Herb Citrin

Herb Citrin, second from left, with employees from his valet parking company at the 2002 opening of the Grove shopping center by the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. (Family of Herb Citrin )

The license plate on his practical Toyota read "MR VALET," but the tales Herb Citrin gleefully shared about his pioneering business empire – based on tossing car keys to nattily dressed parking attendants – often involved far more upscale automobiles.

There was the 1937 Lincoln Zephyr that slid into the ocean in Marina del Rey minutes after his employees parked it and the Jaguar, with key left in the ignition, that was driven off the lot by a distinguished-looking man who, as it turned out, did not own it. And then there was the time a horrified Citrin watched as a car in his care miraculously rolled across busy La Cienega Boulevard, without a driver or a scratch.

He referred to such U-turns of fate as "incidents," and they happened "more often than I'd want written up," Citrin once said, and laughed. They led to more rigorous training as well as a claims manager on his payroll.

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In 1946 Citrin founded what is now known as Valet Parking Service when Lawry's the Prime Rib restaurant on La Cienega became his first client. He brought a formality to the once-casual business and over the ensuing decades helped popularize valet parking in the city.

Citrin, 91, who had been in declining health since a stroke about a year ago, died June 15 at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, said his son-in-law, Robert Briskin. Citrin had recently moved from his Century City home.

Born in 1922 in Los Angeles, he grew up in Eagle Rock and began parking cars professionally before he had a driver's license.

Just shy of 16, he worked six nights a week for his father, William, who ran the parking concession at Lawry's in the late 1930s. The younger Citrin would start his evenings at the restaurant then dash over to Studio City and Hollywood to pull shifts at two more parking venues operated by his father.

World War II put an end to the elder Citrin's parking venture and interrupted Herb's education at Los Angeles City College. He joined the Navy submarine service in 1942 and was stationed in the Pacific.

Discharged in 1945 and newly married, he was working in a jewelry store when his father suggested he look into running Lawry's parking operation. The future "King of La Cienega" – as the extroverted Citrin said he became known – was soon on his way.

With $1,000 in savings, he hired two men, outfitted them in surplus military uniforms and purchased liability insurance. Later he would dress them in the now-familiar red tuxedo-style vests and black tie.

La Cienega was already known as Restaurant Row, and most of the other 20 dining establishments sought him out to handle their parking, Citrin later said. Until the 1960s, he did double duty as parking boss and Lawry's doorman.

It took until the early 1980s for valet parking to gain widespread acceptance in Los Angeles. By then his company had contracts with about 75 local restaurants – including Chasen's and La Scala – and managed lots at office buildings and department stores. His clients also included major hotels, airports and the Oscar and Emmy award ceremonies.

Citrin also spearheaded private-party valet parking, handling as many as a thousand events a year. Hugh Hefner "might have six people in for dinner and we send parking attendants," Citrin recalled in 1996 in The Times. A night spent parking cars at the Playboy mansion was a popular assignment.

The "worst tipper ever" was actor-singer Rudy Vallee, according to Citrin. One of "the most fabulous" was singer Frank Sinatra, a point Citrin liked to illustrate by telling this story:

One night Sinatra walked out of the Peninsula Hotel and asked a parking attendant, "What was the biggest tip you ever got?" When he said, "$100, Mr. Sinatra," the singer handed him $200 and then asked, "Who gave you the $100 tip?" The attendant replied: "It was you, Mr. Sinatra."

In 2003 Citrin split the company in two and sold it to Ampco Systems Parking and Tony Policella, who bought it with another longtime employee. Policella continues to operate as Valet Parking Service.

"He took joy in other people succeeding and taught us that we're all a part of something bigger," Policella said last week. "He had an Old World gentility that we don't see much of today, and he was always offering to help."

The National Valet Parking Assn. recognizes Citrin at its National Valet Olympics, where teams compete in four categories: key jumble, luggage load, slalom and valet relay. The Herb Citrin Trophy is awarded to "America's top valet."

Citrin is survived by his second wife, Ione; his children, Laurie Briskin and Rabbi Paul Citrin; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His first wife, Harriett, died in 1987.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com