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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Unreal Life : Throughout Its Rowdy History, a Colorful Cast of Characters Has Been Livin’ It Up at the Lido

TIMES STAFF WRITER

‘Relax,’ said the night man,

‘We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

but you can never leave.’

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--From the Eagles’ “Hotel California”

It is mid-morning and the Lido’s big, sleepy lobby has begun to stir.

Ana Townsend flips on the light in the manager’s office, pushes back the top half of a Dutch door that doubles as a counter and prepares for another day.

As if sensing her presence, residents of the once-proud Hollywood hotel-turned-apartment house filter into the cavernous room.

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Francine, a down-on-her-luck dancer who lives on a disability check, comes to get her mail. She is eager to tell about her upcoming TV appearance. Never mind that it is on a cable company’s public-access channel.

A tenant complains that a man on the fifth floor is walking around naked again. Mrs. Bandini, an elderly Brazilian, waddles past on her morning stroll. A pair of twins--tiny Japanese women in their 40s--enter the lobby in lock step. They nod and giggle.

The twins would turn heads practically anywhere else. Here, they attract little attention.

But then this is the Lido, a kind of Nathanael West novel come to life, populated by the colorful, the eccentric and the bizarre; where aging hipsters, Midwestern grandmas, bit actors, ne’er-do-wells and a few regular working people coexist under the same roof.

Like Hollywood itself, the Lido endures as a haven for dream-seekers who either didn’t get out before the decline or who arrived too late.

Owner Craig Dennis, either a slumlord or the Lido’s savior, depending on which of the 100 or so tenants is talking, has seen it all in his nearly 20 years at the helm.

There was Mrs. King, the pack rat, whose apartment consisted of discrete, narrow walkways through belongings piled from floor to ceiling.

“If she had any furniture, you couldn’t find it beneath the debris,” said Dennis, 47.

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There was the memorable wedding in 1983 of a resident member of the Hell’s Angels and his 350-pound sweetheart. The simple ceremony, attended by representatives of an estimated 20 different biker gangs, was held in front of the fireplace in the lobby with a justice of the peace presiding.

Dennis, who was concerned at first about the potential for trouble, recalls it as “a sea of leather and tattoos.”

“The crowd made its way down to No. 138, where the couple had set up housekeeping, and later wandered off without incident,” he said.

Then there were Vern and Angela, a husband-wife management team who abruptly departed the premises without explanation one evening in 1982, never to be seen again, after the Lido’s 13th--and last--unsolved arson fire in less than a year.

Seems Vern was the only building employee who refused to take a polygraph exam.

*

Managers at the Lido have never lasted long.

Townsend, a Salvadoran immigrant who has been on the job two years, thinks she may prove to be the exception.

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“When I came, the place was full of dope addicts, derelicts, punk rockers, prostitutes and petty criminals,” she says, checking them off with her fingers.

Never a place for the faint of heart, the Lido by most accounts was positively hellish before the wholesale evictions instigated by Townsend shortly after she arrived.

Its rowdy reputation had earned it a footnote in pop music lore in the 1970s, when, to illustrate their fifth album, the Eagles chose the Lido’s lobby as a stand-in for the band’s fictional “Hotel California.”

As in the song, trouble has often lurked in the Lido’s shadows.

Hookers turned tricks in the hallways. The hotel laundry room became a shooting gallery for illicit drugs. There were numerous assaults and homicides.

Elderly actor Victor Kilian, the “Fernwood Flasher” in the old “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” TV series, was among the victims. He was clubbed to death by burglars in his Lido apartment in 1979 while watching television.

By 1990, crime had become such a problem that Dennis arranged to move a contingent of Guardian Angels into the building, constructing a dorm in the basement to house 15 of the volunteer crime-stoppers.

But the experiment failed after several of the group’s more experienced members were transferred to Arizona and residents complained that the Angels who remained were as rowdy as the street toughs they were intended to scare off.

Although residents say crime has ebbed, there is little to suggest a renaissance at the Lido.

Thieves long ago carted off the lobby’s ornate marble tables and plush sofas.

The Lido Terrace, its onetime restaurant and bar, has been shuttered since the 1960s. And the hotel’s beauty shop, its last in-house institution, finally closed in August after the proprietress, in her 90s, was placed in a convalescent home.

Among a gaggle of hotels and apartment houses that sprang up in Hollywood during the 1920s, the Lido was never as elegant as the Roosevelt or the Knickerbocker. But it held its own among more modest competitors, including the Mayfair across the street and the Shelton, which stood next door until being torn down a few years ago.

Sprawled at the southwest corner of Yucca Street and Wilcox Avenue in a fast-decaying part of town, the hotel has never been much to look at from the outside.

Inside, however, is a different story.

There is a sad charm about the place, especially in the Spanish-style lobby, with its arched doorways and mezzanine windows. Three baroque chandeliers hang from a lofty ceiling of inlaid wood.

“There used to be a fourth (chandelier) until they stole it,” complains resident Robert King. “Ripped it right off the damn ceiling, man.”

*

King, 50, an artist and aging hippie, is the Lido’s resident grump. He flashes an occasional impish grin to let you know that even he appreciates the comical quality of his tirades.

“If those doors could talk, man,” he begins, reciting a litany of assaults, lewd sex acts, drug injections and other scenes he claims to have witnessed in the building’s entryway.

In 10 years he has lived in three apartments, on the first, the second, and now the fifth floor, as if progressively trying to distance himself from the mean streets below.

“I’ve lived everywhere from Beverly Hills and the slime pits of hell, and this ain’t far from it,” he says.

But when asked why he doesn’t just pack up and leave, he stares out the window and becomes serious: “Where is a person gonna go?”

His neighbor across the hall, whom he has never met, sees the Lido from an entirely different perspective.

A screenwriter-director-actor four years removed from Pepperdine University, Phil Philips’ Spartan apartment is adorned by a bed, a sofa, his word processor and a telephone, which he answers, “Smooth Sailing Productions.”

Philips moved to the Lido from Toluca Lake last year.

He knew only two things about it: It was where the William Holden character tells Gloria Swanson he lives in the movie “Sunset Boulevard.” And it was cheap (rooms range from roughly $300 to $600 a month).

Philips hocked practically all his possessions, including his car, last year to help finance his first film, a low-budget urban hip-hop Kung Fu flick. He is busily trying to hustle financing for a second project while writing the screenplay for a third.

The Lido is ideal for his up-all-night, write-when-you-feel-like-it lifestyle.

“The downside is that my girlfriend from Reno comes for the weekend and freaks,” he says. “She hasn’t yet set foot in the hallway alone.”

Small wonder.

The corridors can be lonely and foreboding. Francine, the dancer, insists that ghosts reside there and says that her boyfriend has the videotape to prove it. “You can’t really see anything,” she adds, “but you can hear the noises.”

Peggy Kern, 89, a great-grandma from Pittsburgh who has lived in the Lido for 19 years, doesn’t believe in ghosts but would rather not face the hall alone all the same.

“Don’t leave me here,” she entreats a stranger after accidentally locking herself and her poodle, Freddy, out of her third-floor apartment.

The dog, impatient to use the bathroom, paws the discolored carpet at her heels.

“Freddy, you better not,” she warns.

A cherubic lady who likes to have friends over for tea and coconut pie in the afternoons, Kern is soon saved by Townsend, the manager, who happens off the elevator while showing some new people around.

Kern pokes a master key into the lock and opens her door, conspicuous for its nameplate, which says, “Sophia Loren.”

She is among a dozen old-timers who constitute much of the Lido’s institutional memory.

Jean Kepley, 73, is another.

“So whattaya wanna know?” she asks, expressing amazement that anyone would be interested in the building.

A widow four times married, Kepley is an ex-Reno casino girl, ex-cab driver, ex-vice cop whose lipstick matches the red tint of her glasses.

Rarely without a cigarette, she has a wizened demeanor that invites curiosity.

The late TV journalist Harry Reasoner came to her apartment in the mid-1980s while doing a piece for “60 Minutes” on housing fraud. “I told him what I knew,” she said. “I don’t think he ever aired it.”

Actress Diane Keaton once came up to her on Hollywood Boulevard and asked her what she thought about heaven. The result was a cameo part in the Keaton-directed “Heaven,” an introspective look at the there-after.

*

Kepley, like other veteran tenants, views some of the building’s newcomers with polite detachment. Few old-timers, for instance, know what to make of the twins, who hail from Tokyo.

Cordial but intensely private, they are rarely outside each other’s company. “On Sundays, they will go and buy not one, but two newspapers and, if it’s warm, sit on the fire escape and turn the pages as if they’re reading the same articles at the same time,” notes longtime resident Rita DeVito, who thinks they’re cute.

Tequila Mockingbird is another attention-grabber.

A tall, attractive woman with frothy yellow dreadlocks, she strode across the lobby on a recent day wearing a purple rabbit-hair coat and top hat.

Mockingbird, whose real name is Denise Brown, is an actress and singer whose film credits include small parts in the cult classic “Cafe Flesh” and a “Batman” movie. She writes a music column for an underground newsletter and three nights a week manages Hell’s Gate, an alternative rock club just up the street.

“I like it (here) because people at the Lido, who have seen it all before, don’t question things,” she explains.

And then there is Mike Smallridge, 28, a Madonna groupie and sometimes movie extra transplanted from New England who helps with maintenance in the building when he is not hanging around the guard shack outside his idol’s Los Angeles estate.

“Come with me and I will show you my kingdom,” he says, leading a visitor up the herky-jerky elevator and onto the Lido’s expansive roof.

Motioning toward the Hollywood Hills, he points to a distant stand of palm trees that he claims is in the yard of Madonna’s next-door neighbor. “Isn’t this paradise?”


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