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A Charming Hostelry: The Hollywood Hotel Story

Hollywood Hotel,1956 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL
Hollywood Hotel,1956 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL

Today, Hollywood and Highland is synonymous with the frenetic, yet somehow lazy, tourist trap that is Hollywood Boulevard. I cannot be the only Angelino who has spent a sweltering Saturday afternoon ushering visiting relatives through the Hollywood and Highland Center, with its towering "Intolerance"-inspired architecture and rather commonplace, overpriced shops. Atop it all is the Dolby Theater, home of the Academy Awards, which often leads visitors to ask incredulously, "Wait, movie stars walk through a mall to get to the Oscars? Past the Sephora?"

After a day fighting off filthy Cookie Monsters and shopping at the giant Gap, I have occasionally sat with loved ones in their rooms at the looming Lowes Hollywood Hotel, a 628-room haven of sleek, attainable luxury. At night, Hollywood and Highland becomes a seedier kind of trap, filled with stilettos clicking over the Walk of Fame stars that line the grimy sidewalks.

Few know the legend of how these stars came into being. Even fewer are aware that less than 100 years ago, Hollywood and Highland was a bucolic rural paradise, and at its heart was the rambling, genteel Hollywood Hotel.

Hollywood Hotel, 1908 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
Hollywood Hotel, 1908 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

Hooray for Hollywood

Those who had not seen the charming hostelry before, expressed surprise and satisfaction that Hollywood should possess such a commodious and up-to-date hotel resort. Hotel Hollywood is a two-story modern structure, and represents an outlay of $30,000. There are fifty rooms in the building, with modern fixtures, and finished in white pine. The large reception room and halls on the lower floor are in oak and pine, the natural colors of the wood being preserved. The building proper is entirely completed, and the internal finishing's will be in place by another week. The hotel will be open for guests this morning.(L.A. Times)

In 1902, the small enclave of Hollywood was an elegant country resort, covered in barley fields and citrus groves. Hollywood Blvd. (then called Prospect Avenue) was simply a dusty, unpaved road, dotted by the fine rural estates of wealthy pioneers, who aspired to a quiet life away from the hustle of Los Angeles.

But of course, there was more to this idealized Utopia than met the eye. Developer H.J. Whitley was in a friendly battle with other Hollywood pioneers over which intersection would become the center of the town. The main contenders were Whitley's Prospect and Highland versus Daeida Wilcox and Dr. Palmer's Prospect and Cahuenga. To further his intersection's chances, Whitley decided to build an elegant hotel at the northwest corner of Prospect and Highland.

George W. Hoover won the contract to build the first wing of the two-story, cement and plaster building. Designed in the Mission style by architects Dennis and Farwell, the Hotel Hollywood (it would be changed to the "Hollywood Hotel" in the 1920s) was promised to have a rotunda, grand staircase, children's dining room, barber shop, ice station, self- contained power plant, and stunning, therapeutic grounds. Its most popular feature would be its deep, wrap-around porch, which would become the hotel's social center for decades.

Hollywood Hotel, 1903 | Photo: LAPL
Hollywood Hotel, 1903 | Photo: LAPL

At a reception on Dec. 19th, 1902, this "gem of the valley" was celebrated by the Southland's elite. That evening, the new hotel "was resplendent with lights and the interior was charming in decorations of ferns, plants and carnations." Hoover and proprietors Margaret Anderson and the aptly named Martha Stewart were toasted and encouraged. Nearly 100 prominent guests arrived via the "mermaid" and "400," two of the trolley cars on the popular Balloon Route of the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad. The Hotel Hollywood's inclusion on this important tourist route, which included a stop at the painter Paul de Longpre's famed estate, cemented its status as the premier hotel in the budding village of Hollywood.

A few days later, the hotel was rapidly filling up, with 60 customers eating their Christmas day dinner in the dining room. The hotel quickly became the country club of early Hollywood society. There were art exhibitions of still life paintings by genteel ladies, social dances with music by the Wetzel Orchestra, and banquets featuring menus of "fastidious taste." At one large banquet celebrating the 1905 expansion of the hotel, 300 guests in full evening dress sat at tables covered in jonquils, while the Venetian Ladies orchestra provided music.

George Hana, master of ceremonies, extended a welcome from the proprietors of the hotel. He spoke of their popularity and efficacy and proposed that all join in drinking to their health. Following this, W.C. Patterson was introduced. He responded to the toast, "Hotel Hollywood." He complimented the large gathering and proposed that all drink to the health of the president of the United States. The guests complied and sang with enthusiasm "America."(L.A. Times)

This wholesome toast was probably offered with good old fashioned water. Hollywood was officially a temperate colony, and founder Daeida Wilcox wanted to keep it that way. However, her rascally second husband, Philo Beveridge, a popular speaker at Hotel Hollywood functions, seems to have taken a more moderate approach when it came to alcoholic refreshments. Much to Daeida's embarrassment, the city of Hollywood accused him of serving alcohol at a banquet at the hotel. Philo admitted that he had served his guests white wine. According to historian Gregory Paul Williams:

Among the witnesses, G.T. Gower, testified that he recognized the wine but did not drink it. George Dunlop drank it, a man named Hampton not only drank it but judged it excellent.

Unsurprisingly, given his connections, Philo was acquitted. As Hollywood's reputation as a resort spot grew, more and more people came to spend long weekends at the hotel, where one employee boasted you could "see the ocean from the veranda." (L.A. Times)

Mira Hershey, an eccentric real estate tycoon from the famous chocolate family, was one such guest. Lured from her mansion on Bunker Hill by an ad in the paper, she promptly fell in love with the hotel, particularly its dining room's apple pie. In 1907, she bought the hotel, and soon had a massive falling out with Margaret Anderson, who had managed the hotel exceptionally for a number of years. After a contentious lawsuit, Anderson left, taking many of her guests with her. In 1912, she would open the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel.

Hollywood Hotel, 1938 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL
Hollywood Hotel, 1938 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL

Miss Hershey Has a Ball

The thirsty thespians at these socials stayed well lubricated in no-drinking Hollywood. While a string quartet of lady musicians played refined selections, actors sashayed among the more arthritic hotel guests as Miss Hershey shoved amorous couples apart on the dance floor, ordering them off if they got too lewd. Anita Loos wrote that everyone laughed behind Hershey's back when she admired two young ladies so much for dancing together - they were lesbians.-Gregory Paul Williams, "The Story of Hollywood "

For the next two decades, the hotel would be defined by two equally strong forces -- the formidable Miss Hershey and the burgeoning film business. There were still genteel guests, like successful songwriter Carrie Jacobs-Bond ("I Love You Truly"), but budding moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Carl Laemmle were also staying for extended visits as the movie business moved from east to west. After Margaret Anderson's departure, Hershey had no choice but to accept these new, ill-bred movie folks. Paramount founder Jesse Lasky remembered his first trip to the Hotel Hollywood:

He said he came here Dec. 23, 1913, and when he asked a taxi driver to take him to Hollywood, the man had to consult other cab drivers to map out a route. At the Hollywood Hotel, he asked directions to the Jesse L. Lasky Famous Players lot, and no one knew where it was. He asked where Cecil B. De Mille had his movie company. No one knew. Finally, he was told to follow Hollywood Blvd.(then a dirt road) east to a cross street with a row of pepper trees in the middle, turn right and go until he saw a big barn. "That may be the place," he was told.(L.A. Times)

Soon, everyone in Hollywood knew all about the movie business, and the Hotel Hollywood became a kind of entertainment industry dormitory. "The hotel was sort of Mission-Victorian in style, if such a combination is possible," one writer remembered, "with a grab bag of arches, balconies, turrets and cupolas, and a broad veranda. But many loved it and looked at it as a comforting home." Some were not so impressed.

Jesse Lasky's wife, Bessie, dismissed it as a "dismal summer hotel." But it was heaven for the itinerant actors, directors, and writers working at the makeshift studios that dotted Hollywood. Actor Ben Lyon remembered:

What a thrill it was to be living under the same roof that had housed Valentino, Thomas Meighan, Charlie Farrell, Gilbert Roland and many other great stars! However, there was one catch which we all were aware of, and that was the Thursday night dance in the lobby. The...elderly, charming and buxom... [Miss] Hershey...adored dancing to the three-piece orchestra. But she was not a Leslie Caron...we young male guests had to line up and take turns dancing her around the lobby or chance being asked to give up our rooms. Needless to say we danced with her.(L.A. Times)

There were many activities to entertain the likes of John Gilbert, Elinor Glynn, Norma Shearer, and Alla Nazimova. There was a full tea every afternoon, Sunday evening concerts -- often featuring Hershey herself on the piano, and the famed Thursday night dances. It is said that Rudolph Valentino was discovered while teaching screenwriter June Mathis the tango at a Thursday dance. He also met his first wife, Jean Acker, in the hotel's lobby, and they spent their honeymoon at the hotel. However, it appears the wedding night was not successful and Acker ended up locking him out of their room.

A similar incident occurred when screen siren Mae Murray spent the night with her new playboy husband, and ended up being "kicked" down the stairs by her mysteriously enraged new spouse.

The ceiling on the ballroom featured painted stars over the tables of regular hotel patrons, which included many famous names. Gossip columnist Alma Whitaker recounted a party given in honor of Canadian poet Bliss Carmen:

When Bliss Carmen was the raison d 'etre for a dinner party at the Hollywood Hotel recently, the place cards were verses from his poems, cleverly selected by his host to form a charming inspiration suitable to each guest...afterward we all assembled to what was certainly a lady's bedroom. We sat on the bed and on the floor. And the tall impressive sport, supported by the dresser, was persuaded to read his "Manzanilla." And so we sat, silent and enthralled. Yet when we returned to the ballroom, we were certainly suspected of having retired for very different inspiration. Thus can "wild Hollywood parties" be so deceptive.(L.A. Times)

In the middle of all this good cheer was the antiquated, yet savvy, Mira Hershey, who owned many properties around Los Angeles, including the famed Hershey Arms. She was beloved by guests at the hotel, who looked upon her as an eccentric aunt. Novelist Mary Loos (niece of Anita Loos) recalled:

She had a habit of stepping out on the veranda edging the curved palm lined driveway to oversee the leisurely flow of traffic. Her bifocals must have interfered with her perspective, for she was known to trip and fall down the steps. So their edges were painted white, and the...bellhops stood by to catch her if she fell. Once a month she drove her electric automobile down to Spring Street to see her lawyers. She usually forgot where she parked it, and the police department was called to help her find it... Once she was sailing down Hollywood Boulevard with my grandmother and Mrs. Talmadge (mother of the Talmadge girls). Miss Hershey grabbed the steering stick too hard, failed to negotiate a U-turn and the car tipped over, slowly and majestically. (L.A. Times)

Hershey became great friends with many of the mothers of early Hollywood stars. They would sit on the porch, often next to a conference of movie moguls discussing deals and mergers. As Hollywood changed from a rural paradise into a bustling urban center, they kept rocking. Mary Loos remembered:

I can see my grandmother and Miss Hershey- all the old women-with a scattering of a few elderly dandies, rocking away in chairs stout enough to float them in a Jonestown flood. They all listened to each other's joys and braggadocio about the doings of their children and grandchildren and they shared each other's woes and stepped into many a breach. It must have been a blessing to Miss Hershey, for it gave her a family.(L.A. Times)
Aerial view of the Hollywood Hotel circa 1930 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
Aerial view of the Hollywood Hotel circa 1930 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
Corner view of the Hollywood Hotel | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
Corner view of the Hollywood Hotel | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

Hollywood Babylon

Two well dressed women entered the somnolent lobby of the Hollywood Hotel not long ago and asked the clerk if they might visit Room 264. The clerk said yes, they could. It was vacant; and made as if to call a bellboy. But one of the women said, "Thanks, I know the way." When the two women had disappeared up the stairs, the mystified clerk confided in Manger Joseph McLellan. "Why, that's the Valentino room!" exclaimed McLellan. "Rudolph Valentino and Jean Acker stayed there back in 1921, I think it was when they were married. Now I wonder-" He and the clerk were still speculating when the two reappeared. One of them smiled and spoke. "I'm Jean Acker," she said. McLellan bowed, and said yes, he remembered.(L.A. Times)

In the mid-1920s, Mira Hershey lost the Hollywood Hotel due to a lawsuit. She died in 1930, and left a substantial amount of money to UCLA to build the school's first women's dormitory. Hershey Hall still stands to this day.

She had gotten out just in time. Hollywood would now have been unrecognizable to its early founders. It was becoming a concrete jungle and, increasingly, the old establishment and the new movie elite were moving west towards the sea. By 1930, Hollywood was no longer fashionable.

The rambling Hollywood Hotel continued to soldier on. A brief plan to transform the hotel into an Italian Renaissance style resort was never realized. The hotel increasingly became a home for elderly people, who still enjoyed sitting on the famed porch, watching the traffic go by.

Hollywood Hotel, 1937 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
Hollywood Hotel, 1937 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

Tourists often stayed at the hotel, specifically to spend the night in Rudolph Valentino's old room. One wag joked that eventually every room in the hotel had supposedly been his.

As early as the 1940s, there were plans to tear down the old hotel. In 1957, developer C.E. Toberman finally had the hotel torn down. A giant hotel, shopping, and office complex was built in its place. Around this time, some say that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was inspired by the named stars on the ceiling of the ballroom and the Walk of Fame was born.

The hotel's guest ledger is now owned by the Smithsonian, and two of its famous trees were replanted at the Hollywood Bowl. Till the end, the hotel had been almost fully occupied, and many of its elderly residents had lived there for decades. "I don't want to go to heaven," one resident sighed. "I want to stay here."

Right before the hotel fell to the wrecking balls, the Los Angeles Times followed Kipp Hamilton, a young starlet, as she toured the legendary hostelry. In the ballroom

The girl reached up and touched the star. A faded gold star on the cracked and peeling ceiling of the long unused ballroom of the Hollywood Hotel. She touched it with one finger, then held her breath, stood listening. And from some cobwebby corner, music flooded through the musty room. The broken chandeliers blazed again with light. And ghosts came from the shadows to dance a stately waltz.
Times Photo, 1956
Times Photo, 1956


Further reading: "The Story of Hollywood," Gregory Paul Williams

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