Palladium gets a new dance card

Times Staff Writer

Sixty-EIGHT years ago this month, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and its new singer, a skinny 24-year-old New Jersey crooner named Frank Sinatra, welcomed a cheering crowd to opening night at the Hollywood Palladium. Dorothy Lamour was there to snip the ribbon, spangled with orchids, and as Jack Benny, Judy Garland and Lana Turner looked on, hundreds of couples danced the jitterbug on a 11,200-square-foot dance floor made of maple wood.

With its coral and chromium interior, Streamlined Moderne swoops and shimmering chandeliers, the Palladium that night must have seemed like a dreamy refuge in a world that was growing darker by the day. German bombs were falling every night in London, but beneath the searchlights of Sunset Boulevard, all the young lovers were swaying in a Hollywood champagne fantasy.

Still, when Sinatra sang the band’s No. 1 hit, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” how many of those 3,000 couples held each other and fretted about the future?


That golden night might be difficult to envision for anyone who attended the last shows at the Palladium. Last October, British singer Morrissey planned to play 10 nights at the battered and creaky venue, but two of the shows were canceled after a water pipe ruptured and added to the building’s already considerable dankness. The club was shuttered and a $20-million overhaul began.

“We ripped the roof off the joint, literally,” said Rick Mueller, president of California operations for Live Nation, the concert promotion company that signed a 20-year lease and is handling the lion’s share of renovation costs. “Our entire goal is to bring the building back to what it was like that first night but also to make it modern.”

That back-to-the-future effort meant a meticulous revival of architect Gordon B. Kaufmann’s original vision along with the installation of modern-day amenities -- recessed LED lighting with 20,000 possible accent colors, wheelchair ramps, a new concessions area, more bathrooms, a movable stage, steel rigging for elaborate concert productions -- that Mueller says will make the Palladium a nimble 21st century venue for concerts, television broadcasts and private bookings.

Restoring a legend

It ALL begins Oct. 15 with a sold-out show featuring a 12-piece band fronted by rapper Jay-Z, who, with his East Coast roots and Chairman of the Board persona, channels a sort of hip-hop version of Sinatra’s career aura.

“I wouldn’t be surprised one bit,” Mueller said, “if he does a Sinatra song.” The promoter said that Tuesday while wearing a hard hat and shouting over the sounds of hammers and sanders. He was standing on the rim of the Palladium’s dance floor, which he doubts will be refinished until after opening night. Above Mueller’s head was a chandelier wrapped in plastic. “The rest of them are out back, we have a company restoring them, recasting the missing crystals. Everything has to be just right.”

Cove lighting has been installed to highlight the Moderne details and the original marquee-and-pylon sign tower has been restored at the entrance and its large neon letters revived. (How careful is the revival? Architect Christopher Coe used old newsreel footage to match the lighting sequence to the original pattern.)

The renovation has not been entirely smooth. There was a union dispute that put a picket line out front, and there was consternation about the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency loan needed by Live Nation’s landlord, Newport Capital Advisors, to pay for the exterior remodeling. But Mueller said that after the dust has settled, the Palladium will once again be a signature spot in the entertainment life of Hollywood.

“There was talk of demolishing the whole place, just knocking it down,” the Live Nation executive said. “But if you know the history of the Palladium, that’s an awful thing to even consider.”

The history of the building is like the district around it -- long seasons of klieg-light glamour followed by years of a battered, low-rent life. “When the Big Band Era receded, Hollywood receded with it,” said Dale Olson, a Hollywood publicist who worked with Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly and used to dance at the Palladium. “Hollywood got seedy, and the Palladium did too. The last time I was there was at a TV show taping in 1996. Bob Hope and Dolores Hope were there, and Les Brown played. I couldn’t believe how run-down the place was. If you had seen it before, it was sad.”

A versatile room

The PALLADIUM means different things to different generations. That happens when you have one building that houses concerts by Glenn Miller and Led Zeppelin, Barbra Streisand and the Who, Ray Charles and the Ramones; it was also the site of “The Lawrence Welk Show” during its hugely popular run in the 1960s. It was from the Palladium that Betty Grable purred to homesick GIs during her weekly wartime radio show and that Lucille Ball and Sinatra handed out Emmy Awards in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, the venue started to lose some of its luster, but was still the place where Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt all came to pick up their Grammy Awards.

The Palladium was also home to proms, glittery fundraisers and ballroom affairs, with John F. Kennedy and at least five other presidents or presidents-to-be passing through its doors to work the room in a very different sort of dance. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was feted there after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 -- although that occasion had grim subplots including bomb threats and LAPD’s same-day seizure of 1,400 pounds of explosives at a local apartment. The Palladium has been the place where fashion models strutted the catwalk, wrestlers jumped from the top rope and car-show exhibitors brought their sedans. “When it started, though,” Olson said wistfully, “it was all about dancing.”

The Palladium was the vision of movie producer Maurice M. Cohen, who aspired to open the largest dance floor in town and one that basked in the star power of Hollywood. The property, between Argyle and El Centro avenues, was the site of the original Paramount lot. Its top-notch talent made it a common ground for celebrities and tourists, the place that was regal enough for Rita Hayworth, Tyrone Power and Lana Turner but also cheap enough for their fans. In the 1940s, the cover was $1 and dinner cost $3.

“It was the Big Band Era and the Palladium was the magic place, the dance floor where everyone came together,” said Hal Blaine, a drummer who played with Count Basie and recorded hits with Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys. “When I was a kid, my dream was to be on that stage, and I did play there with Jan & Dean in the early 1960s. It was a different place by then, though.”

True, the grand old hall was getting scruffier. In 1964, a jazz festival turned ugly when the performers, angry with the promoter, stomped offstage right before the surly crowd started throwing bottles. It was a hint of the venue’s edgier future. For rock and punk fans coming up in the 1980s, the Palladium was a bare-bones hub and the vintage chandeliers seemed as ironic as they would in a roller rink. Walking through the construction site, Mueller remembered coming for a Ramones show.

“The sound was bad, the security staff was way over the top patting people down, everything was beat-up -- and it was fantastic. Now we’re going to take care of the sound and staffing problems and get back some of the tradition, but it will still be great for rock, in the way the Fillmore is in San Francisco.”

Mueller pointed to the shows by Metallica and Tom Petty in that storied Bay Area venue as the model for the big-name, small-room shows that the gussied-up Palladium might expect. There’s going to be a hotel, retail and residential complex adjacent to the venue as well, which Live Nation hopes will tilt some of the live-music scene back toward Hollywood after the opening of the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles by rival AEG.

There are 30 events slotted for the Palladium before Christmas -- including concerts by the Jonas Brothers, the Roots with Gym Class Heroes, and a three-day Halloween weekend with Rise Against -- and promoters are looking for splashy TV projects to put the venue back in the eyes and ears of America. Nodding toward the dance floor where Midwest tourists once jitterbugged with Oscar winners, Mueller grinned. “Wouldn’t this be the perfect place for ‘Dancing With the Stars’?”