One time I was at Huell Howser’s house and drank moonshine out of a Mason jar. It was the aperitif to announce the feast of Tennessee smoked ham, beaten biscuits, black-eyed peas, spoon bread and Sally Lunn cake. It was just a ritual sip of moonshine for the stout-hearted to greet the new year the way they do it in Nashville, Huell’s hometown. He had been home for Christmas and had brought back all of the ingredients for the feast, so his underprivileged California friend could see how the holidays should be embellished.
I was there again last week when the sky lit up a mouth-watering pistachio green that could be seen for a radius of 10 miles and from the Santa Monica and Hollywood freeways. An evening at Huell’s does not pass unnoticed.
This time, the celebration was on the walled patio on the 10th floor of the El Royale apartments on Rossmore Avenue. It is one of those lordly buildings constructed in 1929, just before the stock market crashed, making buildings like that as unlikely as Versailles.
Martha Scott, who owns the building, had invited tenants and friends to see her throw the switch that would light the tall sign, El Royale, traced in script against a summer dusk. The sign had been off since the early ‘70s, when the country was asked to turn out all decorative lighting because of the energy shortage. When Mrs. Scott decided to relocate the sign, she called Tay Brown, who has been a 20-year tenant, to be sure of the color. “Green,” Brown said, “meadow green.”
Tenants and guests listened with pride while Councilman John Ferraro read a two-line proclamation to Mrs. Scott. “Happiness,” read Big John, a former USC football great, “is the lights on at the El Royale.”
It was a handsome scroll looking as if it had been carved in marzipan, with ribbons and flowers, seals and embossed gold imprimaturs. All of this was accompanied by a soft Champagne and a great, three-layer cake which most of the ladies took home wrapped in napkins. It was a spice cake, a fitting accompaniment to the Champagne.
The rooms are high-ceilinged with deep, embossed moldings. The apartments range from three to 10 rooms, and have walls so thick that no one is aware of his neighbors.
The tenants identify themselves by their apartment numbers. “Dan Govern, 702,” said a young man who is on the staff of Golf Digest magazine. He had just come back from a trip to Ireland where he had played some of the world’s great courses.
A lot of the people who live there have moved from large houses in Hancock Park. They delight in the El Royale because the size of the rooms is in easy proportion to the big rooms in their former houses.
The view from the 10th-floor terrace takes in the entire city. The Los Angeles City Hall tower is off to the left, the Griffith Park Planetarium stands near the top of the Hollywood Hills and the lights from Dodger Stadium glow to the southeast like a grounded space ship. Huell says that in the winter, when the skies are clear and they can see the sun glinting off the ocean at sunset, the city takes on a medieval apricot glow.
The ceiling in the lobby has just taken a year to be restored, each beam painted with the detail of illuminated letters. The floors were a gleaming black for a few years until someone remembered that they were inlaid wood. When the black paint was stripped off, the soft glow of inlaid oak reappeared.
I met Jody and Charles Smurr, the latter a seventh-generation Californian. One of his ancestors was a young aristocrat who served in the army of Spain and came to California with Father Junipero Serra in 1769. Charles is a member of the Carillo and Bandini families, names that are synonymous with the days of early California.
Huell Howser loves living at the El Royale because of the location and the privacy. It’s close to KCET, where he is a reporter, and it’s close to Jody Smurr from whom he often “borrows some ice or a skillet,” always calling first. One gets the feeling that it might be ice more often than a skillet.
Huell’s mother made up his name. His father’s name was Harold and hers was Jewel, so she made it up. After prep school, university and a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps, Huell went to New York where he was the male half of a team which did a New York show similar to the local “2 on the Town.” He has been in California for seven years.
Huell will take a two-week sabbatical the last week in September and the first week in October. He’ll be in Orlando, Fla., to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Disney World. He will be the man on the scene for the Disney Channel, telling about parties and celebrations. Tough duty for a Nashville boy.
The El Royale, once again visible for miles, will soon be on the register of Historic Monuments. The first floor has lost a few rooms to apartments. There used to be a library where a fireplace glowed on chilly afternoons and a tea-and-reception room for the ladies to enjoy after an afternoon’s shopping.
Tenants love being there and speak of the building with pride. Older couples and younger ones enjoy the feeling of having a special place to live.
The manager of the El Royale gave the guests a copy of the original brochure that was distributed when the building opened. The language is flowery and sounds as if the writer might have just had a large hot-fudge sundae with caramel sauce. “The elevator lobby is an artistic masterpiece in wood and stone. The elevator cabs will be of hand-carved wood and of exquisite design. Traveling at the rate of 500 feet per minute, the annoying wait will be eliminated.”
Well, that’s a relief. Otherwise the Champagne and cake might be gone.
It was a lovely evening full of elegance and pride of residency, and the lights are glowing again on the roof of the El Royale.