The Tarzan Fan From The Detroit Purple Gang

Buzz Bunin’s Journey From The Detroit Purple Gang to L.A.s Nightclub Scene, and a Lifetime Collecting Edgar Rice Burroughs.

by Paul Hunt

Buzz Bunin was from Detroit. He told me when he was a young man he worked for the Purple Gang, which was a Jewish mob that controlled the booze in the Detroit area during Prohibition. At the height of Prohibition, the mob ran 25,000 speakeasys and supplied liquor to Capone and the Chicago Outfit.

Buzz, real name Isidore Buster Bunin, was a young man at that pre-war time; he never mentioned just exactly what he did for the gang, but hinted at warehouse work. It was a huge operation, with enormous amounts of liquor being purchased in Canada and brought by boat to Detroit, and then re-distributed to the underground bars. There was a lot of work to do, folks like to drink.

He said when World War II came along he enlisted and went off to war. He claimed the mob continued to send his paycheck every week to his mother. After he was mustered out at the end of the war, he got his job back immediately with the mob, but Prohibition was long over, and things had changed. The Purple Gang was fading and opportunities to live a life of crime were not appealing. Buzz eventually headed west and came to Los Angeles.

By the 1950s Buzz was ensconced in Los Angeles. From the 1930s to the 1970s the nightclubs were the rage, and the theme of South Seas clubs, Tiki, Hawaii, and Hula were all over Southern California. Big bands like Billy Rose played the larger clubs. The bamboo decorated bars and phony sounds of rain pouring on roofs of the clubs were popular for years. Owners came and went, clubs were sold and re-sold, liquor licenses were bought, sold and sometimes cancelled by authorities.

There was no Purple Gang in Los Angeles. The payoffs, kick-backs and crime was run by the City, County and State of California governments. The cops were involved, the vice squads a pool of corruption. The many films of the 30s and 40s, as well as the crime novels of Chandler and other writers portrayed the real story of the seedy side of justice and crime.

Into this world entered Buzz Bunin. He had at least some experience back in Detroit with the same type of corruption that had seeped into the Los Angeles area. The Purple Gang was an extremely violent mob and eventually controlled much of the City of Detroit through fear, bribery, murder and strong-arm activities.

What was Los Angeles like during Prohibition? From 1920 to December 1933, it was illegal to produce, transport, import or sell alcoholic beverages. It was a Constitutional amendment and when it was clear that it was a monumental mistake, it took years to repeal. Meanwhile it was an opportunity to make a lot of money being involved in that business. A huge part of society thumbed its nose at the law. Secret bars, clubs and speakeasys were all over the County.

Mikee Sherer, old Pantages employee, in front of the Frolic Room. R.I.P. Mikee

When I first started in the book business in the 1970s, I remember going to estate sales and private calls in houses in Hollywood and L.A. where I found or was shown secret panels and sliding book cases that revealed narrow staircases that went down into concealed bars and party rooms. A lot of houses had built in these camouflaged dens of private booze huts. I later found out that Hollywood Boulevard had illegal bars hidden away. For instance, the famous Frolic Room bar next to the Pantages Theater started out as a private bar for the rich elites who were coming to the Theater, which opened in 1930. In the downstairs west lobby was a secret panel that let patrons into the bar, which ran until the end of prohibition. It later opened as a legal bar, the Frolic Room, which is the only actual bar still operating on Hollywood Blvd. The bright neon still draws in packed crowds most nights.

Tunnels ran under Hollywood Blvd.

One old-timer told me about a tunnel that ran down under the North side of Hollywood Boulevard from Argyle west toward Highland Ave. that allowed local mobs to move booze secretly down to the hidden bars and speakeasys. I’ve seen the remains of sealed-off tunnels, most were totally obliterated when the Metro subway dug through Hollywood.

When Buzz Bunin got to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, he was already a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He was an avid reader and especially liked the Tarzan novels. In the age before television, most educated adults were reading books. His obsession for Tarzan and ERB adventure novels led him to buy 2 South Seas type nightclubs: The Zamboanga Club at 3828 Slauson Ave. in the Ladera Heights area of Los Angeles, and the Mandalay Club at 2519 E. Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach.

It is unknown where Buzz got the money to buy the Clubs. It is unlikely that at that time he could have done so himself, unless he had a large amount of money from a relative. It is possible that he had secret partners from the Detroit area, but that is speculation. The history of both clubs, which had been around for some time, is interesting.

Joe Chastek

The Zamboanga Club was started by a colorful character named Joe Chastek in 1938. Chastek and a high school friend, both 17 years old, stowed away on a freighter and landed in the Philippines. In the Polynesian Isles he fell in love with the culture, and when he returned to Los Angeles, opened the Zamboanga. The original name of the club was Joe’s Zamboanga South Seas Cafe and Cocktail Lounge. Chastek later shortened the name to The Zamboanga Club. He also opened a club in downtown Inglewood, The Trade Winds, 338 S. Market Street. This club, under different ownership, survived possibly into the early 1970s. By the 1950s it had turned into a Jazz Club and some LP recordings were done there with famous Jazz artists, including Charley Parker and Chet Baker.

Don Blanding’s book inspired Chastek

Around 1946 Chastek sold the Zamboanga and possibly the Trade Winds and opened a large Club called Vagabond’s House at 2505 Wilshire, an elegant and fabulous South Seas type Club. This club opened in 1946 and lasted many years, and lore has it that it was named after Don Blanding, the famous L.A. poet and artist. I had one friend who told me his mother dated Don Blanding and was going to marry him at one point. A few years later my mailman, when I lived in Hollywood, told me that he also delivered mail to Blanding, and that “Don Blanding was a big fag.” So who’s to know? He produced nice poetry books with delicate illustrations. His books came out at a time when Hawaii was hot in the Clubs, so no wonder Chastek used the name Vagabond’s House.

Joe Chastek was very active in community affairs, and was President of the Los Angeles Optimist Club, among other civil projects. Joe Chastek was possibly the first “Trader Joe” in L.A., as he advertised on match book covers of The Trade Winds Club.

The next owner of the Zamboanga was a flamboyant entrepreneur named Lou Nasif. He billed himself as “Zamboanga Lou”, and promoted dancing in a “Polynesian Paradise” with “cool tropical Drinks.” It was the home of the drink called the “Tailless Monkey”, and said to be “The World’s Most Beautiful Polynesian Paradise. The 400 occupancy club was busy with all kinds of bands and shows over the years. here’s a few:

Cab Calloway, the king of “hi de ho”.
The Pied Pipers
Jo Cappo (that zany comedian who does the Chaplin impersonation) and Sy Sommers “his pantomiming antics will have you in hysterics.”
Benito “Pat” Moreno, tenor singing sensation of 1948
Magician “Channing” pulling his tricks’
Dick Peterson and his orchestra
Judy Martin, trigger-fast tap dancer,
Kay Kalie’s music,
Elmer the Great, “whose popularity rests on his ability to pull more gags with whiskers -and as a consequence, take more heckling than any guy in show business. A neighborhood fave “despite his mildewed corny material.”
Bob Lord, another “singing sensation.”
Billy Rose Orchestra,
“Zamboanga Follies” – Burlesque as you like it.
Rod Rogers, Lovely Paula Lynn, Susan Joyce.
Comedian Russell Trent “gone over with a big bang.”
Senor Roberto and his Latin American Revue (colorfully garbed dancing puppets)
Sandy Sanders, former cigarette girl at Ciro’s with her own line of dancers.

Zamboanga Lou must have sold the club to Buzz in the early 1950s. I found some other traces of Lou Nasif as the owner of the Blue Chip Club, 14087 So. Vermont, Gardena, CA. This was a match book cover, undated of course. I also saw an ash tray type thing advertising Lou’s Village, 1465 W. San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA., also undated. Meanwhile, the Zamboanga was trying to lure in customers. An ad claimed that the club had “Gone Chuck Wagon” and it was all you can eat for $1.50. No minimum and no cover makes that a pretty good deal at the time.

The other club Buzz acquired around the same time was the Mandalay Club, 2509 E. Pacific Coast Highway in the Signal Hill area of Long Beach. The beginnings of the club are a little more mysterious. An entrepreneur named Robert Steele owned a Mandalay Club, possibly the same one, although I couldn’t trace it for sure. It burned down or was torched in 1940. He then opened the Cricket Club at 1752 N. Vine in Hollywood. In 1954 a man named Phil Kessler “re-opened” the Mandalay Club. He claimed to have spent $30,000 to remodel and turn the club into a “Hawaiian Motive.” In 1955 a newspaper blurb said Buzz was “associated with management of the club.” He must have been at least a partial owner by then.

In 1956 a legal notice was published that Buzz was selling half-interest in both the Zamboanga and Mandalay Clubs. This included selling half-interest in both of the liquor licenses. The buyer and new partner was a man named Nathan Norman Hendlin. The trail of the clubs as far as Buzz goes, ends there. Hendlin and Buzz were partners at that time, but Buzz and his wife had a son born in August of 1955, so if the South Seas Club milieu was fading, Buzz would have needed to make enough to support his wife and child. Buzz went into Real Estate. Mr. Hendlin died in 2016 at 99 years old back in Minnesota.

Buzz was in Real Estate in Southern California from 1958 until 1972. He worked for William E. Doud Co. in 1958 and 1959. From 1960 to 1972 he had his own company, Buzz Bunin Realty, and ran frequent ads in the Los Angeles Times. In the mid to late 1960s Buzz shows up as a program manager for the Beverly Hills Businessmen’s Club. One of the programs that he introduced was for Beverly Hills Police Chief Anderson who had just written an autobiography. I’m sure Chief Anderson had no idea that he was being introduced by an ex-member of the Purple Gang! Buzz was undoubtedly chuckling to himself.

When I tried to trace Buzz’s liquor licenses for the Zamboanga and Mandalay Club, they were not in the computer system of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department (ABC). Some research opened up the whole panorama of Los Angeles crime. When Prohibition was declared law in 1920 the State of California gave the job of overseeing the liquor license and offenses to the State Board of Equalization. This opened up an era of crime in the State that went on at least until 1955. Payoffs and bribes to officials and cops from the illegal bars and speakeasys were frequent, and a big source of revenue during Prohibition for the vice squads and politicians.

William Bonelli

In 1938 William G. Bonelli was appointed to head the State Board of Equalization. Prohibition had ended in 1933, and now the BOE would issue liquor permits. It soon became a lucrative source of income for politicians and cops. A lot of the sleazy bars in downtown Los Angeles had “B” girls working the bars. These gals would attach themselves to customers and encourage them to drink, with of course, the girl’s drink secretly watered down by the bartender. This practice was illegal, but hundreds of “B” girls were working at L.A. bars doing this. The BOE officials were running a “shakedown” on the bar owners, making them pay up $25-$30 per week in bribes. Bonelli was indicted by a Grand Jury in 1939 for a 10 million dollar bribery scandal. Bonelli in return, wrote a book accusing the L.A. Times of having a Billion Dollar Black Jack and running scandals in California. Bonelli eventually fled to his huge ranch in Mexico where he lived until he died in 1970. His family ran his real estate empire in the Santa Clarita Valley and his auto race track in Newhall. In 1955 the State passed a Constitutional amendment and created the ABC Dept to handle liquor licensing, removing it from the Board of Equalization and at the time Bonelli.

Bribery in the Liquor License arena was rampant. But also in real estate. Buzz told me more than once about the corruption in the L.A. City zoning department, where developers could get zoning changed over the objections of the local residents by bribing officials. I don’t know if Buzz or any of the other owners of the Clubs had to pay off the Liquor Czars and corrupt pols. Since I couldn’t track the old numbers nothing can be determined if there was a shakedown going on.

A Canaveral Press title, Frank Frazetta dust jacket

Sometime in the mid 1980s Buzz came by to see me at the book store. His interest in Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs led him to contact Canaveral Press in New York. Canaveral published reprints of many ERB titles and also published works of his that were not previously in book form. They had pretty much closed down by the late 1970s, but somebody still working there told Buzz that all the remaining stock of books had been given to their secretary as a closing down bonus for all the years of good work for the company. The secretary then left New York and moved to Santa Monica, CA, which by chance was where Buzz was living. He tracked down the lady (whose name I have forgotten) and found out that she still had quite a lot of the old Canaveral titles. They were stored in an old office building in downtown Santa Monica in a basement storage room. Buzz bought me lunch and told me he was buying the books and asked me if I would help him move the books to a storage unit. So Buzz ended up with a load of ERB remainders and I helped him to sell them to Burroughs dealers. We also bought some from him and sold them at the bookstore, they were titles not seen in years and were fast sellers. Buzz managed to find a few first editions in the batch and added them to his collection. It was an incredible find, and he sold out of all the books.

In early 1990 Buzz, getting up in years in his late seventies, decided to sell his collection. I arranged for him to send it to the California Book Auction, which had the sale April 12, 1990. It was sale number 328 and most of the items sold. Buzz finally got paid for his collection, but it was touch and go because the auction house soon folded up and itself became a historical artifact. Some consigners did not get paid. The story was that the owner, a ninety year old man, was standing on a corner in San Francisco when a street car went past and the electric arm on the wire came loose and swung around and wacked him on the head. Incredibly, the old guy was really tough and out of hospital within a week, but decided it was an omen to close the business and retire. I don’t know all the details, but if Doug Johns is still alive he could probably fill in the blanks.

Buzz Bunin died a few years after selling his collection at auction, although he had kept a few ERB books he was reading at his apartment at Barrington Plaza. He was a fascinating man, a good friend, and I wish I had asked him a million questions before he passed, especially about his time with the Purple Gang and his adventures in the South Seas nightclubs of Los Angeles. RIP Buzz Bunin.









J. J. Lally Reference Library Up For Grabs at Christie’s

Lally Dealt in Oriental Art Objects

J.J. Lally

For nearly forty years, J. J. Lally & Co. presented exceptional Chinese works of art to collectors, connoisseurs and museums worldwide. Established in 1986, the gallery was at the forefront of a pivotal moment in time, when New York City emerged as an important center of Chinese art. Situated in the jewel-box gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street, J. J. Lally & Co. became known as the intimate space where Chinese masterworks could be admired, contemplated and studied in the tradition of China’s ancient literati. Carefully planned exhibitions accompanied by catalogues with in-depth scholarly research defined the impeccable reputation of the gallery and the esteemed dealer who created it. In the following years, this dedication to quality and scholarship led to the placement of important objects in top museums and collections across the globe.

Visitors to J. J. Lally & Co. will remember the iconic reference library, which also served as a quiet, private space for first-hand viewing, study and discussion. The sale of the library will comprise 116 lots of essential volumes for the new and experienced collector, including reference books, scholarly journals, museum exhibitions, auction catalogues from the 1970s-2021, as well as a complete set of J. J. Lally & Co. exhibition catalogues.

The sale will be open for bidding from 15 March, 8:30 AM to 30 March, 8:30 AM (EDT).
Margaret Gristina

+1 212 636 2180