Friday, January 23, 2015

Going Cocoa-NUTS at The Cocoanut Grove!!!

Among the many drills (fire, earthquake, etc.) we were expected to perform in junior high school, there was one that always confounded the cognitive skills of my pathetically-literal, pubescent brain - the intruder drill (fortunately, those were the days before such drills became a frightening and practical necessity).  The drill went like this, teachers would turn out the lights and lockdown their classrooms, huddling students in the corner furthest from the door upon hearing the voice of an authority issue a public address, announcing that "Dr. Thompson" was wanted in the "Technology Building."  Um... didn't anybody know that no member of the faculty answered to the last name Thompson, no such building existed on our campus, and that among their various and questionable credentials, no PhD had ever been bestowed upon a member of our school's teaching staff.  In hindsight it became clearer that that was the big idea (only the most well-informed intruder would know that we were still watching film reels on projectors housed in a closet at the back of the library lorded over by Mrs. Middleton).

With no criminal pedigree, an obviously simple mind, and only the best of intentions, it never occurred to me that one day I might be the reason for a "Paging Dr. Thompson" sort of emergency...but more on that later.  This is our story of going to The Cocoanut Grove.

The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel - Los Angeles, CA

Opened in 1921, The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel defined Hollywood glamour.  The decades-long epicenter of West Coast nightlife and two-time home of the Academy Award ceremonies, The Cocoanut Grove played host to anyone who was anyone in the heyday of Hollywood (see The Silver Screen Affair's post on The Cocoanut Grove here).  It is oft said that Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard went head-to-head in the weekly Charleston contests held on the famed dance floor.  Known not only for its flamboyant clientele, the club was equally recognized for its flamboyant decor.  Lavishly decorated in a fantasy pastiche of Moorish/Moroccan/Middle-Eastern themes, The Cocoanut Grove allowed guests to sup under life-size palm trees populated by the gleaming eyes of electrified monkeys.

A packed house!
Initially, The Cocoanut Grove was a small venue within the hotel.  Quickly gaining
popularity, the club was swiftly relocated to its permanent location in the hotel's grand ballroom.

Luminaries of the political variety also made The Ambassador Hotel a stop along the campaign route.  Well-known as the site of Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 assassination, the Ambassador Hotel proved unable to outlive that legacy and the dramatic cultural shifts that marked the latter part of the 20th Century.  Officially closed in 1989, the Ambassador subsequently served as a location for filming and a relic of Holywood's golden age.  In 2005, to the dismay of preservationists, the property was sold to the Los Angeles Unified School District and slated as the location for the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools.  Recognizing its significance to Hollywood and to US history, we decided that Emily's birthday was the ideal time for us to go back to school for a little education in old Hollywood.  Taking advantage of one of Los Angeles' altogether common sunny afternoons, the wacky tacky adventure team made our pilgrimage to The Cocoanut Grove.

Once looming large over Wilshire Boulevard, the former entrance to
the Ambassador is one of the last vestiges of the hotel's glory days.

A bit underwhelming, our self-guided tour yielded only a placard, some interesting tile work, a clock
integrated into the streamline facade, and the teachers' dining room (once the hotel coffee shop),

Having seen all that we thought we were going to see, we approached a pair of friendly maintenance men and asked them if they knew anything about the hotel's history.  They shared what little information they had and even opened the door to the coral-colored coffee shop so we could get a better peek.  Explaining that we were hoping to see more of The Cocoanut Grove, they directed us around the corner and up a flight of stairs; there we found the mecca of every classic-Hollywood nerd. 

Birthday wishes can come true!
Emily stands sentry at The Cocoanut Grove's iconic entrance.

Emily's birthday wish came even "truer" when Jesse tried one of the doors 
 and found it wonderfully ajar!  Never ones to shy away from the implied 
"Welcome in" of an unlocked door (of which I could find no information as to 
the identity of the more-human monkey face on the door), we humbly walked 
in the footsteps of our biggest cinematic idols.

This is the point where it must be stated that The Cocoanut Grove is not exactly The Cocoanut Grove.  Stipulated in the contract of the sale was the mandatory preservation of the Ambassador's landmark features, namely The Cocoanut Grove.  Shortly after renovations began, it was determined that the structure did not meet minimum earthquake safety standards.  Before much objection could be raised, ninety-percent or more of the original structure was razed.  The fact is that since 1921, the hotel and the nightclub had seen significant changes; but in LA we have to remind ourselves that there are principles still worth arguing.  Rebuilt in an approximation of The Cocoanut Grove's original style, the new structure retained just enough character to transport us to Hollywood, circa 1934.

As seen in the scrolled archways and fretwork pendants, minimal details of the original interior were honored.  

While The Cocoanut Grove is now a 582-seat theater, I could still
hear the champagne glasses clinking, the orchestra playing, and the
high-stakes deals being made.  Meanwhile, Emily was center stage
starring in her own production of Cocoanut Grove.

With the rest of us relegated to supporting players...
Cocoanut Grove (1938)

Here is where our adventure turned us from sentimental sightseers into "Dr. Thompson-level" intruders.  Lost in our Hollywood reverie, we were snapped back into reality by the echo of deadbolts being locked.  In no time flat, we transformed from the elegant Fred MacMurray and Harriett Nelson (née Hilliard) into the Marx Brothers in a slapstick scramble for the doors - we were trapped!

We went from Cocoanut Grove to merely The Cocoanuts (1929)

Luckily, one set of doors had yet to be locked and we promptly made our escape.  Prematurely congratulating ourselves for a stealthy exit, we came face to face with our maintenance-minded benefactors of before.  This time, however, their faces bore none of the happy, helpful quality we had come to know.  As if their newly stern countenances weren't clear enough direction, we were curtly invited to remove ourselves from the premises before we were reported as trespassers.  Before we could protest, they were reaching for their walkie-talkies.  We would have said, "We've been kicked out of nicer places than this," but the fact is we hadn't!  Our less-than-gracious dismissal notwithstanding, our Hollywood adventure left us feeling like honored guests at "Star Night at The Cocoanut Grove."

Have you ever been accused of a Dr. Thompson-style intrusion?  Have you ever peacefully trespassed for the sake of visiting an historic landmark?  Are you a Hollywood historian pining for the days of luxurious nightlife where orchestras played under the faux fronds of papier-mache palms repurposed from Valentino's The Sheik?  If you ever  find yourself driving down Wilshire and get a hankering for some history and a taste of the exotic, then stop in at Robert F. Kennedy Community Shools - just be sure to get a visitor pass at the office first.  Tell 'em Dr. Thompson sent you.

Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools 
(formerly Ambassador Hotel & The Cocoanut Grove)
701 S. Catalina St
Los Angeles, CA


Mr. Tiny


  1. This was a great post. I only wish I had someplace to go adventuring into the past. I'm inspired by your little field trip and so happy you weren't apprehended as "intruders".

    1. Thanks, Cheryl! The past is all around us; fortunately, we have Hollywood history at our fingertips here. I don't know what took me so long, but I'm your newest follower. I'm very inspired by your sewing!

  2. I had no idea they had done any renovation! Every bit counts! Great story!

    1. Thanks, Dave! Yes, all things considered, they have done a decent job.

  3. In my book this what THE best adventure day to record for the Wacky Tacky Adventure Team!

  4. Mr. Wacky, I just love your blog. You have such cute ideas and fun stories. I don't have a blog yet but your last post about blogging and wondering whether anyone is out there liking it, made me realize that even a handful of people would be worth it because that handful of people is all their friends and all the friends of them, so in some small, abstract way, if I start blogging I could share my art, my beliefs, spread goodness the way I see it. Keep blogging you have a really unique peppiness and creativity that is lacking in todays world. I think bloggin is kind of like having friends but without the awkwardness or in person time commitment which is where society is headed socially. Blogs have replaced magazines and decorating tv shows. And its wonderful to be able to stay home ,sit at my laptop, have coffee and see all these cool crafts and places.

    1. Wow! Thank you! When you start your blog, be sure to let me know!

  5. Excellent blog Chris!! I read about the remodel a few years back (after watching the movie "That Think you Do") and also read that there had been a huge estate sale for almost everything left in the hotel. I can only dream that I'd had the chance to attend that sale! As always, thanks for sharing!

    1. Can you imagine all of the cool stuff at that sale?!?!! Menus! Matchbooks!! Palm Trees!!! Thanks!