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Gotta Dance, C.B.

Scenesters give Hollywood Athletic Club a new life.

June 05, 1997|KIM TAYLOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is that it is in constant motion. Take the Hollywood Athletic Club, for instance. The clean, slightly elegant pool hall--voted by Billiards Digest "America's Best" for the last two years--is fast becoming one of Hollywood's hottest nightspots. After a quiet remodeling, the former men's club--established in 1924 by Cecil B. De Mille, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino--is attracting a mass of Thursday jazz connoisseurs, Saturday night groovers, Sunday salsa dancers.

From the outside, the only obvious change in the structure reminiscent of 18th century Venice is an added door and valet parking staff on the west side. Then there's Saturday nights, when the street is barricaded to control hundreds of hipsters rushing the door at "Saturday Night Large," a dance club featuring house and hip-hop DJs.

Inside, a slightly uptight security staff directs patrons to a large remodeled room with a 2,000-square-foot dance floor. Several decades ago, it was a men's gymnasium with 35-foot ceilings and wood floors. Both elements remain with a full-scale stage and $70,000 lighting system added to make a modern club. A full bar lines the south wall as a balcony extends overhead circling the entire room. Like many of Hollywood's alluring environs, its grandiosity cannot be detected from the street.

The legendary building at 6525 Sunset Blvd. began as a place for Hollywood's elite to frolic. It saw John Barrymore's corpse brought in for a final drink by pal Dick Powell. An angry Jean Harlow turned up in the lobby wearing only a fur coat to show Errol Flynn what he had missed after standing her up. In 1949, the first Emmy Awards were presented. It later became a Jewish seminary, then a restaurant and then home to Island Records before current owners Jay Boland, David Gilmour and Tom Salter (father of the former Clash leader Joe Strummer) purchased it in 1989.

They intended to make it a live music venue all along. Managing partner Boland simply waited for the right time to execute a plan. In the meantime, the Hollywood Athletic Club became popular as a pool hall, sports bar and private party site known for tasty food.

Last year General Manager Elizabeth Peterson was hired to help with an expansion. "Jay had the money and power," she explains, "and I had the know-how." They hired a contractor, interior designer and a sound engineer for the $800,000 remodeling. One of two main pool rooms became the stage area while the other remained intact. Its Brunswick Gold billiard tables continue to be popular with regulars including the casts of "Friends" and "ER" and Keanu Reeves.

The upgrade brings the athletic club back to its star-studded roots. Last month, Stevie Wonder held his 47th birthday party there (with the former Prince consulting on sound). Wonder jammed for two-plus hours alongside guests Wesley Snipes, Montell Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and others. With the help of promoters Goldenvoice and Kingfish, England's ambient electronic act Sneaker Pimps recently sold out two nights at the 1,500-capacity club.

Peterson and Boland would like to see the club become a showcase of talent varying in genre each night of the week. But in an economic climate where dollars spent on development do not necessarily equal income, they may be forced to go with the flow of nights like SNL and performances by groups like the Sneaker Pimps, which have been their most profitable.

"Going into it we knew it was going to be one of the most successful, high-impact clubs in L.A.," says Dillon Jordan, one of SNL's six promoters. "It's going to be the premier club going into summer." The athletic club was chosen as its location because the venue now possesses "mega-layout and quality alongside intimate elegance."

"It's awesome," says SNL DJ Dave Aude. "Finally Hollywood has a club that can have more than 500 people in it. We haven't had anything big in a long time. It's nice to have a space that's not cheap with a negative vibe. You can actually meet someone there, sit down for a meal and not feel bad."

BE THERE

Hollywood Athletic Club, 6525 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Generally 21 and over. Entertainment, full menu and bar. Covers: Sunday (salsa), $10; Wednesday (lounge), $10; Thursday (jazz), $8-12; Saturday (Club SNL), $20. Open until 3 a.m. (213) 962-6600.

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