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In its early days, the Sunset Strip was surrounded by avocado groves and poinsettia fields, like this one on Sunset Boulevard near Doheny.

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Born to be wild

How a dusty road became the Sunset Strip—the most famous place in LA to misbehave

Capt. Clyde Plummer, head of the District Attorney’s vice detail, rounded-up his men. It was January 31, 1930, and they were headed to a notorious portion of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, the winding thoroughfare long known as the “County Strip.” They were paying a visit to an address they already knew well: 8477 Sunset Boulevard, where a mansion zoned for residential use was operating as The Sphinx Club.

When no one answered their knocks, the lawmen kicked in the door. Inside, they found a crowded, sophisticated casino, complete with a roulette wheel and card games.

The patrons, numerous prominent Angelenos among them, were allowed to leave without being questioned. But, according to the Los Angeles Times, five men were arrested, including a man who gave his name as Frank Harris. He was actually George Goldie, a notorious gambler, who helped run the Strip for decades.

However bombastic, the raid proved futile. Within weeks the roadhouse was back in operation, and it would eventually become famous as The Clover Club.

Today, the County Strip is known as the legendary Sunset Strip. From the get-go, this 1.7-mile stretch of road has been a party mecca for celebrities and normal’s alike, who continue to make trouble—both good and bad—on one of LA’s most fabled streets.

The iconic thoroughfare began as a tiny, 600-foot dirt road near the old Plaza, according to Joe Kennelley and Ron Hankey, authors of Sunset Blvd: America’s Dream Street. As Los Angeles grew, so did it.

“By the late 1880s, this broad, dusty ribbon was being extended farther west to link up with wagon trails coming from nearby farms,” Amy Dawes writes in Sunset Blvd: Cruising the Heart of Los Angeles. “Sunset Boulevard was first recorded in city street department documents in 1888, and thereafter its growth was chronicled incrementally as it was graded, paved and pushed farther west.”

Dawes says the street was named by a city employee, who perhaps noticed the beauty of the setting sun as they traveled westward on the road.

As Sunset Boulevard was stretching slowly towards it, the area now known as West Hollywood was, like much of Los Angeles in its early days, pastoral farm land dotted by gracious rural homes like the Plummer Estate and Cielo Vista, the estate of Charles Harper, a prominent early Angeleno.

What would become the heart of the Sunset Strip was the 240-acre ranch of Belgian-born banker Victor Ponet, whose gracious home stood on what is now the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Plaza Drive, surrounded by “avocado groves and poinsettia fields.”

Ponet’s property became known as part of Sherman, though it was still owned by his family. In 1906, a new 140-acre residential development in Sherman called Hacienda Park was announced. To reach the new neighborhood, Sunset Boulevard was extended to Ponet’s land.

Sunset Boulevard was extended west to “link up with wagon trails coming from nearby farms.” Pictured here is a casaba melon field near the corner of Sunset and Harper.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Since Sherman was an unincorporated town, it fell under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department of Los Angeles County. That meant oversight of the area was relatively lax. Soon rudimentary, low-lying speakeasies, along with LGBTQ-friendly clubs and informal casinos flourished on the unincorporated part of Sunset Boulevard.

Squished between “dry” Hollywood and the new movie-star haven of Beverly Hills, the “County Strip” became the main thoroughfare for filmmakers traveling from work to home and back again.

With the implementation of Prohibition in 1920, the Strip’s lawless allure only swelled, and while growth accelerated, the Strip retained a rural, makeshift feel.

Around 1924, Ponet’s son-in-law Francis Montgomery commissioned the Strip’s first significant commercial development—four Georgian Revival-style buildings, which he called Sunset Plaza. A year later, in 1925, Sherman, itching for the glamour and recognition of its famous neighbor, renamed itself West Hollywood.

“Like a healthy, outdoor child, Sherman has suddenly burst all her old dresses and thinks while she is getting a wardrobe, suitable for a fully-grown girl, she might as well discard plain ‘Mary’ and become up-to-date ‘Marie,’” the Los Angeles Times joked.

Its pretensions were boosted by movie stars including Wallace Reid, William S. Hart, Lon Chaney, and Alla Nazimova who had moved to palatial homes in the area.

The Strip’s first significant commercial development was Sunset Plaza.
The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Sunset Plaza was soon occupied by real estate developers, insurance offices, and a gift shop owned by a Romanian art dealer named Michael Tocaxe. Its most famous tenant was the dimly lit Russian Eagle Café, a restaurant and reputed speakeasy at 8648 Sunset owned by General Theodore Lodijensky, a former Russian Imperial Army officer and movie bit player.

Called a “haunt of motion-picture stars” by the Los Angeles Times, the café was frequented by silent stars including Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore, Alla Nazimova, and Ramon Novarro. According to Sheila Weller, author of Dancing at Ciro’s, it was rumored that opium was smoked in the exclusive back room.

The evening of June 7, 1928 was a typical star-studded night at the Russian Eagle. Boxer Jack Dempsey and his movie-star wife Estelle Taylor had just left. Though reports vary, it seems Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson’s husband Marquis de la Falaise, director Eddie Sutherland, actress Lili Damita, and movie-star Colleen Moore were all still on the premises when tenants noticed oil soaking through the ceiling.

Soon the smell of gas filled the Russian Eagle. A fire broke out. Its county address was this time a nuisance, as it took forever for the fire department to arrive. Chaplin and Sutherland, holding a hose, helped battle the blaze.

Originally known as the La Boheme from 1929 to 1933, the Trocadero was opened by The Hollywood Reporter publish Billy Wilkerson in 1934.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Minutes later, with the blaze under control, Lodijensky and fire officials went to the basement to check the gas meter. They were met by a massive explosion that threw them to the ground and destroyed the Russian Eagle.

Gossip about who had started the fire spread swiftly thorough out LA’s café society. Lodijensky’s cousin told the Los Angeles Times he believed “the explosion was the work of rival restaurant owners or members of a liquor ring.”

But it was quickly determined Tocaxe, the Romanian gift shop owner with an imperfect grasp of the English language, was the main culprit. The public was titillated, and the Los Angeles Times reported on the arson trial daily.

When Tocaxe took the stand in his defense, he claimed the fire and subsequent explosion had been heaven sent. “It was an act of God,” he claimed according to the Los Angeles Times. “I frequently burned candles to the Virgin and through this form of worship the hanging on the wall caught fire and started the disaster.”

The jury was out for only 20 minutes before convicting Tocaxe of arson.

Another legendary speakeasy on the County Strip opened in 1927. The Café La Boheme at 8610 Sunset would become famous as a safe haven for both Hollywood demimonde and the LGBTQ community. The owner was a former Metropolitan Opera star named Joseph Borgia. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Taking the ideas he gathered at the numerous Latin Quarter cafes while in Paris, he turned in a great combination of them all with the completion of Café La Boheme. The interior of the café is strikingly Parisian with private dining-rooms that are dimly lighted, surrounding the main dance room. Open booths with old oak tables and benches are aptly located. The wall beams are hung low and olden chandeliers of wrought iron hang graciously from their supports.

A “celebrity wall” was quickly filled with signatures and sketches by Borgia’s famous patrons. The Los Angeles Times reported breathlessly on one movie-star rich night which included silent stars Fifi D’Orsay, Polly Mann, Charlie Farrell, and James Cagney. The Café was also a popular spot for dance fads, which were all the rage during prohibition.

“Our new cooling system will keep the most vigorous dancer cool,” Borgia told the Los Angeles Times in 1928. “At present time a ‘varsity drag contest’ is being conducted there under the direction of Bud Murray, stage Director of ‘Good News’ and one of the country’s leading exponents of the varsity drag.”

The Café La Boheme also featured another kind of drag. Female impersonators, including a drag Joan Crawford, performed frequently at the Café in “yards and yards of lace and feathers,” according to the city of West Hollywood’s commercial historic resources survey. It would be a forerunner of bars on the Strip that welcomed gay and lesbian patrons, who found it a more tolerant place to live openly.

Occasionally, the sheriff did come calling. The notorious residence at 8477 Sunset, known at different times as Sphinx Club, Hahn Club, Club Sokoloeff, and later the Clover Club would be raided for both liquor violations and gambling. (It was eventually torn down, and now the address holds a run-of-the-mill retail center that includes Pink Dot.) The Moscow Inn at 8353 Sunset was also raided often.

“In 1929, prominent local underworld figure Homer ‘Slim’ Gordon briefly operated a gambling club in the former home of the late actor Wallace Reid,” according to author J.H. Graham. “Les Bruneman managed a club at 8428 Sunset in 1930 at the time he was mixed up in the kidnapping of bookmaker Zeke Caress.”

Alongside the nightclubs and speakeasies, legitimate development began to flourish on the Strip in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

Postcards of Chateau Marmont from around the time it opened in 1929.
California State Library

On the eastern tip, the legendary Chateau Marmont opened in 1929. Originally a luxury apartment building, the French Norman castle was built by local attorney Fred Horowitz as an investment property.

According to Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars, on February 1 of that year the Marmont had its grand opening. More than 300 guests were met by a receiving line of perfectly dressed maids and managerial staff ready to provide the perfect experience to their guests.

Reviews were generally positive, like this one from the tabloid Saturday Night: “Los Angeles’s newest, finest and most exclusive apartment house… superbly situated, close enough to active businesses to be accessible and far enough away to insure quiet and privacy.” But many potential residents were initially turned off by the outrageous rents, which ran up to $750 per month.

Across the street was the decadent Garden of Allah, Alla Nazimova’s famous bohemian hotel which catered to writers like Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Movie agents and managers began to open offices along the strip, finding the location a convenient mid-point for them and their clients. (The hotel was later razed to build a bank.)

In 1929, silent movie stars and real estate mavens Constance and Norma Talmadge built the Norma Talmadge Building at 8720 Sunset. Their agent was one of the first to move in. The Leland Bryant-designed Argyle at 8358 Sunset, originally a luxury apartment building, opened a year later. The Montgomery brothers continued to expand the Sunset Plaza commercial district into the mid-1930s.

The repeal of prohibition in 1933 marked a turning point for the Strip. Speakeasies could now go “straight,” and real money could go into the nightspots that the area had become known for. But the real transformation would be brought about by a gambling addict, mob associate and crack journalist named Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the fabled The Hollywood Reporter.

According to author Shelia Weller, “Norma Shearer came up to him at a party and said, ‘Billy, it’s a pity there isn’t a good place we can go at night where we won’t be hounded by autograph seekers.’”

Wilkerson saw an opportunity. In 1934, he took over the building until recently occupied by the quirky Café La Boheme. In its place, he opened the glittering, Trocadero, a nightclub that would attract big stars, big money, and big-time mobsters.

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