WHEN THE SUN SET ON THE STRIP
Many See Street in Decline;  Others have hope
By William Overend - L.A. Times Staff Writer L.A. Times - Nov. 1981

 

Upstairs at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on a Friday night, the young man in the U.S.A. shirt has the look of uptown punk about him.
 His fists punch savagely at nothing and his face is fixed in a fearsome sneer as he and his dance partner move to the music on the tiny disco floor.
 The Ramones are singing "I Want to Be Sedated."
 At a corner table, Llana Lloyd shuts out the bedlam of the moment and returns to telling how the Rainbow isn't what it used to be.  She's only here tonight because she was feeling nostalgic, she says.
 Back in 1974, everything was different.  Those were the days of glitter rock, when David Bowie and Robert Plant and Iggy Pop were regulars at the Rainbow.
 The Sunset Strip was a blaze of brilliance then.
 She was a dancer on the Real Don Steele Show on Channel 9, and one of the Rainbow's original glitter girls.  Maybe some people thought the Strip had already seen its better days, but they weren't part of the '70s like she was.
 "It was the musical extravaganza wherein every rock 'n' roller thought they were 'star star,' " she says.  "It was the original Hollywood avant-garde glitter rock raunch narcissistic exhibitional era.

 Historical Marker

 You probably had to have been there, though.
 On the wall above Lloyd's head is a plaque that serves as a sort of historical marker.  It proclaims the Rainbow to be the Lair of the Hollywood Vampires.
 That was a club some of the rock stars who hung out there decided to form.  Alice Cooper was the president, Keith Moon was vice-president and John Lennon and Ringo Starr were among the members.
 One night, Lloyd got to sit at Lennon's table.  There'd be a line of women going up to the table, she recalls.  They'd open their blouses for him and he would pinch them and then tell them to go away, she says.
 Now look at the scene.
 "This ain't rock 'n' roll," she says.  "This is genocide.  These people are vegged out.  I think the era is dead."
 Some people go back further than Llana Lloyd, and they think the Sunset Strip saw its best days long before the glitter girls came along.  The Strip, in fact, had been all but officially pronounced as dead by then.
 As early as 1964, it looked like the last of the old days had ended, to columnist Paul Coates of The Times.
 "Sun has set on the Sunset Strip," the headline read.
 Coates recalled how in earlier years he could remember Humphrey Bogart and all the other glamorous movie stars living it up in places like Ciro's.  When Bogart would bring his chauffeur into Ciro's with him and take his usual corner booth, that meant he was planning to do some "serious" drinking.
 On the stage at Ciro's in the old days, wrote Coates, he had seen performers like Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker and Pearl Bailey.
 What he found in 1964, however, was "a gaunt little lass doing a frantic Watusi or whatever it is they're doing currently."
 That was too much for him.  "It used to be a glittering boulevard in the silly old days," he wrote.  "Now it is just a rather seamy street."
 As far as a lot of people were concerned, however, it just kept getting worse in the next few years.
 Rock 'n' roll changed things, most folks agree.  Instead of the old movie stars and gangsters, the Strip was covered with teenage rockers.

 Serious Losses

 Most of the old supper clubs and restaurants suffered serious losses because their old customers didn't want to be on the same street with the new Strip people.
 The mere sight of them was almost more than Bruno Petroletti, one of the owners of the elegant Strip restaurant known as LaRue, could stand.  "It's not a pleasant thing to see them walking around,"  he said in early 1968.
 Responding to the menace, the sheriff's department started cracking down on the invading teenagers, arresting them by the truckload for curfew violations, but they just kept returning.
 On Nov. 12, 1966, near a rock club called Pandora's Box at what was then the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, about 1,000 demonstrators protested the tight enforcement of the curfew laws.
 
 Not Much Respect

 Some threw rocks, others chased all the passengers off one bus and tried to set fire to another, and most of them didn't seem to have much respect for there elders.  In retrospect, this may have been the low point in relations between teenagers and adults in Los Angeles.
 While it wasn't much compared to what happened in Watts the previous year, it was generally described as a riot.
 There were demands in the City Council for an investigation into the "Major uncontrolled rebellion" and a tough stand from County Supervisor Ernest E. Debs, who represented the area.
 "Whatever it takes is going to be done," said Debs.  "We're going to be tough.  We're not going to surrender that area or any other area to beatniks or wild-eyed kids."
 If they couldn't keep them off the Strip, they could at least stop them from dancing.  That was the strategy worked out by Debs and Sheriff Peter Pitchess, who had vowed that his department wasn't going to be "reduced to a baby-sitting organization."
 They appealed to the County Public Welfare Commission to take away the dance permits of the Strip's most popular rock clubs, among them, the Whisky A Go Go and Gazzarri’s.
 Even in the climate of the times, however, that idea was rejected.  Instead, they 86'd Sonny and Cher, who had sided with the teenagers, from a ride in the Rose Bowl Parade that year.
 They also demolished Pandora's Box.
 Where Pandora's Box once stood, an access lane of Sunset now curves into Crescent Heights.
 Lt. James Cook, operations supervisor for the West Hollywood station of the Sheriff's Department, still marvels at the job of road expansion that was done.  "They bulldozed that sucker and paved it over," he recalls.
 The violence inspired a movie called "Riot on Sunset Strip", which starred Aldo Ray and Mimzi Farmer, and led the Times to a glum assessment of the Strip's possible future.
 "It is a sorry ending for the boulevard that once was Hollywood's most dazzling area," an editorial declared.  "The boulevard may never regain its past glory.........."
 But not everybody thinks the '60s were so bad, and you can even find some people who think they were the Strip's best years.
  - - - -

 In addition to being glamorous, the Strip always had a reputation for being wild.
 It was that way long before rock 'n' roll.
 Fred Otash, now the manager of the Palladium in Hollywood, was a Los Angeles vice-squad officer in the '40s and early '50s.
 "Every door on the Strip must have been kicked down 100 times a month," he says.
 You never saw any street prostitutes in those days.  They were a notch or two above that.
 There were some mobsters, though.  Otash made life rough on them.  He especially didn't like Johnny Stompanato, one of Mickey Cohen's friends.
 "I recall the time my partner and I took Stompanato up to the Hollywood Hills and beat him," Otash says.  "Then we stripped him and left him there after we put out a call there was a naked man running around."
 Another time they drove by Stompanato's car on the Strip, pointed a shotgun at him and scared him so much that he almost drove off the road.
 
 'The Greatest Town'

 Otash later was a private detective, and his cases involved people like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Lana Turner.  His office was at Dino's Lodge.
 "This was the greatest town in the world for nightclubs," he says, "but look at the Strip today.  I don't know what's happening to it."
 The nightclubs sure were something.  There's not much doubt about that.
 One of the best things about them were the fights.  People were fighting all the time on the Sunset Strip in the old days, but usually nobody was hurt too bad.
 A typical fight was when a film agent named William Burnside punched "Prince" Mike Romanoff one night in 1941 at the Mocambo.  "I wish they had let me go just for a minute and I would have annihilated him," Romanoff said afterward.
 Frank Sinatra was in a couple of fights in later years, retiring undefeated.
 Sometimes no punches were even thrown.  Franchot Tone was arrested one night at Ciro's for spitting in the face of Hollywood columnist Florabelle Muir, which was probably even worse than hitting her.
 The most famous fight on the Sunset Strip, however, was in Tommy Dorsey's apartment about 4:30 one morning in 1944.  Actor Jon Hall, who played a lot of swashbuckler roles, almost had his nose cut off in that one.
 Exactly what took place never was too clear, but Hall's later account was that Dorsey had started it by hitting him with a bottle because he didn't like the way he was acting around Dorsey's wife, actress Pat Dane.
 At some point, Hall said, Mrs. Dorsey started slashing him with a knife.  When Eddie Norris, another actor, came to Hall's aide, the Dorsey's called in reinforcements from next door, and Allen Smiley, a neighbor who was described as also being a friend of Bugsy Siegel, promptly knocked Norris cold and joined the Dorsey's assault on Hall.
 This became known as "The Battle of the Balcony," because at one point Dorsey was trying to throw Hall off the balcony and Hall was holding onto Dorsey's head, yelling, "If I go, you are going with me."
 At first, Hall wanted to drop the matter as being just one of those nights when you wind up with 16 stitches in your nose, another 32 stitches in the back of the head, and a stab wound or two in the throat.
 
 'That's His Business'

 "If Jon Hall wants to get his nose cut off and his features marred without making a complaint, that's his business," District Attorney Fred Howser observed.
 The Dorsey's and Smiley later were indicted by a grand jury on charges of felonious assault, but there was so much confusing testimony that the case finally was dismissed for lack of evidence.
 For a long time after that, Hall went around with a plastic covering over his nose.  Dorsey, known as the sentimental gentleman of swing, was back in action a few years later, punching out Benny Goodman in another fight.
 Only a few months ago, there was another incident where a man actually lost most of his nose on the Sunset Strip.  But that was when a pimp hit him in the face with a 2X4 for not showing sufficient interest in a prostitute, and nobody made much of it.
 Even getting your nose sliced was a lot more glamorous in the past.

  - - - - -

 "You roll with the punches," says Chuck Landis.
 As the Strip changed over the years, Landis changed with it.
 From 1943 to 1949, he was owner of the Trocadero.
 In the '50s he was partners with Gene Norman in a jazz club called the Crescendo.
 Then he turned Hazan's Food Market into a "high-class" strip joint called the Largo.  In 1972, the Largo became the Roxy.
 "I enjoyed it in the '40s and '50s," he says.  "It was a coat-and-tie sort of thing, very formal."
 "In the '60s, the hippies turned the Strip around," he adds.  "It was almost impossible to travel from Crescent Heights to Doheny.  Business dropped overnight."
 It might have been the growth of Las Vegas that killed the Strip, however, Vegas paid more money to the top entertainment acts than the Strip nightclubs could afford.
 "If you weren't on the Strip, you weren't in the business, in the old days," Landis says, "but not anymore."
 
 Premier Jazz Clubs

 He still has some involvement with the Roxy, but his interests have shifted now to the Valley, where he owns the Country Club in Reseda.  "I don't think the Strip is as important as it was," he says.
 Gene Norman still has an office on the Strip, but he's strictly in the record business now.
 From 1954 to 1963, Norman presided over both the Crescendo and the Interlude, the premier Jazz clubs on the Strip.  The Crescendo was upstairs and the Interlude was downstairs in the same building now part of the parking lot for the Playboy Building.
 One night, at the Crescendo alone, there was Count Basie, the George Shearing Quintet, Mort Saul and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
 Lenny Bruce was "totally unknown" before he started working there, Norman says.
 "It was very exciting," he adds.  "Half the world's movie stars and political figures came to the Crescendo."
 But rock 'n' roll was soon to end the jazz age on the Strip.  The same year that the Crescendo closed, the Whisky A Go Go opened.
 Norman's son, Neil, who now records science fiction music and futuristic themes for his father's GNP Crescendo label, was around by then to see the changes.

 Pretty Fast Change

 "I saw Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper on the same bill at the Whisky once," he says.  "It was a pretty fast change once it started."
 They started writing the obituaries on the Strip about then, but not everybody saw the '60s as cause for mourning.
 "I'd like to see the '60s happening again," says Rodney Bingenheimer, a local disc jockey who's called the Mayor of the Sunset Strip.  He was around in the days when you might see Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Fred C. Dobbs coffeehouse, now the office of Kay McGraw Realty.
 At Ciro's, which became a rock club called It's Boss for a brief time before ultimately becoming the Comedy Store, there was a night when Dylan joined the Byrds for a jam session.  Bingenheimer can remember him playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the harmonica, which is a different memory of Ciro's than most people have.
 "The real hard-core hippie and heavy drug scene killed the Strip," he says.  "That's when Charles Manson was hanging out."
 "To me there were no '70s," he adds.  "Nothing was happening.  Maybe the '80s will be more like the '60s."

 The gangsters may have been more visible in the old days, but the Strip's crime problems are bigger now.  The area around the Strip had the fastest-growing crime rate in the county last year, according to Lt. James Cook of the West Hollywood station of the Sheriff's Department.
 He blames street prostitution for part of it.  There were never any street prostitutes on the Strip until about three years ago, he says.  Now it's a constant battle keeping them away.  "It's almost like a march to the sea down Sunset," says Cook.
 What ultimately will become of the Strip is one of those questions that usually gets little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
 "I look at the Sunset Strip to eventually develop into trendy hotels and good restaurants," says developer Joseph Noble, now converting the old Sunset Tower apartment building into condo units.
 
 'Getting Strong'

 "I think it's been getting strong for several years," he adds.  "Eventually we're going to see the rock 'n' roll joints forced over to Santa Monica Boulevard.  I'm not saying that period's over but no area can survive on rock 'n' roll."
 Maybe not, but others said they'd be surprised to see the Roxy or the Whisky vanish in the foreseeable future.  They are almost institutions now, like Ciro's and the Trocadero before them.
 "I don't see anything dramatic," says Don Ferris, a leading salesman of commercial properties along the Strip, who even has his own billboard looking down on the street.  "I'd say it will be gradual."
 The future has been pretty much determined by new county planning guidelines that came out this year, Ferris adds.  Anything over five stories isn't likely to be approved, so better restaurants and quality shops seems to be the most likely hope.
 For some, the battle's over anyway.  Whatever happens to the Strip, it can never be the same.
 "We lost the class," says Leon Schwab, one of the brothers whose drugstore near Crescent Heights has marked the approximate start of the Strip since it was opened in 1932.  "Hollywood lost the class."
 But maybe it's still out there somewhere under one of the billboards on the Strip.  These days, nobody has much time to get a search party started, so you can never really say for sure.