Ambassador Hotel (Los Angeles)
|Location||3400 Wilshire Boulevard|
Los Angeles, California
|Opening||January 1, 1921|
|Management||Ambassador Hotel Corporation (1921)|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Myron Hunt (1921)|
Paul Williams (1949)
|Number of rooms||1,000|
The Ambassador Hotel was a hotel in Los Angeles, California. Designed by architect Myron Hunt, the Ambassador Hotel formally opened to the public on January 1, 1921. With its Mediterranean styling, tile floors, Italian stone fireplaces and semi-tropical courtyard, the Ambassador enchanted guests for over six decades. Later renovations by architect Paul Williams were made to the hotel in the late 1940s. It was also home to the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Los Angeles’ premier night spot for decades; host to six Oscar ceremonies and to every United States President from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon.
Prominent figures such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and The Supremes were some of the many entertainers who attended and performed professionally at the Cocoanut Grove.
The hotel was the site of the assassination of United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968. Due to the decline of the hotel and the surrounding area, the Ambassador Hotel was closed to guests in 1989. In 2001, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) purchased the property with the intent of constructing three new schools within the area. After subsequent litigations to preserve the hotel as a historic site, a settlement allowed the Ambassador Hotel to be demolished in 2005, completed by early 2006.
Formerly located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, between Catalina Street and Mariposa Avenue in present-day Koreatown, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was built as part of the Ambassador Hotels System. At the time the hotel opened on New Year's Day 1921, the chain consisted of the Ambassador Los Angeles, the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles, the Ambassador Santa Barbara, the Ambassador Atlantic City and the Ambassador New York. The Santa Barbara property burned down soon after on April 13, 1921, and the Alexandria left the chain in 1925, while the Ambassador Palm Beach joined in 1929. The Schine Family owned the Ambassador from its opening in 1921 until 1971; it was set back from Wilshire Boulevard on 24 acres, which included the main hotel, a garage and several detached bungalows.
The Ambassador Hotel was frequented by celebrities, some of whom, such as Pola Negri, resided there. From 1930 to 1943, six Academy Awards ceremonies were hosted at the hotel. Perhaps as many as seven U.S. presidents stayed at the Ambassador, from Hoover to Nixon, along with chiefs of state from around the world. For decades, the hotel's famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub hosted well-known entertainers, such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Liza Minnelli, Martin and Lewis, The Supremes, Merv Griffin, Dorothy Dandridge, Vikki Carr, Evelyn Knight, Vivian Vance, Dick Haymes, Sergio Franchi, Perry Como, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Sammy Davis Jr., Little Richard, Liberace, Natalie Cole, Richard Pryor and Shirley Bassey.
Designed by American architect Myron Hunt, the Ambassador Hotel opened for business at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1921, and quickly established a new standard of hotel luxury. Guests were greeted by a grand lobby upon arrival, with an oversized Italian fireplace, crystal chandeliers, oriental carpets and luxurious draperies adorning the lobby, along with a choice of 1,000 guestrooms and bungalows. The hotel occupied 23.7 acres at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, bordered by Wilshire Boulevard at the north, 8th Street at the south, Catalina Street at the east, and nearly to Mariposa Avenue at the west. When the hotel's Cocoanut Grove nightclub opened on April 21, 1921, it had officially solidified the hotel's social scene. In the 1980 book, Are the Stars Out Tonight?, former Ambassador PR Director, Margaret Tante Burk, recalls the Grove's opening night:
…on the night of April 21, 1921… the new club officially opened its Moroccan style, gold leaf and etched palm tree doors... The Cocoanut Grove was aptly named, guests agreed as they were escorted by the maître de and captains down the wide plush grand staircase... Overhead, soaring about the room were cocoanut trees of papier mache, cocoanuts and palm fronds which had been rescued from the sandy beaches of Oxnard where they had served as atmosphere of the 1921 classic, The Sheik. Swinging from their branches were stuffed monkeys blinking at the revelers with their electrified amber eyes. Stars twinkled in the blue ceiling sky, and on the southernmost wall hung a full Hawaiian moon presiding over a painted landscape and splashing waterfall.
The Cocoanut Grove was frequented by celebrities such as Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Howard Hughes, Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, Norma Talmadge and others. According to Photoplay, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard were frequent competitors in the Charleston contests held on Friday nights; Lombard was discovered at the Grove. The famous artificial palm trees that adorned the Cocoanut Grove were left from Rudolph Valentino's 1921 silent romantic drama film The Sheik. The names of the hotel and its nightclub quickly became synonymous with glamour. As a result, “Cocoanut Grove" would become a trendy name for bars and clubs across the United States.
Beginning in 1928, Gus Arnheim led the Cocoanut Grove Orchestra, in which six to seven songs were sung each night. At one point, there was a two-hour broadcast of the orchestra on radio. By the 1930s, the Cocoanut Grove was frequented by cinema stars like Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers and countless others. On February 29, 1940, the 1939 Academy Awards Ceremony was held in the Cocoanut Grove, with Bob Hope hosting the awards.
Loyce Whiteman, singer for the Cocoanut Grove Orchestra, recalled, "the most beautiful thing about the Grove is that they stood in front of you when you sang and just swayed to the music. Joan Crawford would stand at the stand and sing a couple of choruses with the band. It was a house full of stars."
FREDDY MARTIN (and His Orchestra): The Longest Stay In History
Without exception, the title of longest tenure for any entertainer at the Ambassador was and is held by the great Bandleader, Freddy Martin. Left alone at four in 1908 when both his parents died, Freddy Martin was raised in a Cleveland orphanage, where he was tutored on the tenor saxophone. He started adult life selling saxophones, and--although he didn't make a sale, he became life-long friends with Guy Lombardo and his brothers Carmen, Leibert, and Victor. (It was Freddy who went around the country substituting for Guy and leading The Royal Canadians Orchestra as Guy lay dying in a Houston hospital in 1977.) When Guy heard the first band Freddy had assembled, he immediately suggested the group as a substitute for his on a conflicted local date, doing that several times until Freddy became regionally established. After almost ten years of what became his incredible career (including a late 1920's tour of Europe!), Martin made his first credited recordings for Columbia Records on 24 August, 1932, in New York. Although his famous "Singing Saxophone" is immediately recognizable on any recording in which he participated, he was well known among musicians for making records under multiple pseudonyms for the many different record labels that existed in the early days of the Great Depression in New York. Whether on Banner, Conquerer, Perfect, Vocalion, Mellotone, Oriole, Romeo, Panachord, Imperial, or Rex--that tenor was unmistakable--including on his "own" label, Brunswick, on which he was actually credited as himself! But, whether as Allen Burns and His Orchestra, Bob Causer And His Cornellians, Albert Taylor and His Orchestra, Art Canning and His Orchestra, Owen Fallon and His Californians, Freddy Stone and His Orchestra, Roy Carroll and His Beach Club Orchestra, Ed Loyd (sometimes "Lloyd") and His Band, The Bell Boys of Broadway, George McQueen and His Orchestra, Eddie Jackson and His Orchestra, Vincent Rose and His Orchestra, Wally Bishop and His Band, and, of course ultimately, Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, Freddy recorded some 238 sides between August, 1932, and July 6, 1935, when he signed his remarkably-long-lived Agreement with RCA Victor. It was for them he recorded exclusively for some thirty years (and, yes--ending the pseudonymous work). (He had even been an "Edison Bell Award Winner--as Buddy Bradley and His Rhythm Kings! God knows who picked up the trophy.) Because of his great reliability--and the great sight-reading prowess of his entire band--Freddy was often used by the record companies to provide a backing group for several "name" vocalists--including Will Osborne, Chick Bullock, and the prolific Dick Robertson, which records were credited as these different singers "and Their Orchestras". A couple of "Bunny Beregan and His Orchestra" issues were actually Freddy and his group--with the legendary Bunny starring as the trumpeter taking the great solo on the last 32 bars on such tunes as "What Would You Do", "Sweetheart Darlin'", "Love Songs Of The Nile" (honest-to God!--and the last two were the "Edison Bell Winner" recordings!)--and "Stormy Weather", all from 1933.
Martin had first came to New York with a Cleveland group called "The Mason-Dixon Orchestra", and after finding himself stuck in the City, auditioned for a job at the Hotel Bossert with Jack Albin and His Orchestra. After playing at the Bossert in Brooklyn over the summer--on the Roof--the group wintered in Buffalo. After one season in the snow, he said "I didn't want to play in Buffalo any more!". The primary room at the Bossert was named after the famous decorator Joseph Urban (Benny Goodman's greatest band had made his debut at the likewise designed and named Room at The Congress Hotel in Chicago in 1935). Freddy auditioned as the leader of a small six-piece group--"Captain Freddy Martin and His Mariners" which thankfully led to "Music In The Martin Manner" (a great tagline stolen by his trombone player Russ Morgan when he left to lead "Music In The Morgan Manner" later in the 1930's)--to play at the Hotel Bossert over the summer, which--if successful--would lead to the upcoming summer position, which would see the Band orchestration increase to ten pieces. Freddy got the job, and this was where Martin began his bandleading career in earnest in 1929. (Oh, yes--he also recorded as "Hotel Bossert Orchestra"!)
"Fortunately, we had a CBS wire at the Bossert, and" (as was Benny Goodman's) "most of our radio mail was coming from California. After a couple of years playing around town at the Park Central, the St. Regis, and the Roosevelt, we finally reached The Waldorf-Astoria in 1935". After summering on Catalina Island at Wrigley's famous ballroom (fated to be the site of his last public appearance in 1982),Freddy worked the Cocoanut Grove for the first time in 1935, to tremendous acclaim--and multiple coast-to-coast air shots over all four networks each evening. In 1936, he signed a five-year seasonal contract at the famed Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, and in 1940 was "asked to stay permanently at The Grove, and until 1970, I played there year after year". His greatest band also played each year at the San Francisco St. Francis Hotel, and it was there, in the Mural Room, during an NBC remote, that legendary NBC West Coast announcer Joe Gillespie tagged him with the moniker "Freddy Martin and His Singing Saxophone", which stayed with him for the rest of his life. And his kindness as a human being was legendary. Just as he simply dropped "Music In The Martin Manner" when Russ Morgan thoughtfully stole it from him around 1935, the great bandleader Eddy Howard found that, with Freddy Martin, all you had to do was ask. Eddy loved Freddy's 1940 farewell tune "So Long For Now". When he told this to Freddy, the great Martin not only stopped using the tune, he gave it to Howard--including assigning the copyright to the tune to Eddy, which Freddy had written! This meant Eddy would receive the ASCAP royalties to the song, not Martin, which would accrue each time Howard played it on the air--which he did, several times nightly. Howard used the song with which to sign off for the rest of his life.
After Martin became ensconced in the Cocoanut Grove in 1940, he became a Californian, playing up and down the coast for the remainder of his life. "And we were damned glad to be there all during the war when traveling became nearly impossible." While there, he also provided backing for any special act which appeared at the Grove. In the late 1950's, he accompanied Judy Garland on her legendary "Judy Garland at The Grove with Freddy Martin and His Orchestra" disc for Capitol Records. Other than annual two-week Summer assignments at Disneyland, and the Labor Day Weekend appearances at Catalina, Martin played mostly two or three private party bookings per week after 1970. His final great public appearance was his $100 per ticket Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration at The Grove" in 1980, at which a stroke-crippled Meredith Willson stood to play piccolo as Freddy led the band in Willson's greatest composition, "76 Trombones". It was Willson's final appearance--the Composer of "The Music Man" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" died shortly thereafter. Freddy suffered a stroke in 1982, and while recuperating, suffered another fatal attack in the summer of 1983. He had been, by far, the longest-running act ever to appear at The Cocoanut Grove of The Ambassador Hotel. He was 79 years old. And, oh yes--he had made over a thousand records. Under a legion of names.
Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
On June 5, 1968, the winner of the California Democratic presidential primary election, United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy, gave a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel to an supporters. After the speech in the Embassy Room, Kennedy was shot three times along with five other people in the pantry area of the hotel's main kitchen soon after midnight. Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan was arrested at the scene and later convicted of the murder. Kennedy died the following day at a nearby hospital; the other victims all survived. During the demolition of the Ambassador Hotel in late 2005 and early 2006, portions of the area where the 1968 shooting occurred were eliminated from the site. The section of Wilshire Boulevard in front of the hotel has been signed the "Robert F. Kennedy Parkway".
Decline and closure
The death of Robert F. Kennedy marked the demise of the hotel coinciding with the decline of the surrounding neighborhood during the late 1960s and 1970s. The area also saw a surge of illegal drugs, poverty, and gang activity infiltrating the Wilshire corridor. Under the direction of Sammy Davis, Jr., the “Now Grove” replaced the classic Cocoanut Grove in 1970 in order to appeal to a modern nightclub crowd. However, patrons lost interest in both the hotel and the neighborhood surrounding it, which caused the Ambassador Hotel to fall into disrepair throughout the years. Because of this the Ambassador Hotel closed to guests in 1989, but it remained opened for filming and hosting private events. In 1991, Donald Trump, who had bought the hotel in hopes of tearing it down to build a 125-story building, sold off silver serving platters with the hotel's eagle-topped crest, tiki-style soup bowls from the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and beds and nightstands from the rooms.
From 2004 and 2005, the Ambassador Hotel became the topic of a legal struggle between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which planned to clear the site and construct a school on the property, and the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, who wanted the hotel and its various elements preserved and integrated into the future school.
The Location Managers Guild organized an event together with the Jefferson High School Academy of Film and Television in March 2005, entitled Last Looks: The Ambassador Hotel. They mentored students in script breakdown and location scouting, using the hotel as a potential location to be scouted, documenting the property one last time. The images taken by both the students and the professionals were then exhibited side by side at Los Angeles City Hall.
After much litigation, a settlement was attained at the end of August 2005, allowing the demolition to begin in exchange for the establishment of a $4.9 million fund, reserved for saving historic school buildings in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
On September 10, 2005, a final public auction was held for the remaining fittings in the hotel's parking lot, with demolition commencing soon afterwards. On January 16, 2006, the last section of the Ambassador Hotel fell, leaving only the annex that housed the hotel's entrance, shopping arcade, coffee shop, and the Cocoanut Grove, which were promised to be preserved in some manner and integrated within the new school.
A wake attended by hundreds of people was held for the Ambassador Hotel on February 2, 2006 at the Gaylord Apartments and adjoining restaurant H.M.S. Bounty, both part of a historic building built during 1924, directly across the street from the Ambassador Hotel. Diane Keaton, who was one of many who fought for the preservation of the hotel, was among the speakers of the ceremony.
The Cocoanut Grove was renovated several times before, destroying much of its architectural integrity, and it was promised that it would undergo yet another major transformation before becoming the auditorium for the new school. Also promised was preservation of the attached ground floor coffee shop, designed by noted architect Paul Williams. Due to claims of poor structural integrity, however, the LAUSD decided to demolish most of the Cocoanut Grove, retaining only the hotel entrance and east wall of the Grove.
The six schools were named as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. The K–3 facility opened on September 9, 2009 and the 4–8 and high school facility began operation on September 14, 2010. The north side of the new school has a slightly similar appearance to the original facade of the hotel and north lawns will remain much the same, as seen from Wilshire Boulevard.
The Ambassador Hotel was a popular filming location and backdrop for movies and television programs, starting with Jean Harlow's 1933 film Bombshell. An early MGM color short film, Starlit Days at the Lido (1935), was filmed in the Lido Spa at the Ambassador Hotel, of a lunchtime tea dance featuring the Henry Busse band and vocalists, novelty acts with Arthur Lake, Cliff Edwards and Ben Turpin, with chorus girls and reaction shots of "guests", including Francis Lederer, Buster Crabbe, John Boles and MC Reginald Denny.
Throughout the 1980s and early 2000s, the hotel would be used in several movies and television shows such as Forrest Gump, Murder, She Wrote, Beverly Hills 90210, S.W.A.T., The Italian Job, Blow, Mafia!, and much more. This is due to the fact that the hotel had various rooms that could be conveniently utilized in filming, while also not having to deal with hotel guests or disturbing other people. Due to its time capsule environment, it was a perfect location to represent any 1950s through 1970s period hotels, as in Almost Famous, Apollo 13, Catch Me If You Can, Hoffa, and That Thing You Do.
The interactive movie/game based on the 1995 film "Johnny Mnemonic" was filmed here with a $3 million budget.
The last project to specifically film in the infamous kitchen was "Spin the Bottle", a 2004 episode of the TV series Angel. The 2006 film Bobby was the last project to physically film on the hotel property, gaining access in late 2005 to film crucial establishing shots even while portions of the hotel were already in the process of being demolished.
In addition, the Ambassador itself has been memorialized as a "character" in films. The Cocoanut Grove was recreated for the 2004 movie The Aviator, while the 1999 film The Thirteenth Floor recreates the hotel when the main characters visit 1937 Los Angeles.
The Cocoanut Grove hosted musician Roy Orbison and several performers in September 1987 for the television special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, first shown on Cinemax in early 1988. Rock band Linkin Park held their press photo shoot for their 2003 album Meteora at the hotel. Guns N' Roses filmed the music video for their song, "Patience", in the hotel in 1989. R&B singer Chuckii Booker filmed the music video for his song "Games" from the album Niice 'n Wiild at the hotel in 1992. The hotel also served as the filming location for the music video of the 1997 Marilyn Manson single "Long Hard Road Out of Hell" off the soundtrack for the Todd McFarlane motion picture Spawn. Rock band 311 used the lobby of hotel as the backdrop for a photo shoot of the album cover of their 2003 album Evolver.
This article needs to be updated.(June 2020)
A feature-length documentary film by Camilo Silva, After 68: The Rise and Fall of the Ambassador Hotel, is being made with an estimated release date in 2014. In a 2013 interview Silva reported that the film was "about half" shot.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ambassador Hotel (Los Angeles).|
- Image of the Ambassador Hotel, aerial view, Los Angeles, California, 1986. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.