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The Cocoanut Grove: The Los Angeles Inspiration for Las Vegas

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Images courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library
Images courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

The assassination of Robert Kennedy in its pantry has settled a permanent fog over the colorful history of L.A.'s trailblazing Ambassador Hotel. But before there was the Wynn or the Bellagio in Las Vegas, there was the Ambassador, a sprawling 1,200 room mini-city that included 37 shops, a private school, golf course, bowling alley, theater and the city's very first nightclub, the Zinnia Grill.

After opening in 1921, the management quickly realized that the hugely popular club was much too small to cater to both the downtown country club set and the crasser movie folks of Hollywood, not to mention the actual hotel guests. So the grand ballroom was converted into the 1,000-seat Cocoanut Grove, and the L.A. hot spot was born.

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Everything at the Grove was big, both in size and design. Formally attired guests were led down a grand staircase into a garish adult wonderland. Mechanical monkeys with glowing eyes hung from full size papier mache palm trees that had been used in Rudolph Valentino's hit movie "The Sheik." The high ceiling was lit with stars and a real waterfall cascaded down the back wall. It is said the Barrymore brothers would occasionally let their pet monkeys loose on the floor, and the creatures would scurry up the rocks and into the trees.

From the start, the best jazz bands, big bands, swing orchestras and crooners like Bing Crosby played the Grove; The in-house musical director Freddy Martin, aka "Mr. Cocoanut Grove," made the room world famous with his radio show that broadcast live and featured a very young vocalist by the name of Merv Griffin. From the '20s to the '60s everyone who was anyone played the Grove. Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, The Supremes, Nat King Cole, Sonny and Cher ... the list goes on and on.

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Theme nights, the perennial favorite of slimy promoters and frat boys everywhere, originated at the Grove. "Frolic night," "College night" and "Stars night" were attended by countless celebs including Carole Lombard, Gloria Swanson, Barbara Stanwyck: they often served as hostesses for the evening (something that is still done today, though the hostess will more likely be a "star" in the Kardashian sense). In the 1920s Joan Crawford was a regular at these nights and racked up countless cups at the endless dance contests that were all the between-war rage.

One must not forget that the Grove was a dinner club, too. A full menu was offered every night and the food was surprisingly inventive for such a large scale operation. The French chef, Henri, whipped up an early version of French-California cuisine using West Coast staples like asparagus, oranges, avocados, figs and fresh fish and crustaceans, adding the heavy sauces and creams that were the staple of mid-century fine dining.

The Grove was also the site of several Academy Awards ceremonies including the banner 1940 show that was swept by "Gone with the Wind." But, the slow decline of the Ambassador accelerated after the death of RFK. The Grove tried to revamp its image, bringing Sammy Davis Jr. in as musical director and re-decorating the club in the style of the industrial, sleek Vegas clubs that it had originally inspired. The hotel and the Grove were finally closed in 1989. Until its demolition in 2006 many said you could still hear the echo of music and mirth coming from the once filled ballroom off Wilshire Boulevard.

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