Old Hollywood decor could be staid (booths and wood paneling at Musso & Frank Grill), or not staid (fake palm trees at the Cocoanut Grove). In the early days of Hollywood, film actors and the like were not always welcome at some nightspots and social clubs frequented by the cream of Los Angeles society. As a result, they had to establish hangouts where they would be welcome to party until dawn, mingle with other celebrities, and indulge in all kinds of illicit behavior without fear of being shunned or caught.
Beginning in the early 1920s, spots that catered to the Hollywood crowd started to spring up in places ranging from hotels to private mansions. From the aviary at the Mocambo to the secret underground tunnel that connected the Players Club to the extremely private Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, these spots often had decor or entertainment that was as eccentric and over-the-top as the patrons' behavior.
The Cocoanut Grove, known as "The Grove," opened in April 1921 inside the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Club manager Johnny Manos heard from silent film star Rudolph Valentino (who lived at the Ambassador) that fake palm trees from the actor's movie The Sheik were available for less than $500. So, Manos bought the props and installed them in the club.
Over the years, actors like Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, and Marlene Dietrich had "regular tables" reserved for them. In the 1920s and '30s, Tuesday was the night for special events, such as Charleston contests. Special decorations included toy monkeys that men would pluck from the fake palm trees to give to their dates. One night, Lionel Barrymore released a cage of live monkeys, reportedly terrifying many of the guests. It's possible he did this to one-up his younger brother, John, who often brought his pet monkey, Clementine, with him to the club.
The Grove was also known for its floor shows, which included floats carrying showgirls. One time, famed costume designer Adrian put an undressed girl inside a gigantic ice cube; an electric coil inside the hollow cube kept her warm.
Bing Crosby routinely played at the Grove, and young starlets like Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford participated in the club's dance contests. "So many careers began... some even ended in this very room," Crawford recalled years later.
The Ambassador Hotel closed in 1989, and after preservation efforts failed, it was demolished in 2005.
In the 1940s and '50s, one of the hottest nightspots on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood was the Mocambo, a club known for big band music, Latin-influenced decor - and glass cases full of birds.
The Mocambo, which opened its doors on January 3, 1941, was a big hit from the first night. Co-owners Charlie Morrison and Felix Young hired designer Tony Duquette to come up with a design that would capitalize on the craze for Latin culture.
The club's decor, described as “a cross between a somewhat decadent Imperial Rome, Salvador Dali, and a birdcage,” cost a whopping (for the time) $100,000 and featured glass aviaries with such exotic birds as macaws, cockatoos, and parrots. The ASPCA protested the presence of the birds, but Morrison convinced the organization they wouldn't be harmed.
As big band music grew in popularity, the Mocambo became one of the most popular "dance 'til dawn" spots for celebrities. When Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall arrived, the house band played "That Old Black Magic." Myrna Loy and Arthur Hornblow celebrated their divorce at the club. After Frank Sinatra left the Tommy Dorsey Band in 1943, he made his Los Angeles debut as a solo artist at the Mocambo.
Many of the big nightclubs refused to book Black entertainers, but not the Mocambo, where Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald all performed. According to one story, Marilyn Monroe persuaded the Mocambo's owners to book Fitzgerald by promising to reserve a front-row seat for all of the singer's sets. Fitzgerald later credited Monroe for helping boost her career, saying that after she played the Mocambo, “I never had to play a small jazz club again."
The club had its share of brawls as well, including one in 1941 where Errol Flynn punched out Los Angeles Times columnist Jimmy Fidler, reportedly in retaliation for derogatory comments Fidler had made about the actor in his column.
Co-owner Morrison perished in 1957 and the Mocambo closed on June 30, 1958. The building, briefly occupied by another club, was eventually demolished. The site currently is part of a retail plaza.
From 1940 to 1953, the Players Club was the domain of iconic film director-screenwriter Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story), who turned what had been a private home into a two-level restaurant and supper club. Sturges was heavily involved in all aspects of the project, from designing the interior to interviewing employees.
The formal dining room was dubbed the Blue Room while the nightclub was called The Playroom. Sturges had inventive ideas for his nightspot - at one point, the interior included a barbershop, a revolving stage, and a drive-in burger stand. It also had a 350-seat restaurant dinner theater where Sturges directed one-act plays. But the most interesting aspect might have been the tunnel that connected the club to the Chateau Marmont. Reportedly, many celebrities used the tunnel to make their way to the hotel for secret trysts.
Because Sturges constantly came up with new ideas for the club, it struggled financially even though it was a popular spot with people like Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Hedy Lamarr. Sturges often held court at his own table or performed with the house band. One night, Vivien Leigh decided she wanted to work the club's switchboard; callers had no clue they were speaking to the actor. Sturges reportedly joked, "Vivien, if you ever quit pictures, you can come work for me."
By 1953, when Sturges's Hollywood career was coming to an end, he closed the club. The building still exists; it was the site of several other restaurants or clubs before Harry Morton, son of Hard Rock founder Peter Morgan, bought it in 2012 as a site for his second Pink Taco restaurant. When the property was excavated, workers found the revolving stage, along with the tunnel to the Chateau Marmont, which had long been sealed.
Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, was once famously quoted as saying, "If you must get in trouble, do it at Chateau Marmont."
Originally built to be Los Angeles's first earthquake-proof apartment building, the Chateau Marmont is located above Sunset Boulevard. Open since 1929, its design is modeled on a chateau in the Loire Valley. Infamous for its secretive no camera, no paparazzi policy, and its private bungalows, it has been a popular retreat for celebrities for decades. Some have even turned the hotel into their permanent residence.
If the walls could talk, they would likely spill such stories as the time James Dean jumped through one of the hotel's windows to audition for Rebel Without A Cause (the film's director, Nicholas Ray, who reportedly was having an affair with the underage Natalie Wood at the time, lived in one of the bungalows).
Howard Hughes supposedly used binoculars to spy on women using the pool. The members of Led Zeppelin drove their Harley Davidson motorcycles into the hotel's lobby. One of the saddest stories associated with the Chateau Marmont is how John Belushi OD'd in Bungalow No. 3 in 1982. Thirty years later, Lindsay Lohan (who had been living there) was banned after racking up a bill of more than $46,000.