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The Players: Preston Sturges' Screwball Times on the Sunset Strip

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playersprestonsturges
The Players exterior | Photo courtesy Martin Turnbull

 

"That goddamned greasy spoon is ruining you!" -- Barbara Stanwyck
"The most incredible thing about my career is that I had one." -- Preston Sturges

"The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels," "Miracle at Morgan's Creek," "The Palm Beach Story," and "Christmas in Connecticut." These are just a few of the films -- fresh, frantic and whip smart =- that sprang from the mind of "genial genius" writer/director/producer/strikingly handsome person, Preston Sturges, during his heyday in the late 1930s and early '40s. Sprung from a wealthy family and an upbringing as colorful and sophisticated as the worlds he created on screen, it seems his professional dance card should have been filled. But this strange anomaly, a democratic man of the people with a European education, had another career. It was that of restaurateur, and it dominated his thoughts and finances almost as much as his many marriages and films.

In 1940, the tireless Sturges, who passed out books with titles like "How Never to Be Tired" and "Two Lifetimes in One" to members of his weary but pampered film crews, was on top of the Hollywood heap. His pet project, "The Great McGinty," had won him the Academy Award for best screenplay. His other new baby was a rambling former private home at 8225 Sunset Boulevard. It was underneath the Chateau Marmont and across the street from silent movie goddess Alla Nazimova's Garden of Allah, an apartment complex/extended stay hotel that was a favorite of boozy writers like Dorothy Parker, and equally sloshed movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and his third wife Mayo, whose extended drunken arguments earned them the nickname the "Battling Bogarts."

Sturges personally oversaw the renovation of his building into a two-level restaurant and supper club. He helped design the interior, hired the chefs, worked on the menus and the menu's design. The L.A. Times reported that the eternally interested Sturges personally interviewed over 150 applicants, choosing as his first hire the only lad who had the decency to push in his chair once the interview was over. The menu was strictly American. Dishes, like "food for the gods steak," was served in the formal dining room, known as "the blue room." He christened his new funplex The Players, and soon added a nightclub known as The Playroom. 

And play they did. Sturges' many friends and co-workers soon made The Players their clubhouse. Barbara Stanwyck, the aforementioned Bogarts, Orson Welles, Joel McCrea, Marlene Dietrich, Miriam Hopkins, Hedy Lamar, a solitary Howard Hughes, and the writers of the Algonquin Round Table were all regulars. Most nights, the debonair owner himself "lived like a prince...sometimes genial, sometimes caustic, but always holding forth- he would sit at a table surrounded by his company of regulars and retainers. It mattered little to him whether they were admirers or moochers, just so long as they were good listeners," remembered writer Philip K. Scheuer in the L.A. Times. (Click for PDF.)

SturgesPlayers
Sturges outside the restaurant | Photo courtesy The Lady Eve's Reel Life

On some nights, he would join in with the band, singing in a powerful baritone. And, if he or one of his famous friends wanted to finish the night in more comfortable accommodations, legend has it there was a tunnel connecting The Players straight up into the decadent arms of the Chateau Marmont.

There is a thin line between genius and madness, and Sturges, who owned a suit jacket patterned with electrical wires and telephones in sly homage to his kinetic energy, precariously teetered on the edge. This is why it is so difficult to describe what the constantly evolving Players was like. Even though it was a hip success, it was forever in the financial hole owing to Sturges' incessant new ideas. At various points it included a barber shop, a hydraulic revolving stage, a drive-in burger stand, and a 350 seat "ultra-modern intimate restaurant theater." The theater featured one-act plays directed by Sturges and performed by his many loyal friends. One day he was helping workmen on the stage when a young, struggling actress named Sandy, who lived up the hill, came into The Players. She assumed he was just a laborer on the work crew, and informed him that the restaurant's neon sign was shooting sparks. It wasn't long after that the two were married on the stage in front of 200 friends. The 21-year-old bride was "scared as a kitten." He was 52, and it was his fourth marriage.

playersmenu
The Players menu, 1950s | Image courtesy LAPL Menu Collection

 

But Sandy and their two children would be the one bright spot in a life increasingly marred by alcoholism, financial problems, and a disastrous partnership with Howard Hughes. By 1953, his career in Hollywood was in shambles, and The Players was about to go under. That year, acidic gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported that Vivien Leigh was dining at The Players when she suddenly got the urge to man the restaurant's switchboard. Sturges gave her the go-ahead and she spent hours anonymously answering the calls. At the end of the night, Sturges quipped: "Vivien, if you ever quit pictures, you can come work for me." Soon after, The Players went dark.

Sturges spent much of the last years of his life floating around Europe and the States. A friend recalled meeting with him in Paris months before he died, in a café on Champs Elysee. "He talked grandly of his plans of a comeback both as a writer and director. When the check came he pulled in his sails (but only a little) and in a lower voice addressed me 'I hope you have a large expense account. I'm broke you know.'" In 1959 Preston Sturges died penniless in a comped room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. He was 60 years old.

Hollywood and 8225 Sunset Boulevard continued on its illustrious, scandalous way. Over time it was the Imperial Gardens, the Roxbury and Miyagi's. In 2012 Harry Morton, oil-slick heir of Hard Rock Café founder Peter Morgan, chose the site for the second location of his Mexican restaurant chain The Pink Taco. During renovations his work crews discovered the revolving stage, the dance floor and the infamous secret tunnel connecting to the Chateau Marmont. Isn't it nice to know that the story was true?

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