In a continuing series looking at locations where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
It would be easy to assume that Hollywood was always a wild and crazy town with sidewalks packed shoulder-to-shoulder with determined hedonists looking for a big night out that was so good it was doubtful that anything would be remembered about it the next morning. While that’s long been the case, it hasn’t always been that way.
The city of Hollywood was established by a couple of plain-living Christians by the name of Harvey and Daeida Wilcox. The town they set out to establish was a pro-temperance, anti-booze, sedate burg, and so the townfolk were none too pleased when those loose-living film folk started to invade their streets kicking up no end of ruckuses with their cameras and make up and all that there play-acting.
Mind you, they weren’t alone in denouncing these vagabonds. Genteel society all agreed that actors belonged on the bottom of the social ladder, right there alongside dogs. For the first two decades of the 20thcentury, actors weren’t even allowed to stay overnight in the city of Hollywood. No sirree! Those ne’er-do-wells and scallywags were most certainly not welcome to spend the night. They were all required to leave the city—preferably by sundown—which meant they had to pack up their things and return to what we now refer to as downtown Los Angeles.
That all changed—as things inevitably must—when movie moguls Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn built an apartment complex that would cater specifically to the acting community. In 1917, at 6533 Hollywood Boulevard, the Hillview Apartments (now the Hudson Apartments) were built. As far as the locals were concerned, it probably all went downhill after that–these invaders were neither accustomed nor inclined to go to bed when the sun went down. Well, not alone, at any rate. Once their work was done (if you can call that ridiculous mugging for cameras “work”) these people were looking for somewhere to go and spend an evening having a good time and, quite frankly, the genteel tea-dances at the Hollywood Hotel on the corner of Hollywood and Highland just wasn’t going to cut it. Cue entrance of Adolph “Eddie” Brandstatter.
Brandstatter had worked in Paris, London and New York, but by 1920, he was managing the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica. Sympathetic to the bohemian tastes of actors, he welcomed them on Wednesday nights, hosting the Photoplayers’ Frolics, (a photoplayer was an actor for the movies, a step down from the already lowly stage actor.) He extended credit to many future stars, earning their loyalty which they promptly showed by following him to his newest venture.
He rented the second floor at 6763 Hollywood Boulevard, just down from the Hollywood Hotel and, in January 1923, he opened the doors to Hollywood’s very first nightclub, the oh-so-swanky Café Montmartre. You knew it was swanky because of the food. Brandstatter was French and instinctively knew that anything French was perceived as classy, so he dreamed up a quasi-French Continental cuisine, thereby helping to establish the sort of menu that would dominate upscale restaurants in L.A for decades. And because he also knew that his crowd often came from working class backgrounds, he also offered a selection of local favorites — borscht, enchiladas, mince pie, chicken burgers (a particular favorite of Marlene Dietrich), and the house specialty: Spaghetti Tetrazini. He also introduced the concept of the hot and cold buffet to L.A.
But this was also Prohibition and Brandstatter knew that plush decorations, a first-class band, and a hot buffet weren’t going to keep the crowd coming back so he kept a bootlegger on the premises in case his thirsty patrons found that they’d drunk the contents of their hipflask dry.
And then there was dancing. Of course there was dancing. This was the 1920s and everybody was dance-mad! If you ran any sort of eatery above the ‘diner’ level and you didn’t have dancing, you were sunk. No naturally, Hollywood’s first nightclub had a spacious dance floor and orchestra. Not that the crowd needed much encouragement, but Brandstatter organized dance contests that quickly became legendary. Rudolph Valentino, still on his way up from obscurity, won the tango contests, which probably helped his rise to become the world’s first screen sex symbol. On nights when the Charleston and the Black Bottom were contested, the winner was usually the attention-hungry (and probably, at this point, the just plain hungry) Joan Crawford. (She also frequently won contests at the Cocoanut Gove at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire. Hey, a girl has to eat.)
The ads for the Montmartre described it as “…the center of Hollywood life, where everybody worthwhile goes to see and be seen” which became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Lines started appearing down the block that the Montmartre was a place where you could see your favorite movie star in person, especially when the queen of the gossip columnists, Louella Parsons, started showing up on a regular basis and would spend her night table-hopping in search of spice and scandal.
Afternoons were also busy with the ladies-who-lunch crowd. But even lunching ladies like to dance, so Brandstatter featured a “bachelors’ table” of good-looking men who were available to dance with any lunching lady who felt like cutting a rug.
Oh yes, it was all happening here, day and night, at the Café Montmartre. But naturally, it couldn’t hold on to its claim as the only nightclub in Hollywood. Soon other places followed suit and all those fun-chasing film folk had no end of choices about where to spend an evening. But it all started someplace and that place was the Café Montmartre.