became famous, he was a regular at Three Clubs. Weiland used to play paintball with Smith and his buddies.

The performances evolved from rock bands to DJs, but Smith felt like his bar needed something more to set it apart. That's when theater came into the picture.

"The show must go on."

About three years ago, Three Clubs got involved with Hollywood Fringe, a nearly three-week annual festival for experimental theater performances, and opened up their back bar stage to host performances. It wasn't until Michelle Hodan came on board as the entertainment director of Three Clubs about a year and a half ago that they really ramped up their theater presence. Hodan, who has a theater background and previously helped open restaurants and bars like Vinoteque and Little Beast, now schedules shows for 364 days out of the year, except for their New Year's Eve show, which is produced by another group.

Creatives will write shows that are specifically tailored for the Three Clubs venue, scenes that incorporate drinking games in them. The shows run the gamut of cabaret to burlesque and musical performances, or even a combination of all three, like their Friday residency run by Cherry Poppins Productions. Alli Miller, a co-founder and co-producer of the production, describes her performances as "parody musical theater shows sprinkled with burlesque."

Hodan describes the vibe of all the theater and live band performances as "disruptive," in a good, casual kind of way. While the shows are going on, patrons will walk in and out of the back bar stage to smoke on the patio or grab food like a Frito pie or a burger at the grill (no fancy poached salmon here, Smith says), and bartenders will loudly shake cocktails. "It's raucous, very interactive, very loud," Hodan says. "We are a part of the community but also very unique to the community because we offer something that no one else can."

Hodan and Smith are serious about immersing Three Clubs into the theater scene. They built a green room, upgraded their sound and lighting system, and are engaged with the theater community. Besides inviting creatives to write plays and musicals for their stage, Smith also goes to theater houses during opening nights to personally deliver bottles of champagne to the cast and crew to wish them luck.

Miller says she always jokes about how Three Clubs is the "sexy Cheers" because the bartenders really get to know everybody there. Whenever she puts on a show, half of Miller's customers will tell her that, when they get to the bar, the bartenders already have their drinks ready for them before they've even ordered it because they know them so well. "Michelle and Marc trained them that way to make them feel at home," Miller says.

This warmness at the bar seemingly has brought people closer together. Miller says she met her boyfriend at Three Clubs. Smith and Hodan are dating as well. Former doorman C.C. Skusa says he met his now ex-wife at Three Clubs, when she was the cigarette girl for Miss Kitty's Concessions; they ended up having three sons together. "It was a homey place, so pretty much everybody was family there," Skusa says.

"If you build it, they will come."

Smith and Hodan see a change happening in Hollywood because mixed-use developments are getting built, and the nearby Paramount Studios is working on a nearly 1.4-million-square-foot expansion. They see the theater scene growing as well, with big-name actors working on plays while they're in between TV or film projects. They expect a boom in the area and they want to start preparing for it.

"[The theater scene] was kind of lying in obscurity for a while. They were doing some good plays and were self sufficient but weren't growing," Smith says. "We believe that this area is good for a growth pattern now. We want to put more restaurants and bars in Theatre Row."

Currently, he describes Theatre Row as being an incomplete experience because there aren't that many restaurants and bars nearby where theater-goers can visit after shows to chat about the performances. There are mostly other strip malls, and a Yoshinoya and Taco Bell in the area. A few blocks north of Three Clubs is Sassafras bar, but beyond that, there isn't much more. Smith is a longtime member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and has been working with Councilman Mitch O'Farrell and Mayor Eric Garcetti to revive Theatre Row.

Smith is in the middle of licensing his eponymous "Smith's Liquor Mart"—a working name for his upcoming project—that will be situated in the same strip mall as Three Clubs. It'll be an homage to the old liquor marts of Hollywood, but will also allow you to sit down for a bite and a cocktail while you're there. He describes it as being like Wally's in Beverly Hills, but funkier, "way more down and dirty, much more liquor driven, and with many more airline liquor bottles."

Smith laments that L.A. has forgotten about Hollywood, but he's working on making it a much more inviting place. Smith envisions Theatre Row as one day having a lot of foot traffic, as well as the vibe of a cafe society. He might just be on the right track.

Jean Trinh is a food, lifestyle and travel writer, whose work has appeared in KCET, VICE, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and on her website.