Tearing down Hollywood


It is possible to trace the periods of your life by the demolition of landmarks. I read a couple of days ago in the L.A. Times about a new development at the corner of Sunset and La Cienega boulevards that will add hotels and residences along with stores and restaurants to what has been an admittedly bland intersection. The Times breathlessly called it “part of the city’s plan to boost its appeal.” I don’t mean to be surly about progress, honest, but every time I hear about the gentrification of another place in the city where I grew up, I suspect that some spot I love is going to disappear. And it always reminds of how little the Entertainment Capital of the World loves its historic places.

There was the Garden of Allah, for starters. If you are not a student of Hollywood history you may not even know the Garden existed. The Garden of Allah was a hotel on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in what is now West Hollywood. It had once been the sprawling mansion of silent movie superstar Alla Nazimova, who earned $13,000 a week in 1913—the equivalent of nearly $300,000 a week in today’s dollars—before there was income tax. She was openly lesbian and notorious for her parties at the mansion. Unfortunately, her career went into steep decline when talkies arrived and audiences discovered her thick, nearly unintelligible Russian accent. No longer in demand for movies and needing a new source of income, she turned her home into a hotel in 1927.

The Garden of Allah had a good restaurant and a dark, secretive bar where you could have an intimate drink with someone you should not be seen with. In addition to the rooms in the main building, it featured stand-alone bungalows of different architectural styles, each connected by winding paths discretely masked with thick tropical shrubbery. It was a home away from home for stars like Errol Flynn, the Marx brothers, Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Orson Wells, and Marlene Dietrich, who skinny dipped in the pool. Writers Robert Benchley, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker all stayed there. I used to meet Howard Hughes at the Garden of Allah when I was sixteen. It was a Los Angeles landmark and party central for Hollywood until it was torn down in 1959 and replaced by a bank and a strip mall.

garden of allah_2
Souvenir of a visit to the Garden of Allah.

Just a short walk east on Sunset, another landmark was wrecking-balled into oblivion—the famous Schwabs Pharmacy. Lana Turner was allegedly discovered the lunch counter (she was actually discovered down the street). Schwabs was home to the legendary Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who maintained an office with a curtain for a door on the pharmacy’s second floor. Sidney did most of his work sitting at the lunch counter, where it was de rigueur for movie stars to chat with Sidney over coffee and ice cream sodas to promote their upcoming movies.


Sidney befriended me when I became a contract player at Universal. We shared a special friend—Marilyn Monroe. Sidney would share our exploits with each other, and, in the early days of my career, Marilyn and I often communicated with each other through Sidney. Since Sidney used the telephone at Schwabs for all his business, he gave code names to each of us so no one would know who was calling. “Just tell them you’re Miss Orleans,” he said. With a little persuading he told me Marilyn’s name was Miss Dunhill. Because Sidney did not drive, it was commonplace for him to hitch rides with Marilyn, me, or whomever saw him walking along Sunset. In fact, Sidney did his first interview with me while I drove us around Universal’s back lot in my Jaguar.

With typical Hollywood indifference to history, Schwabs and the entire 8000 block of Sunset was demolished in 1988 to make way for a shopping center and theater complex.

In every other country I have been in over the years, there is a kind of respect, even reverence for historic buildings and places. Some other parts of the U.S., notably the northeast and south, show some appreciation for their landmarks, but here in Hollywood, more often than not, there is a kind of scorn for what is old—be it architectural or human.


10 thoughts on “Tearing down Hollywood

  1. Another delicious glimpse into ‘Old Hollywood’. Those really must have been the days! It is so shortsighted to destroy places which embody a time or place which will never be seen again, especially when those places are in the town or city where we grew up! Please keep sharing your unique memories Mamie, some of us just eat them up.

  2. Progress is inevitable and something is always lost whenever something new comes along. Historic Preservation seeks to preserve those places that have value that should remain. This varies from community to community, but in Hollywood, there is not much support for preserving the past. That is tragic, but true. Perhaps that will change in time.

  3. I love you honey. Great read as usual….sending hugs!!!!! I am glad I lived here and saw things that are gone. I HAVE SNAPS OF MUCH THAT HAS BEEN DEMOLISHED. I HATE HOW LA DOESN’T CARE ABOUT HER PAST…HER BEAUTY HER HISTORY…SHAME SHAME…MONEY IS SO EVIL!

  4. Dear Mamie, I recently discovered the historic Garden Of Allah. I know that it was Alla Nazimovas home. I also knew that each bungalow was unique and many stars would stay there. I cannot fathom why there is no historical society that would deem it a property, that could be renewed into beautiful hotel rooms and lovely gardens. That I think would draw many people to the unique history of it. Schwabs also could have been left alone. Why is there no outcry? Europeans would never desecrate their unique historical homes. Just apathetic. It is starting to happen here as well. So sad…

  5. I love old Hollywood. I live in midtown NYC and do wardrobe work for mostly live theater but some tv and film. Last year I was with the musical Chaplin for the entire run and it really renewed my fascination with the last century, the evolution of what we now know as show business. I love this and all these memories you share. I am surprised at the scorn of older things in present day Hollywood. Very foolish.

  6. It is very sad when all the places I see on turner classic movies are no longer there…I love watching black and white movies, then going to those places when I visit Hollywood…the one place that is still there is The Beverly Hills Hotel…just imagine all the movie stars from way past having a drink in the bar.

  7. I just don’t understand how so much history has been allowed to be pulled down and built over. Here in England we have listed buildings which are Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.A listed building can not be demolished, changed or added to without permission from the local planning authority.Which must then ask permission from a central government agency, especially if you want to do anything big to a place with historical background. I know on the grand scheme of things the buildings of Hollywood aren’t even 150 years old but that doesn’t make them any less important.Historically Hollywood created the world of movies,it created the studios and the glamorous movie stars that go with them.Their lifestyles are the things we saw and read about, the mansions,the nightclubs,the restaurants we dreamed about going to a big glitzy premiers at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.We wanted to have our feet and hands submerged in cement (that’s for pleasure.. not mob revenge!) for the world to see. That’s why it’s so important that these developers stop thinking about money and start thinking about all that wonderful past that they are destroying. We’ve already lost The Garden of Allah,Schwabs,The Pink Palace,Pickfair,The Brown Derby,The Hollywood Canteen,The Lot..etc.These places have gone for good,they will never come back…It’s very sad.

  8. Perhaps since Hollywood creates movies and tv shows the sense is the temporary nature of things. Maybe the fact that L.A. as we know it is relatively “new” there is no sense of maintaining something for its historic value over commercial value.


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