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Shuts Down After 68 Years : Ambassador Hotel Closes Register on Its Last Guest

January 04, 1989|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

Though it wasn't really necessary, Arthur Nyhagen, the hotel's 70-year-old night doorman, reported for his 3 p.m. shift at the Ambassador Hotel on Tuesday.

He clipped on his black tie filled with pins given him by hotel guests, donned his red cap, red coat and whistle, and took his place outside the front door.

The 68-year-old Ambassador, Los Angeles' first premier hotel and the first glamorous gathering place for Hollywood stars, closed at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

"I'll miss this front door," said Nyhagen, who had been on the job 46 years, "all the people going in and out."

The hotel's final day was one of memories--tragic, fond, and bittersweet.

Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner and his wife, Mickey, tried to take one last look at the room where they had been married 43 years ago. But they couldn't get in.

"It's all padlocked," Wapner, star of television's "People's Court," said.

So was the Embassy Ballroom, leading to the pantry where New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down nearly 21 years ago.

Margaret Burk, hotel spokeswoman and author of a history of the Ambassador, sat in the lobby recalling how Jean Harlow had had her wedding reception there, that Peggy Lee had sung in the Cocoanut Grove, and Marilyn Monroe, when she was still Norma Jean Baker, worked for a modeling agency in the hotel.

By 1 p.m., checkout time, the last 15 occupied guest rooms were empty, and the staff discovered that an old woman who had been living there for about six months had left without paying the unpaid $932 balance on her bill.

Richard Roberts came back to finish cleaning out his clothing store, Taffy's, and found a note from an El Segundo woman stuck under his door.

"Please accept this check as payment for a blouse I stold (sic) about 16 years ago from this store," the note read. "Jesus has forgiven me and I hope you can too."

The accompanying check was for $30.

While movers carried paintings out of the executive offices of the hotel, at Wilshire Boulevard and Alexandria Avenue, maids stripped the beds and bartenders took a final inventory of liquor in the Palm Bar.

Rose Gomez, a waitress in the hotel cafe, saw Mildred Futrelle take her accustomed seat at the counter.

"Hi ya, sweetheart. How are ya?" Gomez said, the way she greeted all her "regulars."

"I'm sad," Futrelle, a retired secretary who lives nearby, said, pulling off her white gloves.

"Oh, well, nothing is forever," Gomez replied. "You having your English muffin?"

Dozens of men and women wandered the gardens of the 23.5-acre hotel property and then lingered in the lobby--walking the red carpets, or gazing up at its crystal chandeliers and gold-tinted moldings. Many took final pictures in front of the lobby's alabaster fountain and threw coins in for luck before the water was shut off.

Mary Baker, while paying $15 for "Are the Stars Out Tonight," Burk's book about the hotel, said she was angry at city officials for letting the Ambassador go.

"This should have been made a historical monument," she said. "It should be preserved. There will never be another hotel like this in this city."

The Ambassador, a victim of the increasing status of West Los Angeles addresses and hotels, as well as the decline of the mid-Wilshire area surrounding it, was put on the market in 1985 by the J. Myer Schine trusts that own the hotel.

In 1987, however, the City Council voted not to place the hotel on the city's list of more than 300 local landmarks. And efforts by preservationists to find a buyer who would agree to preserve the structure have so far failed.

According to Burk, "There are two buyers negotiating."

But whether the sprawling 600-room quasi-Spanish-style complex of main building, bungalows and cottages will survive under new ownership is unknown.

The hotel officially opened on Jan. 1, 1921, on the then-isolated site of a former dairy farm, and quickly became the city's first resort, with bridle paths, stables, a miniature golf course, tennis courts and Olympic-size swimming pool.

The Ambassador became the gathering place for socialites with names such as Doheny, Hancock and Dockweiler, and then for several generations of Hollywood stars.

"It was the bedroom and living room of the industry," Burk said of the 1920s, before the early stars built and entertained in their own lavish homes.

Papier-mache trees from the legendary Rudolph Valentino's 1921 film "The Sheik," became the principal decor in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and Will Rogers, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and even Greta Garbo were regulars there.

Antics quickly took the form of legend: Marion Davies riding a white horse across the lobby to a costume party, John Barrymore letting his pet monkey loose in the Grove's trees, or Valentino using the underground passageways at night to meet his lover.

Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, said of the Ambassador on Tuesday: "It was decided it had no historical architectural value. We had a lot of experts come in and speak. We should not save it. We should let the land be used for a mixed development . . . by which I mean another hotel, residential properties and commercial properties."

He would recommend some space be set aside, Holden added, for a monument: "To let it be known that this was a place well known to Los Angeles and throughout the world."

Since the guests had gone by the start of his shift, Nyhagen ended up mostly shaking hands and saying "goodby" and "I'll miss you" to scores of staffers as they walked out the door.

The doorman did not want to leave.

"I'll stick around," he said, "until someone comes and tells me, 'Arthur, you might as well go.'

"After all, it's my last time here."

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