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Those Hollywood nights

There was a time when stars of stage and screen enjoyed spending a night on the town rubbing shoulders with the city's rank and file -- and without a bodyguard in sight.

May 21, 2006|Jim Heimann | Special to The Times

WHEN the film industry set up camp in Los Angeles in 1909, migrating actors from the East looked around for nightlife action in Hollywood and found a scene that was largely a big snooze. Downtown, the city's social hub, teemed with burlesque halls, and bars on Main and Spring streets had restaurants offering fare from venison to vegetarian. But "blue" laws forbade dancing and most forms of entertainment on Sundays, and there was heavy lobbying to end all forms of drinking.

Then in 1912, boxing promoter Baron Long opened up the Vernon Country Club southeast of downtown, and Vernon became the mecca emerging Hollywood was waiting for. Skirting local liquor laws and outside the restrictive blue law district, Long's club became the site for early cinema high jinks. (Cowboy star Tom Mix once drove his car into the club and bought everyone a round of drinks.) As an alternative to the inland action, the beach cities offered places such as Ship Cafe on the Venice Pier, the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica (where Ivy at the Shore resides today) and numerous clubs, ballrooms and restaurants between the piers.

Nightlife on the scale of New York's arrived when booze went underground after Prohibition in 1920. Speakeasys and illicit clubs boomed, and as the motion-picture industry took hold, Hollywood finally began to host nightclubs. From cross-dressing venue BBB's Cellar on Las Palmas to the exclusive Montmartre on Hollywood Boulevard, all provided liquor -- or ignored the law by advertising "Bring your own" -- and many featured gambling in back rooms.

In the '20s, Washington Boulevard in Culver City became a precursor to the Sunset Strip. The city was convenient to offshore bootleggers and had a police force that looked the other way. Its proximity to numerous movie studios cemented the street as the place to be once the sun went down.

Creole chorines danced to Louis Armstrong's band at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, one of the few places that allowed black entertainers to perform, though it enforced the whites-only admission policy common at the time. Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation Club, just down the road, invited clubgoers to share the dance floor with their favorite stars at special evenings orchestrated by a host movie studio, a tactic copied by other Los Angeles-area clubs. Likewise, gambling ships that plied the coastal waters off L.A. (on "cruises to nowhere") offered a chance to spot stars firsthand.

In an era when movie personalities actively courted attention and mingled with the public, these opportunities were not uncommon. What made Los Angeles nightlife unique for decades was its connection to the entertainment industry and the concentration of celebrities who resided here.

That and a more relaxed and democratic approach to club and restaurant admittance made going out at night a different experience than it is today. The glitter of the stars could rub off on the people who lived here. (And strangely, it worked the other way as well. Take away our chance to coolly ignore the stars sitting in the next booth and they might as well live in Dubuque.)

The golden age

WITH the recall of Prohibition, nightlife entered a golden age that, like the industry's, lasted until the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The scene at the Cafe Trocadero, opened by Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson in 1934, gives us a taste of what Hollywood high life was all about. Housed in a stylish Colonial-inspired building at 8610 Sunset, it catered to continental tastes. Guests entered through a lobby surrounded by a frieze of Paris and a row of striped satin settees, handing their wraps to a pert coat-check girl before moving into the cream-and-gold main dining room.

Padded walls framed a mirror-like dance floor, which overlooked the grid of Hollywood. Xavier Cugat and his band, centered on a stage along the west wall, played all evening, and the menu was '30s elegant: blini au caviar Romanoff, green turtle amontillado soup, alligator pear salad and chateaubriand.

Wandering down to the Cellar, the Troc's more informal and clubby oak-paneled boite, you might run into Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Bill Powell and Jean Harlow, chatting it up with Jimmy Stewart in an overstuffed booth. Cozying up to the copper-topped bar might be Joan Crawford and spouse Franchot Tone, sipping on the house specialty, the Trocadero Cooler.

Everyone was invited, but the cost of such an evening -- around $18 in 1936, when the average hourly wage was around 25 cents -- might set back the average Joe a couple of weeks' pay. Less extravagant but more within reach, you could also just go to the Cellar, have drinks and $2 dinners for two and get out with only a $6 charge. But that was still three days' pay.

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