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Tales of the Chateau : Garbo Slept Here. Belushi Died Here. The Chateau Marmont Has Always Attracted a Certain Kind of Hollywood Crowd.

September 14, 1986|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a writer based in Los Angeles.

Agents liked doing business along the Strip, too, because they got out of paying the city's licensing tax. An army of agents set up camp. Still, the real business was done not in their shops, but in Hollywood's central waiting room, Schwab's Drugstore. The recent loss of Schwab's was particularly painful to Chateau residents. Damn it, that's where you went for breakfast.

"It was like a duty to go there, just to show people that you were still around," Hollywood writer Tony Drake recalls. "It was open late, so there was more movie business done at Schwab's than at any other place in Hollywood."

Like many people who spent an important part of their lives in Hollywood during the '40s, Drake spoke with an intense longing. You can hear the same wistfulness in the voices of people who went through the '60s flower-child era on the Strip. For a certain blessed period, they had someplace to go. The eccentric movie director Preston Sturges ("Sullivan's Travels") ran a restaurant / theater, almost in the shadow of the Chateau Marmont, called The Players. It featured the Mighty Sturges Art Players on a stage that lowered after the show and became a dance floor. Across the street was Benny Pollack's Pick-A-Rib, a place to hear jazz stars like Illinois Jacquet.

There were the gambling joints, such as the Clover Club, stashed in the back of an old house on La Cienega and Sunset. And while mobsters from Chicago loved to drop in on the Strip, West Hollywood had its own boy--racketeer Mickey Cohen, who operated out of a haberdashery on the corner of Holloway.

After the war, the cafe-society overflow would hike next door from Schwab's to Googie's, where James Dean and other strugglers from the nearby Actor's Studio would hold court over coffee. On the northwest corner of the intersection was a club called Frascati's.

BY THE END OF THE'50S, MUCH OF THE SUNSET STRIP HAD BEEN scattered. The torch had been passed to a new generation of good-time society. The nightclubs went out of business. The Garden of Allah succumbed to an increasingly loose reputation, and it closed in August, 1959. At the farewell bash, guests came dressed as famous movie stars; Hollywood had already begun to feed on its own memories.

Legend has it that Joni Mitchell was living across the street in the Voltaire at the time. Looking out her window at the bulldozers tearing into the Garden of Allah, she wrote the classic line, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Still, the Chateau persisted, and took in the minstrels. But a slow decline began to creep over the hotel. The phone and room service deteriorated. Guests had to suffer the monstrous indignity of a huge Las Vegas casino billboard right outside their windows--a drum majorette endlessly pirouetting. She became a memorable bit in "Myra Breckenridge," filmed partly in the Chateau (from a book by one-time Chateau resident Gore Vidal), as a symbol of new Hollywood sleaze. The Marlboro Man has since replaced her.

When rock 'n' roll took over the Strip in the '60s, the new clubs had names like The Daisy, The Whisky, Fred C. Dobbs, The Trip, The Fifth Estate. In 1966, the city moved to knock down a purple-and-gold hangout called Pandora's Box, which occupied the little triangular island where Crescent Heights meets Sunset. The claimed reason was street realignment, but the kids smelled a plot. The police moved in, and the ensuing disagreement came to be known as the Riot on Sunset Strip.

DURING THE YEARS OF THE BIG ROCK TOURS, THE EARLY'70S,THE Chateau Marmont was largely spared the circuses that visited the other area hotels such as the Sunset Marquis and the Continental Hyatt House. Singers of a certain kind stayed at the Chateau, like Graham Nash and David Crosby, or Pink Floyd.

Some observers looked at the Chateau's hectically hip crowd and sensed something dark about the scene. Novelist Eve Babitz calls it the Epitome of the Irrevocably Elusive. "It's everything you wanted but couldn't have," she notes warily. "It's too fast and too tough. It's like the Lakers playing the Celtics: hardball." Her perceptions were perhaps colored by associating the hotel with doom-struck rock 'n' roll finales, such as the demise of singer Gram Parsons, who chose the hotel for his last stand.

Graham Nash has better memories. "I went there for a night in 1971 and stayed for five months. I was between romances--I had just broken up with Joni Mitchell--and was isolating myself in the Chateau. I moved in with my electric piano and wrote a lot of good songs at the Chateau. 'Southbound Train,' 'Girl to Be on My Mind,' 'Strangers Room,' which was Bungalow B."

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