In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
Since the furtive, gin-soaked days (or, more specifically, those oh-so-naughty nights) of Prohibition, the Sunset Strip has been a magnetic stretch of Los Angeles roadway with the ability to attract the partygoers in search of a future hangover. That’s as true now as it was in the Strip’s first heyday: from 1920s to the 50s. The difference between then and now is that nobody wore jeans and a torn tee-shirt out for a night on the town, all the women had their hair done, and tweeting was strictly and literally for the birds.
This was the era before television invaded the American home to give people an alternative source of entertainment. Before television, your entertainment was to get dressed up in your Bullock’s Wilshire ensemble with matching bag, shoes and hat, go out to a snazzy nightclub where you’d drink like there was no such thing as cirrhosis, smoke those filter-tipped cigarettes because they filtered all that nasty gunk out, dance the sorts of dances you learned at Arthur Murray, and table-hopped like it was part of your job which, in Hollywood, it probably was. The nightclubs of the Sunset Strip took the art of a dazzling night out to a new level and as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, the Strip reached its glamor zenith.
And the epicenter of it all was Ciro’s.
It opened on January 30th, 1940 by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. At 8433 Sunset Boulevard, it was just a few blocks west of the Garden of Allah and across the road from the Trocadero, Wilkerson’s earlier venture.
In a previous incarnation, the place had been called the Clover Club which was a notorious smorgasbord of illegal gambling and drinking. High stakes addicts like David O. Selznick and Harry Cohn (the big kahuna over at Columbia) lost their shirts there before the vice squad crashed the party in 1938. For the following year it was called the Club Saville but the place flopped, partly because the dancefloor was a large sheet of glass laid over a pool filled with live carp. Sounds like something that would fly nowadays but women objected to having fish eyes peering up their skirts, and everyone was afraid the floor would shatter. Within a year the Seville was out of business so the enterprising Wilkerson took over the building, gave it a lavish makeover and a new name that would soon be world famous: Ciro’s.
Being an active member of the Hollywood social scene, Wilkerson knew what his crowd wanted in a nightclub so he gave it to them. Right out of the gate, it became one of the places to be seen and guaranteed being written about in the gossip columns of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Among the galaxy of celebrities who frequented Ciro’s were Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Sidney Poitier, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, and Lana Turner among many others. During his first visit to Hollywood in the late 1940s, future President John F. Kennedy dined at Ciro’s.
Wilkerson knew he was playing to a sophisticated crowd so he ensured that his club provided the finest showgirls of the era with entertainment to match. Over the years, the stage at Ciro’s would see the likes of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Nat King Cole, Xavier Cugat, Sammy Davis Jr (where he staged his comeback after his near-fatal 1954 auto accident), Duke Ellington, Gypsy Rose Lee, Mae West with her musclemen, Peggy Lee, Lili St Cyr (a prominent burlesque dancer who, in 1951, was arrested for lewdness during her engagement at Ciro’s), Dinah Washington, and Edith Piaf.
So, do you see what happens when you don’t have television to distract you? You get to go out to a fancy-schmancy nightclub, dressed to the nines and watch the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Edith Piaf create their magic instead of sitting around in your sweats watching reruns of Jersey Shore.
As the 40s became the 50s, the popularity of Las Vegas grew, as did the reach of television, and the Sunset Strip suffered. By the mid 50s, the glitzy lounges, fine restaurants, and clubs could no longer compete. There were other places to go, other things to do. Ciro’s had the longest run of all the Sunset Strip nightclubs–seventeen years–but eventually closed its doors in 1957 which pretty much brought to an end the era of the glamorous Hollywood nightclub.
The building is still there–it’s now the Comedy Store. Call me old-fashioned but if you’re going to give me the choice of either watching Richard Pryor riff on the perks of snorting cocaine or listening to Peggy Lee sing “The Lady is a Tramp,” I’ll go with Miss Lee, thanks very much. Oh, and if you see the cigarette girl, could you flag her down for me? I hear those new filter tipped ones let you smoke the healthy way.
Further reading: Dancing at Ciro’s: A Family’s Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip” by Sheila Weller (whose uncle, Herman Hover, managed Ciro’s in the 40s and 50s. As a youngster Sheila did her homework sitting at the tables that, a few hours later, would be occupied by Judy, Lana, Clark, Betty or Cary. Can you imagine…???)