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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

Take Two: Hotel to the Stars Is Reborn

September 16, 1996|Cecilia Rasmussen

In a fitting Hollywood ending for the Garden Court Apartments--once home to such film legends as Keystone Cop Mack Sennett, John Gilbert and Mae Murray--the Hollywood Entertainment Museum opens Tuesday where the famed complex once stood.

Designed by Barry Howard, the $5.5-million museum is on Hollywood Boulevard and Sycamore Avenue, near the El Capitan and Mann's Chinese Theater. A 15-foot statue called the Goddess of Entertainment will greet visitors in the main rotunda, holding symbols of four entertainment arts--radio, television, sound and movies.

The museum features life-sized figures of stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with tape-recorded voices telling anecdotes about their careers. Other exhibits include fashion and makeup displays and classrooms devoted to editing, animation and sound recording.

About 70 years ago, it was the living legends themselves who strolled through the property. During its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, the Garden Court Apartments hosted the likes of Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore and Lillian Gish. Wallace Beery, Fatty Arbuckle and even the master mogul himself, Louis B. Mayer, visited the grounds--adorned with sculpted angles and a fountain holding a trio of cherubs.

The Garden Court, with 190 rooms, a baby grand piano, oil paintings and Oriental carpets in each of its 72 suites, began life just a few years after Hollywood emerged as the world's movie capital. When it opened its doors on New Year's Eve 1919, a long red carpet unrolled from its grand portico down to dusty Hollywood Boulevard, where lines of limousines deposited elegantly dressed silent-screen stars.

Built by developer Frank Meline for the rich and famous, the complex had two lavish formal ballrooms, a billiard room, tennis courts, gardens and a pool surrounded by palms.

To offer a measure of protection to the Garden Court's famous female residents, the manager planted cactus around the ground-floor windows to discourage suitors from climbing through their chamber windows.

For decades, Hollywood buzzed with rumors that Louis B. Mayer maintained Apt. 417 for more than 30 years, but Hollywood historian Marm Wanamaker said it has never been proved. Sennett, a longtime resident, died in his apartment in 1960.

Vacated in 1980, the four-story residential hotel slipped into disrepair and soon became known as "Hotel Hell," a haunt for runaways and transients who vandalized its interior and started a series of fires.

Preservationists waged a four-year battle to save the landmark building in court, but ultimately lost and the building was demolished in 1985, clearing the way for the museum and retail complex.

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