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Club Fans Fight Proposed Takeover

Officials are eyeing Hollywood's Florentine Gardens, long popular with older teens, as a possible site for a fire station.

December 28, 2004|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

A week into her freshman term at Pomona College, Marina Grijalva yearned for a taste of Hollywood nightlife. Naturally. She was away from her parents in Calexico, surrounded by friends, and figured she deserved a let-loose weekend night after hitting the books.

But she was also under the drinking age. So her destination -- more often than she'd care to admit today -- was the Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard.

"That's where you go when you're underage and you want to go out somewhere. It was the whole experience. It seemed so big city," said Grijalva, 27, now a tutor and part-time teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school.

"It was a rite of passage. You turn 18, you had to go there," added Thelmo Garcia, 27, as he, Grijalva and others reminisced about their club days a decade ago at a holiday party.

Garcia, now an elementary school teacher, recalled driving up to Hollywood with his crew of friends from South Gate. "Once you get in there you had to hold on to your party's hands to not get lost, find a spot on the dance floor and form a little circle," he said. "It would get tight."

Today, Florentine Gardens is in danger of joining other Hollywood landmarks already fading from the city's collective memory. Los Angeles officials are considering plans to shut down the club to make room for a fire station.

Those trying to save the nightclub often cite its connection to Hollywood's golden age, when movie and vaudeville stars danced and dined there in the 1940s and '50s. In 1942, it was the site of a reception for newlyweds James Dougherty and Norma Jean Mortensen, who later became Marilyn Monroe.

But for younger generations, Florentine Gardens holds a different type of notoriety -- as a kindergarten of sorts for L.A. club land. It's one of the few big-name nightclubs in Los Angeles with an age limit of 18 rather than 21 -- giving teens their first taste of the nightlife.

Drawn by the Music

Since it reopened in 1979 after years of neglect, the club's vast dance floor has attracted carloads of the eager 18-and-up set from such non-Hollywood hometowns as Pomona, La Puente, Montebello and Whittier.

In the beginning, the draw was disco; later, it became funk, house, techno and trance.

Today, the club draws a diverse, mostly Latino crowd that grooves to hip-hop, salsa, cumbia, rock en espanol and reggaeton.

On Friday and Saturday nights, patrons pay a cover between $10 and $12 and wait in line to get sized up by perpetually frowning doormen who enforce a strict dress code, often referred to as "dress to impress."

No baggy jeans, no sneakers and men's shirts must be tucked in.

The bar areas remain off-limits to minors.

"For people [who] are in college, it's part of the experience," said Rigo Garcia, 23, a technology consultant who ventured a few times to the Florentine Gardens when he was an 18-year-old freshman at USC. "It was only fun if you went with a group of people that you knew."


The club, Garcia said, had a reputation for having a wild and sexually charged atmosphere.

"Club kids" in platform heels and outrageous wigs, go-go dancers, guys in Harley-Davidson boots and tight shirts, scantily clad young women -- it was a barrage of sights and sounds both tantalizing and a little scary to teenagers who made the trek from the suburbs.

"If you're from a small town in the Midwest or something and you go there, I'm sure you're not going to go back, but it's an experience you'll remember," said Garcia, who graduated to more exclusive nightspots such as Ivar, Highlands and Deep.

And for some, part of the thrill was getting in even before age 18.

"Fake IDs ... I was a rebel kid back then. How embarrassing," said Andres Caballero, 24, who was going to the club at 15 to check out DJ Richard Humpty Vission spin live sets for KPWR-FM (105.9).

Neighborhood Needs

Caballero, who now works in a Beverly Hills real estate office, said the club shouldn't close down because "18-year-olds go there. They look forward to it. Just like I did."

Seeing it go would be sad, said Grijalva, the tutor and teacher. "I'm glad people still go. Are they really building a fire station there?"

That's the plan for now.

Negotiations continue between city officials and the club's owner that may avert an eminent domain takeover.

City leaders have been struggling to find a site for the new regional fire and paramedic station for the Hollywood area.

The Florentine Gardens, surrounded by a moat of ample parking, is seen as the most promising spot for the proposed Fire Station 82.

Some residents who live in the hills above Hollywood Boulevard aren't upset at the possibility of seeing the Florentine Gardens go.

The stretch of Hollywood Boulevard near Bronson Avenue is also home to a shuttered theater, a free clinic, a homeless services center, a liquor store and a tattoo parlor.

"There's a lot of shady elements down that street," said Missy Kelly, president of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Assn.

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