Tuesday, 11 May 2010

CITY OF ANGELS: On Sunset, part 1 - Introduction

Sunset Boulevard, one of the longest streets in the world, stretches all the way from the Silverlake neighbourhood of Los Angeles to Pacific Palisades.

The section between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Doheny Drive is known as The Strip. During LA's early days, strip was term used for parcels of land which were not incorporated. In those days, what is now referred to as Sunset Strip - or simply The Strip - was merely a loose connection between Hollywood and Los Angeles.

In its humble beginnings nothing but a horse trail, the Strip, nowadays dubbed the billboard capital of the world, turned into Hollywood's playground in the early 1930s when the legendary nightclub, Trocadero, opened its doors on 8610 Sunset Boulevard on 17 September, 1934.

Then, as again today, the Strip is home to many of Hollywood's most popular hang-outs and eateries. During Hollywood's heyday, one could hear Eartha Kitt perform at Ciro's, wine and dine at La Rue, dance the night away at the Mocambo, or enjoy an evening at Earl Carroll's, who advertised his nightclub with the words, "thru these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world", referring to the nightly performance of his Vanities. Another legendary haunt - also long gone - was Alla Nazimova's The Garden of Allah. Nazimova, a silent movie actress of Russian origin, launched her hostelry in 1921, turning it into the hub of Hollywood's social life during the 1930s and 40s. A multitude of Hollywood luminaries resided in the hotel's famous bungalows, which were scattered around a large-sized swimming-pool in the shape of the Black Sea.

8024 Sunset Boulevard was the home of Schwab's drugstore - also long gone - suitably located across the street from The Garden of Allah. Sadly, in the 1980s Schwab's was torn down to make room for a shopping mall. But thanks to Billy Wilder, Schwab's has been immortalised in his 1950s classic, Sunset Boulevard. Nazimova's Garden of Allah on the other hand was faced with an equally unfortunate fate, for what used to be the playground of the Bogarts and countless others, has since been converted into a parking lot. In that instance, it was singer Toni Mitchell who immortalised it in her song Big, Yellow Taxi, in which she laments that "where once was a dream there now is a parking lot".

Truth be told, while most buildings on Hollywood Boulevard escaped the march of progress inasmuch as they were merely mutilated, many of the historic buildings on Sunset fell victim to a relentless building boom and were razed for the sake of profit in the guise of shopping malls, parking lots and the like. The Trocadero is gone, and so is the Mocambo. And although the shell of Ciro's is still standing, it only bares a vague resemblance to what it used to be. The same goes for the Preston Sturges-owned The Players. Nonetheless, some of yesteryear's dinosaurs are still standing - and going strong, like the Chateau Marmont or the Argyle Hotel, then called Sunset Towers, and over the years new buildings and cutting-edge clubs and hotels such as The Mondrian, The Standard or The Viper Room have joined existing ones, and together they contribute to the Strip's inherent blend of of the hot, the hip, and the whacky.

To me - and I am aware that I may well be alone in this - one of the most exciting, invigorating things to do when in Los Angeles, is riding on my bicycle, westwards along Sunset Boulevard at - yes, you guessed it: sunset! - in early autumn. The light alone would be enough to make it memorable. But with all those palm trees that are lining both sides of the street, set against the evening, sapphire-blue California sky, those giant bill boards and neons perched high up atop of houses and hotels in addition to Sunset's unique hotchpotch of architecture, and zipping past all those landmarks into the serenity of Beverly Hills - it simply is an unparalleled experience!

>>> Note: This post will be followed up tomorrow with a guided tour along Sunset Boulevard and its historic buildings.