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Hotel Was Historic Host to Hollywood Headliners

The once-stylish Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, overshadowed for years by its more fabled sibling, the restored Hollywood Roosevelt, is on the rise again.

Dark for decades, the vintage neon sign atop the landmark building will soon bring back a glow to the area made famous by the writings of Raymond Chandler and the doings of its glamorous residents.

Throughout its heyday, the luxurious hotel saw a colorful cast of characters, the eccentric, the bizarre, and the tragic: a shower curtain-wrapped actress who was dragged through the lobby, a pioneer film director who dropped dead under the lobby chandelier, a famed costume designer who leaped to her death from the rooftop. Even the hotel’s resident dog rode the elevators and rang for room service.

Like Hollywood itself, the Knickerbocker had a history entwined with the entertainment industry since its opening night fete in 1925, playing host to celebrities who shuttled among various marriages and several studios.

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At the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the 11-story Knickerbocker was among a cluster of hotels and apartment houses that sprang up to meet the needs of the film capital.

The Knickerbocker’s Spanish Colonial elegance, with hand-painted, stenciled ceilings and walls, rivaled that of the Hollywood Roosevelt, built two years later.

In the year between the Knickerbocker’s opening and his death in 1926, Rudolph Valentino would, on moonlit nights, ride his horse down from the Ivar Hills to have a drink at the bar and dance his smoldering tango with beautiful women. Just where he parked the horse is now a mystery.

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In 1936, 10 years after magician Harry Houdini died, his wife, Bess, bereft and helpless without him, took over the hotel’s rooftop and sought for a 10th and final time to summon his spirit on Halloween--the anniversary of his death--with the help of numerous mediums.

For the occasion, a red plush carpet was spread on the roof, and between two chairs rested an ebony shrine to the locksmith-turned-escape artist. Above the sculpture glowed a ruby-red light. Hundreds of Houdini’s fans waited anxiously in the lobby, but Houdini did not fulfill his pledge to communicate from the spirit world.

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The hotel made headlines again in 1943, when police broke into the room of actress Frances Farmer. Wearing only a shower curtain and screaming obscenities, the mentally troubled film star was dragged by the officers across the hotel lobby and eventually to a mental institution. She had failed to report to her parole officer for an earlier drunk driving and disorderly conduct conviction. Her rebellious nature and her psychological and drinking problems exiled her from Hollywood until 1958, when she landed some small supporting roles after an appearance on television’s “This Is Your Life.”

Commotion and brawls were not unusual to hotel management or to Speck, the Knickerbocker’s resident dog. For years, Speck, an English setter, sat quietly witnessing the bizarre happenings.

His owner, hotel manager Jack Mathews, taught him how to use the elevator--politely. Standing on his hind legs, Speck pushed the elevator button with his paw, and always allowed hotel guests to enter and exit first. He never barked or scratched on the door of his master’s third-floor apartment. Instead, he rang the doorbell--just as he rang for room service for his nightly meal.

Speck was on the premises in July 1948 when D.W. Griffith, the pioneer silent film director and producer, walked into the lobby and fell dead from a cerebral hemorrhage. Griffith, famous for such films as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” had made his last film in 1931. Although film directors paid him as a consultant, he had been largely ignored by the industry he helped to found.

In 1954, Marilyn Monroe was often seen sneaking through the hotel’s kitchen door to meet her future husband, Joe DiMaggio, at the hotel’s famous watering hole.

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Two years later, producer Hal Wallis put Elvis Presley up at the hotel, along with his backup group, the Jordanaires. Elvis had come to Hollywood to record his “Elvis” album and film “Love Me Tender.”

In 1962, MGM costume designer Irene Gibbons slashed at her wrists, then leaped to her death from the 11th floor.

Gibbons designed costumes for such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard. Distressed over her husband’s illness, financial problems and rumors of a fling with Gary Cooper, she left a note to other hotel guests, saying “Neighbors: Sorry I had to drink so much to get courage to do this.”

Four years later, William Frawley, best known as Fred Mertz on TV’s “I Love Lucy,” walked out of the hotel’s bar--where he always ordered a walnut with his drink--and dropped dead on the sidewalk.

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By 1966, when Frawley died, the Knickerbocker had become something of a dump. Gangs, prostitutes and drugs slowly drained the charm from the grand old hotel.

By 1970, the hotel was renovated and converted into apartments for senior citizens.

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The nameplates that once adorned the doors of suites where silver-screen luminaries stayed, including Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Dick Powell, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, have all been removed.

Thursday, as a tribute to D.W. Griffith on the 50th anniversary of his death, the city’s Cultural Affairs Department placed a plaque on the hotel marking the site as his onetime home.

And in September, with a flicker and a flash, the neon Knickerbocker Hotel sign will be illuminated as part of the city’s effort to spruce up the streets and restore some of its old brilliance and verve to Hollywood.


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