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A glass house by modernist master Richard Neutra turns forty--with a party that winks at the rat pack era

A few days ago, a mountain lion was spotted prowling the backyards of Bel Air. So far tonight, the only animal visitor is Cha Cha, a raucous standard poodle. But should the big cat turn up, he'll easily be seen by the dozen guests who have come for dinner chez Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. Morton and Jankel are the custodians of the Singleton House, a landmark 1959 Richard Neutra design notable for its sheer glass walls that afford a panoramic view of the surrounding hills--and whatever might be lurking in them.

Neutra, the pioneering modernist architect, might have enjoyed this party, which begins with cocktails in the garden, then slides seamlessly indoors for dinner. "Place Man in relationship with Nature," he wrote. "That's where he developed and where he feels most at home!" Between 1929 and 1970, Neutra designed more than 100 houses in the Los Angeles area. A one-time apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, Neutra advocated a mode of architecture in which buildings are harmoniously integrated with their landscape. A Neutra house seems to grow out of the earth: metal frames are finished in stucco and sliding glass panels form invisible walls. It is a style that found its fullest expression in, and was perfectly suited to, Southern California.

Three decades after Neutra's death, his spartan midcentury cool looks so fresh that style setters crave his houses. Tom Ford, the Gucci designer, who is famous for catching the zeitgeist on the first bounce, bought Neutra's Brown House in Bel Air last year.

Tonight, in honor of the 40th birthday of the Singleton House, chef Fred Eric has created a menu that winks at the Rat Pack era. Eric, who owns the hipster hangouts Vida and Fred 62, both in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood, has abandoned his trademark punning menu style (Okra Winfrey Creole Gumbo is popular at Vida) in favor of a playful tribute to fashionable dishes of an earlier age. He pairs crudités with a spinach dip updated with serrano chiles and cilantro; his Cobb salad with poached lobster is laid out in multicolored rows like a gaudy flag; for ratatouille, he grills zucchini, peppers and eggplant over charcoal before tossing them together.

All these dishes, remarkably, are prepared within the confines of a narrow kitchen where Neutra's blond-wood cabinets and other fixtures have never been removed or replaced. "Part of the beauty of the place for us is that the kitchen is in its original state," Jankel says. "And we were passionate about finding a house that still had Neutra's blue Formica in the bathrooms rather than marble."

Call it quirky British taste. In the early Eighties, London natives Morton and Jankel owned a house with stainless steel floors. "The house faced south, so we'd sit there in this nuclear beam punking it up in our sunglasses and leathers," Jankel recalls. They invented Max Headroom, the world's first virtual person, and directed seminal music videos for Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Miles Davis, among others. In 1983, they moved to Los Angeles, where they juggle commercials, videos and feature films in various stages of production--true Angelenos.

Still, when they throw a party, there's no mistaking their origins. Every other car up the drive decants a British expatriate, among them former Python Eric Idle (now a fellow Bel Air resident with his wife, Tania) and Angela McCluskey, the Scottish singer who fronts the Wild Colonials.

After initial lubrication from some wicked tropical cocktails, actor Chris Hogan confesses that Idle's Saturday Night Live appearance from the 1977 Mardi Gras was a formative moment for him. "That was the one year that the parade never arrived," Idle recalls. "I improvised for hours." Tania also remembers the night; she'd just been introduced to Idle by her friends Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. The crowd raises glasses to toast Exquisite Pictures, a production company formed earlier in the day by two other guests, Darryl Hannah and Hilary Shephard-Turner, an actress and novelist.

The group drifts indoors for dinner. Then, after a furious spell of dancing (Rocky and Annabel's 10-year-old daughter, Rhedd, got behind her drum kit and laid down an irresistible beat), everybody heads back out to the terrace for a nature moment. The mountain lion is nowhere in evidence tonight, but a new crescent moon is rising and a blazing star has miraculously attached itself to its tip. Then, suddenly, just before the peach upside-down cake, no chef. A phone call has sent him bolting back to Vida to observe another kind of wildlife. Madonna and Lourdes have arrived.

Published September 1999
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