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December 15, 2011

Marvin Saul: RIP an LA Deli Legend

Posted in: Uncategorized

It always saddens me when a member of the Jewish deli passes, and today I feel it particularly strongly. Marvin Saul, the beloved owner of Junior’s Delicatessen, in Hollywood, CA, died last week.

Here’s from his obituary in the LA Times:

Marvin Saul was a uranium miner who had gone bust when he flipped a coin in the late 1950s to decide where to strike out next from Utah. Heads meant Los Angeles; tails Dallas.

Heads, and generations of future deli-goers on the Westside, won out.

With 35 cents in his pocket, Saul arrived in Los Angeles, did odd jobs and by 1957 had cobbled together $300 to open a small sandwich shop. Two years later, he established Junior’s, an eight-table delicatessen that grew “into a sort of IBM of the bagel and blintz world,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 1990.

At the time, Saul explained the restaurant’s success by saying, “I try to give people great food and a little schmaltz.”

Saul, who had continued to work three days a week at the Westwood eatery, died of a heart attack Dec. 8 at his home in Encino, said his son David. He was 82.

“He was really an incredible host. It’s a great big restaurant, but he’d treat it like his own dining room at home,” said filmmaker Mel Brooks, who has frequented Junior’s for decades. “He was so sweet and wonderful, albeit a little pushy on the soup. He’d always come to our table with a new soup, and we had to try it or we’d hurt his feelings.”

“Junior” was Saul’s childhood nickname, and he gave it to the restaurant he originally opened on Pico Boulevard. In 1967, he moved the deli several blocks to Westwood Boulevard near the 20th Century Fox studio, where it has long been considered a landmark and a place to spot the occasional celebrity.

I met Marvin back in 2007, when I was out west, researching Save the Deli. He greeted me with open arms, proudly showing me around Junior’s, lifting the pot on every soup, and pulling up a ladle, to show me the flanken he’d made, or the navy beans he’d personally selected. He was a true host, a man who made his customers feel at home, whether they were old time deli hams like Mel Brooks (whom Marvin arranged an interview with, when I was there), or an unlikely figure like Mr. T, who met Saul when he came to film Rocky 3, and was treated like a son. “I always called him Father,” Mr. T told me a few years ago, out of respect and love.

Junior’s lives on with the Saul family, who have been running the place for several years, and in the hearts of his customers, who will never forget his smile, his firm handshake, and the first kibbitz of the day.

Alef Ha Sholem Marvin. We’ll miss you.


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