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The Biltmore: 75 Years

Memories and Milestones

Marked by Its Italian and Spanish Renaissance Design, Cathedral-Like Painted Ceilings and Glittering Crystal Ballroom, a Downtown Los Angeles Landmark Reaches Its Diamond Anniversay--and Still Makes Quite a Statement

October 04, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Returning a monogrammed hotel napkin, one letter writer explained that years earlier she must have "accidentally left the restaurant with this caught in my coat."

Returning a hotel shoehorn, a West L.A. dentist was upfront: "I admit it. I purloined the enclosed."

The Regal Biltmore Hotel issued a call in January for memorabilia--no questions asked--for its yearlong 75th anniversary celebration, which kicked off Friday night.

It has received more than 100 responses. Bottles and openers, sewing kits, room keys, even a wood hanger from the '50s are among treasures collected for an in-house museum to open early next year.

"A lot of people have found items at flea markets, garage sales," says Sheena Stephens, the hotel's public relations manager. Others are returning items "they sort of walked away with when they were younger."

Not surprisingly, Stephens adds, "a lot of items have come in from people with last names beginning with 'B.' "

A Pasadena woman sent a bar of hotel soap she'd kept since her 1928 wedding night. A Sun City woman returned a silver spoon, explaining that her father worked for the company that serviced the elevators in the '30s. She speculated that he took home silverware that slipped through elevator cracks after being dropped by waiters.

Others have unearthed yellowed postcards (one of which was addressed to J. Paul Getty) and menus from elegant events in days gone by, such as a 1930 dinner honoring William Randolph Hearst with Louis B. Mayer as featured speaker.

There is a program, too, from the gala opening of the hotel on Oct. 2, 1923, an occasion on which 3,000 of the creme de la creme dined on seven courses and danced to the music of seven orchestras--plus singing canaries. Among guests were Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Warner, Theda Bara, Ramon Navarro, Myrna Loy and Jack Dempsey.

The menu, featuring delicacies such as crab meat epicurienne, noisette of lamb and assorted patisserie, was updated for '90s palates and re-created for the 500 guests at Friday night's black-tie event at the Biltmore, which, appropriately enough, benefited the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural treasures.

Such as the Regal Biltmore Hotel.

The hotel, a landmark at 5th Street and Grand in downtown Los Angeles, cost $10 million to build and, with 1,000 rooms, was the largest and grandest hostelry west of Chicago. It was a magnet for L.A. society and film stars and czars.

A commemorative coffee table book published for the 75th anniversary--"The Los Angeles Biltmore: The Host of the Coast"--defines its arrival as "a statement to the rest of the world that Los Angeles had arrived as an American metropolis." With its Italian and Spanish Renaissance design, cathedral-like painted ceilings, stunning 350-foot galleria and gilded and glittering Crystal Ballroom, it was quite a statement.

"Luxury heaped upon luxury," said The Times at the time.

Regal in Recent Times, Illustrious in the Past

It was known simply as the Biltmore until being bought in 1996 by Hong Kong-based Regal Hotels International, which recently put it up for sale.

But to many, it's still just The Biltmore.

It's lore is as rich as its tapestries, gilded cupids and carved marble. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was born at a gathering of film luminaries in the Crystal Ballroom in 1927; Cedric Gibbons sketched the Oscar on a hotel napkin. In 1931, the Oscar ceremony was, for the first time, held at the Biltmore.

Among those who've slept under its roof are assorted royalty and former presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (both had headquarters there during the 1960 Democratic national convention). The pillows in the presidential suite, with its private elevator and secret liquor cabinet, have been plumped for six presidents. The Beatles were dropped by helicopter on the roof of the Biltmore, where they were secreted for a few days.

In its hallowed halls have been set numerous TV shows and feature films, including "Bugsy," wherein Warren Beatty relaxed in the health club, and "Rocky III," for which the Crystal Ballroom was converted to a fight arena. Commercials filmed at the hotel have pushed products from Burger King to Rolls-Royce.

A vintage Rolls was rolled out for Friday's anniversary party, where guests included some with special ties to the hotel. Among them was Evelyn Barnard of Scottsdale, whose father-in-law, Charles Baad, was an original hotel partner and its first general manager. She and Baad's adopted son, Robert Foehl, were wed in a large 11th floor suite in 1951.

In a recent interview, she recalled, "I thought I was marrying into heaven when I moved there. We had a private elevator to the 11th floor, where all the family lived." It would be home for 15 years.

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