In a continuing series looking at Hollywood hotspots where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
Picture it: it’s the mid-1930s and you’ve just barely survived the four-day bus ride from Wahoo, Nebraska, or Broken Bow, Oklahoma, or whichever two-mule, go-nowhere, closed-on-Sundays, don’t-even-have-a-Woolworth’s-lunch-counter burg you broke out from, and you find yourself standing on Sunset Boulevard, watching the Packards and Duesenbergs roar past you. (The burgundy Packards and silver-striped Duesenbergs are actually able to roar up Sunset Boulevard because, remember, it’s 1935, and there’s no such thing as “heavy traffic” yet.) So, you’re standing there holding your little cardboard suitcase and wearing the scratchy jacket you got on sale at Kress’s Five-and-Dime for 95 cents. You’re trying desperately not to look like the hick you suspect you are, and the thought occurs to you for the first time: So what now, big shot?
Chances are you’ll probably ask the next passer-by (because it’s 1935 and most people get around Los Angeles via the public transport system, so there’s no shortage of passers-by to ask) where can a guy get a cup of coffee around here? And seeing as how you’re on Sunset Boulevard, chances are that you’ll be directed to Schwab’s Pharmacy, known by locals and movie fans coast-to-coast simply as Schwab’s. Because, sooner or later, everyone stopped for coffee at Schwab’s.
The Brothers Schwab–Leon, Bernard, Martin & Jack–were all pharmacists, and owned, at one time, six family drug stores around L.A. The first one they opened was on 6th Street in downtown L.A., but by far the most famous stood at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights.
What made this one stand apart from the other Schwab’s Pharmacies scattered around town is that it became a meeting place for actors. A sign near the counter reading “Coffee 40 cents per cup. Maximum 30 minutes.” was largely ignored. This was a godsend for the broke and unemployed (read: “not yet discovered”) so everyone knew that you could sit on a cup of coffee all day and nobody would hassle you. And better yet, you could swap studio gossip, casting call announcements, borrow a Hollywood Reporter or Variety from the guy sitting next to you, and eavesdrop on news of extra work floating around. Consequently agents, columnists, bit players and a full platoon of nobodies-hoping-to-become-somebodies started hanging around, too. The place was always full and busy, from early morning to late at night, and you never know who you were going to bump into, what sort of contact you might make, and what sort of job it might lead to.
Schwab’s was a social leveler. You could find yourself tucking into pancakes while in the booth behind you, the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Ida Lupino, Mickey Rooney, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Orson Welles, or the Marx brothers ate eggs and onions, lox and bagels at breakfast or steaks at dinner.
In the movie Sunset Blvd, William Holden’s character called Schwab’s “headquarters; a combination office, coffee klatch, and waiting room” for Hollywood folks. The Garden of Allah hotel was just across the street so when resident F. Scott Fitzgerald discovered the Bavarian chocolate bars they sold there, he was a frequent visitor. (Fitzgerald was a recovering alcoholic at the time–or at least trying hard to be–and he satisfied the hunger for the sugar in alcohol by substituting chocolate instead.) Ava Gardner lived for a while at the Garden of Allah while she was married to bandleader, Artie Shaw. One day she went over to Schwab’s in the mood for an ice cream soda. She must have been handy with the scooper because pretty soon she was making them for everyone and left with an open invitation to come back any time she wanted and make herself home behind the counter.
It might be Hollywood ballyhooing one of its own legends, but apparently songwriter Harold Arlen wrote Over the Rainbow in one of the booths at Schwab’s. (Can you imagine sitting in some random booth one of the Schwab brothers directed you to, and while you’re plowing into your bagels and lox, some guy next door is humming some new tune he’s tinkering with, something about a rainbow…? I dunno, whatever, but aren’t these onion bagels delicious…?)
In true Hollywood fashion, the thing that Schwab’s is most famous for–being the place where Lana Turner was discovered–is just an urban myth. It’s true that she was discovered at a Hollywood drug store, but it wasn’t Schwab’s. She was at the Top Hat Cafe further down Sunset, skipping school (she went to nearby Hollywood High) when she was spotted by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was attracted by her beauty and physique (the guy was only human, after all), and referred her to Zeppo Marx, a talent agent, who also happened to be one of the Marx brothers. Marx’s agency immediately signed her on and introduced her to film director Mervyn LeRoy, who cast her in her first film, They Won’t Forget (1937). The only connecting Lana had to Schwab’s was that, for a while Harpo Marx lived next door at the Garden of Allah so Zeppo more than likely ate there a lot.
Other Schwab’s locations included stores at 6255 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, 401 N. Bedford Dr. in Beverly Hills and 430 N. Roxbury, also in Beverly Hills. (Marilyn Monroe had her prescriptions filled at the one on Bedford). But none of them ever came close in popularity to the Sunset Boulevard location. The Schwab’s Pharmacy that we all think of when we hear the name “Schwabs” held its reputation through until the 1980s. According to a 1976 roundup conducted by the LA Times, Schwab’s was still considered one of the best spots in town to grab a plain old cup o’ coffee (Schwab’s served Apfel’s).
But, sooner or later the wrecking ball comes for us all. In October of 1983, the business no longer made money (you wonder how the hell they held on for so long if they let every Cary, Clark, Charlie and Jimmy sit on a cup of coffee all day), and the Schwab family closed the doors. The place stood vacant until 1988 when the wrecking ball finally paid a call to the one place anybody could call home while they waited for that call, that one call, which would change everything.