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Ambassador Still a Bustling Dowager Despite Cutbacks

May 14, 1987|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

Former First Lady Betty Ford strode briskly through the venerable Ambassador Hotel at midday Wednesday, past the Cocoanut Grove where the famous and infamous have lounged, past the lobby where Marion Davies once reportedly pranced on horseback for the amusement of William Randolph Hearst.

Those glory days have faded for the 66-year-old hotel, and, on Wednesday, the Wilshire Boulevard landmark closed nearly three-fourths of its guest rooms to save money while the owners search for a buyer.

But life continues at the Ambassador. No signs proclaimed any change. Guests checked in and checked out. And Betty Ford spoke to more than 500 people at a luncheon of Round Table West, a book club that meets monthly at the Ambassador.

"It's business as usual," said Margaret Burk, the hotel's spokeswoman since 1968.

"Some of the rooms of the hotel are closing but it's not so much of a story as it has been blown into," she said. "It's just an economizing measure because there's a lot of maintenance required, plumbing and that sort of thing, that they (the owners) wanted to put off."

The Ambassador is closing 350 guest rooms in the main building but is keeping open about 150 rooms in the hotel's bungalows, which sport names such as Rincon, Huerta and Siesta. The hotel's restaurants, bars, banquet facilities and shops will remain open, Burk said.

Burk said the room closures will require laying off a "couple hundred" of the hotel's employees, which some workers said amounted to at least half the Ambassador's work force.

The Ambassador, which is owned by the family of the late theater and hotel magnate J. Myer Schine, has been for sale for a year.

The hotel has been losing money and struggling with low occupancy rates, but its 23.5-acre grounds represent one of the last open parcels of land in urban Los Angeles. Real estate experts have estimated that the property is probably worth between $50 million and $100 million.

The Schine family has turned down offers for the hotel, Burk said, but is continuing to look for a buyer. Whether the Ambassador survives or is razed to build an office building will be up to the new owners, she said.

"I'm devastated," said Carlyn Benjamin, granddaughter of the hotel's first general manager, Abe Frank, and daughter of its second, Ben L. Frank. (The current general manager is Fred Gee.)

Benjamin, now a Brentwood resident, was 3 months old when her family moved to the brand new Ambassador in 1921, and she and her sister, Jackie, grew up there.

"Every star in Hollywood used to come on Tuesday night for Stars Night" at the Cocoanut Grove, which in its heyday of the 1920s, '30s and '40s was decorated with fake palm trees, monkeys, a waterfall and stars in the ceiling, Benjamin said. "I met all sorts of wonderful people, from Charles Lindbergh to Charlie Chaplin. It was always very exciting."

The hotel has had its dark moments, too. It will always be remembered for June 5, 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy, crossing through the hotel's pantry after winning the California Democratic presidential primary, was fatally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan.

On Wednesday, Phoenix businessman James Ouzounian, on his way to check into the hotel, worried that the room closures might make it more difficult to get a reservation at the Ambassador.

"It's a shame," he said. "I always stay here. I like the lobby, the oldness of the hotel. It's convenient."

Room service waiter Miguel Sanchez was worried two weeks ago when he found out he was being laid off after eight years with the hotel.

"I was sad but I have to accept it," he said. The blow was softened recently when the 26-year-old father of two found another job as a helper to the cook at a combination restaurant and market.

Maintenance worker Toribio Virgen will keep his job.

"I was lucky 'cause I've been here for nine years," he said. "It is sad because many of my friends have to go."

At Penelope's Gifts, part of a cluster of shops on the bottom floor of the Ambassador, the doors will remain open, said Cathy H. Hogan, who owns the store with her sister, Marcy Harrison.

"There's not going to be any change," Hogan said. "It won't make any difference because of the (low) occupancy they had here, they can handle it in the bungalows."

Brian and Jean Radley, tourists from London who have been staying at the Ambassador since Sunday, said they are disappointed that the hotel is closing so many rooms and could be torn down by a new owner.

The Ambassador "is delightful in every respect," Brian Radley said. "If it kept going, we would come back," Jean Radley said.

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