On a memorable Sunday—the last Sunday of June 2013 to be exact, I am reminded there are castles in Los Angeles. Yes castles. We have castles. People live in them, practice business in them, perform magic in them, dream in them, dream of being in them…
I approach the establishment in a rather ordinary, somewhat ramshackle section of downtown Los Angeles sporting tar spattered sidewalks, questionably reputable electronics stores with even more questionable prices and, oh…even some dried vomit adorning the curb where the street and sidewalk meet. It is Sunday morning. My assignment, (and I have definitively chosen to accept it): To go have brunch while exploring the Jazz Age.
I check the address I’ve been given twice, and enter. It, too, reminds me why we have castles in L.A. With its grand sweeping staircase and majestic marble floors I am taken back to some of my very first, youthful palatial exposures in Europe; France and Denmark to be exact, most particularly those which required you to put booties on your shoes just to pad around in them lest your accursed modern-day footwear were to scuff up their marble floors.
The eatery is dubbed “Les Noces”—French for “the wedding” (618 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90014, (213) 915-8687) and unlike its turreted brothers and sisters in its elder country of origin, this palatial establishment allows you to wear whatever foot covering you wish and eat wherever you’d like, not just the dinning area. I order the Eggs Benedict at the counter at the same time, resisting the urge to also cop a gustatory feel of the Pain au Chocolat in the overflowing bakery case which incessantly strong arms its presence betwixt me and any human presence on the planet (at this particular moment) in the guise of cashiers and baristas.
Once my food has been prepared, and my number called, I make my way up the long, somewhat winding staircase, past the little enchanted fountain at its base and blithely saunter by the gargantuan Renoir portrait adorning its built-in alcove. But I am confused. Though I’m getting closer to where the event is allegedly being held, I still hear no music—Jazz to be exact. Where are the drums…the saxes…that really cool instrument that looks like a bongo drum with the beads on the side that you shake and toss like a maraca…a zither for God’s sake…ANYTHING!!!
The restaurant’s upstairs is just as majestic as its lower counterpart only it sports a most vibrant art gallery, reminiscent of an old fashioned warehouse, with imposing domed windows. Currently on display is some of the most, nay the most, disturbing art work I’ve ever had the mis-construed-fortune to behold, rendered even more eerie due to the fact that I am in said art gallery alone. Disclaimer: Please do not read the remainder of this paragraph if you are easily disturbed, have a weak heart, queasy stomach and/or otherwise neurotic constitution: (Included in the display?–a sketch of some poor fellow’s disembodied, crushed and mangled manhood along with another drawing set in a colossally large, bare, abyss-like room with a door many feet away from the viewer’s vantage point. Out of this door slithers a long chain of what looks like human tissue or brains, mangled or otherwise. It settles–in what could only be imagined as a wetly resounding slimy “thud”–on what looks like a Modern Danske end table <from Ikea> in one big mountainous lump. Feet emanate from the bottom of said lump as the only recognizable body part—belonging to this tissue…? There is also a hulking castle, the tops of which look incredibly phallic, emanating from what looks like a hill but also its own base. The bulging lower potion of the castle appears to be made of more tissue… and reptilian skin…)
White papier mache rabbits, the size of your average adult human, (but the least scary of
all the pieces in this particular exhibit) seem to mock and taunt me as I try and find a way out. At this point, I have no choice but to look behind…the curtain. Yes, in the back of this art gallery is a mysterious wall of dark, blood red curtains. I still hear nothing behind them but am Hell bent on out-Ozing Dorothy at this point. (The curtain and what was behind it: The scariest portion of the film. Forget witches and flying monkeys. At the same time, I feel compelled to confess, this art exhibit has been scarier than all three combined…)
But I digress, back to the curtains. I cinch them open like a most reluctant first time lounge singer (carrying a plate of Eggs Benedict for some strange reason) only to enter in medias res on an entirely different kind of show—a slide show–and lecture being given by Martin Turnbull author of “The Garden on Sunset”. Tables and chairs surround the slide projector and I just barely find a seat. The lecture, I soon discover, is part of Los Angeles’ recently revived LAVA (Los Angeles Visionaries Association) series.
Turnbull’s subject matter revolves around “The Garden of Allah” hotel and its legendary bungalow courtyard which used to reside on the Northeastern corner of Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights in the 1920s and 30s. Erstwhile venue to “fizzy flappers”, bootleg liquor and all night parties so characteristic of the Jazz Age, it was, most notably the home of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the mid-30s after landing his $1000/week contract at MGM. Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Wollcott, Donald Ogden Stewart and Marc Connelly also frequently called it their “home away from home”.
With its startlingly unexpected Spanish-Moorish architectural design, “The Garden of Allah” originated as the home of silent film star Alla Nazimova in 1919 where some of the most outrageous Hollywood parties took place at the bidding of this overtly lesbian actress. Its doors opened officially as a hotel in 1927, during the apex of the Jazz Age, after Nazimova decided to build 25 bungalows surrounding the main house. It would go on to welcome the likes of Bogie and Bacall, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Artie Shaw, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, Orson Welles, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra.
Though it was considered a landmark building in West Hollywood, “The Garden of Allah” would be torn down in 1959 and replaced by a bank with a strip mall behind it. It has been bizarrely rumored that Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” derived from this architectural tragedy as Mitchell used to live in the neighborhood just up Laurel Canyon.
After this, a fifteen minute break arrives and I can’t resist the urge to go back downstairs and purchase an iced mocha as a post brunch aperitif. After I’ve returned with the icy delight, all is even more right with the world than before…particularly as it’s roughly 90-something degrees outside.
The second half of the discussion is hosted by Marc Chevalier, historian of the Oviatt
Building. An English teacher by trade, Chevalier dubs Los Angeles history his “passion/addiction”. His lecture will revolve around the Crescent Heights Shopping Center (former across the street neighbor of ‘The Garden of Allah”) and the ballyhoo spirit of the jazz age. He begins by informing us that the zeitgeist of The Jazz Era ended for most of America around 1929 but remained steadfastly intact in Los Angeles until about 1955. As a result, this nostalgic echo made a bit more of a dramatic imprint on our fair City of Angels’ cultural/urban timeline than it did anywhere else in the nation. This, in turn led to one of the reasons for his discussion “today” revolving all around one corner, one small block of Hollywood between Crescent Heights and Laurel, Fountain Ave. and Sunset Blvd.
“The Corner”, was merely a series of groves until 1905 when housing development took over. It would remain domesticated until roughly 1925 when a French Norman Chateau some called “Georgia-English” when referring to its architecture, would overtake the historic block. The “marble-trimmed, mansard-roofed” structure was initially built to house medical offices on its top floor and shops and boutiques on the lower level. The indigenous establishments were comprised of Sunset Medical Center, Talmadge Jones flower shop, wherein bouquets were delivered to only the richest of the rich in Rolls Royce delivery trucks, a bakery, a dry cleaner, a beauty parlor, The Crescent Heights Market (a soon-to-be legendary grocery store) and a generic, run of the mill pharmacy that would eventually be bought out in 1932 only to be renamed Schwab’s. One of the most distinguishing features of the building included the Rapunzelesque tower which served as an elevator shaft between the lower commercial establishments and the upper medical offices.
One of Sunset Medical’s doctors, it has been said, rendered himself, the stuff of Hollywood legend when he developed a substance that made actors’ mouths steam; a thing of great invention when filming scenes in “cold weather” Hollywood style. He also assisted the great Errol Flynn in some very private, yet pubic matters when he was called upon to restoratively unbind Flynn’s privates from one of his ribald escapades. (Um yeah, like I really wanted to know that about the world’s first cinematic Robin Hood. I’d say he gave that poor doctor a run for his money yet further contributed to his riches in spite of himself…) One of Schwab’s druggists was a hypochondriac and many, if most clientele of the shopping center worked in “the industry”.
As a result, Schwab’s pharmacy eventually saw the necessity of staying open beyond the hours of all other drug stores. To accommodate their clientele trudging off to film sets before sunrise and arriving late home from “the office” they extended their hours from 7 am to 11 pm and made pharmaceutical/lunch counter history! They were frequented by the likes of, well, everybody, including Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd who would spend hours on end playing pinball to throngs of crowds. This was an event which transpired night after night until the pinball machine was confiscated in 1937 pertaining to accusations of perceived gambling.
Out went the popularity of one coin operated machine and in came the popularity of another as Howard Hughes, more convinced than ever that his phones were being tapped, would bring sacks and sacks of coins and spend hours on end using the payphones out back. Eventually Schwab’s became so popular to the paranoid and fun-loving alike that it adopted a sort-of nightclub atmosphere as it was filled to the gills in a most party-like fashion nearly every night! It is also important to note that F. Scott Fitzgerald almost died of his first heart attack at Schwab’s and Marilyn Monroe purchased her last prescription there.
Next to Schwab’s resided The Crescent Heights market run by the crusty, cantankerous former speak-easy owner from New York, Ben Ruben. Ruben’s countenance caused him to call it like he saw it, mostly negatively, except when it came to dollars and cents/sense. The richer and more snooty his clientele the more he charged. As they approached the counter, he would make up different prices for varying customers (incumbent upon socio-economic strata) as he irascibly yelled out the costs so that they could be heard by the entire store before ringing them up. People came from near and far just to watch Ruben work including Robert Mitchum who gained employment as a stock boy at the market despite his high profile career as a notable Hollywood actor. This establishment also developed a party-like atmosphere as throngs of crowds would come around at night and Hollywood starlets would dance on the counter-tops.
In the late 1940s, The Crescent Heights Market made way for Googie’s—a 1950s style diner with the kitschy architecture to match. Eventually the diner of the impending decade took over for the pharmacy lunch counter and it became the order of the day. In 1955 the Hollywood Jazz Age was officially over but ghosts of James Dean seemed to haunt Googie’s in droves with their Duck Ass (D.A.) haircuts, rolled up jeans and red windbreakers. Googie’s and its angular 50s architecture remained until 1988 (the year I graduated high school) when the entire block was, yet again, leveled to make way for what was to become the new Virgin Mega store complex, opening in 1993 (the year I graduated college).
I only ever knew the Sunset/Crescent Heights intersection as the Virgin Mega store complex corner, particularly upon taking advantage of it to jaunt over to buy music after work and partake of Buzz Coffee (now Starbucks) when I was just beginning to fall in love with all things iced and mocha during my years of employ at The Laugh Factory diagonally across the street. Nevertheless, I can now picture Schwab’s, Googie’s, The Crescent Heights Market and that wonderful tall elevator tower and it seems all the more magical… All courtesy of Marc Chevalier, his wonderful research and this LAVA lecture I inadvertently attended thinking it was going to be a jazz music infused brunch.
LAVA’s goal is to make LA a better city by bringing “creative Angelenos” together to share their visions of the hidden contemporary and historic jewels that comprise L.A. Founded by social historians Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, owners of Esotouric Bus Adventures and the 1947 project series of time travel blogs, a portion of the description of their vision on the LAVA homepage reads: “Los Angeles is a city without a center, but with an unjustly bad reputation. It’s also home to fascinating people, places and happenings. But these wonders are dotted over a vast and confusing landscape drowned out by media blare and corporate blather. You could easily spend years in hard searching to discover the real Los Angeles, those hidden gems and secret gatherings that give this city a soul.”
LAVA discussions are celebrated in gatherings around the city on the last Sunday of every month between 12 pm-2 pm. For more information on LAVA’s upcoming events, please visit: http://lavatransforms.org/