The Legendary Sunset StripBy: Brittany Nicole La Hue
Few places in the world have as much history as The Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. The home of 1920’s-era gangsters, the playground of Hollywood celebrities then and now and the birth site of countless famous bands, The Sunset Strip is an entertainment destination like no other.
In the 1920s, Angelinos began to discover that the beautiful poinsettia fields and avocado groves of what is now West Hollywood was located outside the boundary of Los Angeles, and thus outside the jurisdiction of LAPD. Police officers’ more relaxed and laissez-faire attitude toward the area allowed it to grow into an entertainment mecca. It was named “The Sunset Strip” because it was the strip of un-policed land that allowed for the lawlessness to come.
Notorious gangsters Bugsy Siegel, Micky Cohen, Willie Bioff, Johnny Roselli and Tony Comero soon made The Strip their territory as old Hollywood greats moved in. The group frequented Café Trocadero (which still stands on The Sunset Strip), a French-themed night club. Partiers included Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Bing Crosby, Lana Turner and more. The as-of-yet undiscovered Judy Garland and Jackie Gleason toured here for Amateur Hour, and high rollers played their hands at poker in the back room.
When The Melody Room, an intimate jazz club, opened in the 1940s, mobsters Sigel and Cohen used it as a gambling den. (In 1993 Johnny Depp purchased the venue and renamed it Viper Room, after a group of musicians known for smoking weed who called themselves Vipers. The Viper Room was the site of River Phoenix’s tragic Halloween overdose in the same year).
The Argyle Hotel, now known as the historic Sunset Tower Hotel, was built in 1929 to be an art deco masterpiece by famed architect Leland A. Bryant. At one time, Howard Hughes lived in the penthouse, and kept several other apartments in the hotel for his mistresses. John Wayne also lived in Sunset Tower, along with his cow that resided on the balcony. Today’s Tower Bar is located inside what used to be Bugsy Siegel’s apartment. Visitors can relive the old Hollywood days and hear Page Cavanaugh, a former 1940s jazz musician that accompanied Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Doris Day, play the baby grand in the bar.
The 1940s marked the birth of several popular and famous West Hollywood venues (albeit then they were called by different names). In 1940, Billy Wilkerson of the Hollywood Reporter opened Ciros, one of the hottest clubs of the time. Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny and Ava Gardner were all frequenters of Ciros. In 1972, current owner Mitzi Shore founded The Comedy Store on the same grounds. Now-famous comedians Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Michael Keaton, Ed Begley Jr. and David Letterman all got their start at Amateur Night at The Store. Letterman went on to serve as the club’s emcee for the next 3 years, and Richard Pryor chose The Comedy Store to make his 1972 comeback.
Also in the 1940s, Sherry’s Restaurant was built. Besides its food, Sherry’s is best known for being the site where Bugsy Siegel’s right-hand man Mickey Cohen was shot.
Before it was the Rainbow Bar & Grill, Villa Nova served as the stars’ choice for romantic dates. Marilyn Monroe and future husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, had their first blind date here in 1953. In 1945, Vincente Minelli (Liza Minelli’s father) proposed to Judy Garland at the restaurant. In 1972, Villa Nova was transformed into Rainbow Bar & Grill by Bob Gibson. The restaurant’s roster was a “who’s who” of rock and roll royalty, serving everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Guns n Roses to Alice Cooper, John Lennon, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Roman Polanski. Today, the Rainbow pays homage to John Belushi, who had his last meal (of lentil soup) at the restaurant right before he overdosed at his Chateau Marmont bungalow.
The 1960s was the era of the club. Whisky A Go-Go was born in the 1960s from the mind of former Chicago policeman Elmer Valentine. Valentine was a club visionary. Modeling the venue after a Parisian club he visited, he decided to suspend the first female DJ above the dance floor in a glass cage. Valentine is also responsible for the creation of Go-Go girls – he dressed his employees in miniskirts and short white boots and had them dance in cages around the venue, and the rest is history. The Whisky A Go-Go is known for being the club that gave The Doors their start, and in 1966 The Doors became the house band. Other rock n’ roll legends who played at the famous venue include Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, The Who and The Byrds.
In the mid 1960s Hugh Hefner chose to open the Playboy Club at 8560 Sunset Boulevard. The 4-story club frequently had a line that wrapped around the corner. Hefner himself occupied the top floor. The club no longer stands.
The Roxy Theatre joined The Strip in 1973 and hosted such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Neil Young and David Bowie. In 1974, the venue became host to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The astounding crowd gave owner Lou Adler the idea to turn the play into the movie that many of us know and love today. (Other representations of The Sunset Strip on the big and silver screens include 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a black comedy that goes behind the scenes of Hollywood, and popular 1959 television series 77 Sunset Strip, about womanizing private detectives).
In 1984, an apartment complex was converted into an avant-garde hotel modeled after Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, including chrome and glass exteriors and black lacquer inside. The Mondrian has hosted rockers Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, also frequenters of the hotel bar. In 1995, Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame purchased the hotel and keeps it true to its rock n’ roll roots. The hotel’s poolside Skybar is owned by Randy Gerber (Mr. Cindy Crawford) and has attracted guests like Hole and Courtney Love, Public Enemy, Guns N Roses, The Who, Smashing Pumpkins, Poison and more. Today, Sky Bar is still a popular destination on The Sunset Strip for hotel guests and visitors alike who want the chance to spot a celebrity.