For a year now, it has been the most talked about face lift in all of Tinseltown: In less than two weeks, the venerable Beverly Hills Hotel will close for a two-year, $100-million-plus renovation.
But not everybody will be celebrating when the grand dame of Southern California hostelries has its gala send-off Dec. 28. The help is feeling stiffed. The neighbors are braced for the worst. And the regulars--who know what happens to underexposed stars--fear that their favorite power-schmoozing spot will be a has-been by the time it opens again.
"It's a landmark," said veteran publicist Lee Solters, "and when it reopens, I hope it'll return to its glory, I really do. But we've had a lot of discussions here among our friends in the motion picture industry, and two years is a long time.
"I remember when a restaurant named Ma Maison was the hangout on Fridays. And then the place closed. And when it reopened, nobody was there."
For 80 years everyone who was anyone has stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Charlie Chaplin, John F. Kennedy, Katharine Hepburn, the Duke of Windsor--the guest book reads like a Who's Who. Even the owners have been famous, ranging from Irene Dunne and Loretta Young to fallen Wall Street financier Ivan Boesky and, now, the sultan of Brunei.
But behind the power and celebrity has been an aging enterprise straining to hold its own against a depressed economy and a glut of flashy new competitors. Tight times have nibbled away at business travel and expense accounts. At the same time, a bevy of new luxury hotels has sprung up.
They are loaded with options, from bathtub Jacuzzis to bedside fax machines. The Beverly Hills Hotel does not even have central air-conditioning throughout.
And the Polo Lounge leaks when it rains.
"Frankly, the Beverly Hills Hotel has been able to ride on its cachet for years," said Bruce Baltin, a hotel industry analyst for PKF Consulting, which serves the lodging and real estate industries. "From a purely technical standpoint, this renovation is way overdue. Basically, this is an old hotel that hasn't had a major upgrade for years."
Built in 1912 as a country retreat with a sweeping view of bean fields, the Beverly Hills Hotel is older than the city of Beverly Hills. Indeed, the two have flourished side by side.
Only once--during the Great Depression--was the legendary 268-room establishment shut. And even then, it was back on its feet within three years, resuscitated by a Bank of America executive who executed a series of public relations coups, ranging from the creation of the now-legendary Polo Lounge to the importation of a truckload of white sand from Arizona so that paleface tourists from the East Coast could get a beach-brown tan without leaving the luxuriously landscaped hotel grounds.
But throughout, the hotel's biggest draw has been its celebrity clientele. The Beverly Hills was where Liz and Dick quarreled and made up, where Marilyn Monroe overslept.
Howard Hughes lived there for almost 30 years, reserving as many as 23 rooms and bungalows for months on end, sleeping all day and staying up all night, ordering steak and potatoes and pineapple upside-down cake from room service.
Leonard Bernstein was offered the use of the owners' cabana during one stay, but switched, confessing, "I can't stand the Muzak."
"It's like the Statue of Liberty," said Solters, who, in his 51-year career has represented a good-sized proportion of the hotel's star clientele. "I pass it quite often, and nine times out of 10, somebody's out there on Sunset Boulevard taking pictures of a wife or a girlfriend or a bookie or whatever in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel sign."
But with history comes age, and the passage of time took its toll on the Beverly Hills. The plumbing and wiring began to show its wear. The telephone wiring became dated. The window air-conditioning units in some rooms began to rattle and leak.
Even the Polo Lounge, that celebrated home of the 7 a.m. power breakfast, was beginning to show the years. Above the table-hopping deal makers and their pink plug-in phones, the roof had gone rickety.
"It's terrible," said waitress Betty Hoffman, who complained that with every winter storm "it feels like we're in a rain forest."
Then came the building boom of the 1980s, and for the first time in a decade, newer, younger competitors were on the scene. The Four Seasons went up, and the Peninsula and the Nikko. The Beverly Wilshire got a make-over. Meanwhile, business travelers were being tempted by a proliferation of new deluxe hotels that offered accommodations that were just as lavish at a lower cost.
"In 1988, the luxury market (in Los Angeles) was running at 74% occupancy, which is very healthy," said Baltin of PKF Consulting. "By 1992, the occupancy rate was 59% . . . because the supply has outstripped the demand."
Despite those developments, the hotel managed to hold onto its reputation, and was sold and resold throughout the 1980s as a showpiece investment.
Ben L. Silberstein, a Detroit investor, paid $6 million for the hotel in 1953. Thirty-three years later, his family sold the place for $136 million to financier Marvin Davis. Then, one year later, in 1987, Davis sold it for $185 million to Sajahtera Inc., an investment company controlled by the oil-rich sultan of Brunei.
But behind the deal making, the hotel, whose rates range from $225 to $3,000 a night, was losing ground. Since the recession hit, occupancy levels at the hotel have plummeted to less than 50% from the usual 98%-plus of its glory years. At last count--midweek--there were only 15 paying guests, insiders said.
As badly needed as hotel officials and analysts say the renovation is, concerns have abounded--from the whopping price tag it will carry to the noise the construction will create to the fact that it will put the 450-member staff out of work with no promise of being rehired when the hotel reopens.
In fact, the road to renovation has been so arduous for the hotel's owner that rumors have abounded that the sultan, Muda Hassanal Bolkiah, would dearly love to unload the pink elephant.
Although the hotel management has insisted that such talk is unfounded, observers note that perhaps no one but the sultan--whose personal wealth is estimated at $37 billion--could afford to redo the place.
"There's no way that you can make this work economically," said Burton Slatkin, the hotel's former vice president, president and chairman of the board, "but if you're the sultan of Brunei you can do it, and maybe in 25 to 30 years it'll be worth what you have invested in it."
When it returns, the world's most famous inn will boast fewer but more spacious rooms for its clientele of actors, entertainers, directors, producers, financiers, corporate executives and well-heeled tourists. The heating, plumbing and air-conditioning systems will be updated by half a century. There will be underground parking for all those Rolls-Royces, Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars.
No one is saying how much it will cost. The tab for an earlier, more ambitious renovation plan was put at $149.5 million, so hotel industry sources expect "Pink Palace Lite" to cost somewhere between that figure and the $100 million it took to redo the rival Beverly Wilshire.
Neighbors say they can predict how much noise and dust the renovation will create. Their concerns prompted a lengthy court battle that only recently was settled.
One irascible citizen, financier Leonard Green--a mergers and acquisitions specialist who lives across an alley from the back of the hotel--retained lawyers to press for an environmental impact report before the city ended up allowing the project to proceed.
But perhaps most concerned and upset are the hundreds of hotel employees, who have spent careers at the beck and call of the world's wealthiest people, only to find themselves out on the street.
Hoffman, who has waited tables at the Polo Lounge for 16 years, said she is saddened at the loss of a beloved job, a feeling made all the more worse by a decidedly miserly feel.
Were it not for demonstrations and negotiations during the past year, Hoffman said, workers would be hitting the streets with less than the $15,000 maximum severance pay won by representatives of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.
"A lot of people have been there many years and they like their jobs and they've been very, very loyal, and we don't think it's right that there's no job rehirement," said waitress Rosemary Scott, another veteran of the Polo Lounge.
"I'm 59. I've got a lot of miles left on my feet," she said. "Considering the owner is the richest man in the world, we're getting very small severance, because we depend on our tips. There's a lot of mixed emotions right now."
As the end nears, hotel executives have been referring their patrons to other luxury hotels in town--a favor they hope will be repaid by competitors when they reopen in 1995.
Many regulars say they have set up new watering holes. But a few die-hards say they will be lost without the Beverly Hills.
"There were more deals made in there for pictures than any dealings that ever went on at the casinos in Las Vegas," said veteran director George Sidney, a patron since the days when Joan Crawford would drive up in a green limo with a green-liveried chauffeur and always remember to kiss the doorman.
For his crowd, he says, there can be no substitute.
When the Beverly Hills closes its doors, he says, "we'll stay home."