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Ambassador To The Past

May 12, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The news that the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire is partially shutting down, another casualty of shifting real estate values and priorities, must trigger a tremor of nostalgia in thousands of us.

I had hardly unpacked my suitcases, a displaced magazine journalist from New York, when in 1959 I covered a Johnny Mathis opening night at the hotel's legendary Cocoanut Grove--fake palm trees, Freddie Martin's "Tonight We Love" orchestra, the works.

Mathis I already knew from records, and it was a crackling good show. He was still doing a lot of finger-snapping uptempo numbers--with Lena Horne, he later told me, as one of his influencing idols. The high-voiced and mournful ballads were there, but had not yet come to dominate his repertoire.

But, Mathis aside, that night at the Grove, like much of my early experience of Los Angeles (and I know I am not alone in this), was like a homecoming to a place I had never been.

It was all so familiar, the city and the room, from the printed pages of the works of Raymond Chandler, from the radio shows of my impressionable youth--including the jokes of Bob Hope--and from the movies.

The cameras had led me down each of the city's streets, mean and grand, into its glassy nightclubs and ornate mansions, and up the steps to its bungalows and shabby apartments, with their cracking, peeling stucco and their shadowy spaces, where the evil-doers and the accused innocents all hid out, perspiring in the summer heat and waiting for trouble.

The Ambassador was a principal stop on that pre-arrival tour of a Los Angeles where the real and the fictional blurred into an atmospheric whole.

The hotel was always, it seemed to me, more sizeable than elegant. But it did possess, in that memorable phrase of Noel Coward's from another context, a certain seedy grandeur.

With its cottages and its spacious grounds, the Ambassador has retained unchanged all its days an aura of the assertive, speculative '20s, and while the hotel could be freshened, as some of its rooms recently were, it has resisted updating.

A stroll through the Ambassador was always an outing to Hollywood's yesterdays. On a visit to the hotel only a few weeks ago, it seemed to me that the tourists in the vast lobby, waiting with their luggage for the bus to be called, were still hoping for a last fleeting glimpse of Francis X. Bushman or Clara Bow.

The hotel was perfectly cast as a symbolic meeting place of '20s and the '80s in the fantasy film "Maxie" two or three years ago, in which Glenn Close was simultaneously a raucous silent era flapper and a sedate yuppie.

Now the hotel is padlocking its guest rooms, as of Wednesday, as a cost-saving move. For the moment it will still offer its bungalows and its banquet facilities, including the Cocoanut Grove. The hotel has been for sale for months but no suitable buyer has come forward.

If the Ambassador cannot be saved--and, in an era dedicated to the erection of more stately high-rise and dehumanized office warrens and double-helical parking structures, it seems unlikely--its passing will sever yet another link between the present megalopolis and its warmer, smaller past.

It was a past of spicy enclaves set amid the comfortable, tree-shaded echoes of the Midwest and the East, and the Grove was one of those common grounds where the presumably sinful of Hollywood rubbed finery with the ostensibly sedate not of Hollywood. I imagine that if the fake palm trees could talk, they might prefer to observe a tactful silence.

The passing is melancholy but in itself not quite tragic. The real worry is that the city is now making larger and more indelible mistakes than it used to, swapping charm and spaciousness for a kind of thick-set utilitarianism that creates canyons and shadows and an augmented tax base, but little intimate pleasure.

I wince still to pass the site of the Garden of Allah at Crescent Heights and Sunset, a spicy enclave if there ever was one and sacred to the memories not only of Alla Nazimova but also of Robert Benchley and Scott Fitzgerald. In 1959, it went overnight from picturesque to nondescript, and the only consolation is that the characterless commercial building that replaced it is not tall.

I sometimes dream, on hazy afternoons and slow nights, that there is somewhere a ghostly boulevard lined with all those establishments that once gave pleasure and which are no more.

I wander by in memory, saluting the Regency on La Cienaga, where Slim Gaillard used to play, and the Garden of Allah itself, all the Frascati Restaurants, two Tails o' the Cock, the Brown Derbies on Vine and in Beverly Hills, the beloved Swiss Cafe on Rodeo, and even the anonymous drive-ins that once offered what Raymond Chandler called food that would poison a toad.

There are survivals to be grateful for, including the Cock 'n' Bull and Musso & Frank, and welcome new arrivals beyond number. But the Los Angeles past has had a rumpled and raffish charm unique to itself, and among its surviving souvenirs had been the now imperiled Ambassador and its haunted Grove.

A last, slow chorus of "Three O'Clock in the Morning," Maestro, if you will.

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