When the film industry set up camp in Los Angeles in 1909, migrating actors from the East looked around for nightlife action in Hollywood and found a scene that was largely a big snooze. Downtown, the city's social hub, teemed with burlesque halls, and bars on Main and Spring streets had restaurants offering fare from venison to vegetarian. But "blue" laws forbade dancing and most forms of entertainment on Sundays, and there was heavy lobbying to end all forms of drinking.
Then in 1912, boxing promoter Baron Long opened up the Vernon Country Club southeast of downtown, and Vernon became the mecca emerging Hollywood was waiting for. Skirting local liquor laws and outside the restrictive blue law district, Long's club became the site for early cinema high jinks. (Cowboy star Tom Mix once drove his car into the club and bought everyone a round of drinks.) As an alternative to the inland action, the beach cities offered places such as Ship Cafe on the Venice Pier, the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica (where Ivy at the Shore resides today) and numerous clubs, ballrooms and restaurants between the piers.
Nightlife on the scale of New York's arrived when booze went underground after Prohibition in 1920. Speakeasys and illicit clubs boomed, and as the motion-picture industry took hold, Hollywood finally began to host nightclubs. From cross-dressing venue BBB's Cellar on Las Palmas to the exclusive Montmartre on Hollywood Boulevard, all provided liquor — or ignored the law by advertising "Bring your own" — and many featured gambling in back rooms.
In the '20s, Washington Boulevard in Culver City became a precursor to the Sunset Strip. The city was convenient to offshore bootleggers and had a police force that looked the other way. Its proximity to numerous movie studios cemented the street as the place to be once the sun went down.
Creole chorines danced to Louis Armstrong's band at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, one of the few places that allowed black entertainers to perform, though it enforced the whites-only admission policy common at the time. Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation Club, just down the road, invited clubgoers to share the dance floor with their favorite stars at special evenings orchestrated by a host movie studio, a tactic copied by other Los Angeles-area clubs. Likewise, gambling ships that plied the coastal waters off L.A. (on "cruises to nowhere") offered a chance to spot stars firsthand.
In an era when movie personalities actively courted attention and mingled with the public, these opportunities were not uncommon. What made Los Angeles nightlife unique for decades was its connection to the entertainment industry and the concentration of celebrities who resided here.
That and a more relaxed and democratic approach to club and restaurant admittance made going out at night a different experience than it is today. The glitter of the stars could rub off on the people who lived here. (And strangely, it worked the other way as well. Take away our chance to coolly ignore the stars sitting in the next booth and they might as well live in Dubuque.)
The golden age
With the recall of Prohibition, nightlife entered a golden age that, like the industry's, lasted until the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The scene at the Café Trocadero, opened by Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson in 1934, gives us a taste of what Hollywood high life was all about. Housed in a stylish Colonial-inspired building at 8610 Sunset, it catered to continental tastes. Guests entered through a lobby surrounded by a frieze of Paris and a row of striped satin settees, handing their wraps to a pert coat-check girl before moving into the cream-and-gold main dining room.
Padded walls framed a mirror-like dance floor, which overlooked the grid of Hollywood. Xavier Cugat and his band, centered on a stage along the west wall, played all evening, and the menu was '30s elegant: blini au caviar Romanoff, green turtle amontillado soup, alligator pear salad and chateaubriand.
Wandering down to the Cellar, the Troc's more informal and clubby oak-paneled boîte, you might run into Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Bill Powell and Jean Harlow, chatting it up with Jimmy Stewart in an overstuffed booth. Cozying up to the copper-topped bar might be Joan Crawford and spouse Franchot Tone, sipping on the house specialty, the Trocadero Cooler.
Everyone was invited, but the cost of such an evening — around $18 in 1936, when the average hourly wage was around 25 cents — might set back the average Joe a couple of weeks' pay. Less extravagant but more within reach, you could also just go to the Cellar, have drinks and $2 dinners for two and get out with only a $6 charge. But that was still three days' pay.
An evening playground — Don the Beachcomber, the Cinegrill, the Biltmore Bowl, Sardi's, Clara Bow's "It" Club, the Cocoanut Grove, the Brown Derbys and endless others — catered to cinema royalty. A bulging billfold was the best way to gain access, but even that wouldn't open the doors to places such as the ultra-exclusive Clover and Colony clubs, which were rare members-only venues. Anyway, the average Angelino preferred affordable dance emporiums as a way to stargaze.
With World War II, rationing and food shortages set back the pace of nightlife a notch or two, but there were plenty of places for war workers and servicemen to let loose. Ballrooms around town — the Palladium, Casino Gardens, Topsy's, Casa Mañana — were filled to capacity, with dancers swinging to Benny Goodman or the Andrews Sisters, while larger clubs such as the Earl Carroll Theatre and the Florentine Gardens packed them in with a $2.50 floor show and dinner. And men in uniform lined up on Cahuenga Boulevard at the Hollywood Canteen to catch a big band performance or dance with a star. Over on Central Avenue, where black performers and patrons were welcome, the street blew hot with clubs that drew drop-in visits from Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday.
Then as now, celebrity was the engine that fired up the appeal of nightspots, fueled by newspaper columnists' daily reports and movie magazines' unending scrutiny.
But the end of the war spelled the end of a certain kind of nightlife around the Southland. The big band sound succumbed to pop tunes and more abstract jazz. Large clubs and ballrooms faded as stars, freed from studio directives, stayed home. Suburbs grew, the city sprawled, Las Vegas siphoned off many of the top performers, and television kept many former nightclubbers glued to the tube.
In the '50s, the Villa Capri, off Hollywood Boulevard, was emblematic of what Hollywood nightlife had become. A favorite of Frank Sinatra and James Dean, it was a typical Italian eatery filled with red booths, checkered tablecloths, hanging Chianti bottles and hazy smoke. It was small, intimate and friendly.
With a cocktail lounge hosted by the genial Patsy D'Amore, the gent who brought pizza to Hollywood, Villa Capri welcomed Ol' Blue Eyes, surrounded by fellow diners. Dean preferred to eat in the kitchen, out of the spotlight, but even he circulated in an era before the requisite VIP lounge.
The star treatment
It was only a few years later that jet-setters and the beautiful people demanded special treatment as the world grew smaller and Beverly Hills erupted into a scene where only the right players were invited. The Whisky a Go Go, the Daisy, the Candy Store and the Bistro were Hollywood's response to Regines in Paris and the Peppermint Lounge and Arthur in New York. The Factory, a late bloomer in this members-only world, opened in fall 1967 in an old three-story warehouse in an offbeat area of West Hollywood. Founded by Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman, Peter Lawford and others, it featured an industrial-chic interior with vintage stained-glass windows, a leather-upholstered bar and the requisite billiard room with a dress code described as "a melding of dinner jackets and blue jeans."
But it too closed once the novelty of incestuous star-gazing quickly wore off and L.A. went psychedelic in the late '60s. Taking its cues from the San Francisco music scene, nightlife was all about festival-style seating, no dress codes and abandoning Old Hollywood for concerts at the Troubadour, Shrine Auditorium and the Cheetah.
As the Me Generation supplanted the drug scene, niche clubs filled the void. Fast-forwarding through the decades, you might see Cher in satin short-shorts at Flipper's Roller Boogie Palace at La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards — the disco '70s. Club kids, artists and suburban misfits at Al's Garage and Cathay de Grande — the punk '80s. And rising in the background, then pushed to the fore, was the velvet rope.
The advent of New York hot-spot Studio 54's policy of hand-selecting its customers inspired unimaginative Southland club impresarios to follow suit, clipboard in hand, and today it's a given that any of the rotating, flavor-of-the-month clubs will enforce their codified process of humiliating anyone without a famous Chihuahua in hand and hustle them to a segregated no-man's land for a hefty cover charge.
It's a far cry from the time when the public and the personalities could break bread together and a lesson rarely learned in today's club scene, where success is measured by a mention in the tabloids and a hit-and-run policy trumps real glamour in Hollywoodland.
Jim Heimann is an author, historian and the executive editor of Taschen Publishing America. His books include "Out With the Stars: Hollywood Nightlife in the Golden Era."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times