No Ice, No Rooms, No Guests. Now L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel Is Running Out of Time.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2004; Page D01
If the light is right -- and is the light ever really wrong here? -- this city will sometimes do a halfhearted impression of its former selves, using places that still exist, or using a stand-in.
Driving west on Wilshire Boulevard sometimes feels like the back cover of an Eagles album. Driving east, however, toward downtown L.A., just before you reach MacArthur Park, is a ripped-out page of a Raymond Chandler novel. The problem is you get this kind of thing only in fleeting shots, with just the right palm trees casting shadows across just the right buildings. Something always comes into the frame (a "Starsky & Hutch" billboard; the a.m./p.m. convenience store; the Korean dentist signs) and your brain yells cut.
Then comes the Ambassador Hotel. Forlorn, darkened and, in a sense, gone.
It gives off a hulking, vacant sense of the beautifully doomed, except when someone needs it for a movie or TV shoot.
Britney Spears's people have called, says Joe Ortiz, who has worked in the hotel for 28 years as a maintenance engineer, staying long after the last guests checked out. Britney Spears may or may not need to use the Ambassador for a music video the following week -- the contract pending, the concept pending, Britney pending.
The Ambassador waits, too, its fate undecided. With its 455 empty rooms and its once-famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub, it can be anything you want it to be, and Hollywood still uses it, abuses it, romances it. You can lease it out and film anywhere except the former kitchen pantry, on the notion that it is sacred American space -- the narrow corridor with the ice machine where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and five others were shot by Sirhan B. Sirhan on the night of the 1968 California presidential primary.
The hotel sits a half-block back from a busily evolved and presently pan-Asian stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, on 23.7 valuable urban acres three miles west of downtown. It is falling apart a tile at a time behind tall chain-link fences, draped in tangles of ivy and shielded ambivalently by palm and olive trees. Opened on New Year's Day in 1921, it has been permanently closed to guests and visitors since two days after New Year's, 1989.
Now, in the months before it will be at last torn down or partially restored as a public school, the hotel has become a kind of fetishized treasure, in a city where it is possible to drive around and feel an elusive sense of loss, even if you just got there. Diner signs and giant doughnuts bring you to tears. The big brown hat through which patrons used to enter the Brown Derby nightclub now sits -- "ridiculously and meaninglessly," according to a Los Angeles Conservancy assessment -- atop a mini-mall on Wilshire Boulevard. You have to know to look for it or you won't see the derby at all, just across from the Ambassador Hotel.
Going backward now, the chronology out of whack.
This way through the pantry, Senator: Here's F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald setting their room on fire and skipping out on the bill. And Joan Crawford winning the Charleston contest in the Cocoanut Grove, night after night, when she was only Lucille LeSueur. And Pola Negri, the silent-film star, checking in with a pet panther on a leash. Crossing the back lawn are a Hearst boy and a Vanderbilt boy, teenaged, frozen in a black-and-white society photograph, looking just slightly guilty of something, or maybe just looking rich. Here's J. Edgar Hoover, an annual guest, legs crossed in a lounge chair by the pool, angry all over again at the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who died in the hotel in 1972, a permanent resident; by then Winchell was old and forgotten and people had stopped coming to the hotel so much. Here is the place where Hollywood congratulated and awarded itself over and over, and badmouthed itself and loved itself under those papier-mache palm trees in the Grove, giving itself Golden Globe awards, giving Shirley Temple and Clark Gable an Oscar each. (Giving Hattie McDaniel an Oscar, too, in a hotel in which you almost never saw black people, not even as employees, until Lena Horne sang there and stayed there in 1957.)
Prussian princesses checking out, while Saudi princes check in. Helicopters and limousines coming and going, delivering movie stars, retrieving heiresses, all of it written up in staccato wire copy filed by Adela Rogers St. Johns, girl reporter. Trucks filled with circus bears. Ambulances taking away the dead.
They were all here, but history swirls it, layers it, confuses it, then abandons it.
Another thing about spending time in today's Los Angeles: The part where you drive around and begin to doubt yesterday's Los Angeles, wondering if any of it ever happened.Checking In
Going forward now. On a recent Monday morning, Edwin Van Ginkel, the senior development manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District, pulls into the Ambassador's empty, cracked parking lot in a red Audi TT, takes off his sunglasses, and begins to lead a cheerful, if perfunctory, tour of the old place for a reporter and photographer.
The hotel property is at the center of a long civic argument: After a decade of legal wrangling with other owners (including, for a time, the less beloved, early-'90s incarnation of Donald Trump, who wanted to tear the Ambassador down and build a 135-story office tower here), the school district acquired the property in 2001.
The plan now is to partially or totally demolish the Ambassador to build a badly needed campus for 4,731 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Awaiting the results of a final environmental impact study, the school board could make its final decision about the Ambassador's fate as early as June.
"This is the biggest preservation issue in L.A. right now, by far," says Ken Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which endorses saving all of the original Ambassador compound and restoring it as a school.
"L.A. has an image as a throwaway, tear-it-down metropolis," Bernstein says. "We've come a long way in the last decade or two. We haven't had a threat to a building of this significance in many years."
Van Ginkel had never set foot in the Ambassador until the school district acquired it, even though he has lived in L.A. all his life. By then, after 10 years of neglect, the hotel was a ghost. Entire rooms have rotted, and the vines have found ways inside, upstairs, curling along some of the walls.
We enter the way everyone used to go in, through an art deco portico on the hotel's west side, and there's a sweet aroma of damp rot. We pass the coffee shop and walk down a hall past the old beauty shop, travel counters, haberdashery. That horrible Gwyneth Paltrow movie about stewardesses was shot here a couple years ago, as was the slightly less horrible one where Leonardo DiCaprio played an impostor Pan Am pilot of the 1960s. Past the coffee shop, there is a cocktail lounge set deep and dark into the hotel, with vinyl circular booths and a deliciously criminal aura.
"My first impression was that it wasn't as grand as I thought it was going to be," Van Ginkel says. "It was a nice hotel at the time but it's not like the Biltmore, not grand and ornate. My personal view is this wasn't the Ritz-Carlton of its era. It was more like the Radisson of its era."Guest Register
But Nikita Khrushchev didn't stay at the Radisson of his era.
The Soviet leader stayed, in 1959, on his one and only visit to the sunniest edge of the American dream, at the Ambassador Hotel, because for a time anyone and everyone stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. (And it was here where Khrushchev learned, to his eternal disappointment, that he would not be allowed to visit Disneyland.) The Beatles were turned away from the Ambassador in 1964, because they were too popular and the hotel's management worried about groupies storming the place.
Built on a former dairy farm long before the sprawl, the Ambassador pops up uncannily in the footnotes of nearly every major California story of the 20th century. The Manson juries were sequestered here in 1970 and '71. Countless political campaigns held victory parties here, or wilt-ballooned concessions of defeat. Reagan's people collaborated and raised money here before there really was such a thing as Reagan people. The Ambassador was where Richard Nixon polished the final draft of his "Checkers" speech in September 1952. (In a news photo he is seen shirtless and hairy-chested by the pool that afternoon, laughing with William P. Rogers, the Ike crony who helped him compose the surreal, but effective, apologia.)
The hotel is seven stories tall, with a floor plan shaped like an H. Upon arrival, guests were escorted through the lower casino level up to the lobby.
Deeper inside the hotel now, Joe Ortiz moves quietly ahead in the dark to find light switches while Van Ginkel leads us through the Ambassador's hallways, pointing out "some of the neater things":
The Cocoanut Grove nightclub gives little indication of its former glory days. Now it's just a big black room for rent, with garish carpet. There are three tiers where tables used to be arranged, facing the stage. ("Not as big as you'd expect, is it?" Van Ginkel asks.)
In one of the school district's plans, students at a new Ambassador highschool would be able to rehearse and perform in this hall -- where six of the earliest Academy Award presentations were held, and big bands played, and the Rat Pack swung, and Barbra Streisand had her first big West Coast gig. "But there's a preservation debate in here too, when you think about it," Van Ginkel says.
The original Grove was decorated in the early 1920s with Arabian doorways and palm trees left over from the filming of Rudolph Valentino's "The Sheik." But all that was tossed out in the late 1960s, when Sammy Davis took over the nightclub and had it remodeled, adding the psychedelic carpet in hues of hot orange and red, and rechristened it the Now Grove.
"So what part of this is actually historic?" Van Ginkel wonders, which is something he also wonders about the three layered incarnations of the curved ceiling in the peachy-gold Embassy Ballroom, which is coming apart in occasional chunks, while plaster goddesses, Janus faces and gladiators in chariots look down from the wall. "Is there more significance in the way the ceiling was when it closed, or when Kennedy was shot, or how it was when it first opened?"
Ortiz flips more lights on and we walk noisily across the parquet dance floor in the ballroom, where Bobby Kennedy flashed a victory sign -- or was it a peace sign? -- and will forever be saying, "So my thanks to all of you and on to Chicago, and let's win there." He was then to make his way through the kitchen to the smaller Colonial Ballroom next door, where East Coast newspaper reporters with blown deadlines were waiting to speak to him. The Colonial is almost completely rotted out, floor to ceiling; the Embassy has fared better.
In the Ambassador's large, sunlit and dusty lobby ("The only furniture that wasn't sold," Van Ginkel says), we wander around the empty marble fountains and pause for a moment in the sunny cocktail lounge, used in 1967 for the scene where Anne Bancroft hands Dustin Hoffman her room key in "The Graduate." There are fake pieces of mail in the boxes behind the marble registration desk.
There is an old movie theater, its seats ripped out and gone, with plastic buckets and trash cans strategically set across the floor to catch leaks from the ceiling. Then we head upstairs, to the endless hallways of guest rooms, some with shag carpet still in them. ("Do you like cats? Do you want a cat?" Van Ginkel asks, of the Ambassador's last remaining, non-paying, guests.)
Almost all of Van Ginkel's narration this morning includes the careful epilogues and language of a facilities director looking at "seismic issues." He downplays, just slightly, the building's importance, beauty and durability. For every tidbit of lore he dispenses, he points out cracks in walls caused by tremors. Two noted architects are credited with the look of the Ambassador compound: Myron Hunt designed the original Mediterranean-style hotel structures of the Jazz Age, and later, Paul Williams redesigned and added to the common areas lending them a jet-set, mid-century elan. Van Ginkel says they are "not thought to be the greatest examples" of either architect's work.
Outside, one of the maintenance guys is riding a lawn mower along the hotel's eastern boundary, keeping back the creeping vegetation. The deep, square swimming pool is surrounded by colored stripes of terra cotta; the cabanas are eroding. The '50s-style Paul Smith bungalows, which came later, have deteriorated and look more like bad apartments in the Valley, evoking the "Rockford Files" era and, later, a Tarantinoesque dilapidation, which is exactly what Hollywood uses them for: scenes in which cops barge in on drug dealers.
Dressed up or dressed down, the Ambassador takes in about $1 million a year in rental fees as a movie set, which, Van Ginkel says, is almost exactly the amount the school district pays to maintain the property. When you see the Ambassador in a movie, it's always disguised as something else: It's where Julia Roberts learned silverware etiquette in "Pretty Woman." It's the hotel lobby through which Arnold Schwarzenegger rode horseback in "True Lies." It's in countless heavy metal rock videos, and rap videos. A Tom Waits video last year required a flock of emus to run through the hallways. It shows up in so many '70s reruns: "Fantasy Island," bad cop shows, and "The Bionic Woman," the divine, ever-so-slightly-androgynous Lindsay Wagner, leaping from the fourth floor like an angel.
The LAPD and FBI use the hotel and bungalows too, gratis, as a place to train for hostage situations and sniper takeouts. And this is how, last year, in a fix to an oversight in the unending Los Angeles vérité, the Ambassador was finally cast as herself, in the role of an empty, formerly glorious hotel: "Did you see 'S.W.A.T.'?" Van Ginkel asks. (We did not.)
"Well, that's the only time the Ambassador has played itself," he says. "At the beginning of the movie, there's a scene where they're training for a situation, at the Ambassador."
Going upstairs now. In the dust on the mirror in one of the guest bathrooms, someone has scrawled a wry reference to the haunted hotels of popular literature and film:
To prevent the hotel's demolition, the Conservancy has enlisted Hollywood power. Diane Keaton, a Conservancy board member, speaks out frequently in support of saving the Ambassador, as have Ellen DeGeneres, Lawrence Kasdan, Ben Stiller, "L.A. Confidential" director Curtis Hanson and Steve Martin.
Bernstein distills the Ambassador's value to one word:
"Resonance," he says.
"I could wax eloquent all day about what it means to the city. People honeymooned there, they went to the Cocoanut Grove, they had their prom or went to some other major community events at the site. It played a central part to the lives of several generations of Angelenos."
And then it became something else, in the 1960s and '70s: "A site of great meaning," Bernstein says, "something much more than a hotel."Do Not Disturb
Nothing marks the spot on the gray concrete floor on which Bobby Kennedy lay sprawled, bleeding, almost beatifically posed in those black-and-white photographs, then clutching the rosary placed in his hands by a kitchen employee.
The room is deadbolted and off-limits.
Even the way the calligraphy of the "Ambassador hotel" looked on the podium in the Embassy Ballroom that night has a whiff of resonance, the place where Kennedy spoke to a packed and sweaty gathering of his devoted followers, shortly after 11:30 p.m. on June 4, 1968, when the votes were mostly counted and he was declared the winner: This way, senator.
Where the end of the Ambassador's story begins.
Where he was shot three times, including a close-range bullet at the base of his skull. Where Irwin Stroll, 17, was shot in the knee and ABC producer William Weisel, 30, was shot in the torso and Ira Goldstein, 19, a wire service copy boy, was shot in the left thigh; Elizabeth Evans, 43, was hit by a bullet that did not fully penetrate her skull, and Paul Schrade, 43, a Kennedy campaign aide, was shot between the eyes. Everyone but Kennedy lived. He was taken first to Central Receiving Hospital, a dozen blocks away, then to Good Samaritan, where he died the next day.
To have been in the Ambassador that night puts dozens of names and faces, famous and not so famous, into a kind of "Guernica" mural of tragic despair, spilled cocktails, pandemonium, the 1960s. Ted Kennedy was there, as were Kennedy sisters Jean and Pat, and a trusted circle of advisers. Milton Berle was there. Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Roger Mudd and a gaggle of Kennedy's favored campaign journalists were all there. The football player Rosey Grier and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson were there, acting both as bodyguards and implicit symbols of Kennedy's stature with minority voters. The writer George Plimpton was there, and among the men who wrestled Sirhan to the ground.
In his 1969 book "RFK: A Memoir," the journalist Jack Newfield wrote of "this awful sound" coming from the people in the Embassy Ballroom just before midnight:
"And the moan became a wail until the ballroom sounded like a hospital that has been bombed; the sound was somehow the sound of the twice wounded. . . . Girls in red and blue campaign ribbons, and RFK plastic boaters, were on their knees praying and weeping. . . . A college kid with an RFK peace button was screaming, '[Expletive] this country, [expletive] this country."
The school district plans to memorialize Kennedy no matter which development plan it chooses for the site, perhaps naming the school after him.
At a news conference outside the hotel last November in which a community coalition called for the hotel to be demolished in favor of a new school, Schrade called the Ambassador a "wreck of a building," according to the Los Angeles Times, and said a new school in a neighborhood of immigrants would be a more fitting tribute to Kennedy, especially if it contains some archival material on the assassination and somehow incorporates the late senator's social idealism into the curriculum.
"Even without the tragic part, the Ambassador has transcended significance," the Conservancy's Bernstein says. "What happened here belongs to history."Vacancy
As the ambulances pulled away from the Ambassador one after the other after midnight on June 5, 1968, people immediately started checking out.
("Yorty, Disneyland, Nathanael West, Joe Pyne, Sirhan Sirhan. I had to leave Los Angeles," a sorrowful Newfield writes in his memoir. "I left at 5 p.m., on a nearly empty TWA flight, with Kennedy still clawing to the edge of life. The plane took off and quickly the stained city grew smaller, and vanished under a permanent shroud of haze.")
In a way, people never stopped checking out.
The Muppets came, did a scene from their movie, left.
Sammy Davis's Now Grove waned throughout the '70s, with lesser bookings of lesser stars. Better and newer hotels opened in L.A., and the Ambassador became the less glamorous hub of ladies' luncheons, Rotary meetings, cracked tennis courts, junior-senior proms, beautiful-baby pageants, mother-daughter fashion shows.
Wilshire Boulevard changed, and Los Angeles changed, because that's what Los Angeles does.
Going backward now: Joan Crawford, in a lucid and gracious moment, is standing onstage in the Cocoanut Grove. She has just presented the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe award to John Wayne.
"What memories I have of this place," Crawford is said to have told the audience.
This is 1966. Crawford once told Adela Rogers St. Johns about her innumerable suitors at the Grove, in the 1920s and '30s:
"The 'hotcha kid,' I was called," Crawford said, "the 'hey-hey girl,' and those terms embarrassed me even then, but the only time I felt I belonged was here, on the dance floor. It was worth it. . . . There was so much drama right here in this hotel, so many lives were affected, some for better, some for worse. So many careers began -- some even ended -- in this very room."
This would all be forgotten because Joan Crawford is dead, and the Cocoanut Grove is dead, and Adela Rogers St. Johns is dead, but before she died, she gave all her juicy quotes to Margaret Tante Burk, who was for many years the hotel's publicist, busybody and starry-eyed historian. Burk eventually put it all together in a self-published, scrapbooky tribute, circa 1980, titled "Are The Stars Out Tonight? The Story of the Famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove."
Burk is still around, and she tries not to drive past the Ambassador too much.
A few years ago she was invited to speak at an event in the empty hotel and went reluctantly, "because I had made my peace with it, and I wasn't terribly anxious to go back in and see it in such bad shape," she says. "It was such a thrilling place, and such a dreadful shame if they knock the thing down."
She calls back a few minutes later to beg off on revealing her exact age.
"I'll wind up sounding like a doddering old lady," she says, genuinely worried.