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Jack Smith

Even at 1940's bargain prices, the wages of Hollywood sin were beyond his means

July 29, 1985|JACK SMITH

Writer Leslie Raddatz has been digging in neglected sections of his shelves and has turned up a little book a friend had picked up years ago in a secondhand bookstore and passed on to him.

It is called "How to Sin in Hollywood," and was published in 1940, the year before Pearl Harbor.

Raddatz has sent me copies of several of the more nostalgic pages, each of which is a sketch of some nightspot that was recommended for the native or the tourist who hankered for a taste of genuine Hollywood night life, with sin thrown in.

We all know that the dollar isn't what it used to be; but even with our memories of the rock-bottom days of the Great Depression it is almost funny to read the prices of 1940.

Almost incredibly, some of the nightspots listed in the book are still in business, at the same locations, but of course the style of entertainment has changed and the prices are of another order of magnitude altogether.

Some of them twanged the strings of my memory, especially the Seven Seas, which was at 6904 Hollywood Blvd., across from the then Grauman's Chinese Theater.

"This is long, low, narrow, dark, intimate, hot, feverish, and . . . Hawaiian," said the author in his feverish style. "This is a secret place, much bambooed, where amateur beachcombers come to make passes at amateur mermaids. . . ."

I never made any passes at amateur mermaids in the Seven Seas, but I spent some hours sitting at the bar, brooding like any lonely beachcomber, and waiting for the tropical squall. There was a tin canopy over the bar, and every few minutes an artificial rainstorm would come, drumming on the tin like the rain on the roof of the Pago Pago rooming house in Somerset Maugham's "Rain."

It was a great hangout during the war for soldiers and sailors on leave from the Pacific, or on the verge of going out. I believe I last sought out the sanctuary of the Seven Seas in 1946, when I had left my pregnant wife and our first child in San Diego and come up to Los Angeles to seek my fortune.

It took me back to our two years in Hawaii, when we had lived for a time in a real grass shack on the lagoon at Sans Souci, toward Diamond Head from Waikiki. The rain on our roof had been one of the natural blessings of life in the Islands.

According to "How to Sin in Hollywood," drinks at the Seven Seas in 1940 were 35 cents and up.

Perino's, on Wilshire Boulevard, was in full flower in 1940. "Here comes the Great Garbo to dine in suave seclusion," the author wrote with breathless reverence. "Here comes the Great Chaplin, chatting in a corner quietly with (his) radiant Goddard. . . . Here come the Great Tycoon, his Great Dowager, their Great Deb. . . ."

But it would cost you to dine in such company: Lunch was $1.25, dinner $2 and up. Drinks 35 cents and up. One was urged to "try the pheasant."

I actually took my bride to Perino's on our wedding trip in 1939, though it made a noticeable dent in the $100 I had set aside for that odyssey. I had always regarded the Ambassador Hotel as the height of luxury and elegance, but of course we couldn't afford to stay there. So we stayed a night at the William Penn, over on Eighth Street, and walked through the lobby of the Ambassador, as if we were guests, and dined at Perino's. I still remember the shock when I discovered that a cup of coffee after dinner cost 25 cents.

By the way, we did not see Charlie Chaplin or Greta Garbo, nor even the radiant Goddard.

Chasen's, at 9039 Beverly Blvd., where it still stands, was already the cynosure of the stars. "Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Darryl F. Zanuck, Peter Lorre, Thomas Mitchell, Mary Astor and friends are gossipping, arguing, holding hands, hailing from table to table. . . ."

It was expensive. Drinks, 40 cents and up. Dinner a la carte. "Figure $3 for a good meal."

Ciro's was at 8433 Sunset Blvd., on the Strip. It was where celebrities went to glitter and be seen. You had to be making it, or on a big expense account, to go there. It was soigne. Recommended dress for Saturday nights was "Tux or better."

Jim Moran, the notorious jokester, was wearing "better" the night he dressed up as an Arabian prince and, pretending an accident, spilled a bag of sparkling jewels on the floor. The scramble that followed, with celebrities on their tuxedoed knees, scooping up what turned out to be glass, proved Moran's moral, that Hollywood's classiest would grovel for money.

Then there was Earl Carroll's, famous for its boast that "Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world." Alas, I never put it to the test, though there was a minimum charge of only $1, and drinks were 35 cents and up.

Several of the great spots of 1940 have survived, and are still in business at the same locations: Besides Chasen's, there are Musso and Frank's on Hollywood Boulevard; the Cock 'n' Bull on Sunset, though it has lost such habitues as Ronald Colman, Leslie Howard, Madeline Carroll, David Niven, C. Aubrey Smith and my late friend and colleague Richard Mathison; and Lawry's Prime Rib on La Cienega, which used to offer ribs at $1.25, and drinks at 20 cents and up.

I usually ate at Thrifty's, and sin was beyond my means.

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