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Grand Hotel: A History of The Ambassador & Cocoanut Grove

About ten miles inland from the California coast, a gentle bed of sun-bronzed earth with a privileged geography slopes softly into a sleepy farming village where, each spring morning, the residents awake to the citrus warmth of orchards in full bloom and jacarandas bursting into electric purple blossoms.

Sounds idyllic? Well, Hollywood in the year 1920 was just that. It was still a genteel hamlet of stately pepper trees, climbing bougainvillea’s–and even a sprinkling of newly planted palm trees. (Like so many other things in Los Angeles, the palms trees are transplants.) The sun, which had brought so many to this unlikely dot on the map, played long hours of cat and mouse on the orchard lanes, and on the wide, leisurely boulevards. The residents were conservative, quiet farm folk who were simple in taste and modest in tongue, connected by winding dirt roads. There were general stores. Church picnics. And knitting bees.

But change had already arrived.

SOCIETY VS. CELLULOID

You could see it every day with the droves of bright-eyed, pretty girls from all over the country, scurrying along Melrose Avenue to report for duty at the Famous Players-Lasky studio. You saw it with new pockets of town like Whitley Heights: an enclave of stately homes perched atop a Hollywood hill that became the first A-list celebrity community. And you saw it at Sunset and La Brea where a brand new movie studio had cut itself a corner between a field of orange groves–but Charles Chaplin had designed the studio facade as a non-threatening, quaint English cottage to appease nervous neighbors who were already wary of the wild parties, drinking, drugs, and promiscuity rumored to run rife among the Hollywood set.

Chaplin and brother Sydney break ground in Hollywood/ The studio/Chaplin at the studio entrance, 1918.

Townsfolk were having to come to terms with the fact that their way of life had taken a permanent turn. Resistance was futile. Their major export was no longer produce, but rather, a little thing called the movies.  Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks would ride their horses down an unpaved Hollywood Boulevard to lunch at a freshly opened eatery called Musso & Frank, which quickly became a central meeting spot for the newly christened “Hollywood Colony.”

The Waspy Los Angeles society resented them. These were extremely powerful oligarchs whose money came from the oil, the water, and the maritime that had made the city a force to be reckoned with. To these proud, often pious pillars of the establishment, the strange (and more to the point, foreign) “Hollywood folk” were not to be trusted. As such, the Hollywood power players were forced to create their own establishment, and they were relegated to places like Musso & Frank to hold court.

View from Spring Street, 1902 – COPYRIGHT PROTECTED, TASCHEN 2009

In stark contrast to Hollywood was its big brother to the east: Downtown Los Angeles was downright intimidating in its newness and, unlike Hollywood, rapturously embraced its role as “The Chicago of the West.” Think about it: this was a time when the Los Angeles Times billed itself as “the only newspaper West of the Rockies.”

At the turn of the last century, there had been nothing whatsoever to make the country pay any attention to this distant tip of American civilization. Its cultural irrelevance in the late 1800s makes the mere existence–and staggering success–of Los Angeles, just 30 years later, one of the most extraordinary feats of sheer will in modern history.  The Mulholland’s and the Getty’s and the Culver’s and the Chandler’s were just among the many (as historian Kevin Starr calls them), “boosters of Babylon.”  Although often opposed politically and personally, they shared quenchless (even maniacal) thirst for growth–not content with making Los Angeles the most important city in the country, they wanted it to be the greatest city in the world.

This confidence was evident on every downtown street corner. Along with the papers, newsstands featured colorful movie magazines and bright brochures produced by the Chamber of Commerce and the Automobile Club featuring propaganda like “Why Los Angeles will become the greatest city int he world.” Neon battle cries in that singular, smoky orange Los Angeles twilight were aggressive  in their admonition to “Remember Wrigley’s Spearmint After Every Meal,” to try “MJB Vacuum Coffee for Extra Richness,” to drive convertible Packard roadsters and to visit Bess Schlank’s shop “for fine furs, gowns and wraps.”

It was an entire world that looked as if it had simply burst into being only a few moments before and the pieces were still trying to find their places, while increasing numbers of folks from the Midwest and beyond gaped in awe at the brazen modernity of it all.

Impressive as this might look on paper (and, of course, on film) Los Angeles in 1920 was still quite emotionally fractured. Distrustful of each other (movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer were shunned by the Oligarchs) yet thirsty for prominence, the city needed to learn to “play nice in the sandbox” if it was to ever achieve a real presence on the world stage.

Neither Hollywood nor Downtown L.A. realized that the unimpressive artery connecting them both, the Wilshire District, would unify them and help galvanize a shared sense of identity that was so desperately lacking.

On New Years Day 1921, the famous Ambassador hotel chain opened its newest property at 3400 Wilshire Blvd. And everything changed forever.

“Los Angeles’ modern era was opened by The Ambassador Hotel and The Cocoanut Grove.” – Are the Stars Out Tonight: The Story of the famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove

The Grand Hotel

The Schmidt dairy farm was the only sign of life for as far as the eye could see. In the middle of the 160 acres of untamed nature, a river ran through it: wild bulrushes and willows flanked the winding banks where the youngest boys of the Schmidt family would play: swimming, fishing, and, occasionally, stumbling upon ancient Native American artifacts. Their father had bought the vast, somewhat swampy property in 1870, just 20 years after California joined the United States, and its’ agrarian nature showed no signs of change even into the early 1900s.

It had, you see, been ignored completely by developers from the nearby booming metropolis of Los Angeles. The Schmidt’s farm, which lay in the heart of the Wilshire District, was simply too far west from Downtown to show any financial promise. The boosters who spearheaded the Los Angeles real estate boom of the late 19th century believed their fair city’s future lay further east…completely ignoring the bright, blue Pacific Ocean, just 15 miles to the west.

But Angelenos were being beckoned Westward–not East. It was their own personal Manifest Destiny, if you will, to expand west to their own shining sea: the Pacific. (As historian Kevin Starr writes in Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s, “The Champs Élysées of Los Angeles [Wilshire Blvd.] was not designed for the pedestrian but for the automobile.”)

Schmidt’s former farmland lay right in the path of progress and he sold his property in 1902.

The Wilshire District in the 1920s (Ambassador circled in red) and the Schmidt Dairy farm on the exact same site, 30 years earlier.

Ten years later, the first motion picture production companies began filtering in from the East, flirting with Los Angeles’ picturesque golden hills, citrus groves, and endless dreamy sunlight. Los Angeles flirted back. The lure of Tinseltown, combined with all the years (and money) of ballyhoo and propaganda to boost was paying off big time. Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1920s was booming financially and thriving culturally. Eyes were constantly on this mythical, golden El Dorado of a city. And the city knew it needed something world class in nature to live up to its ever-growing reputation. It needed what every metropolis had, from New York to London to Paris and beyond: a truly grand, resort hotel that would be beautiful to the eye, but more to the point, a social center: the beating core of Los Angeles social life.

For architect Myron Hunt, the choice to build on Schmidt’s former property was a no-brainer. “A fittingly located tourist hotel finds itself in the heart of the best residence district of any city, so the Wilshire district was naturally turned to,” he said. But just how grand of a hotel?

I’m an 80s child and have vivid memories of driving past The Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire well before its 2005 demolition, but long after it had been permanently closed. The walls were in dire need of a pressure wash, the signs fading, the awning wilted, the entire structure a victim of countless plastic surgeries to suit changing tastes. And, of course, there was the unfortunate dark shadow that always hung over it following the tragic shooting of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. She seemed to be a Miss Haversham of a place; lost to time.

But in 1921, The Ambassador was a wonder to behold.

Postcard of The Ambassador Hotel, circa 1926.

Architect Myron Hunt knew exactly what he was doing. “The Southwestern Coast is the playground of the country and draws thousands of tourists and winterers to its summer climates, but until The Ambassador Los Angeles contained no adequate accommodation within the city whose constant publicizing has turned a desert into a garden.”

There were 444 guest rooms and 76 bungalows on 13 acres of land. “Sunlight is essential to the hotel as it is the embodiment of the spirit of California,” said interior designer Grover Sholem, meaning that the guest rooms looked like Southern California. They boasted large, plentiful windows for pouring sunlight, light woods, wicker furniture, satin sheets, and paintings by local artists.

Joe Minister, a writer for Hotel Magazine, gushed “Vast, velvety lawns, flowers in profusion and trees bearing fruit make the Ambassador an oasis in the desert of Wilshire Blvd.” He called it “a miracle.”

There were palm leaves and planted vines. Trees imported from Hawaii, as well as local orange trees (courtesy Pasadena’s H.E. Huntington). And there were two towering Washington Palms: as mentioned above, palm trees were not yet common in the city making these quite an exotic sight to guests in 1921.

And, finally, remember: The Ambassador was a resort hotel. The endless number of activities and amenities were dizzying. Then there was the bowling alley, the billiard room, card room, sun porches, bath houses, an Olympic sized pool, a miniature golf course, day care services, horse riding, a tea room, restaurants, and even a movie theatre where it was not uncommon to find film premiers.

And speaking of filmdom, some of the biggest names in the business took up residence there: John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, and Pola Negri to name but a few. One decade later, MGM released a short film that chose The Ambassador Hotel’s luxurious Lido pool to showcase the studio’s latest Technicolor technology. In doing so, it inadvertently created a striking portrait of how the hotel looked with it was still young, fresh, and exciting:

There was, however, just just one thing missing …

The Jazz Baby of the Golden West

As the hotel’s popularity grew among the social set, so did the lines outside the hotel’s restaurant, The Zinnia Grill. People came for the food, but also to dance to the tunes of jazz bandleader Abe Lyman and his Ambassador All-Star Orchestra. And when film personalities began to appear, sharing for the first time the same air space as the Los Angeles establishment, management knew it had really hit on something special. The demand was outweighing the size of the restaurant, and so it was rather quickly decided (just 9 months in, in fact) to convert the hotel ballroom into a nightclub.

The Cocoanut Grove was born just as the Jazz Age was really starting to heat up: April 21st, 1921.

 

Interior of the Cocoanut Grove, early 1920s.

 

Hotel Magazine described the it this way: “Stars twinkled in the blue ceiling sky, and on the southernmost wall hung a full Hawaiian moon presiding over a painted landscape and splashing waterfall.” This is not merely the overly romantic rhetoric so common of 1920s journalism: it was true. Walking down the hallway toward the entrance of the club, you were flanked by tapestries on both sides, surely being led to the gates of the Taj Mahal. Or Versailles. Or perhaps a Moroccan palace?

The words “Cocoanut Grove” were large and proudly bannered across the double doors engraved with swirling gold leaf coconut palms on a bed of black glass. Stepping inside, you found yourself in the midst of an Arabian oasis. The mouth of the staircase was swallowed whole by a white beach of round linen tables along the dance floor. Between it all was a forest of palm trees, very nearly scraping the top of the twinkling, indigo blue sky.

It felt, quite literally, like walking into a Hollywood movie.

This was no accident. From the beginning it was clear that this nightclub would do something no other upscale establishment had yet to do: openly court the Hollywood colony. The fact that the ballroom floor was lined with props from a recent Rudolph Valentino movie (coconut trees from The Shiek [1921]) was a sign that this playground would not belong only to Messrs. Huntington or Doheny or Getty.

“Throughout the 1920s, Hollywood and the establishment Los Angeles, frequently suspicious of each other, achieved a rapprochement at the Cocoanut Grove in the pursuit of nighttime pleasure.”

The cover charge was 75 cents and a four-course dinner would set your pocketbook back a whopping $2.50. Opening night featured famous bandleader Art Hickman, and ballroom dancers Maurice and Leonora Hughes. To get an idea of what it must have sounded like, Cocoanut Grove bandleaders Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim pressed a number of records with their respective orchestra throughout the 1920s. One recording in particular captures the thrill of youth and hope so emblematic of the 1920s: Abe Lyman’s 1926 recording of the hot jazz number “Shake That Thing.”

Recorded just 5 years after the Grove’s opening, this is a very strong indicator of the kind of music that filled the ballroom on those champagne soaked evenings. So much so, in fact, that in 2004 director Martin Scorsese used this exact arrangement—re-recorded by the incomparable Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks—in his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. And, on a more aesthetic note, Scorsese—film’s biggest fanboy—also succeeded in re-created the Grove in exhausting, breathtaking detail, as you can see below:

As popular as the Lyman and Arnheim orchestras were, the real stars of the Grove were the Los Angeles establishment and the Hollywood elite. They managed to share the limelight in orderly fashion: college football was all the rage in 1920s America, and the Grove hosted “Collegiate Night” before every big USC game, giving institutional Los Angeles its due. Tuesday nights became known as “Stars Night.” It was the night that the Hollywood glitterati turned out in droves to see and be seen.

The dancing contests on “Stars Night” became particularly popular with starlets. Judges included the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jesse Lasky, and one little dancing queen became a particular favorite. Before becoming Joan Crawford, Lucille LeSeur danced her heart out there at the Grove. Her dancing skills had led her to Hollywood, and her Charleston chops and nimble gams won her some much-needed attention from studio bosses.

Joan Crawford (left) was a Cocoanut Grove favorite. But teenage Loretta Young (right) was fierce competition.

But even in those early days, fame could be fleeting. One night, Crawford was seated at the coveted table No.1 when in walked what gossip columnist Dorothy Manners described as “the loveliest face the Grove regulars had ever seen.” The youngest of three sisters, teenage Gretchen Young’s beauty was jaw-dropping. “Joan was furious,” wrote Manners. “I don’t know if she ever forgave Loretta Young for being so beautiful.” It was 1927. Miss Young was just 15 years old.

The Grove’s themed nights increased along with their popularity. There came Frolic Night, and a gleeful middle finger at prohibition: an annual Champagne Ball. And when the Grove’s floor show, “The Twenty Little Working Girls,” wasn’t entertaining the crowds there were countless other events: fashion shows, the Wampus Baby Stars, and starting in 1930, The Academy Awards.

(left) advertisement for Cocoanut Grove dancing and “Collegiate Night”. (right” lobby card for short film STAR NIGHT AT THE COCOANUT GROVE (1934)

It seemed there was no end to the excess. One New Years Eve, bathing beauties were nearly frozen inside enormous cocktail glasses filled with ice that lowered from the ceiling at midnight. “Coinciding with the grove excitement,” writes Margaret Tante Burk, “was the roar of the ’20s with a cast of fun-loving sheiks and flappers with their extended cigarette holders, silver flasks, ‘knee peeking’ skirts, and razzmatazz floppy pants.

It was the very height of, what frequent Ambassador resident F. Scott Fitzgerald  called, “the greatest, gaudiest spree in American history.”

Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a civilization gone with the wind.

 

Sources cited:

Are the Stars Out Tonight? The Story of the Famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove by Margaret Tante Burke

Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s by Kevin Starr

Hollywood du Jour: Lost Recipes of Legendary Hollywood Haunts by Betty Goodwin

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