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The Glamorous Hollywood Nightclubs

          ** Click Here To View Photos **

During its heyday, Hollywood boasted of having the most elegant restaurants and nightclubs in the world.  Hollywood’s most glamorous celebrities used these places as their playgrounds and were envied by their fans.

The days of dazzling gowns, studio-bred elegance, and men who looked as if they wore dinner clothes every balmy night belong to a Hollywood that no longer exists and , perhaps, never did.  The Coconut Grove, the Cafe Trocadero, Ciro’s and Mocambo were the great nightclubs that dominated Los Angeles in the 1940s, a decade that saw both the zenith and decline of what we now think of as Old Hollywood.

Yet sometimes the line between real life and the movies was as thin a s piece of celluloid.  The Coconut Grove, for instance, the first club of the Hollywood four to appear on the scene, took more than inspiration from film: the papier mache’ trees and palm fronds that decorated the Ambassador Hotel night spot when it opened in 1921 were leftover props from “The Sheik”, trucked in from Oxnard where the Rudolph Valentino classic had been shot.  Thought the press deemed the nightclubs the “playground” of the stars, the actors and actresses frequenting them (more often than not at the insistence of the studios holding their contracts) were working as hard at night as they did on any sound stage.

By the forties, the Coconut Grove was still going strong - a preferred place to celebrate after the Academy Awards and on New Year’s Eves. The room had been refurbished in 1939, with a sophisticated Moroccan decor complete with gold leaf and etched palm-tree doors.  A wide,  plush staircase replaced the slightly tacky “Sheik” castoffs, Chinese lanterns, and stuffed monkeys.  At the Grove the movie world mixed with the Old Guard, with the latter often taking pleasure in snubbing the box-office darlings.  But the movie crowd also had a place of its own, established in 1934 by “Hollywood Reporter” founder William R. Wilkerson.  Legend has it he stumbled into the nightclub business after meeting  a French wine-syndicate leader on a transatlantic crossing.  By the time the boat docked, Wilkerson owned seventy five thousand dollars worth of libations-- and had no place to put them.

As it happened, La Boheme - a defunct club with an enormous cellar at 8610 Sunset Blvd. was up for sale.  Wilkerson soon turned the upstairs into an elegant dining-and dancing establishment, added a cozy bar and fireplace in the cellar and renamed the club the Cafe Trocadero.  He then persuaded Myron Selznick (brother of David O. Selznick and the first super agent) to host a pre-opening party.  According to a little horn blowing in his own paper, it was “a huge and glorious party,” with “gobs of guests,” including the Bing Crosbys, Dorothy Parker, the Sam Goldwyns, the :Freddy” Astaires, William Powell and Jean Harlow, Arthur Hornblower Jr. and Myrna Loy, Carl Laemmle Jr. Ida Lupino, Jeanette MacDonald and Gilbert Rowland.

Not only the guest but the Trocadero cigarette girls were legendary - they had to be pretty, have good legs, and were expected to land a studio contract quickly.  Those already with a foot in Hollywood’s revolving door came to the Troc to ensure their future.  A strategic appearance at the Cafe Trocadero earned starlet Rita Hayworth her first important role. Having spent five hundred dollars (in 1939) on a spectacular silver-and-gray dress, she positioned herself at a table near mogul Harry Cohn and director Howard Hawks, who were casting Columbia’s big picture, “Only Angels Have Wings”.  Obviously, the dress was worth every penny, for the notorious tightwad Cohn even renewed her contract at a higher price (although he insisted that part of the raise go to an acting coach).  But Wilkerson had tired  even before Hayworth’s coup.  In 1938 he sold it to some would-be impresarios, who, like ten subsequent owners, never quite recaptured the club’s past glory

By 1940 the Hollywood publisher was back on the Strip with a new club called Ciro’s at 8433 Sunset Blvd.  For days before its opening, the “Reporter” ran ads proclaiming “Everybody that’s anybody will be at Ciro's.”  And they were. For weeks after the opening it was the “only” place to have a party.  Lana Turner (once titled “Queen of the Clubs”) declared the baroque-style night spot, with its rose-red ceiling, pale green silk walls, and bronze columns and urns, her favorite spot.  Veronica Lake, whose fondness for the grape had not escaped the notice of gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper (each of whom had their own table) was also a Ciro’s fan.  

Soon Ciro’s had some competition, but in those days there was always room for newcomers. Neophyte club owners Felix Young and former agent Charlie Morrison professed to be taken aback by he outcry over their plans to include twenty-one live parakeets, four love birds, four macaws, and a cockatoo in the vaguely South American decor of their soon-to-open club, the Mocambo.  When animal lovers expressed concern over the harmful effects of loud noise and the late hours, Morrison guaranteed that his fine-feathered friends would be well taken care of:  He would keep the club’s heavy curtains closed during the day to ensure their sleep.  In retrospect, the whole thing smacks of a publicity stunt designed to draw attention to the new night spot, but then again, the Mocambo’s owners didn’t have Billy Wilkerson’s advantage of a newspaper of their own in which to herald the opening of their new club. 

Aside from movie people, wealthy out-of-town visitors flocked to the red-and-white striped Mocambo as well to Ciro’s and the Coconut Grove.  While the separation of the film industry and the tourist trade fairly complete, just being at one of the clubs was show enough.  People went to see and be seen, not eat, at Ciro’s or the Mocambo.  Dining was done at the exclusive Romanoff’s, which had opened in Beverly Hills at the end of 1940.  The dapper “Prince” Mike Romanoff kissed the hands of all the ladies but dined with his dogs.

The clubs, however, the final destination.  Inside, everyone was dressed, recalls Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, “as though they were in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie.”  Often they were abetted by the studios, which provided clothes, furs, jewelry and an evening escort for their stars and starlets.  According to restaurateur Kurt Niklas, who started as a waiter at the Mocambo, “The first thing the studios wanted was a good photograph.”  Some stars were less abstinent or less discreet than the studios would have liked.  Numerous photographs portray celebrities with their hands in odd, gnarled positions - the result of cigarettes and cocktails obviously excised by the studio dark rooms.

Needless to say, where one was seated at a club was also crucial.  Heavy-hitters had regular tables and, recalls Niklas, “there was always the proverbial ringside table being carried in, making the dance floor even smaller.”  The rule of thumb was: the closer to the dance floor the better.  Underlying the clubs’ veneer of sophistication and high spirits was a deep-seated tension-over careers on the rise, careers on the wane, shifting liaisons and too many nights out. “For the celebrities, going to the clubs was work,” says Niklas. “A Texas  oilman, on the other hand, would have a good time.”

Oil millionaires, manufacturing tycoons, and captains of the aerospace industry seemed to come out of the California woodwork after the United States entered World War II- even before the Mocambo had had a chance to celebrate its first anniversary.  That was the start of the most profitable half-decade Hollywood had ever seen.  Clubs were packed every night, big bands played into the wee hours, and the men in uniform added a dashing touch. 

Sadly, the moment at which anything- a nightclub, an era-reaches its zenith is also the one at which it begins its decent.  By the mid-forties, the dinner shows and elaborate revue palaces had seen their heyday, even the famous Earl Carroll Theater, which hung on until 1948, when Carroll was killed in a plane crash. That type of lavish spectacle was never to be seen in Hollywood again.

Billy Wilkerson sold Ciro's in 1946 and later opened La Rue Restaurant on Sunset Blvd.  After the war, clubs were still crowded, but only on weekends; the seemingness  money that flowed into .A. disappeared along with many war-generated jobs.  The advent of television which kept people home, quickened the demise of Hollywood nightlife.  While Ciro’s would be reborn in the seventies as the Comedy Store, the site of the Mocambo at 8588 Sunset Blvd. would be left an empty lot, and the Coconut Grove, along with the entire Ambassador Hotel would fall into developers’ hands.  All that would remain of the Cafe Trocadero would be a battered step or two in Sunset Plaza, a few stairs that could trigger bygone memories-of long ermine wraps sweeping by, of patent dress shoes climbing to the top.

Photographs of all these famous nightclubs can be seen and purchased on hollywoodphotographs.com.

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