Biltmore Suits Her Just Fine--for 48 Years

Times Staff Writer

Thelma Becker checked into the Biltmore on Jan. 7, 1940, and never checked out.

She was a lingerie saleswoman from Indiana, fresh out of college and looking for a place to stay while she set up a West Coast merchandising system for her company.

The Los Angeles hotel was a place with clean rooms for $7 a night, convenient shops off its lobby and a handy location in the middle of downtown.

In the 48 years since then, the Biltmore has become a legendary city landmark.

In its ornate, marble-trimmed lobbies and hallways, Becker has herself become something of legend. The 73-year-old is the Biltmore's lone permanent resident. She has the run of the luxury hotel, which has 700 guest rooms, 22 banquet rooms, restaurants and bars--and room rates ranging from $120 to $1,500 a night.

Becker has her own rate--the one-of-a-kind, $33-per-night "Thelma Becker Rate" for a room with bath, according to hotel employees, many of whom treat her like a special family member.

Over the years, Becker's ninth-floor window has given her a grandstand view of the city's evolution from low-rise to high-tech, high-rise.

Her neighbors over the years have included presidents, Hollywood stars, royalty and thousands of convention-goers, many of whom romped the hostelry's hallways wearing silly hats.

'Never Wanted to Leave'

"I first picked the Biltmore because it was the leading hotel in town when I came," Becker said. "This was the center of town. Everything revolved around this place. I liked it and never wanted to leave. Even after I retired."

In 1940, the Biltmore was constantly jammed, Becker said. Celebrities abounded, especially because, for a time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its annual Oscar ceremonies in the Biltmore Bowl.

Afternoon tea dances were so popular that two bands were needed to handle crowds in three large rooms.

"The three coffee shops . . . were so busy that you had to make reservations," she recalled.

"There were things like the 'National Mosquito Convention.' Seriously, they seemed to have a convention for every animal there is. I never knew there were so many different organizations in the United States," she said.

Wore Ear Plugs

Visitors attending a national barbershop quartet convention were so noisy that Becker wore ear plugs so she could sleep, she said.

The hotel was jammed with noisy supporters when Sen. John F. Kennedy set up his headquarters in what is now the hotel's lobby during the 1960 Democratic Convention. The Beatles hid out in the hotel during their tour in the mid-1960s. Organizers of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics stayed there under heavy guard in 1984.

"There were six security people on every floor during the Olympics," Becker said. "That was an exciting time. I never felt so safe."

Becker admitted that she does not feel particularly safe these days on downtown streets, because of transients and panhandlers. She said she no longer ventures out of the hotel at night unescorted. During the day, however, she travels by bus around town to visit friends from her merchandising days.

Becker, who never married, lives on her lingerie company pension and from mutual fund investments.

Like Their Mother

These days, hotel staff members look after the 5-foot-tall Becker as if she was each one's mother. She is a guest at the hotel's annual employee Christmas party. She has her own mail box at the employee mail center.

She was invited into a heavily guarded ballroom for a peek at the silver table settings before the Duke and Duchess of York arrived for a recent formal dinner.

"She knows everything about the hotel," said Evelyne Gibert, manager of the Biltmore's pastry shop. "If we do the pastry wrong, she's not afraid to let us know. She knows the ingredients I put in the pastry. She even knows my husband."

Becker remembers employees' birthdays with gifts or, in the case of Biltmore public relations director Victoria King, with a surprise party on Tuesday night at a Mexican restaurant.

"She gives me the funnies from her paper every Sunday," said front desk clerk Teina Tahauri.

A Cheery Hello

Every employee rates a cheery hello when they meet Becker in hallways and elevators. As a result, bellhops gladly run errands for her. The concierge arranges for a limousine if Becker wants to go out at night. Hotel restaurant waiters make certain that she never has to wait for a seat, since Becker has made it clear she cannot tolerate room service food.

"I go to the drug store and pick up her prescriptions," said bellhop James Casey, 75, who has worked at the Biltmore for 43 years. "During the remodeling construction, I got bottled water for her."

"These are my friends," Becker said of the maids, bellhops and desk clerks. "This is my family."

So Becker was anxious when she learned this week that a new management company had been named to run the 65-year-old hotel, which is owned by a group of investors.

On Wednesday, she sought assurances that the Biltmore's 600 employees' jobs were secure and that the downtown landmark would continue to be run as if it were home.

Will Preserve Jobs

Hotel officials were quick to pledge that the new management--the newly created Windsor Hotel Group--intends to preserve all jobs, and protect Becker's residency.

Becker said she has survived more management changes than she can count in the last 48 years. One change resulted in an internal shake-up that led to many hotel workers losing their jobs. Three others led to major renovations that turned the place inside out.

During the most recent, $200-million renovation two years ago, rooms were gutted and virtually rebuilt.

"I'd get up very early and scoot out to avoid the noise," Becker said. "But the remodeling was always worth it. This last one made all the rooms so much larger. The other hotels around here have cracker-box rooms with walls that are as thin as paper. Here, they're solid plaster."

Becker can recite the type and cost of materials used in each of the remodeling projects.

Proud of Renovation

Strolling into the hotel's Grand Avenue Bar a few minutes before the start of Wednesday afternoon's happy hour rush, she pointed out the design and the custom-made furniture.

"This is a $2-million bar, " she said proudly. "That's a solid marble bar top. These velvet chairs cost $2,000 each."

Outside the nearby Biltmore Bowl, Becker praised the famous room's attributes. She also ticked off the names of Big Band Era performers who made the hotel a Los Angeles cultural center in the 1940s.

Those were good days, Becker said. But so are these.

"I think the hotel is nicer now than it was then," she said. "I think we have more things going on downtown now than we did back then. I'm very pleased with all the modern buildings we have now.

"Everything I need is here. I guess I'm just a city girl."

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