The Strip : Something’s Happening, What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear
You could say that the future of the Sunset Strip--the fabled 16-block stretch winding between Doheny Road and Crescent Heights Boulevard--was decided not last spring, when the West Hollywood City Council voted unanimously for revitalization and increased development of its civic icon, but likely early this fall, on the night Bettie Wagner finally got fed up with the Kurt Cobains and the Shirley Temples.
Bettie Wagner lives in the Hollywood Hills, north of and above the Strip. In West Hollywood political circles, she is known as the woman who took on the Marlboro Man and won. Once Wagner discovered the Marlboro billboard at the Strip’s eastern end was growing faster than the tree outside her window, and unlike the tree would soon block her entire view, she successfully confronted the L.A. City Council and had the billboard cut back in size. Bettie Wagner is also president of the Marmont Lane Homeowners Assn., and she has been officially unhappy with the state of the Strip since about the time Van Halen played its last gig at Gazzarri’s in 1979.
For decades the Sunset Strip provided Los Angeles what has always eluded the city--a complicated street life and a sexy aura that was unplanned, unpromoted and unregulated. It also gave L.A. entrance into that pantheon of the world’s great streets: Paris’ Champs-Elysees, New York’s Fifth Avenue, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. It wasn’t architecture or design that made the Strip great; instead, it was that pileup of 20th century pop-culture images: Tyrone Power terrorizing Sunset in his roadster, Errol Flynn slugging press flacks, Mickey Cohen shooting it out with Westside gangsters, Edd Byrnes running a comb through his Brylcreemed locks on “77 Sunset Strip,” Jimi Hendrix playing all night to a smoke-filled room and Jim Morrison walking a drunken jag across Sunset’s rooftops.
Long before anyone but the L.A. City Council realized that downtown would never have a night life, the Strip provided one without chamber debate; it drew crowds a half-century before other local councils began hiring urban planners and asking them for Third Street Promenades and Old Town Pasadenas--and the increased tax revenues that came with them. Untouched, the Strip grew and reinvented itself, building on its own mythic aura, decade after decade, from the supper clubs of the ‘40s to the nightclubs of the ‘50s to the rock clubs of the ‘60s. The purest metaphor of L.A., it was a mile of sex and self-invention and rampaging capitalism.
And then, when no one was looking, it suddenly fell apart in the 1980s, becoming irrelevant, shabby in places and sometimes dangerous.
Wagner was attending a public hearing at the Bel Age Hotel when she realized she’d heard enough about the Kurt Cobains and Shirley Temples. Six months earlier, the West Hollywood City Council had approved the city-commissioned plan for revitalizing the Strip--called the Sunset Specific Plan. It laid out street design, building set-backs, density growth and traffic flows. But there was also a chapter devoted to public art, and someone down at City Hall--no one is really saying who these days--came up with the idea of Starwalk: a mile of celebrity statues, 100 in all, to be erected along the Strip. There was to be a Kurt Cobain statue and a Shirley Temple, a Jack Benny, a Jimi Hendrix, a Bette Davis and a Janis Joplin--all staring mutely into rush-hour traffic. When Wagner first heard of the Starwalk, she says she thought, Well, maybe. But the more she considered it, the madder she got. The city wasn’t just talking about life-size statues; it was also considering monuments to the entertainment industry, such as a 60-foot tall Pegasus celebrating TriStar Pictures that would straddle the Strip. Wagner left the Bel Age that night, drove home and started making phone calls.
Starwalk was a bizarre manifestation of what residents living near the Sunset Strip had feared when they originally heard of the Sunset Specific Plan. First they imagined a new Wilshire Boulevard--a mile of solid buildings blocking out the Strip’s views of the L.A. basin--and then, after the House of Blues was built in 1994, some worried of “Disneyfication,” of theme restaurants and clubs built to cartoon excess. Eighteen months of debate over the plan passed between the West Hollywood City Council and the city’s residents, many of whom were wary of terms like “expansion” and “concentrated development” and “economic engine,” especially when the engine was just up the block.
The plan, ratified last March, calls for neither a Wilshire nor a CityWalk. Instead, it imagines well-spaced concentrations of development that leave room for pedestrian plazas, wider sidewalks, light retail and restaurant activity and more office space. This year, the Sunset Specific Plan was awarded the Oscar of urban planning: the National American Planning Assn. award for Best Comprehensive Plan. Exactly what retail stores and which restaurants will fill the new buildings once they’re built--when they’re built--will be decided by the city itself, and if you spend much time down at City Hall these days, you will hear from enough people that West Hollywood does not want a CityWalk, and that they’re not looking to Pasadena’s Old Town or the Third Street Promenade for ideas, either. They are thinking of something more eclectic--"more Sunset Plaza, more Book Soup, more independent,” says Sarah Lejeune, a designer who worked on the plan. Still, that did not stop Paul Brotzman, West Hollywood’s city manager at the time, from considering three new theme restaurants proposed to him by corporations. Last year, the House of Blues did more than $10 million in taxable business sales, and that is very attractive to a city manager with a growing budget.
But even without a Sunset Specific Plan, the Strip recently seemed to be revitalizing itself. Andre Balazs purchased and revamped the Chateau Marmont, created Bar Marmont and is now planning to refurbish the Golden Crest Club Hotel. Hotelier Ian Schrager has given the Mondrian a $17-million overhaul. And Billboard magazine opened its club, Billboard Live, this summer, which, depending on your view--from City Hall or from a Hollywood Hills homeowners meeting--is either a sign of the Strip’s economic rebound or evidence that Disney is coming to town in much the same way it landed on New York’s Times Square in 1994.
Fran Offenhauser, an architect with an office just off the Strip, who assisted with the redevelopment of Hollywood in the ‘80s, thinks the Strip already works well. “It’s economically fairly healthy,” Offenhauser says. “A very odd mix of businesses that serve the neighborhood, a certain amount of office space, and entertainment that gives it a regional setting. If the city starts handing out entitlements to density growth without a clear vision of what they’re doing, they could easily kill the ambience and continuity the Strip already has. And I’m not sure if the city has clear vision when it comes to the Strip’s future.”
In fact, much of the Strip’s haphazard allure today is the direct result of 60-odd years of unscripted development. Starting in the late 1920s, the stretch of Sunset between the 8000 and 9000 blocks metamorphosed unchecked from poinsettia fields into a gantlet where the people who ran the studios that suddenly dotted the city--Paramount on Melrose, United Artists on Santa Monica, Chaplin on La Brea--went to eat and brawl and gamble, to flirt with gangsters, die tragic deaths at their own hands, or simply check into hotels and disappear into obscurity.
This, the nascent Sunset Strip, was transformed by the late 1930s into a boulevard of restaurants and shops that grew and died off, grew and then died again with each succeeding generation of the entertainment industry that passed through Hollywood. From a turn-of-the-century cow trail to mid-century mecca of Hollywood nightclubs, and finally to its transformation into the world capital of rock ‘n’ roll, the Strip was a party that lasted 50 years--until sometime during the 1980s, when the City of West Hollywood realized that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was no longer asking if it could erect its 20-foot statues along the Strip on Oscar night.
By then “Hollywood"--the agents, the movie offices, the record companies, the nightclubs--had been leaving the Strip in droves. The Playboy company left, and so did Warner Chappel Music and United Talent. That the golden statues were no longer being imported for a night in early spring merely highlighted the fact that Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevard had begun pulling the entertainment industry away from the Strip; that vacancy rates along the boulevard, which had long sat at 8% to 9%, had doubled, and rental rates had dropped from as high as $3 a square foot to $2; and that West Hollywood was watching its tax base move toward the status of empty lot. The city wanted desperately to bring back the Playboys and Warner Chappels and United Talents, and the Sunset Specific Plan--by playing up the Strip’s aura and advertising and codifying its Hollywood myth--would hopefully give the entertainment industry a reason to return.
Which was how, when the plan finally passed, a notion like Starwalk could still be taken seriously. The City Council held a final meeting on Oct. 7, inside an auditorium on San Vicente, to vote on the Starwalk’s future. Wagner asked anyone in the auditorium opposed to the Starwalk to stand, and most of the 100 in attendance did. Someone said the proposed Shirley Temple statue looked like Ernest Borgnine with a bad haircut, but someone else stood up and said, “The Strip is a living entity, constantly reinventing itself, and by putting up static icons the City Council is reflecting a Strip that is a frozen thing.” Offenhauser the architect was there, and she asked the council if Starwalk was the kind of tourism West Hollywood wanted to foster, that the type of tourism generated by a Starwalk would drive high-end tenants away.
Finally, property owners along the Strip set up a map of Sunset, six feet long, and drew red boxes around their properties, telling the council no statues could be erected in front of their doorways. The council voted 5 to 0 against the Starwalk. “We wanted to do art on the Strip,” says council member Steve Martin, “but clearly it was not the first time government came up with a bad idea.” The Oct. 7 meeting was one of the largest protests the council had ever sat through, bigger than protests in the ‘80s when West Hollywood initiated rent control and building owners began painting their properties red, calling the city Moscow on the Pacific. Those were conservative protests that claimed the council was too liberal and not growth-oriented. Now it seemed the council and their protesters had changed political seats.
Sunset Boulevard was still a flattened-out former cow path surrounded by poinsettia fields and avocado groves when Francis J. Montgomery’s father, in the early 1920s, built a new house for his family--just a few hundred feet above the Strip. Today, Francis Montgomery is in his 80s. His family, including son Mark, manages the Sunset Plaza, the virgin-white grouping of sidewalk restaurants and expensive boutiques that sits mid-Strip on a property parcel that has belonged to Montgomery’s family since 1860.
There wasn’t much to excite a person on the Strip when Francis was a boy. You could hike down and swim in the Big Res, that collecting pool of subterranean water that dripped out of holes drilled into the hills, or hang out at Old Man Woods’ service station, where Old Man Woods himself jumped around on a wooden leg while he was checking the rubber on your tires. But there really wasn’t anything happening. If you wanted night life on the Westside, you headed out to Culver City, to places like the DooDoo Inn, the Monkey Farm, the Kit Kat Club and the Chicken Roost. It was so quiet on the Strip that one night, when Francis’ father leaned out a window to shout down a drunk who was causing a ruckus, that he realized--mid-yell--the man was actually down on Santa Monica Boulevard, a half mile away.
By the 1930s the Montgomerys had built a series of small boutiques and restaurants on the Strip.
The owner of the Hollywood Reporter, Billy Wilkerson, decided he was tired of running all over town to meet with movie stars’ agents--the easiest solution was to open his own restaurant where the agents could come to him. Wilkerson had run speakeasies in New York and had visited Paris and loved its outdoor cafes, and he wanted a restaurant that combined the excitement and class from both sides of the Atlantic. In 1934, in a former roadhouse that sat just east of where Chin Chin operates today, Wilkerson opened the Trocadero restaurant. Later, following Wilkerson’s lead, agents moved their offices to the Strip because they could avoid paying city taxes on the then-unincorporated street. The combination of flashy restaurants and Hollywood agents cemented the Strip’s image as the Boulevard Where the Stars Dined.
What a place the Trocadero was! At lunch, any Nebraska sodbuster and his family could walk into the restaurant and, if they had the money, sit at the very tables Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart had occupied in the evening. It was probably the first time in American history that the common man could share the same space his idols called their own. Dinner time, the restaurant filled up with everyone who had a contract at the studios: Bing Crosby, William Powell, Fred Astaire, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Clark Gable, Ida Lupino. They would sit in the Parisian dining room, working through plates of Breast of Guinea Hen under Bell, Beef Forestiere or Vol au Vent of Sweetbreads Toulousaine, guzzling 1901 Chateau de Rayne-Vigneau--an extravagant $9 a bottle--and then stumble onto the dance floor to do the rumba to Harl Smith and his Continental Orchestra.
In the back room, a poker game would start up every Saturday night with players that regularly included Irving Thalberg, Daryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle Jr., Joseph Shenck and Sam Goldwyn--the men who ran the studios, the legends who created Hollywood, and who were busy back there, in that cigar-smoke aquarium, losing $5,000 on a hand. If you were a contract actor dining up front, you couldn’t help thinking about those men, hunched down in the back with their $2,500 poker chips. Sure, they were just playing cards, but let’s be truthful, these were men who controlled the careers of every drunken rumba swisher in the front room, who could easily trade or drop an actor like he was a chip. Inside the Trocadero, for about a decade, the entire community and business of Hollywood played itself out, like some weird anthropologist’s dream come true.
Ten years after the Trocadero opened, the restaurant, already sold and now in the hands of Eastern gangsters, was emptied out by the Montgomerys and cleansed in the time-honored fashion of the day: it was razed. By then other clubs, some opened by Wilkerson, some by his competitors, were blinking on weekend nights up and down the Strip--La Rue, Mocambo, Club Madrid and Romanoff’s. The Strip clubs were PR machines, where Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons held nightly reserved tables and wrote gossip leads between bites of sweetbreads. Inside the clubs, actors and actresses shared silverware with gangsters, guys like Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel and Johnny Roselli. The gangsters were impeccably behaved. It was the actors who heated up when the little alcohol light winked on in their brains--like the night Errol Flynn slugged the columnist Jimmy Fiddler inside the Mocambo and had a fork speared in his ear by Jimmy’s wife, or the evening Daryl Zanuck, in the same restaurant, swung bare-chested on a trapeze. The gangsters just smiled and glanced down at the cigarettes jammed between their knuckles. It was the Outlaw Strip, the danger of the gangster mixed with the glamour of the actor, and by the mid-'50s it was gone--the gangsters dead or leaving for Vegas, the stars retreating to their homes in the hills or the more genteel confines of Chasen’s. Today, the closest you can come to that Strip is to stand in the weedy lot that was the Trocadero.
In a county like Los Angeles, which, pushed by boom, developed outward at the pace of an unfolding map, urban redevelopment has spread like a second wave of construction over the landscape, as cities attempt to tinker with economic glitches left behind in the rush to build. The City of Los Angeles spent 20 years trying to save Hollywood, gave up, and has recently started again with better results.
A specific plan for the Strip was first considered in the late ‘80s, after West Hollywood became a city in 1984 and realized that without government control over development, it could end up with nothing but T-shirt shops and food courts. Then came the recession and the exodus of businesses from the Strip, and West Hollywood suddenly seemed driven by the twin desires of encouraging development as well as controlling it. “It took something like the recession to change people’s ideas about economic development along the Strip, which went from no growth to ‘We’ll take anything at all,’ ” says Martin of the West Hollywood City Council.
West Hollywood likes to think of itself as the Left Bank of Beverly Hills, a radical--or at least democratically diverse--municipality on the richer city’s eastern flank, where, in the 1980s, a loose coalition of progressives stood up against large developers and large-scale development. The City of Beverly Hills, for its part during the 1980s, was busy building parking structures surrounding its Rodeo shopping district; the result for West Hollywood being, says Martin, “that we now see all these tourist buses passing down Sunset to go shopping in Beverly Hills.”
West Hollywood, as far as the national press was concerned during the 1980s, was “gay Camelot.” If it seems odd that Martin is referred to today as the first “openly gay” council candidate to be elected in years--it was 1994 when he was voted in--it’s because, during the late 1980s, Camelot was besieged by the other two-thirds of its constituents who were not gay, and who thought entirely too much government was being focused on the first third. “Developing the Strip during the 1980s,” Martin says, “was antithetical to what West Hollywood politics was all about then, and that was gay and lesbian rights, social services like AIDS information, and rent control. The city’s main problem with the Strip at that time was, ‘How do we keep these people from out of town off the Strip and out of our neighborhoods?’ The Strip had gone seedy, and quickly degenerated from nightclubs to pay-to-play clubs, heavy metal and kids peeing on lawns.”
Martin thinks of the Strip today as a place where “the glamour has been brought back,” where “it’s become real obvious in the last few years that this is the playground for the stars.” Last March, like a flock of lost birds, the Oscars came back, in the form of banners that the academy placed up and down the Strip. The City Council is aware that areas like the Strip develop by stealing businesses away from other parts of the city, and that the activity going on now is a kind of bait for entertainment businesses elsewhere. And they understand the importance of developing new buildings on the Strip for those businesses to fill: The city will beef up its tax base when those tenants and their clients exit the marbled foyers, slip on their sunglasses and start spending money in retail stores and restaurants and hotels up and down the Strip.
Isaac Tigrett, that curious mixture of money and mysticism, says he wanted to open his House of Blues club on the Strip because, “it was a place of myth as far as the world was concerned, because it really sent out a message that this was the epicenter of Hollywood. It’s like Memphis--you say ‘Memphis’ anywhere in the world, and people say rock and roll, Elvis, and rhythm and blues. And I wanted to be at the epicenter.”
The West Hollywood City Council views the success of the House of Blues as a shining example of the Strip’s ability to bounce back. Tigrett sees the success of his club as a testing ground for opponents of development--a battle that will sway future events. He says the city is so democratic that every complaint has to be heard before a project like his can get off the ground, and that his project’s year and a half of negotiations with the city was “the longest negotiation I’ve ever been through in my life.” Democracy has since established itself within Tigrett’s club. The House of Blues was under such attack from neighborhood groups for the noise and traffic it was causing that the management began holding monthly meetings inside the club to field complaints. Closing the windows that overlook the neighborhood below was a big help. Still, the club is running at 85% occupancy, seven nights a week. “It’s probably the greatest advertising street as far as the industry is concerned,” Tigrett says. “We get 55,000 cars that drive by every day.”
There are plenty living in the Strip’s surrounding communities who think 55,000 cars a day are already too many and wonder how emergency vehicles will get through when traffic becomes even heavier, and they worry over the crime that they believe is partly caused by the attraction of the new clubs, the “stabbings, shootings, theft, rapes, vandalism and people defecating on your front lawn,” Strip activist Wagner speaks of when she characterizes the previous year in her neighborhood. Wagner does not care for the House of Blues--"outhouse architecture” she calls it--but she does sympathize with one view of Tigrett’s: that the club is a testing ground for future development on the Strip. She has lived in her home above the Strip for the last 25 years and believes that the boulevard below is “her community,” but it’s not a community she feels a part of today. “I am a very positive person,” she says, “and I do not feel positive about the Strip anymore.”
Those girls from Dorsey High School -- can anyone really explain what went wrong that summer? One minute they were just sweet young things in pastel dresses, home every night inside their parents’ GI Bill-bought ranch houses, watching “77 Sunset Strip” and Patty Duke. And the next minute, well . . . it was like something had exploded inside their cerebellums, and they were up on the Strip six nights a week--the seventh night was for nails and hair--this roiling pink pod of teeny-bopper fury, chasing the exhaust trails of limousines ferrying rock bands up and down the Strip, and screaming at the top of their pubescent lungs, “Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!”
Sue Schneider was one of the Dorsey Girls. She had been content, living out the Southern California idyll in Baldwin Hills, when one day a friend reached her on the Princess phone and asked if she wanted to meet the Rolling Stones, and Sue answered, Sure, right, yeah. But the next thing she knew, she was inside this strange hotel hallway, fumbling with her gawky Instamatic because Brian Jones had just answered the knock at the door, saying “What the . . . ?” After that, as far as her distraught parents were concerned, Sue Schneider transformed herself into that feared and often misunderstood nocturnal creature, one that nestled inside their house whenever the sun shone: the groupie. She began ratting her hair, wearing little turtleneck sweaters and straight skirts, and painting her eyes black until she blinked out at strangers like a raccoon.
The Dorsey Girls teamed up with other girls from Hamilton and Culver high schools. They had a game they played every night on the Strip called, what rock star do we meet tonight? It was all about access, and there was access everywhere. The British bands were up at the Continental Hyatt House, soon to be re-christened the Riot House because groups like Led Zeppelin were fond of throwing their TVs out the windows and onto the street 12 stories below. (Televisions at the Hyatt that no longer worked were called “Zeppelin TVs.”) Every rock band in the world was on the Strip, and not just the flash in the pans, either, but the groups everyone knew were going to last forever--bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, Chad and Jeremy, and Peter and Gordon. (Sonny and Cher, who began playing clubs on the Strip as Caesar and Cleo, hung out there until it got them kicked out of the Rose Parade when their sponsors figured this was not the image they wanted their float to present the world.)
And the clubs! On any night you could find the Turtles harmonizing “Happy Together” at the Tiger’s Tail, the Doors getting thrown off the stage at the London Fog, Buffalo Springfield singing that something was happening here inside Gazzarri’s. You could knock on the back door at Ciro’s and have Roger McGuinn of the Byrds invite you in; and if you had a joint in your purse, the question was, What are you doing later? The Dorsey Girls would start at Beado Lido’s, where you could usually find this furry freak named Frank Zappa playing . . . well, what would you call it? . . . noise . . . and then move on to Pandora’s Box at Crescent Heights, and then on to the Stratford and the Sea Witch, the Whisky and the Trip; finally ending the grand circuit inside of Ben Frank’s for French fries, where the Dorsey Girls stayed until they were kicked out, at which point they’d drive down to the International House of Pancakes and get kicked out of there, and eventually drag themselves into Canter’s at 4 in the morning, where they’d wait for the rising sun to scare them back into their little ranch-style dens.
Nothing was too outrageous. One day when the Beatles were in town, two of Sue’s friends rented a helicopter, and the next thing anyone knew they were trying to land the thing in the backyard of the house where the Beatles were staying. How do you explain that to a concerned mother? Tell her that this one evil section of Sunset Boulevard was suddenly drawing thousands of teenagers every night from all across the country--and there were suddenly, inexplicably, thousands of kids on the Strip--altering their behavior in ways that We the Establishment could not fathom? It finally got to the point where, one night in 1966, when the police tried to shut down the rickety shack of a club called Pandora’s Box, that hundreds of suburbia’s children started rioting up and down the Strip, complaining about their rights. And this was before things really started getting out of hand, before Sue’s mother found herself alone in a record shop one afternoon, flipping through the bins, attempting to figure out just which of the rock ‘n’ roll smiles gleaming back at her from the LP covers was the father of her teenage daughter’s new baby boy. As far as Sue was concerned, the Strip and the whole time felt like the end of the world to her, about as far as a teenage girl could get from ticky-tacky Baldwin Hills. It was 1965.
Hugh Hefner had come out to the Strip in 1960 to open a new Playboy Club after the incredible success of the Chicago club, and he remembers a boulevard that had already laid the groundwork for Playboy. On any night he could have dinner at a hep place like Dean Martin’s Dino’s Lodge with some of his swinging friends--great guys like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme--and then go out and see girls strip at the Largo (which would later become the Roxy).
So Hefner opened his Playboy Club--at the time he thought of it as his own Casablanca--and today it’s almost impossible to describe how popular that club was. “I think we were the only adult club on the Strip in the 1960s,” Hefner says, pajama-clad at midday in his Holmby Hills mansion. “We were definitely the most successful.” In a 10-story building, the club took up the first four floors--and still there were lines around the block weekend nights. Hefner lived on the top floor, inside a penthouse that was very James Bond, very top secret. You could push a button, and an entire wall would slide away to reveal the bar. He even had a round bed up there, all the accouterments that every Rat Pack pretender only dreamed of; and yet here it was, happening in Hefner’s club and inside Hefner’s bedroom on the Sunset Strip, the primal DNA strands of mid-century American Male masculinity. By 1968, Hefner would beam those DNA codes all over America on his show “Playboy After Dark,” taped down at the CBS studios on Fairfax Avenue. Every night after the show, there was a party upstairs in Hefner’s penthouse, the likes of which those poor lonely saps downstairs at the bar, swilling their 007 martinis, could only dream of.
Mario Maglieri came out from Chicago in 1964 to help launch the Playboy Club, but he soon left to become a partner at a new nightclub called the Whisky a Go Go. Maglieri was from Old Chicago, and suddenly on the stage of this new club he’s running are all these Brits with names like Eric Clapton and John Mayall and Paul Butterfield, playing electric guitars. “Geez, I thought these guys were nuts!” he says today. They were even banging tambourines; the last time Maglieri had seen a tambourine was back in Chicago when a beggar asked him for change.
Maglieri stayed on at the Whisky, eventually buying his partners out, and went on--quite without plan but with the help of other club owners on the Strip--to build up a street that would invent a new California Sound--and reinvent the entire American music business in the process. Up until the mid-'60s, the recording business was based in New York. That’s where the Brill Building was, where songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Leiber and Stoller were writing the hits that dominated the radio. And then, around 1964, the time of the early British Invasion--you can actually date it to the night Bob Eubanks brought the Beatles to the Hollywood Bowl--every band in Southern California realized they could modify the British sound into something that was their own.
The new California Sound--the Mamas and the Papas, the Turtles and the Byrds--was being played in clubs like the Trip, Tiger’s Tail and Ciro’s. Everyone was waiting for someone to write a radio hit, and once songs like the Turtles’ “Happy Together” started going national, the record companies suddenly divined L.A. was going to be It and set their sights west. By 1967, the L.A. bands had pushed back the British Invasion--the Kinks, the Who and Led Zeppelin would all go on to play the tiny Whisky, but it would be the L.A. bands that would let them in--and the only question for every teenage band in L.A. was, “How do we get on the Strip, so we can get off it as soon as possible and go on the Dick Clark Caravan?”
“This is where it was happening,” says the Turtles’ Mark Volman. “The Strip and the American music industry blooming at the same time. The Beatles came from England, but they were on Capitol, and Capitol was in Hollywood, right off Sunset. Every band playing on the Strip knew that much.”
Of course, off the Strip--national success--was often lonely; a band lost its community, which is what the Strip was. Once you left the Strip a certified success, it was impossible to ever go back. The Turtles played at the Hollywood Bowl with Jan and Dean after “Happy Together” became a hit, which was . . . great . . . but it wasn’t the same as hanging out nights with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, wondering whose band was going to break first.
The Doors were the last of the mid-'60s bands from the Strip to make it nationally. By 1970, the scene was dropping off--in fact, the real California scene had moved to the Haight-Ashbury district a few years earlier. The groupies were getting younger, more hollow-eyed; the drug of choice went from marijuana to cocaine. Sue Schneider, with a child now, took a job at the Whisky. The Playboy Club left the Strip in 1971 for Century City. Pamela Des Barres, queen groupie and member of the Strip’s ruling all-girl band, the GTOs, remembers her last great moment there: watching, transfixed, as Jimi Hendrix woodshedded inside some long-forgotten club. Des Barres has since visited the Colosseum in Rome, walked where Jesus walked in Jerusalem, and still, that single, shimmering night on the Strip, gazing up at Hendrix, was like “standing in a church with all this glorious feeling coming down.” She says she’s never felt anything like it since.
Andre Balazs views the history of the Strip through his hotel, the Chateau Marmont, which has sat at the eastern end of the Strip since 1927 and seen the boulevard transcend, like a Hindu subject, through a series of births and deaths and rebirths. Balazs thinks that history is piling up onto itself to create “this organic chaos that is the Sunset Strip.” Balazs believes the mission of creating an urban environment--like the one the Sunset Specific Plan proposes--is to save that chaos. “A place’s sense of past, its quirkiness and history, is what makes a place rich,” he says. “And I think the Sunset Specific Plan is close to genius in articulating that--as long as there is a spirit and sensitivity and open-mindedness that goes along with that template.”
Balazs’ revamping of the Golden Crest Hotel will be one of the first projects carried out under the guidelines of that template. He realizes that within 20 years, his two hotels could sit on a Strip as well-conceived and executed as the Montgomerys’ Sunset Plaza, or one as garish and mobbed as CityWalk. But he believes that West Hollywood, with the Strip, may be able to create the real urban center--with hotels and entertainment and shops and restaurants--that has always eluded Los Angeles.
“I think we have a chance here,” he says, “one that recognizes that the downtown center envisioned by a lot of real estate developers in the early century is not going to happen, to let something develop organically. A real urban environment, one where you can leave your hotel room and walk somewhere, is one of the great things about being part of society.”
Mark Montgomery, Francis Montgomery’s son, has been in management all his life--most of it at the Sunset Plaza. He would like to see the Strip improve, too, but says “it’s not going to happen just by widening the sidewalks--it happens by good management making the right choices.” And as history piles up into Balazs’ organic chaos, Mark Montgomery believes it gets harder and harder to create a Strip that rivals its legendary past, especially a Strip that is born out of a singular vision. “We don’t have kings in this country,” he says, “so there’s no one around to put the slaves to work to build our Coliseums and Forums and Pantheons.”