One of my main characters, an actress named Gwendolyn, realizes that her money is dwindling fast and so she needs to get a job, especially now that the after-effects of the sobering right hook known as the 1929 stock market crash are making themselves apparent. She manages to talk her way into becoming the cigarette girl at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Consequently many of Gwendolyn’s scenes take place there so I thought it might be interesting to blog about it.
The place opened up in April of 1921 and became famous almost immediately because of the decor. When the club’s host heard from his friend, Rudolph Valentino, that a number of the fake palm trees used in his movie The Sheik were available for under $500, the guy snapped them up. They were just inexpensive, papier mache
trees–movie sets were built to only last as long as it took to shoot the movie–with papier mache coconuts and fake monkeys hanging from the branches, but they did the trick. It helped the place distinguish itself from the competition. Mind you, in 1921 there wasn’t a whole lot of competition but what there was didn’t hold a candle to the glamor of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and it quickly became the place to see and be seen.
The success of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was helped in no small measure by the fact that it was located in the huge Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd . In those days, there were two major hotels of note in Los Angeles: the grand dame: the Biltmore Hotel which
boasted the Biltmore Bowl, the world’s largest ballroom; and the Ambassador Hotel which was more of a resort style hotel where people went to relax and play.
And play they did! I’m not sure why, but apparently Tuesday nights were the big nights at the Cocoanut Grove and it was the usual evening for special events like Charleston dance contests or Greenwich Village night (when everyone came dressed as an artist, writer or poet.) In the 1930s and 1940s big band radio performances with such greats as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo, and Rudy Vallee were broadcast from there. Another surprising Cocoanut Grove name I came across was Merv Griffin who sang there with a big band under the direction of Freddy Martin.
In October of 1930 the Disney studio threw a lavish, industry-wide second birthday party at the Cocoanut Grove for Mickey Mouse who had, by that stage, already become their most valuable asset with fan clubs springing up all over the country. According to one book I read, a full meal there in 1936 cost $14.50 for two, which included cover, appetizer, soup, filet mignon, wine, tax and tip, “…and access to the dancefloor” which was apparently worth mentioning. Maybe the people in the cheap seats weren’t allowed on the dancefloor but were only permitted to gawk at the nonstop parade of famous faces…? During this time, the Oscars were often presented at the Cocoanut Grove and it was here in 1940 that Gone With the Wind swept the awards night.
Being the cigarette girl at a place like this was no small thing. Back in those days everybody smoked like a paper factory on fire so there was always some pretty girl who spent the whole night hauling around a tray stacked with cigarettes and cigars (in shoes that I can’t imagine were very comfy). Girls lucky enough to get such a job were seen very night by the movers, shakers and decision makers for all the big studios. So if a girl could bat her big baby blue eyes in just the right way, it was anyone’s guess who might spot her and where she might end up…besides the casting couch, but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog…