Saturday, February 25, 2006

One Last RFK Tribute at the Ambassador

One of the cool things about launching The Ambassador's Last Stand has been hearing from people across the country who have fond or personal memories of the hotel -- even, for some, after it had already been shut down.

I recently received a letter and some pictures from Brent Lyons of Illinois, who visited L.A. in June 1998 upon the 30th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination.

He writes:

On the morning of June 5, 1998, I purchased two sets of white flowers. I decided to try to put the flowers on the property of the Ambassador Hotel. So from Wilshire Boulevard, I walked up the drive to the parking lot and asked the parking lot attendant, who was at his booth, if I could g on the Ambassador grounds and put my flowers down. To my amazement, the parking lot attendant said to me nicely, "Go ahead."

I walked from the parking lot area to the front of the Cocoanut Grove entrance. I then put one set of white flowers on the lawn and took pictures... I noticed that the front doors of the Cocoanut Grove were open, and I decided to go inside. (You will notice, in my pictures, that there were vans and people were unloading them for making films at the Ambassador. I laid down the second set of white flowers on the floor in the Cocoanut Grove.

I felt lucky enough for this experience, and left the Ambassador grounds without a hassle.

Thanks Brent -- and for everyone else, please keep sending in your memories.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Ambassador Hotel, 1936

Spotted on eBay, this cool ad promoting the late hotel. The text reads:
Unsolicited Tribute from a Great American Author
"The Ambassador, with its own gay streets of shops, a theatre and restaurants and the world-famous 'Cocoanut Grove" is believed by some to be only another magnificant hotel, but it's much more... it is a three-ring circus of indoor and outdoor amusements in a layout filled with happy conceptions."
-- Gouverneur Morris

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ambassador Cam #32

Turns out the original Ambassador Hotel sign, which graced the hotel's automobile entrance upon its 1921 opening, has been trapped inside the hotel's own hideous, 1970s-era concrete silo. Chipping away at that old exterior, workers found the long-buried original sign inside;

You can easily make out the letters that spell "Ambassador Hotel."

How the entrance sign looked in the Ambassador's early days. (The words "Ambassador Hotel" have not yet been added to the post in this classic postcard image.)

One more pic from Friday.

(Thanks to reader Kathy for the shots -- by the time I got to the Ambassador on Friday, it was too dark to get decent pics.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

"Don't Let This Happen to Your Historic Building"

Photographer Robert Peate, who submitted several shots to The Ambassador's Last Stand, has complied 17 of his favorite images (out of over 800) he took of the grand hotel's final days.

Check it out at Robert explains his mission:

For the past four years I have worked near the site of the famous Ambassador Hotel, beloved Los Angeles landmark. In 2001 the Los Angeles Unified School District bought the site to build a new school, with the plan to demolish the entire historic structure. This prompted a lawsuit by the Los Angeles Conservancy, which was settled in 2005, clearing the way for the demolition of most, but not all, of the structure.

When I learned of the settlement, I began photographing the demolition for posterity. These images will be donated to the Conservancy for use in future preservation efforts. “Don’t let this happen to your historic building,” will be the message. What follow are my favorite of hundreds of images I took for this project, The Death of the Ambassador.

I met Robert and his wife Robin at the Ambassador Wake earlier this month -- both really good people.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ambassador Cam, #31: Cocoanut Grooves No More

(Pic by LAist's Carolyn Kellogg)

Like I mentioned in my previous Ambassador Cam post, the LAUSD sure has a funny way of "preserving" the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove (which, we've mentioned before was bastardized so much in the 1970s that I'm not sure it's worth saving anyway). As you can see in this shot and the previous one, the Cocoanut Grove has been completely gutted and stripped. Not much left besides the four walls -- well, make that two walls, as the front and back sides have been torn off (yes, you can see right through).

LA Observed first reported on Friday that even the Cocoanut Grove's distinguishing characteristic -- its front entrance -- was demolished:

Staffers at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles—in the office building at 3424 Wilshire—just heard a loud crash outside. They ran to the window and saw that a crane had torn the front off the old Cocoanut Grove, the last part of the Ambassador Hotel still standing. An email concludes: "Gee, not much left to preserve now."

I decided to call the LAUSD Friday to ask them about it -- and they're still sticking to the company line, that the Cocoanut Grove (as well as the Paul Williams-designed coffee shop underneath) is being preseved.

LAUSD spokeswoman Shannon Johnson told me : "The entire structure is still standing. We're not tearing it down. It will be a part of the school's new auditorium."

Uh, Shannon, you might want to drive down Wilshire and take a look for yourself. Johnson tells us that the demolition will continue through mid-March.

(Another shot by Carolyn)

Mike's dark pic (sorry, it was nighttime) of the Ambassador Hotel remains, 2/10/06, 6:55 p.m.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Ambassador Cam, #30

The Ambassador Hotel, 2/6/06, 10 a.m.

C'mon, LAUSD, let's be honest here: The idea that the Cocoanut Grove has been spared the wrecking ball is an exaggeration. As you can see here, the insides of the Grove have been stripped clean. Actually, you can see right through the building. Not much left except the walls -- and even most of those are gone.

Granted, one wonders why they even bothered saving the Cocoanut Grove after knocking down most of the rest of the Ambassador. The once-glamorous ballroom had already been bastardized in the 1970s, when the so-called "Now Grove" took away the palm tree ambience and replaced it with a nightmare disco feel (in one last-ditch attempt to revive the aging venue).

A closer view

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Ambassador Wake: The Aftermath


Thanks to all of you who made it out to the Gaylord Apartments and HMS Bounty last night! I got to meet several of you for the first time and reconnect with others of you. (Special thanks to Pat Saperstein for loaning me her camera -- can't believe I left mine at home!)

I arrived at the Gaylord/HMS Bounty at around 7:15, and the line was already down the red carpet. (Yes, red carpet -- indeed, this was a much more stylized event than what I had originally planned with my wake.) The crowd in the Gaylord lobby was thick but manageable -- most of the people were outside, near the open bar, natch.

Out on the patio I ran into Joseph Mailander and Lynn, as well as KFI's Justin Levine... and several other people who recognized me from Franklin Avenue and The Ambassador's Last Stand. Moving to the HMS, I met 5th and Spring's Celia for the first time, and Trained Monkey's Jim for the second time. I think they recently started dating -- guys, true? (Update: Yes!) Later popped in LAist's Carolyn, who recounted her terrible mugging experience a few weeks ago right around the corner. Also, met LARitz's Jessica Ritz -- whose father, I later found out, co-wrote Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing"!

Also, thanks to and Wildbell's Will Campbell for figuring out how to use the flash on Pat's camera; and his wife Susan, who took several pics for The Ambassador's Last Stand via her job's vantage point across the street. Also met Losanjealous' Ryan, and Josh from Curbed LA.

Can't forget Shannon from Sha in LA, and her pal Eric Lynxwiler, the co-author of the fantastic "Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles." The book's other co-author, LA Observed's Kevin Roderick, was there, as was Los Angeles mag's Mary Melton (who wrote about our Birthday Race in 2003, you may recall). And LAVoice's Mack Reed, who wrote up the best coverage of anyone. A tidbit:

The loveliest tribute came from Carlyn Frank Benjamin - daughter of one of the Ambassador's first caretakers, and a 16-year resident of the hotel from the time it opened in 1921: "I'd always hoped the old girl would put on some new clothes and some comfortable shoes and some rose-scented moisturizing lotion, and that she could have had a new lease on life. ..."

And then she conjured the image of the Ambassador's ghosts rising up, filtering up through the debris and inspiring the LAUSD students who will occupy the school soon to be built on the site.

If that can happen, the death of the Ambassador won't have been a huge waste.

Besides getting to speak before Diane Keaton (who I stood next to on the stage), the highlight was meeting Mrs. Benjamin (the subject of Thursday's LATimes cover story about the Ambassador). Don't let her age fool you -- she was one of the liveliest attendees at the event. Not only did she give the best speech, but she and her sister (who also lived at the Ambassador in her youth) remember the hotel like it was yesterday. (Her husband was also an agent back in the day, and she told me she got to know Army Archerd very well. I told her Army was now blogging as well!)

Most amazingly, Mrs. Benjamin reads the blog! And knows all about me and Maria! I can't even get some of my friends to check it out, yet here's a woman who not only outlived the Ambassador but is still going strong! She was an inspiration. Here's a pic of me with her:

Me with Carlyn Frank Benjamin, who grew up at the Ambassador

Some other shots:

Diane Keaton speaks

Longtime Ambassador P.R. manager Margaret Burk, who wrote a fantastic history on the hotel, "Are The Stars Out Tonight?"

5th and Spring's Celia, her friend Kathy and Trained Monkey's Jim

LAist's Carolyn Kellogg

Martini Republic's Joseph with wife Lynn and KFI's Justin Levine

Sha in LA's Shannon, with "Wilshire Boulevard" co-author Eric Lynxwiler

LAVoice's Mack Reed, Los Angeles mag's Mary Melton and LAObserved's Kevin Roderick

Losanjealous' Ryan, with Will and Susan Campbell

Robert Peate, who also sent us a lot of great shots over the past few months, and his wife Robin

In the HMS Bounty

Crowd in the Gaylord lobby listen to speakers

More HMS Bounty crowd

Red carpet

Other recaps:

Caroline On Crack wishes it was more of a wake, less of a party but notes the impressive turnout.

Sha in LA hates to admit it, but perhaps Adaptive Reuse just wasn't possible with the Ambassador. She has a great rundown of who was there, and some cool pics here.

Joseph at Martini Republic doesn't quite get the hullabaloo surrounding the Ambassador's demise.

Jim at Trained Monkey also briefly checks in and lists some of the blogger attendees.

LA Observed also mentions a few highlights in its Friday roundup.

Carolyn at LAist has some last words for the Ambassador -- and is relieved that Hilary Duff didn't show up.

Jorge and Claudy took some great shots, and note that one-time "Melrose Place" and "Growing Pains" star Jamie Luner was there.

Celia from 5th and Spring tells a bittersweet story of meeting a onetime Cocoanut Grove musician with some great stories to tell -- but sadly, none of his former bandmates to reminisce with.

Thanks to the L.A. Conservancy and Ken Bernstein as well. Were you there? Did I meet you? Let me know!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pay Your Last Respects Tonight

I'll see you at tonight's Ambassador Hotel Wake!

By the way, most of the festivities will actually take place at the Gaylord apartments lobby, with spillover heading to the HMS Bounty. Look for the tables that say "Bloggers Corner, sponsored by The Ambassador's Last Stand" to find some familiar faces -- or at least some familiar names from the L.A. blogsophere!

Meanwhile, the front page of today's L.A. Times has a nice story by Bob Pool on Carlyn Frank Benjamin, who grew up at the Ambassador:

Benjamin lived at the Ambassador between 1921, when it opened, and 1938. Her father, Ben Frank, managed the hotel and her grandfather, Abe Frank, was the hotel company's vice president and the person she credits with creating the palm-decorated Cocoanut Grove. She likes to point out that she and the hotel were born five months apart.

"The Ambassador and I are the same age. Except I'm still here," the 84-year-old Brentwood resident said Tuesday as she gazed sadly at the remains of what many consider the symbol of Los Angeles' golden era.

Tonight, Benjamin will be among hundreds who are expected to gather across Wilshire Boulevard from the hotel site for a wake that will commemorate its role in defining Los Angeles' popular culture.

But when the stories are swapped, none are likely to be as vivid as Benjamin's.

As a young child, she roamed the grounds, building castles in the hotel golf course's sand traps.

The pastry chefs whipped up a giant chocolate cake for her third birthday and Josephine, the hotel organ grinder's trained monkey, showed up to entertain her and her friends.

As she grew older, Benjamin learned to swim in the hotel's pool, practiced marksmanship on its rifle range and explored every nook and cranny of the 500-room resort.

She cajoled staff members into saving so many hotel newspapers for 3rd Street Elementary School's annual paper drive that her class won the collection contest every year. After school each day, she had snacks in the Ambassador's Fountain Room cafe. In the lobby, she regularly encountered royalty and celebrities.

She met pilot Charles Lindbergh there shortly after his pioneering 1927 transatlantic flight. She considered Hollywood movie impresario Sid Grauman, who was a hotel resident, an unofficial uncle.

Gossip columnist Walter Winchell lived next door and his young daughter was a friend of Benjamin and her younger sister, Jackie Schwartz, now a Santa Ana resident.

"The elevator operator would let me practice running it when no guests were in it. I'd go from the basement to the sixth floor — we'd bounce around until I got it level at each floor," Benjamin said.

Shameless self-promotion moment... Pool quotes me toward the end of the story:

Also involved is Michael Schneider, a 32-year-old Variety writer who chronicled the Ambassador's final days on a website that attracted worldwide attention. "The hotel symbolizes the glamorous old Hollywood and Los Angeles that my generation never got to experience firsthand," Schneider said.

Hope to see you all tonight!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tomorrow's The Ambassador Hotel Wake!

An old postcard shows the Ambassador's Wilshire entrance, back when it included a statue and fountain. The postcard says, "Where the flying fishes play. Ornamental fountain at Wilshire Entrance to the Los Angeles AMBASSADOR." (Thanks to Mary Ellen!)

I've heard from many of you planning on attending Thursday's Ambassador Hotel send-off being thrown by the L.A. Conservancy, with some help by us here at Franklin Avenue/The Ambassador's Last Stand. Don't forget to RSVP, if you haven't already!

Some details: The festivities start at 7, with speeches, etc. at around 8:15. If you're looking for some fellow bloggers/blog readers/Franklin Avenue folk (well, that's me -- Blogger Baby and Maria can't make it, unfortunately), look for the specially marked tables. (It will say something like "Blogger's Corner, sponsored by The Ambassador's Last Stand). That way you can hang with some like-minded folk and we can toast the Ambassador together.

See you Thursday!