Long before smartphones, actress and belly dancer Helena Kallianiotes presided over a members-only club where Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston partied with Prince and Madonna, Sean Penn let loose and photos were never, ever allowed. Says Melanie Griffith: "That was the thing: to dance, hang out at Helena's and do drugs."
In 1985, a private membership-only nightclub on the corner of L.A.'s Rampart Boulevard and West Temple Street called Helena's opened. It was operated by an actress and belly dancer named Helena Kallianiotes, who had performed memorable roles in such seminal '70s films as Five Easy Pieces. Helena's was a big hit despite its location on the then-gang-ridden Eastside, in part because Kallianiotes counted Jack Nicholson as a friend and investor. "Oh, he was there every Friday," she recalls. Kallianiotes also was close to Madonna, Sean Penn, Anjelica Huston, Harry Dean Stanton and Marlon Brando, all of them charter members and frequent guests.
But Helena's wasn't a roaring success only because it attracted huge stars. It was where huge stars could comfortably hang out, dance and drink and misbehave, at a time before the internet and smartphones ended Hollywood's tradition of anything-goes nightlife. Helena's thrived when a no-photography rule could be enforced like biblical law by a proprietress who wasn't a deep-pocketed hospitality conglomerate but merely a once-in-a-generation host — one who has never talked about the club publicly since its heady six-year run 30 years ago. Until now.
Kallianiotes, now 80 — who with her raven-black hair and lined eyes resembles an older, Greek Elizabeth Taylor, only in cutoff denim shorts, a tank top and kitten heels — opened the club after taking over the lease for a studio where she was teaching folk and belly dancing. "I hired Marlon Brando's son Christian [later convicted of manslaughter] to do the iron work on the railing — he was a welder," she recounts. "Marlon would come there every night to see his son's work, and he started doing construction. I had a license to open, but I refused to because he was there all the time," and she knew her friend would stop showing up once the public arrived.
"I had the front door locked," she says. "And then one time I didn't. Madonna, who would practice [dance], said, 'Helena, turn around. Slowly.'" Kallianiotes did and faced hundreds of guests: "They poured in, and it was like sardines on the dance floor. Ever since then, I had to work the door. I started to make it membership."
Because Kallianiotes had enjoyed huge success among the Hollywood crowd as co-host of a weekly roller-skating event called Skateaway at a Reseda rink, the membership waiting list for Helena's quickly grew to about 2,000 people (annual memberships cost from $500 to $3,000). The list counted not only stars Michael Douglas, Joni Mitchell, the Pointer Sisters, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand, but also such directors as Kathryn Bigelow and Gus Van Sant and executives including Lynda Obst, Island Records' Chris Blackwell and New Line's Bob Shaye. Lawyers and agents were not welcome, says Kallianiotes, "because they bothered people." She made her own agent, Sandy Bressler (also Nicholson's rep), "work the coatroom. He only came once." Huston describes the scene: "Prince on the dance floor; Paul Getty in his wheelchair doing circles; Sean Penn punching someone over Madonna: People being themselves — it just happened a bunch were really famous."
Helena's shared an unremarkable stucco facade with a Scientology office and sat across the street from a Salvadoran church and the Rampart police station, whose officers initially turned a blind eye to all the Ferraris and limos choking their parking lot until Kallianiotes felt compelled to lease two lots a block away: "Everybody was afraid to come [to the neighborhood]. "I had a gang that was Mexican on one side of the street and Salvadorian on the other side. They eventually became my dishwashers and busboys."
Kallianiotes' manager, Allan Mindel, is quick to say that he was No. 33 on the roster, as if nightclub membership were like a Facebook employee ranking: "Helena's was like Elaine's in New York," he says. (Though Kallianiotes notes, "It wasn't like [Studio] 54, where you have to have good shoes. I hate choosing people by their clothes.") Actress Virginia Madsen adds fondly: "It was the first time I ever saw a velvet-rope situation, bodyguards out front and a list. Helena would pick who came in. Somehow she would know if a person just wanted to meet a famous guy, and they weren't allowed in. Not that there wasn't networking. I think somebody once said, 'Helena's: where every dance is a career move.'" Marilyn Black, Larry David's former manager, says business was at times discussed at the nightspot and remembers running into Castle Rock's Rob Reiner, Andy Scheinman and Marty Shafer: "Rob had read Larry's script Prognosis Negative, which had already been bought, and wanted to know about future projects — of course they ended up being the producers of Seinfeld."
Justine Bateman, who enjoyed poetry night on Wednesdays along with Robert Downey Jr., describes the spot as being "beautifully curated, like you just walked into a magazine." Bathed in a flattering pink light, Helena's was a white, two-floor space with a lobby, DJ booth (George Michael played music there for six months), bar and 2,000-square-foot dance floor, decorated with "Helena's belly-dancing costume of gold coins encased in glass," says Mindel. An adjacent 20-table dining room showcased a huge fireplace and a retractable roof. Technically a supper club (it didn't have a dance license), for years it served oysters, Greek garlic pasta and a Huston specialty: "a flourless chocolate cake, which I learned from Maya's, a fantastic restaurant in St. Barts," Huston says.
The beer and wine list expanded to include spirits when a guest expedited a liquor license, about which Kallianiotes kept quiet until John Huston requested tequila. "Then word got out," she says. Bottled water was free until "Jack came in and yelled, 'Helena, charge them for the water! They can afford it!'"
Kallianiotes was not only a vigilant doorwoman but an active host, seating people she thought should sit together ("They'd say, 'I can't sit next to so-and-so because we're having a lawsuit,'" she says, but by night's end, "things were mended," claims Mindel). Loree Rodkin, who at the time managed Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Jessica Parker and a host of Brat Packers including Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, remembers the presence of rock stars (Bernie Taupin with Elton John, Rod Stewart and then-wife Alana Hamilton), Ellen Barkin losing a diamond bracelet down the toilet that she was never able to retrieve, and how Helena's was the very definition of tablehopping: “It was a subdued intimate dinner club for the Hollywood elite," she says. "You’d say hello to all your friends at one table, then go on to the next. It was a movable dining experience.”
Her various bans — artist Ed Ruscha designed a "No Press, No Cameras" sign that was later stolen — were thwarted only twice in her memory, once by notorious paparazzo Ron Galella, who electrocuted himself trying to take a picture through a window. Another time, a fired waiter attempted revenge by surreptitiously taking photos of the guests. "Sean [Penn] chased him to the street and pulled the film from the camera," recalls Kallianiotes.
She claims no drugs were allowed. "I never took drugs. Everybody thinks I'm a druggie because of the roles I played," says Kallianiotes. Melanie Griffith recalls the place differently. "It was so much fun because that was the thing: to dance, hang out at Helena's and do drugs," she says. Rita Wilson concurs: "Everybody was coked out and getting laid."
One of the less scandalous highlights that took place before the club even opened was Nicholson renting a baby elephant for a birthday party for Anjelica Huston (his on-and-off girlfriend for 17 years), only for the guests to see it urinating for five minutes on the dance floor. "It was a lovely affair," says Huston.
Among those who were turned away at the door was arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who tried to bribe Kallianiotes with $10,000 to get in. She also once mistakenly turned away Prince: "I said I despise royalty, no way can they get in ahead of everybody else." When she realized her mistake, she gave the "gentle, well-mannered" artist "a table every Friday. He drank only water. He used to bring his father in, who was as short as Prince."
Rosanna Arquette recalls the time that "Prince's bodyguard told me, 'Prince wants to dance with you.' I told him, 'Tell him to ask me himself.' He did. He put on [his song] 'Kiss.'"
Kallianiotes once threw out Lee Daniels, then a manager, when she thought he had claimed his blond date was Kim Novak. (She wasn't.) They made up, and Daniels cast her in Fox's Star as a strip club owner in 2017.
One of Helena's main draws was Kallianiotes herself. Huston tries to put her finger on the mystique: "I met Helena at Jack Nicholson's. It was the first night I met Jack, about 1972 or '73. I remember this amazing-looking woman. She had a tattoo on her upper arm that was a crucifix that said 'Mom.' She was fascinating and scary. I soon learned that Helena has the gentlest of hearts."
Kallianiotes was born in Megalopolis, a village in southern Greece, and after World War II, she and her family boarded a refugee boat and ended up in the "toughest section in Boston — Dorchester." At 15, she ran away before her father could marry her off to a 60-year-old man. The rebellious, motorcycle-racing teen decided to drive cross-country ("I had no map. … I went toward the sun"). Along the way, she slept in her car and danced at places like Jack Ruby's Texas strip dive to pay for the trip. Once in L.A., she bartered dancing services for meals at the Greek Village restaurant in Hollywood. Soon she was setting up a stage, hiring a bouzouki player (whom she was married to for three years) and telling the owner to get a liquor license. "That place had lines to get in," she says.
Kallianiotes met Nicholson through Five Easy Pieces writer Carole Eastman, a Greek Village regular. She played poker once a week with the cash-strapped actor. "He'd bring a sock with pennies in it," she says. "He had done nothing except Roger Corman movies." He later spotted her at an audition for 1968's Head, a movie starring The Monkees that he wrote with director Bob Rafelson. Kallianiotes was cast as a belly dancer, the first of several instances in which she worked with Rafelson, including in Five Easy Pieces as a swaggering hitchhiker. She later got a Golden Globe nomination in 1973 for playing a roller derby captain opposite Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber. One of her last feature roles was a turn in 1983 alongside Gene Hackman in Nicolas Roeg's Eureka.
"She's a remarkable actor," says Huston. "There is something about her process that is super honest and fundamental." But Kallianotes was tiring of acting. "All the parts they wanted me in were shooting people," says Kallianiotes, who had seen violence as a girl when the Germans invaded Greece. "Guns are obscene. I quit."
In between making her mark on Hollywood, then rejecting it, Kallianiotes married Father Knows Best actor Billy Gray. It wasn't until they were separating that one of Hollywood's most unusual living arrangements began to emerge, one that lasted 27 years.
In 1969, Nicholson bought a house on Mulholland Drive, "but he had never been in it," says Kallianiotes, because he left to direct his first feature, Drive, He Said. "He was breaking up with a girl named Mimi, and she was sick," she recalls. "I took her to the hospital, then stayed [in the house] to help out with the plants." When Nicholson returned, says Kallianiotes, "he liked me there," but she found the situation awkward. The place had newspapers on the windows and contained just his bed and another downstairs. "He says to me, 'Helena, buy some furniture, buy a rug.'" Nicholson eventually gave her a Bullock's credit card for household items.
"I thought, 'What am I doing? What does this guy want?' And then I would end up sewing his clothes," says Kallianiotes, who nonetheless enjoyed hosting jam sessions at the compound with the likes of Neil Young and Janis Joplin. Nicholson "gave me all these things to do that were female-ish," from cooking Greek pasta (until she hired a chef that he still employs) to watching his kids (she and his daughter Lorraine are still friends). She lobbied Nicholson to buy a neighboring house on the compound — where Marlon Brando also lived with wife Tarita — for $44,000, telling Nicholson's manager, "You gotta buy it because Jack's running around in the nude."
Huston theorizes that the arrangement — Kallianiotes was neither paid nor paid rent — "was as much about escaping the aftermath of [her] marriage as it was about looking after Jack." Kallianiotes says she and Nicholson were never romantically involved: "I had a platonic relationship with him, always." In 1973, after five years of living with him, she moved next door "when Anjelica came in the picture. When she first moved in, she didn't know me, and she was jealous."
It was a business deal gone bad that prompted Kallianiotes to move out of Nicholson's compound. In 2000, Kallianiotes was looking for a property to launch a spa at various locations outside of L.A. including Three Rivers, California. What followed is a convoluted tale involving a Colombian scam artist and money laundering of $1 million in her accounts that resulted in them being frozen. During a six-year legal battle (with depositions by Nicholson, Brando and Huston), Kallianiotes decided to leave the Mulholland property: "I thought, 'I want to protect Jack's children, because I didn't know what I was involved in — it looked like I was involved with a guy that was in the cartel." Kallianiotes eventually got her money back and for a spell worked out of a dance studio in a Venice building complex that also housed the workspace of sculptor Robert Graham, Huston's husband, before deciding to leave Los Angeles altogether. She relocated to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where she's lived for the past decade, building an artist retreat. Kallianiotes recently met with Nicholson after two years of not visiting the U.S., during which time the two kept in touch.
Helena's ended in 1991 after Kallianiotes was injured in a car accident and had to reduce her involvement. "I came there for the Academy Awards in a huge cast on my leg," she recalls. "I came in, and everybody was sitting there: Meryl Streep, Jack, Sam Shepard. Sam signed my cast, and I never went back."
HELENA'S CHOSEN ONES
The entertainment A-listers who frequented the club were anything but regulars.
"I have a [special] karma with Anjelica," says Kallianiotes. "I helped her move into [Nicholson's place]."
"I remember Madonna coming up to me, saying, 'Helena, how can people dance when you have garlic here?'" says Kallianiotes.
An investor, the actor dated then-waitress (and future mother to two of his children) Rebecca Broussard at the club.
The actor punched someone over Madonna and once ran after a would-be photographer, taking away his film.
After Kallianiotes hired his son Christian to do welding work, Brando came in often to hang out and help with construction pre-opening.
"I would go to Prince's house on Rexford, and we would play pool and talk about dancing," recalls Kallianiotes.
HARRY DEAN STANTON
A charter member, Stanton and Kallianiotes were so close that she organized a memorial for him when he died in 2017.
ED BEGLEY JR.
"She did it all," says Begley, who has known Kallianiotes, "a very good friend," for 46 years and started a weekly Hollywood roller-skating event with her called Skateaway that took place in the late 70s. At Helena's, "she focused on logistics, from the right amount of logs on the fireplace to minding the door herself and overseeing the food and beverages. She was a very hands-on, micromanaging club owner."
"I was about ready to move back to Kentucky when Helena called me and said 'Becks, I want you to come work for me,'" says Broussard. "Working at Helena’s was such a grand experience. Helena really took care of her clientele, which included more celebrities than any awards show you’d ever go to. She made them feel safe, and it was almost a family atmosphere." Broussard waitressed at Helena's while dating Nicholson, with whom she later had two children. "In retrospect, Helena’s had an innocence. You can’t even imagine innocence at a club in the '80s, but it was innocent."
"My membership number was 98," says the actress, who fondly recalls the night Prince asked her to dance … to his own song.
Additional reporting by Chris Gardner, Lindsay Weinberg, Marilyn Black and Vincent Boucher
A version of this story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.