November 19, 2018

Laundromat ‘Queen’ inspires Israeli actor to become filmmaker

Around 2006, Yaniv Rokah, then a struggling Israeli actor working as a barista at Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica, noticed something unusual whenever he opened the coffee shop early in the morning. Around 6 a.m., across the street at Fox Coin Laundries, he saw an elderly woman emerge from behind the first row of washing machines and start her day. 

“She was obviously camping out in there,” Rokah, 40, said during an interview at Caffe Luxxe, where a poster advertising his documentary about the now 90-year-old woman, “Queen Mimi,” hung on a wall. “So the Israeli in me was like, ‘Lama?’ [‘why’ in Hebrew].  What’s going on here?”

Rokah asked around and discovered that the woman was Marie “Mimi” Haist, nicknamed “The Queen of Montana Avenue” and something of a celebrity in that tony Santa Monica neighborhood. He learned that Mimi slept on a plastic lawn chair every night at the laundry, where, by day, she folded clothing for tips, chatted with customers, danced with the employees, engaged in ribald repartee and yelled at people who slammed the dryers shut. Mimi wore pink nail polish, pink streaks in her white hair and a cheerful demeanor. But she didn’t regard herself as homeless; in fact, she would kick other homeless people out of the laundromat.

Neighborhood residents and celebrities alike had come to treasure Mimi as a lively fixture on Montana — buying her coffee and taking her out to expensive dinners.  She once sang a Celine Dion song for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and actor Zach Galifianakis sent limousines to pick her up as his date for Hollywood premieres.

Rokah began to notice Mimi sometimes standing in line at Caffee Luxxe, alongside stars such as Nicole Kidman and director Ron Howard. 

Filmmaker Yaniv Rokah

“She was this youngish elderly lady who was so interesting, colorful, in the moment, shiny and spunky, and I wanted to get to know her,” Rokah said. “She’s also very good with the boys; she’s a flirt, so she opened things up for me very easily.”

Rokah quickly befriended Mimi and went on to invite her to his Rosh Hashanah dinners and Passover seders, where she enjoyed the kosher Sephardic cuisine he prepared for the table. Rokah took her to dinner at one of her favorite restaurants, The Lobster, where she would order lemon-drop martinis and proclaim, “If life gives you lemons, make lemon-drop martinis.”

The actor — who eventually became Luxxe’s manager before retiring last year — marveled at her sunny outlook. 

“I was struggling with my career and my bills, thinking my life sucked, and here was a homeless person living behind a washer who was so positive,” said Rokah, who wore a hamsa and a Star of David necklace during the interview. “I wondered, ‘How come she’s so much happier than I am and everyone else around her?’ I wanted to be like that.”

Mimi was such a character that Rokah eventually began recording their conversations on his iPhone4. Ten phones, 100 hours of footage and a $60,000 Kickstarter campaign later, he’s released his first film, “Queen Mimi,” a portrait of Haist that also delves into her troubled past.

Around 8 a.m. one day in May, Rokah sat with Mimi inside the crowded Caffe Luxxe, where the nonagenarian held court as she was surrounded by admirers, one of whom presented her with a bouquet of flowers. On that day, Mimi was nursing an injured arm in a sling; the injury had occurred not long ago when a schizophrenic homeless man entered the laundry and physically assaulted the business’ owner, Stan Fox, as well as Rokah and Mimi. “I used some of my krav maga moves on him,” Rokah said, referring to his training in the Israeli martial art.

Mimi’s arm was severely bruised in the fray. After the perpetrator ran away, Rokah drove her to nearby St. John’s Health Center for treatment. A former medic in the Israeli army, Rokah also advised Mimi when her cast later seemed to exacerbate her injury.

On a recent morning, Rokah helped Mimi as she walked slowly, with a stoop, across the street from Luxxe to the laundromat, where she settled near the bench on which she sometimes naps during the day. “Yaniv is wonderful; he’s the cat’s meow,” she said. He is also the first Israeli she’s ever met, and she worries about him when he returns home to visit what she calls “that troubled land,” Rokah said in a separate interview.

Rokah grew up in Netanya, the grandson of Orthodox rabbis and parents who had emigrated from Libya to Israel. The youngest of 10 children, he aspired to act from an early age, and in 1999 moved to New York to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. Six years later, he relocated to Los Angeles to follow his Hollywood dreams. “I thought I would become famous,” he said, laughing ruefully at his naiveté.  Instead, he quickly ran out of money and took the barista job at Caffe Luxxe.

Working there, surprisingly, advanced his career: One customer helped him secure a national TV commercial for Visa, while director Jon Avnet cast Rokah in an Internet series. Rokah also landed small roles in the film “World War Z” and the TV series “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

It was Mimi who inspired him to make his first film, even though getting her to discuss her past proved tricky. Her motto is, “Yesterday’s gone; tomorrow’s not here yet, so live in the now,” and so she did not want to dwell on her fraught history.

It took four years for Rokah to persuade Mimi to reveal her story on camera. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, she married a teacher and raised two daughters in the San Fernando Valley. But her husband proved to be emotionally abusive, and the couple divorced after he left her for another woman. When Mimi’s money ran out, she lost her house and lived in her car until city officials towed it away.

Then came years of sleeping on the streets, covering herself with newspapers to keep warm and scrounging for food. Eventually, Mimi began hanging out — and helping out — at Fox’s laundry, where the manager took pity on her one rainy night.  He telephoned Stan Fox, who agreed to let Mimi sleep inside the laundromat — even giving her keys to the place — for almost two decades. Three years ago, Galifianakis paid for Mimi to live in a nearby apartment, furnished by another of her celebrity friends, Renee Zellweger.

“After 18 years of sleeping in a chair, it’s so nice to lay on a bed,” Mimi said in an interview at the laundry. “But I still come here to work every day. I believe you have to keep busy.”

The documentary also reveals how Mimi lost contact with her daughters, in part, because she was ashamed about her homelessness. Rokah theorizes there may have been an additional reason Mimi became estranged from her oldest daughter, in particular: The daughter married a Jew and converted to Judaism, while Mimi is a devout Catholic. (The two women have since reconciled.)

Even so, the film captures Mimi’s resilience and portrays her as a kind of contemporary Cinderella.  

Not that Rokah’s relationship with her has always been smooth sailing. 

“It’s beautiful, but it’s complex,” he said. “I’m like her son, her ‘boyfriend,’ her publicist, her caretaker at times. She’ll introduce me to people as her ‘photographer.’ And she’s not always easy. She was on the streets for so many years, so she’s got that side of the tough survivor. … But the Israeli in me appreciates how she speaks her mind.”

Rokah said he was “blown away” by the unexpected success of the documentary, which earned good reviews and became a hit on the film festival circuit. He added that getting to know Mimi has made him grateful for what he has and has “turned me into an adult.” And Mimi loves the additional attention she has received as the star of the documentary.

“It’s been such a blessed journey,” Rokah said. “Her life is being transformed, and as a result, my life is being transformed, as well.”

“Queen Mimi” will be available on video on demand and iTunes on July 12