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Hand your keys to that clown in the bowtie

The first car to roam the rutted streets of L.A. was built here in 1897. Because of the paucity of traffic and the lack of hotels and restaurants, there was no need for valet parking.

But by 1946, there were many hotels and restaurants in the booming City of Angles, and a man named Herb Citron saw a need to make life a little easier for motorists driving to Lawry’s restaurant on La Cienega, so he invented valet parking.

It is said that he wore a red jacket and a bowtie, among other apparel, of course, and was exceptionally polite to those who drove up in their shiny new postwar Fords and Chevrolets. Doing so, he went nationwide and became rich.

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Today, venues including hospitals, supermarkets and even, possibly, the kind of places Heidi Fleiss used to operate, have valet services, none of whose employees to my knowledge wear red jackets and bowties.

They might not speak good English but are careful with the cars they park for people who would more willingly trust them with their wives than their Lamborghinis, Aston Martins or the occasional Pagani Zonda C12 F.

There are about 7 million cars in L.A., many of which are vying for parking spaces every day of the week, from dawn to sunset. Because public transportation is almost nonexistent, automobiles are the primary means of conveyance from your place to those scattered areas of nightlife that beckon like hookers in a doorway.

Every time I go out, I pray that wherever I am going, there is a valet waiting.

Thinking about the men and occasional women who park cars for a living, I was interested in talking to a clown named Matthew Morgan. I don’t mean he’s a goof-off. He has actually trained and worked as a clown. Now he parks cars at the lovely Art Deco hotel on Sunset Boulevard called Sunset Tower.

This is not a place where one who is just passing through normally spends the night. It is not Motel 6, where they leave the light on for you. It is a hotel of note where well-known people stay or dine and expect and receive exquisite service from those who park their cars.

Somehow, Morgan, who also acts and writes (doesn’t everybody?), fits right in as one of the car parkers at the hotel. He’s very, well, L.A. When I met him, he was juggling a cellphone, a pen and a Chapstick to demonstrate his facility as a professional clown. Even when he speaks, he gestures with both hands as though juggling invisible balls. He can also balance half a paper cup of soda on his forehead and tip it so the soda falls into his mouth, but it’s risky and he decided not to try it.

Ari Hodosh, who owns the parking service, was quick to inform me that his staff of 30 is not inclined to stand around juggling all day. They have other activities involved with those they serve at Sunset Tower. In one instance, Hodosh himself was asked to buy a new car for a woman staying at the hotel. He had to search for days for the vehicle that fit her exact needs, and when he found it, he also arranged the loan and delivered it to her. In another instance, a male tenant handed him $10,000 in cash and asked him to buy an engagement ring for his bride-to-be. “That,” Hodosh admits with a shake of his head, “made me nervous.”

Finding lost dogs, helping celebrities avoid the paparazzi and occasionally driving home the famous who have had too much to drink and carrying them into the house are all part of the services performed by the valets from heaven at Sunset Tower. I’m not sure that I would ever have the need to be driven home and tucked into bed, but the service is intriguing. If I ever did reach that stage, Cinelli would be at the front door refusing delivery. She would stamp me “return to sender.”

As I left the hotel, a frail Nancy Reagan, surrounded by friends and a bodyguard, was arriving for dinner, and Matthew Morgan was saying that if I told him when I would be there again, he’d have a bicycle on hand and balance it on his chin for me. As I thought about it later, a former first lady and a writer-actor-juggler-valet, coexisting in an environment of West Hollywood posh, is what we’re all about.

When another valet brought me my car, which is far less impressive than, say, a $1.7-million Bugatti Veyron, and was dusty and spattered with bird droppings, I explained that I lived in Topanga, where there was a lot of dust and a good many birds. He smiled politely and said, “Of course.” I tipped him nicely.

al.martinez@latimes.com.


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