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Ambassador Hotel Struggling to Survive : Search Is On for a Buyer of Mid-Wilshire Property With Colorful History

May 18, 1986|TOM FURLONG | Times Staff Writer

It is the hotel that hosted the movie industry's salad days, where the stars mixed with business tycoons, politicians and worldly blue bloods. Royalty from Africa, queens from Europe and Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Lyndon B. Johnson all stayed at the Ambassador Hotel when they were in Los Angeles.

Marion Davies once rode a horse through the Ambassador lobby to amuse her lover, William Randolph Hearst. Marilyn Monroe attended class in the hotel at the Emmaline Snively Blue Book Modeling Agency. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there following a political rally.

Though it has been many years since the Ambassador has had this kind of notoriety, the grande dame of Los Angeles-area inns is temporarily back in the limelight: once again, it is for sale.

At stake this time, however, is survival of the 65-year-old Los Angeles institution.

Though in decline for years and losing money, the Ambassador is situated on a 23.5-acre parcel of land that real estate promoters see as one of the last open spaces in urban Los Angeles available for large-scale office building and retail development. (The hotel occupies only about one-third of the grounds.)

Whether the Ambassador itself can make a comeback depends on whether new owners are willing to invest the millions of dollars needed to bring it to first-rate standards, hotel consultants say.

Chicago businessman Lester Crown is making no promises that the hotel will be spared the wrecker's ball. "I think that will be the determination of the purchaser," said Crown, who is supervising the sale for the Schine family, which has owned the hotel since 1946.

Crown is overseeing the sale as part of the gradual liquidation of the theater and hotel empire of J. Myer Schine, who died in 1971. Crown, 60, is married to one of Schine's children and himself runs a family empire that, according to a recent Business Week magazine estimate, is probably worth at least $1.5 billion.

In keeping with the Ambassador's unorthodox history, announcement of the sale was made not by the hotel or the Schines but by Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro. The councilman is pushing hard, with the support of historical groups, to keep the hotel alive. His district includes the mid-Wilshire area, where the hotel is located. The hotel, set well back from Wilshire Boulevard, is surrounded by spacious gardens that are a throwback to more leisurely days.

When the hotel opened in 1921, it was so far outside town that employees had to walk seven blocks from the end of the trolley line to get to work.

Today, the 510-room complex is ringed by high-rises that have left the hotel in an architectural time-warp. Though the present owners won't reveal their asking price, consultants estimate that the property is probably worth between $50 million and $100 million.

Built for about $5 million, the Ambassador opened as part of a chain that included like-named hotels in Atlantic City, N.J., New York and Santa Barbara. Its opening was a major social event.

Made Music Together

According to one newspaper account, "never has a society event . . . seen so many dinner parties gathered under one roof, and probably never before have so many orchestras been assembled together in one room, each carrying the same melody in complete harmony."

The hotel soon became the gathering spot for the rich and famous.

"If Hollywood was the dream and workshop of the motion picture explosion, the Ambassador Hotel was the bedroom and living room of the industry," Margaret Tante Burk wrote in her book "Are The Stars Out Tonight?"

"Back then," journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns was quoted as saying in Burk's book, "the film stars and producers didn't have the large and beautiful homes they have today . . . nor did they know how to entertain in the grand, elegant and aristocratic manner that the hotel could provide.

"So this is where we all came to be seen, to be coddled, amused and entertained. And this is where business, society and film people met. Formerly film and theatrical people had not been 'accepted' by the social elect . . . but hotel functions brought them together."

Special Niche

The Ambassador occupies a special niche for older Angelenos, who are apt to wax nostalgic at the mention of the hotel and its once-famous nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove. The Grove, now closed, was the in spot of the '20s, '30s and '40s for dancing and ogling famous people, say those who grew up in that era.

The Grove was " the place to squire your very best girl," one reader wrote The Times a few years ago. "As I look back now, decked out in my rented tux and accompanied by my current lovely, dancing among the palms to Ted Fiorito's orchestra (Muzzy Marcelino, vocalist), I doubt if my social status ever reached a higher peak."

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