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Echoes of the Ambassador

The hotel may be gone, but `Bobby' recaptures its spirit and much of its look.

October 29, 2006|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

ONE of the stars of "Bobby" -- which premieres Wednesday to open the AFI film festival -- doesn't have a single line.

The movie, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, is a fictionalized account of the hours leading up to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel, shortly after the U.S. Senator and presidential candidate gave his California primary victory speech.

Transformed by that act of violence into one of Los Angeles' most infamous landmarks, the Ambassador looms large over the activity with a sense of grandeur and foreboding as if a character all its own.

Production designer Patti Podesta ("Memento") had more than the usual concerns to address when she began preparations for the film, which opens in theaters Nov. 17. For one, the real Ambassador was slated for demolition, to rise again as a school campus. And the Los Angeles Unified School District, which owned the building, refused to allow filming there.

"It felt a little overwhelming -- what do I do about this?" Podesta recalls thinking. "It was a puzzle, like any film. I knew also that because our film had such a small budget" -- about $11 million -- "I'd never be able to do an exact re-creation of the hotel."

She began by scrupulously researching the Ambassador. Designed by architect Myron Hunt (who designed the Rose Bowl, Caltech and the Pasadena Public Library), the hotel was graced by world leaders and movie stars upon its 1921 opening. Its Cocoanut Grove nightclub was one of the preeminent spots in town and its ballroom hosted the Academy Awards.

Podesta watched "The Graduate," which had used the hotel for Benjamin's assignations with Mrs. Robinson. She scoured the Los Angeles Public Library online database and files from the California Film Commission. She studied tapes of the live network feeds from the night of the assassination, frame by frame.

She even gleaned important details from an episode of "America's Unsolved Mysteries" that included photos from the crime scene taken by the LAPD.

Julie Weiss, the film's costume designer, added a homier research tool. "Julie's sister was actually married in the Embassy Ballroom the year that our event takes place," Podesta said. "She brought me the wedding album, and it was invaluable."

An auction of hotel property, which luckily was held in the Ambassador parking lot shortly after Podesta got the job, also turned out to be a treasure trove. She scooped up doors, tables, desks, part of the switchboard, the key collection, an oven and bedroom furniture.

After the auction, LAUSD allowed her inside, where she scored hardware from elevators, doorknobs, a decorative grille and other details. She photographed a painting above the staircase, then scanned and re-created it.

"It was sort of like taking the ghost of the Ambassador with us and embedding it in our sets," said Podesta. "So even if we weren't re-creating the hotel verbatim, I really felt there were these little moments of it around and that it would sort of imbue our sets with a sense of it."

Podesta felt uniquely qualified for the job, and not only because of her skills as a production designer. A native Angeleno, she knew the Ambassador well and had used it for locations over the years. She felt committed to giving the place its due on-screen. But more than that, she said, "It's my city and my politics, and the chance to do those kinds of films comes along so rarely that I really wanted to do it."

Then, just weeks before filming was to begin, the school district relented and agreed to let the crew shoot for one week in the coffee shop and the promenade area. The demolition didn't pause, though.

"I really wish I had taken a picture, because if you widen out the set a little bit, the building was being demolished by a wrecking ball," Podesta said.

Podesta looked to buildings from the same era to fill in the rest of the hotel. The Santa Anita racetrack gave them their kitchen. The '50s-era pool was found at a local golf club. The Park Plaza Hotel near MacArthur Park, much disguised by Podesta and crew, stood in as the front entrance and lobby. To closely match real footage used in the film, the filmmakers built the ballroom and pantry sets on stages in Santa Clarita.

In all of her work, Podesta aimed for what she termed an emotional portrait of the place rather than an architecturally perfect rendering. "Emilio called the film 'a disaster movie of the heart,' " Podesta said. "It doesn't try to re-create the event but the moment-by-moment feeling of being in that day."

Similarly, the hotel may have been fashioned from locations all over Southern California, but to Podesta, the result is an Ambassador of the heart.

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