Warner Leroy's Restaurants Make Him the Wizard of Odd

UPDATED 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

When Warner LeRoy was 4, he liked going to work with his father, Mervyn, who just happened to be producing The Wizard of Oz at the time. One day between takes, Warner now recalls, "I was skipping up the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Emerald City, and I ran into this wall. I had no idea the Yellow Brick Road was only 20 feet long and that the rest was actually a painting. I think that's the moment in my life when I recognized the difference between fact and fantasy. Thank God I did. If I hadn't, I could have been in terrible trouble."

Nevertheless, at 47, Warner LeRoy usually operates at the outer limits of reality. He is, after all, the flamboyant restaurateur who considered having orangutans roam the garden of his swank Central Park eatery, Tavern on the Green. Later he decided that would be too much. After his first restaurant, Maxwell's Plum, opened on Manhattan's East Side in 1966, he rented a second-floor apartment across the street and had actors stage fights in the apartment window to entertain his patrons.

Last year, for the opening night of his new Maxwell's at San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, LeRoy wanted to awe his 600 guests by having sky divers land in the square, but the Federal Aviation Administration objected. Instead, LeRoy mounted a dazzling fireworks display and hired six marching bands to parade through the restaurant's dining rooms after each of the meal's nine courses. The evening's festivities cost $100,000.

"Spectacle entertainment" is LeRoy's phrase to describe what he does for a living that nets him an annual income "in the high seven figures." He contends, "I'm not really interested in making money. I'm interested in the projects' making money so that I can do other things. If I can move civilization just a teeny bit by creating shows, spectacle and theater, I'm happy."

LeRoy, however, could do without the sideshow being staged by his longtime partner, Hardwicke Companies Inc. It filed suit last month in federal court in New York charging LeRoy with fraud and racketeering. Hardwicke is 50 percent owner of Maxwell's in New York and Tavern on the Green, both of which LeRoy operates. Hardwicke also ponied up funds for Great Adventure, the $75 million safari-amusement park in central New Jersey which LeRoy designed. Though Hardwicke owns and operates the San Francisco Maxwell's, LeRoy, who designed the restaurant, receives 4 percent of the gross.

Their tangled business relationship is almost as complex as the lawsuits they've filed against each other. LeRoy blasts Hardwicke's allegations as "totally untrue, malicious, reckless and scandalous. They are a desperate and dishonest attempt by Hardwicke to blackmail me into dropping a legitimate $30 million breach of contract action which I filed last year against Hardwicke. We had an ironclad contract to do two more restaurants."

Construction of one of them—an $8.5 million "spectacle" restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront in Washington, D.C.—is scheduled to begin next month (it won't open until the fall of 1985). Undaunted, LeRoy says, "I've lined up enough financing to go ahead with it." True to form, LeRoy has spared no extravagance. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant ("I don't want to create a chain of Maxwell's," LeRoy says) will seat 2,000 people on six tiers and features a lush garden with waterfalls flowing down to the Potomac.

At his surprisingly modest Manhattan office (over the front door "LeRoy Adventures" is inscribed under a colorful Oz-inspired rainbow), LeRoy unleashes his imagination. On the walls are LeRoy's designs for the Ritz Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, another Hardwicke-planned venture for which LeRoy hopes someday to find another backer. The ceiling of the casino lobby is to be gold with moving, twinkling stars, and the walls will have jukebox tubes filled with "millions of bubbles," LeRoy enthuses. "It's about as far out as I can go." Except, perhaps, for one of the dining rooms, through which LeRoy has designed a series of canals with gondolas bearing minstrels.

LeRoy has toured the world looking for properties to develop and has put in a bid to buy the legendary Fouquet's in Paris. He would also like to build a Tivoli Garden-type amusement park on Manhattan's West Side and a 1,000-acre theme park in New Jersey, across from the Statue of Liberty.

Not all are enamored of LeRoy's flair. New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton has given Tavern on the Green a no-star rating and Maxwell's only one star, claiming that the restaurant served "bruised artichokes...wishy-washy minestrone...and mushy calf's liver." Says LeRoy, "Mimi thinks the food is everything. I don't. She doesn't like big, splashy restaurants."

LeRoy's menus, with dinner entrees ranging from $5.25 to $21.50, have offered the ridiculous to the sublime: wild boar, partridge salad, tuna tartar, fiddlehead ferns, bananas with fish, as well as chili, steaks and hamburgers. LeRoy's personal favorites are peanut-butter-and-blackberry-jam sandwiches and spaghetti with white truffles.

His twin passions for food and wine have added to LeRoy's 264-pound bulk. Fitting his clothes is a problem LeRoy leaves to his tailors, who create his trademark costumes, including a gold-sequined suit made from a circus elephant's blanket, a Moroccan outfit equipped with bells and flashlights, and a Henry VIII getup made of seashells. Says LeRoy, who claims his costumes are only for parties, "It's just part of the show."

Showmanship runs in the family, starting with his maternal grandfather, Harry Warner, who founded Warner Brothers Studios in 1923. The only son of Doris Warner and Mervyn LeRoy, who divorced when Warner was 7, Hollywood's Little Lord Faunt-LeRoy inherited not only the Warner name, but its studio back lots as his childhood playground. As a boy he worked as a messenger, film librarian and film editor at Warner Brothers, and at 14 became an assistant director at Universal. ("I had connections," LeRoy admits.) At 15, LeRoy declined his grandfather's invitation to take over the studio someday. "I didn't want to be in the shadow of my family," LeRoy explains. "To me, there's no magic to films because I grew up with them."

Following a tour of prep schools including Hotchkiss in Connecticut and Le Rosey in Switzerland, LeRoy graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in English and went to New York as an assistant to writer-director Garson Kanin. In 1957 LeRoy leased the York Theatre, where he directed, among other works, Tennessee Williams' Garden District. In 1966 he converted the theater to Maxwell's Plum, where the word "swingles" was invented. It was there that LeRoy met his English wife, Kay, 38, a former flight attendant who caught Warner's eye when she popped into Maxwell's the second night it was open.

The LeRoys share an 18-room spread in Manhattan's luxurious Dakota with their children, Carolyn, 10, Maximillian, 7, and Jennifer, 4, and LeRoy's daughter, Bridget, 19, from his first marriage, to Jen Melia, a writer of children's books. In the process of toning down the duplex's razzle-dazzle decor, LeRoy is selling off much of his eclectic $4 million art collection. But he won't part with his two Picassos, his Toulouse-Lautrec posters, his $500,000 Tiffany lamp or an original Walt Disney painting of the Seven Dwarfs.

Curiously, LeRoy shuns the glitz and glamour of the world he creates. He doesn't hang out with many of the celebrities who frequent his restaurants. In fact, he rarely visits his restaurants at all. Once at a party he attended at Tavern on the Green, he was stopped by security guards at the door. "I don't come around too much," shrugs LeRoy, "so they don't recognize me."

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