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Visual effects Bake-offs and a party for the ages

January 21, 2011 |  6:47 pm

Awards season doesn’t just mean bright shiny statues and long-winded speeches but also parties, lots of parties. Pre-parties, after-parties and screening parties dominate the social scene. And Thursday night the visual effects branch of the academy held its annual Bake-offs, its version of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. The members wine, dine, schmooze and reunite with old friends before strolling down Wilshire Boulevard to the academy screening room to narrow down the nominees for best visual effects from seven to five. More on that in a minute. But first, a little about the longtime eatery that has hosted this shindig for nearly 20 years, Kate Mantilini.

To start with, the woman behind Kate’s is actually named Marilyn. The grand dame restaurateur of Hollywood, Marilyn Lewis -- along with husband Harry -- founded the Hamburger Hamlet chain, one of the original celebrity hangouts, back in the '50s. The tall and bubbly Marilyn, with a head of brightly colored copper hair, has a story to tell as colorful as anything the visual effects folks were watching.

The real Kate Mantilini was actually Marilyn Lewis' uncle’s mistress in Cleveland, Ohio, where Marilyn was born and raised for a time by her grandmother, who cooked lobster bisque and onion soup for the rich during the Depression.

Those recipes came in handy when Marilyn came to Hollywood and met Warner Bros. contract player Harry Lewis, who dreamed of opening a hamburger joint for actors to meet and relax after a show--thus, the Hamlet in the name. They opened on Sunset Boulevard with just two burners in 1950 to a house packed with Harry’s actor friends, including Tony Curtis and Sammy Davis Jr., who once manned the grill for three days while Harry and Marilyn got hitched in Las Vegas, Marilyn Lewis recalled.

Throughout the '50s and '60s the restaurant expanded into a successful chain, and Marilyn started her own couture clothing line, Cardinali, and was soon dressing the likes of Nancy Reagan, Eydie Gorme and Dyan Cannon. 

In 1978, Lewis says, she survived a kidnapping in Chicago and in 1987 the couple sold Hamburger Hamlet for $33 million. That same year, they opened Kate Mantilini. In a town where restaurants and clubs come and go just as quickly as a reality show star’s career, how did the Lewis' manage to keep going for so long? An indelible proximity to talent agencies, the Writers Guild and academy screening rooms hasn't hurt.

But more than that, said the Lewis' son David, who manages the day-to-day operations with younger brother, Adam, since Marilyn, 81, and Harry, 90, retired last year, it was a savviness on Marilyn's part that kept them in business. “My mother had a sensibility and sensitivity to what the public might want but don’t know it yet. She was always ahead of the game, for example having a hamburger joint with amazing hamburgers but with lobster bisque and onion soup."

The family has been associated with many awards over the years. Harry starred alongside Edward G. Robinson as gangster Edward “Toots” Bass, Humphrey Bogart’s nemeis in “Key Largo,” for which Claire Trevor won an Oscar for supporting actress.  Marilyn clothed the Emmy Award winning Marlo Thomas in “That Girl” and in 1998 produced “The Passion of Ayn Rand” for Showtime with Helen Mirren taking home a Golden Globe for her starring performance. 

At the moment, posters of the cast of AMC’s Emmy-winning “Mad Men” grace the 30-foot proscenium wall. The recent addition of a photo of actress Jessica Paré who plays Megan, Don Draper’s newest secretary/fiancé, may be a hint of what’s in store for the show next season.

And on Thursday, it was a night of celebration for the wizards behind the scenes. In addition to visual effects masters at the Bake-off, Jon Favreau showed up to support his "Iron Man 2." So far, “Inception” and “Tron: Legacy” appear to be the front-runners in a field that also includes "Alice in Wonderland," “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part I,” “Hereafter” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

The results of the voting will be announced along with the nominees from all the other Oscar categories on Tuesday.

--Liesl Bradner

Photo: 2002 file photo of Kate Mantilini by Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times