Happy 'Trails' to Esther Williams!

“By the time I got home late at night, my eyes were so chlorinated I saw rings around every light. 

“Which, in a bizarre way, explains how I ended up buying a restaurant…”


Ready to hear the story of how Esther Williams wasn’t just one of MGM’s biggest stars in the ‘40s and ‘50s, she was also something of a ‘mermaid tycoon’ off-screen? This blog post, which is part of the Third Annual Esther Williams Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood, is all about Esther & Ben Gage’s The Trails!

Esther described how the couple came to own the restaurant in her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, writing that by the time she got home from the studio: “Ben would be waiting in the house with ‘someone I just had to meet.’ Usually it was a new ‘best friend’ from the nineteenth hole, and invariably it was someone who desperately wanted to sell me something, often stocks and bonds, or real estate. Ben would go on and on about what a good deal it was, and finally I’d say yes. When you’re that tired, you just say yes so you can get that stranger out of your house, give the babies a bath, hold them, sing them to sleep, then learn lines and go to bed. Already we had invested in a gas station and a metals product plant. This time I invested in a restaurant called the Trails, another deal ‘too good to pass up.’

Esther bought The Trails with her then-husband Ben Gage in 1952 when the restaurant was about to go into receivership, so they got a great deal on it. The only change made was to the exterior sign: it read “ESTHER & BEN GAGE’S THE TRAILS” to stroke Ben’s ego.

The Trails was located on Sepulveda Boulevard and Centinela Avenue, in the Westchester section of Los Angeles. 

Esther described The Trails this way: “The Trails, which was a really great place, had a huge bar, a dance floor, and a bandstand where Ben sang with a combo. But the most original attraction at the restaurant was a glass-enclosed miniature zoo, complete with parrots, fish, and a group of very active monkeys. There you’d be, eating dinner, with four monkeys masturbating behind you. Nobody ever complained, but somehow, I never thought this kind of action went with food.” 

According to Esther, “There was also a giant guest book in the entrance way, and everybody wrote the same thing: ‘We like the birds. We like the fish. And we sure like the monkeys. But where’s Esther?’”


via jercl-cat on Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Trails had an ad in the Photoplay eats section every month: “The Trails, 6501 S. Sepulveda Blvd., ORchard 1-1622; Sundays noon until midnight. Mondays 11 until midnight. Others 11 until 2 A.M. Owned by Esther Williams and Ben Gage, this spot is truly Western in fun, hospitality and the thickness of its steaks. Always a celeb somewhere, particularly around 11 p.m. $6 will do it.”

Fun fact: Jayne Mansfield used to work at The Trails before she became famous, working there as a photographer!

The Trails featured classic steakhouse meals on its menu: steaks prepared a variety of ways, California lobster, sole, chicken, pork chops, and jumbo shrimp. 

The Thursday special was a ‘Whole Roast Stuffed Spring Chicken on a Plank à la Gage for 2 for only $4.25; the Friday special was Planked Catalina Swordfish garnished à la Esther for $2. 

You could also get vegetable cocktails, soups, salads, or items from the cold buffet, which appear to be vegetables stuffed with meats. The desserts ranged from rice pudding to ‘old fashioned’ strawberry shortcakes to pies and sundaes and…slices of cheese? The ‘50s, man…



The couple renovated The Trails in 1955, though I couldn’t find any reference to how it was renovated. As mentioned earlier, Esther stated that the only thing that ever changed was the exterior sign.

The Trails was good for business because it was close to the MGM Studios in Culver City but even closer to one of Howard Hughes’s companies, the Hughes Tool Company. The workers there would head over to The Trails for lunch…and stay. “Some of them never left until closing time,” Esther recalled. They weren’t supposed to drink on the job, but some of them, she said, would drink at lunch, “they drank after lunch into the cocktail hour, and then past that until dinner.” 

Given that Hughes’s company was close by, this meant that he inflicted himself on Esther as well. But he’d conduct business in the back room, racking up phone bills to the tune of $1,700, and when Esther yelled at him to pay it, he tried to work out a deal with her. No dice, according to Esther. She made sure he paid the full amount.

[Side note/tangent: I very much loathe Howard Hughes and don’t understand why so many women kept falling under his spell. Whenever he pops up in a biography or autobiography I roll my eyes.] 


Louella Parsons wrote an impassioned defence of Esther Williams after she’d won the least cooperative actress award from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club (otherwise known as the Sour Apple) in April 1954, saying: “You’re a good level-headed Yankee business woman, a full-time partner in toil as well as finances with Ben in the operation of your successful restaurant, various real estate and investment ventures and the bathing-suits and bathing-dolls, sidelines of your bathing-beauty fame.

“I hear your Trail’s cafe does $250,000 per year and that your earnings during the remaining years of your M-G-M contract will amount to nearly $2,000,000.

“Yet, you and Ben do the unheard-of thing of paying your giant income-tax bite in a lump sum in advance each year, live on $18,000 annually, and save what you can.

“Because you are a property owner and a taxpayer, you make it a point to be a good citizen. The year of the presidential election, you got out in the rain and rang neighbors’ doorbells campaigning for Ike because in your heart you believed in him and in the good you believed he would do the whole country.”


In an April 1953 article for Photoplay, Esther said, “To begin with . . . about me. I’m not running a four-ring circus. I’m not a mermaid-tycoon. I’m not a business executive. And I am not head of the house of Gage! That sort of nonsense has gone on long enough.”

She’d play the role of housewife letting her husband take the lead business-wise throughout the decade, deferring to his control of The Trails—even if that might not have been the case behind the scenes. If you read through other Photoplay articles throughout the decade, Esther and Ben’s marital issues (real or imagined) almost dominate the storyline. 

In the same article, the writer mentions how Esther and Ben manage to live separate lives and manage separate careers (it mentions Ben’s putting in anywhere from an eight- to a 24-hour work day without specifying what his career is) and still meet up every night for dinner at 8:30pm, unless Esther is too tired from work or too busy studying a new script. “Those are the nights Ben relieves his restaurant manager.” 

The writer continues “Ben is her business manager but he’s no Hollywood husband. He hasn’t time! During her last two pictures, he has been on the lot for a total of two half-hours. As he said, when he visited Dangerous When Wet, ‘This makes me nervous, to watch eighty men standing around waiting for my wife to dunk her torso!’

“He comes to the set when the picture is over, when he and Esther give a party for the crew and The Trails caters it.” 


Esther said: “I wouldn’t have married Ben Gage in the first place if he had not been a man of great personal strength—spiritual strength and mental strength. He’s a man who is sure of himself, he doesn’t need a clinging-vine female who can gaze up at him and say, ‘You big strong man, protect me from this big world!’ That’s not the sort of thing I can say, it would be artificial and sort of funny.”

And she added, about the idea that she was a one-woman empire who ran everything behind the scenes and Ben did nothing: “Why, I’d have to be shipping doors to Sacramento, ordering meat for the restaurant, hiring and firing waiters, speeding up shipments of steel for the machine shop, and be out at The Trails counting cash at 3:00 a.m. on the manager’s night off. I wouldn’t have time to be in pictures!”

By the end of the decade, Esther and Ben’s marital problems were becoming insurmountable and it didn’t help that her taxes were under investigation due to Ben’s spending and cooking the books at The Trails. He’d hired two ‘accountants’ to keep the books and by 1959 his scheme was uncovered. Esther wrote that all told, she lost around $250,000 on The Trails. 

Esther and Ben would separate and divorce by 1959. I couldn't find any reference to what happened with The Trails after their divorce, so if anyone knows, fill in the blanks in the comments!

Comments

  1. What a great post! The Trails is one of my Esther blindspots I haven't found time to investigate more, so I appreciated this info. There's been a Trails menu floating around on eBay lately (it might be the same one in your pictures!), but the price tags for it and a Trails wine menu are frankly ridiculous. I also have to say that I love how all those fan magazine articles gush about what a fantastic husband Ben is and then Esther's book is like, "No, I did everything and all he did was drink and act like an idiot and spend my money."

    Thanks so much for contributing to my blogathon!

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