In a continuing series looking at locations where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
Nowadays, Hollywood is littered with more hotels than Japanese tourists, but the earliest of Hollywood’s early days, there was only one hotel in the whole town. Its origins date back so far that Hollywood Boulevard wasn’t even called that yet. In 1903, it was still called Prospect Boulevard.
In 1901, the Los Angeles Pacific Boulevard and Development Company was incorporated and counted, among the many investors, such notables as Harrison Gray Otis, editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Hobart Whitley a local real estate developer (after whom Whitley Heights is named.) The company bought a 60-acre parcel of land of the old Rancho La Brea (which is where La Brea Ave gets its name) from Henry Hancock’s widow (which is where Hancock Park gets its name).
Hotel Hollywood (as it was named then) opened in February of 1903 with 25 rooms. Within the space of just one year, it changed hands twice and in 1904 the Hollywood Hotel Company bought it for $46,000. One of the larger stockholders was a Myra Hershey, a wealthy member of the Pennsylvania chocolate candy bar family. She’d been visiting Los Angeles and hired a horse and buggy all the way from Los Angeles (ie downtown L.A.) to see the hotel she’d seen advertised for in the L.A. Times. She must have had a good time there because she bought the place, and added another fifty rooms. By 1907, Miss Hershey had acquired all the stock of the Hollywood Hotel Company, and in 1908, she added an additional fifty rooms, bringing the total number to 125.
The place wouldn’t have been hard to spot back then. The film industry was still but a gleam in the eyes of would-be starlets; shady movie people had yet to invade the god-fearing town of Hollywood. A street car line had been installed, but riders along Prospect Boulevard looked out mainly on pepper trees and fields of beans. However, by the 1910s, that had changed and the streets of Hollywood were positively overrun with loose-living actors, maniacal directors, and cameramen who seem to think that they can plop their camera down any old place and assume they have the right of way. (Some things never change.)
This was a time when actors were considered the lowest denizens of the social ladder and weren’t even allowed to remain overnight in the city of Hollywood. (That wouldn’t change until 1917 when movie moguls Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn built the Hilllview Apartments at 6533 Hollywood Boulevard, now the Hudson Apartments.) However, they were allowed to socialize and so they were naturally drawn to the classiest joint in town, and the hotel became the social center of early Hollywood.
As the movies took off, so did the name of Hollywood, and the fame of the Hollywood Hotel spread right along with it. Giants of the industry first stayed at the hotel, such as Jesse Lasky, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Warner and Irving Thalberg. Producers, directors, writers and technicians held conferences on the broad verandas. The former shoe salesmen and laundresses who these people fashioned into movie idols started to attend the dances held every Thursday night in the crystal-chandeliered ballroom. Before Myra could say “Hershey’s Kiss”, her hotel was considered “the” place to be seen. To identify where certain people regularly sat and dined, the hotel had stars with the names of celebrities painted on the ceiling above their tables and dubbed it the “Dining Room of the Stars.”
Among the scores of movie stars who stayed at the Hollywood Hotel was Rudolph Valentino, who lived in room 264; and met his first wife, Jean Acker, in the hotel; they were married there in 1919 and spent their honeymoon in his room.
In October 1934, the hotel itself went from being famous in Los Angeles to being famous across the country when movie columnist, Louella Parsons, put film stars on the radio for the first time and announced, “This is Louella Parsons broadcasting from the Hollywood Hotel.” It was big news because it was the first major radio network show to be broadcast from the West Coast. (Radio was then a very New York-centric industry.) The Hollywood Hotel radio show further extended Louella Parsons’ already-powerful reach. The hour-long show was hosted by Dick Powell who, at that point in his career, was still in chorus boy-mode in Warner Brothers’ musicals. It was a mixture of songs (usually the most popular tunes at the time, sung by Frances Langford), Hollywood gossip by Parsons, and a 20-minute adaptation of a current film release. The premiere episode featured Imitation of Life starring Claudette Colbert who, like the stars who appeared on the show for the next four years, were required to perform for free. If they protested, they ran the risk of running afoul of the most powerful female journalist in America. It was simply easier to just show up and do the show. Kudos to Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo who refused, but brave actors like them were few and far between.
Naturally, the radio show became a movie. In 1938, Warner Brothers released a Busby Berkley-directed piece of hokum called Hollywood Hotel featuring a plot about a saxophonist from Benny Goodman’s band. It starred Dick Powell and marked the feature film debut of Louella Parsons who was, stiff, stilted and self-conscious. However, the biggest thing to come out of this movie was the hit song performed right at the beginning. The movie, like the radio show, may have been forgettable, but it’s hard to imagine any of Hollywood’s history without its theme song: Hooray For Hollywood.
By then, Myra Hershey was long gone (she died in 1930) and she deeded the hotel to her heirs, who later sold it in 1947. By the 1950s, the hotel was run down, its former glory long faded away. In 1955, the southeast portion of the property was sold to First Federal Savings and Loan of Hollywood, and in August, 1956, the old Hollywood Hotel was razed and the 12-story First Federal building was erected on the northwest corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Highland where it stood until 1998. It was razed to make way for the Hollywood and Highland shopping center.
So, if you’re ever in L.A. and are on Hollywood Boulevard—perhaps visiting Grauman’s Chinese Theater next door to Hollywood and Highland—you might want to picture Rudolph Valentino dancing the tango with Myra Hershey. As you do, put your lips together and whistle softly to yourself “Hooray for Hollywood” because without the Hollywood Hotel, we might never have had Hollywood’s National Anthem.