A Moment of Appreciation for Mel Brooks, Trash-Can Autograph King

Mel Brooks having a nice time at his autograph trash can. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images

This morning, my colleague Genevieve sent me a message on Slack. Comedy legend Mel Brooks came up in a work chat, which prompted her to hop over to Getty Images out of curiosity to browse the most recently uploaded photos of him. The search resulted in an unexpected discovery that she wanted to share: “I love how there are shots of him on multiple days signing autographs on top of the exact same trash can.” It’s true. If you go to Getty Images right now, search for Mel Brooks, and sort by “newest,” there will be a ton of photos of the mastermind behind Spaceballs happily autographing Mel Brooks memorabilia on top of the same trash can for fans while wearing the same black hat. They’re fun to look at! He looks like he’s having a good time! It’s a lot of pictures of the same trash can! Here are several examples:

February 28, 2020. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images
February 7, 2020. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images
January 12, 2018. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images
June 7, 2019. Photo: gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

A little research revealed that Brooks’s autograph trash can is just outside Porta Via in Beverly Hills, which has been the go-to lunch spot for the filmmaker and his fellow Hollywood-veteran friends — whose history of dining together has been chronicled before — for two decades. Mostly it just felt important to round up Mel Brooks Autograph Trash Can photos, but to add some extra context to them, I emailed Porta Via’s owner, Peter Garland, to ask if he’d tell me more about Brooks as a frequent restaurant guest as well as his trash-can autograph spot. What follows is an edited version of our phone conversation alongside a healthy sprinkling of Mel Brooks Autograph Trash Can photos. Because they’re nice.

Hi Peter! I’m grateful for how quickly you responded to my email. You see how important this story is.
Well, I’m taking a little R&R. I’m up in Napa Valley. I’m just looking at my computer to do some work before I disconnect.

Well, I appreciate you taking the time. So tell me about Mel Brooks coming to your restaurant.
I’m super-fond of Mel Brooks. I’ve known him as a guest of the restaurant for … how many years? The restaurant’s been open for 28 years. The group used to go to Orso, so whenever Orso closed — probably 20 years ago they closed — they found a new lunch spot, and that lunch spot became Porta Via.

I knew a couple of the guys pretty well from having relationships with their kids, because I grew up in Beverly Hills. I knew Michael Gruskoff, who produced Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks, and Paul Mazursky through his daughter Jill. So when they were looking for a new home to do their Friday lunches, they were like, “Let’s go to Porta Via. We know Peter!” That was really cool of them. And they went every Friday, without doubt, until COVID.

October 25, 2019. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images
October 27, 2017. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images
September 27, 2019. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images

I wasn’t sure how far it went back, because on Getty, the pictures of Mel signing autographs at the trash can only go back to 2017.
Oh, it went further than that. I’m going to guess it’s been close to almost 20 years when they started coming to Porta Via. It was an exclusive group that was made up of Mel, [producer and talent agent] Jay Kanter, Alan Ladd, Richard Donner, and Michael Gruskoff. I hope I’m not missing anybody. And then they would have invited guests every so often — I don’t know all the names, but it would always be somebody important in the entertainment business. Then unfortunately, as some of the original members passed away, they opened up chairs to other invited guests.

They took a break during COVID and then they returned, so they’ve been coming back to the restaurant every Friday. They have a standing reservation at 1. But Mel has not arrived yet. And obviously Alan passed away and Richard passed away, so the group has changed.

So Mel hasn’t been back since before COVID?
Correct. I would love to see him, because he was always generous and kind and easygoing.

I just really love that there are so many pictures of him standing at this same trash can in Beverly Hills. It’s charming.
[Laughs.] He liked the attention! When the tourist buses would drive by, he would wave at them. Every Friday there would be a whole group of people with posters, and he would take the time to sign them. Guests of the restaurant would come up to him, and he would spend time speaking with you about whatever you wanted to talk about. So he wasn’t shy, for sure.

May 18, 2018. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images
May 24, 2019. Photo: gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
January 11, 2019. Photo: gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
November 1, 2019. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images

I don’t mean to make so much of this about the trash can, but it’s still there, right?
It’s still there, yeah. The trash can is missing Mel’s presence on Fridays.

[Laughs.] I feel like you need to get a plaque made to put on it.
He would hang out at that trash can. And by the way, it wouldn’t be just one or two people. I mean, we didn’t time it, but it was not like 30 seconds. He was generous with his time. It wasn’t a bother to him.

It’s probably similar to Comic Con: He impacted so many people’s lives with all these characters. I’ve been at Porta Via for 20 years, and we count tons of celebrities as really frequent guests of the restaurant, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Some other people will roll in, jump at a table, and just have a peaceful lunch. He sits outside front and center.

That’s great that even with such a long career he still likes the fan love.
And then he’s super-vibrant. Unfortunately I haven’t seen him in about three years, but he walks fast, he talks fast — he’s exactly who he is onstage. They did a Young Frankenstein anniversary event, and he invited me. He’s a nice guy, bottom line.

Can you think of any other stories about him at the restaurant?
Once my mother said to me, “Oh, it’s Mel’s birthday today!” and I mistakenly sent over a dessert with a candle. He was not happy about that. I learned my lesson about presenting Mel Brooks with a birthday candle.

March 7, 2020. Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images

That’s fair. I just love the confirmation that he sits front and center.
One of the most endearing parts of it, as an owner of a restaurant, from seeing all the special guests that come in and out over many years, is his relationship with his friends. Those guys were an inseparable crew. You just feel the good energy when you’re around that table and how much they look forward to seeing each other.

Mel Brooks, King of the Trash-Can Autograph