originally published February 26, 2012
One thing that makes a great city great is its Street. Every magnificent metropolis seems to have one street that defines its culture, broadcasts to the world where the city is at, and where the rest of us will someday be. New York has Broadway, Los Angeles has Sunset Strip, and Edmonton has a bunch of streets that look like this:
…so for that reason, I think I’ll stick with Sunset.
Sunset Boulevard stretches from Downtown LA (known as the part of LA you’ll probably not bother with unless you absolutely have to) through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, terminating at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Actually, it terminates at a delightful seafood restaurant called Gladstones For Fish – the passage from there to the ocean is more sand than road, and not technically a part of Sunset.
Once you cross west of Hollywood into West Hollywood, that rebellious burg that opted to separate from LA proper a few decades ago, Sunset Boulevard temporarily adopts the term ‘Sunset Strip’. Why is this section of road so important? I’m glad you asked – I still have 800 words to write.
The Strip was flanked by avocado groves and poinsettia fields a hundred years ago. Hollywood was, by nature of its dependable blue skies and idyllic climate, on the verge of becoming HOLLYWOOD, the movie-making mecca. The road was located just outside of the LA city limits at the time, and that made it the perfect place for debauchery. Booze was illegal everywhere, but the Strip was built on gambling. You couldn’t gamble in LA, but in LA County, it was fine.
So the 1920s saw a surge of nightlife on Sunset Strip: casinos, restaurants and nightclubs with the west-coast versions of speakeasies around back. The Sunset Tower Hotel went up in 1929. This was an art deco masterpiece, and it became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Howard Hughes, the infamous movie-maker and pee-jar collector, lived in the penthouse suite. He wisely stashed a few mistresses in various apartments around the building. John Wayne had his own place in the Sunset Tower Hotel also, and apparently kept a cow on his balcony. I’m not entirely sure why.
The famous Café Trocadero opened up in 1934, and the Strip became a magnet for the showbiz elite. Celebrities, of course, attracted gangsters back then. Local Jewfiosos like Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel set up shop to wine and dine the richest and famousest that LA had to offer. And it wasn’t just stars: the Garden of Allah apartments were home to writers like Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (NOTE: these might be confused for movie characters, in light of the possibility that Midnight In Paris might win a few Oscars tonight, but back then they were just writers. Like me. Except more beloved, more talented, and they probably got paid more than I do. But otherwise, just like me.)
Schwab’s Drug Store was located on Sunset Strip also – this is the spot where Lana Turner was famously ‘discovered’ by director Mervin LeRoy while she was sipping a soda at the counter. The thing is, the Schwab story is crap. It’s widely accepted that Lana just worked her ass off like every other aspiring actress until she hit it big – even those who believe the Discovery legend are more likely to say it was at the Top Hat Café, and by a different director. Don’t believe everything you read, I guess. Especially here.
Hamburger Hamlet opened up in 1950. Harry Lewis, whose wife owned the joint, named the burgers after her celebrity friends, which in retrospect was a pretty smart way to get them to eat there.
Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had their blind date at the Villa Nova in 1953, the same spot where Vincente Minelli had proposed to Judy Garland back in 1945. The street also spawned a TV show, 77 Sunset Strip, in 1959, about a pair of wisecracking misogynist detectives.
Sunset Strip didn’t lose steam in the 1960s. Where San Franciscans had the Haight, Los Angelinos had the Strip. Counterculture boomed here, and bands like the Doors, the Byrds and the Mothers of Invention played clubs like the Roxy, the Whisky A Go-Go, and the London Fog. Think about it, you could spend the day at the beach, then head to a nightclub and catch Led Zeppelin playing a set to a couple hundred people, and that would just be a regular friggin’ Thursday.
Before there was the Mansion, Hugh Hefner opened up the Playboy Club on the Strip. You might remember this from the TV show that premiered last fall. You don’t? That’s okay, neither does anyone else.
The club took up the lowest four floors of a ten-storey building. Hef’s apartment (the entire top floor, of course) apparently featured a round bed and a remote-operated sliding wall that concealed a bar. Damn.
The Comedy Store, which launched and/or sustained the careers of every successful comedian in the history of the west coast, opened in 1972.
Tower Records operated on the Strip for over 35 years. Its fossilized remains will one day be discovered, along with those of thousands of other record stores, by future archeologists.
The 1970s, known as the decade that killed fun, saw a degradation of the Strip. Like Times Square (which has also since been saved), the sleazy types and hookers overtook the area. LA is a resourceful town though, and the less glamorous population didn’t kill the Strip – instead, Sunset simply incorporated the filth into the next youth market, and became a haven for punk rock, then new wave, then hair-metal kids of the 70s and 80s.
Today Sunset Strip is still hopping. Hustler Hollywood, the nation’s largest erotica store, is operating there. For the more pure at heart (there must be some of you), Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant is still operational, if not quite as exclusive as it used to be. If you’re the morbid type who loves loud music and louder intoxicants, Johnny Depp’s infamous Viper Room – also known as That Place Where River Phoenix Died – is still there.
Under a foot of sickening snow, it’s nice to look out my window and pretend one of the world’s funkiest streets is below, instead of a dreary canvas of cold, spattered with mud and dog pee. I think I need a dose of Sunset Strip.