In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
Among the pantheon of legendary Hollywood nightclubs, one of the brightest and most famous was Cafe Trocadero (more commonly known as ‘the Troc’), located at 8610 Sunset Boulevard, the south-east edge of Sunset Plaza.
The building itself had had an interesting history even before it became a renowned Hollywood night club. It was called La Boheme and was the favorite speakeasy for Hollywood types who liked to slum it. Its show featured the owner, a flamboyant drag queen named Karyl Norman, renowned for his impersonation of Joan Crawford in which he would do a number from Sadie Thompson. La Boheme closed down in 1931 after a gun battle.
When Prohibition was repealed, Billy Wilkerson, owner of The Hollywood Reporter, began storing the wine and spirits he was importing in what had once been La Boheme. Eventually he borrowed some moolah, gave the place an extensive remodel, and called it Cafe Trocadero. His idea was to open a very classy joint, all black tie and French inspiration nightclub–the interior decor included hand-painted murals of the Paris skyline–and opened the doors in September 1934 with a private party for talent agent Myron Selznick (brother of David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind.)
Probably to Wilkerson’s surprise, the place wasn’t exactly flooded with eager partygoers so he hit on the idea to put out a velvet rope along the sidewalk and shut the doors to create an aura of desirability. So all of us who’ve waited forever outside those nightclubs and discos to get inside and find it half empty, we can blame it on Billy Wilkerson and the Trocadero. Thank you!
One night MGM star Normal Shearer bemoaned the fact that stars had no private hangout so Wilkerson opened a downstairs bar, called it the ‘Little Troc on Sunset’ and barred photographers and members of the press.
The Troc also introduced Sunday Night Auditions where studio agents might view new talent. For any ambitious and talented performer (or any talented youngster with an ambitious stage mother, and you can imagine how many of them were hovering around town) this was moths to the flame and it became a very popular tradition. According to one source I read, one winner was Jackie Gleason; another Judy Garland. Apparently the likes of Deanna Durbin, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole, Martha Raye, Phil Silvers, and Mary Martin all got valuable exposure on Audition night at the Troc. On Saturday nights, the back room was home to high stakes card games with regulars such as Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck (20th Century Fox), Irving Thalberg (MGM) and Carl Laemmle (Universal Studios).
Wilkerson himself was a heavy gambler; as well as the games at the Troc, he built the original Flamingo hotel and casino in what was back then a two-mule dust trap of tumbleweeds called Las Vegas. Bugsy Siegel and the mob eventually bought him out (‘bought’…‘forced’…it’s a fine line when you’re a mobster) but the whole Las Vegas thing was originally Wilkerson’s idea. (Which means we can also thank Billy Wilkerson for Elvis impersonators, all you-can-eat-buffets, and hotels designed to look like medieval castles for Wal-Mart shoppers.)
The velvet rope ploy must have worked like gangbusters because by the mid 1930s the Troc was one of the most popular places for dining and dancing, with the loudest jazz, the best food and drink, and the juiciest gossip doing the rounds of Tinseltown. Since an appearance at the Troc was bound to be written up in Wilkerson’s Hollywood Reporter, all the brightest stars came here to see and be seen. Photographers had a field day as celebrities gathered in the cream and gold dining room or lounged on the rear balcony, which afforded a dazzling view of the city lights below. But it wasn’t only for the array of talent on display that drew the crowds, but because of Los Angeles’s dated Blue Laws which prohibited dancing within the city limits on the Sabbath.
Side note: the Sunset Strip became famous during Prohibition. The jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department ended at the L.A. city limits, then at Crescent Heights. West of the Sunset Boulevard/Crescent Heights intersection (where, as it happens, the Garden of Allah hotel stood) fell under the control of the Los Angeles County. L.A. county was so massive and its sheriff department so undermanned that they couldn’t control the proliferation of speakeasies and casinos so they didn’t bother much. So all those sorts of fun places sprang up out of the reach of the LAPD but close enough for the local revelers to get to. As the ‘20s became the ‘30s and Prohibition was repealed, the Sunset Strip was already Party Central so things just continued their merry way up to, and including, today.
In December of 1939, the post premiere party for Gone with the Wind was held at the Trocadero, although by then, Wilkerson had sold the club (in 1938) and moved on to other eateries: Ciro’s, L’Aiglon, La Rue, and Vendome Café. Clearly Wilkerson had a liking for all things French so it’s no surprise that when the pressure from the mob to sell his shares in the Flamingo became too much, he fled briefly to Paris in December of 1947.
Ironically, it was to gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen that Wilkerson sold the Trocadero. Understandably, people were nervous about going to a mob-owned establishment, so Siegel and Cohen gave it a facelift and a splashy reopening on May 18th, 1938 but failed to rekindle the Wilkerson touch. After another change of ownership, the Troc closed in 1946. But for those halcyon days of 1930s Hollywood, if you were lucky enough to be protected from the Depression, the place where you most wanted to play was: the Trocadero.