Starry Nights At The Dream Factory: Bedding Down A Piece Of Hollywood History At The Travelodge Hotel At LAX


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For most of its history, Los Angeles has been the Dream Factory, for those who already make their living from the entertainment industry, the countless thousands arriving each year hoping to do the same, and even those who know it only from its enduring myth and legend.

There’s history aplenty for those interested enough to seek it out, some in the most unlikely places. I’ve been a regular visitor for decades and even I find places and stories I never knew.

For just that reason, I would generally base myself in Hollywood; in one easily navigated area were so many of my favourite places, all steeped in history and still existing pretty much as they always had – restaurants such as Musso & Frank, and Miceli’s; bars – Boardners and the Frolic Room; cinemas – the Chinese and the Egyptian, and slightly more modern classics as the Cinerama Dome; bookstores and purveyors of entertainment ephemera – Larry Edmunds; and music and DVD stores – Amoeba Music.

Although it was more than a touch Midnight Cowboy with its hookers and hustlers, I was happy there, staying at a very humble hotel behind the Hollywood & Highland development. The facilities were basic but the staff friendly and breakfast included for less than $US100 a night.

As Hollywood gentrified, the sex shops and strippers’ outfitters gradually edged out by hip bars and cafes, prices edged up and my humble accommodation now runs towards $US250 including taxes. Even the formerly run-down 1960s motels along Sunset or on Hollywood Blvd east of the freeway, that used to rent out by the hour, are now made over with little more than a retro pallet and cost the same.

In terms of accommodation prices, LA is now the New York City of the West Coast. Anywhere worth staying is astronomical. Santa Monica? Forget about it. Beverly Hills or West Hollywood? The same. Even downtown, where squalid once-abandoned office buildings have been transformed into shiny minimalist loft apartments and there seems to be a Whole Foods on every corner

 

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On the last trip, I took a chance on a reasonably-priced airport hotel and really hit the jackpot. I knew the location – the corner of West Century (the main artery leading into the LAX terminals) and Aviation Boulevard, the price was right (about $US160 including tax and breakfast, about half the price of the anonymous big chain brands) and it had a retro look that piqued my interest.

If I’d paid strict attention to TripAdvisor, perhaps I’d have passed it by. Comments were pretty evenly split between “hidden gem” and “dump”, service between “friendly and efficient” and “cold and rude”. Even factoring in the “reading between the lines” factor necessary for TripAdvisor, something told me it was worth further investigation.

And, boy, am I glad I did.

The Travelodge Hotel At LAX is a charming retro throw-back, a low-rise (just two stories) mid-century survivor with motel-style units grouped around a large swimming pool. There’s parking on-site and a Denny’s restaurant with attached cocktail bar.

There’s a couple of aspects of the Travelodge that immediately impressed me. The first was the check-in. The front desk staff were friendly and personable; disregard the TripAdvisor complaints, put them down to the usual impossible-to-please whingers who tend to populate feedback sites.

The second was, considering the vintage of the property, just how well-maintained it was. Throughout the public areas, and particularly around the pool, the gardens were splashed with vivid colour. The neatness and tidiness spoke of an evident pride. The pool furniture was arranged just-so, the pathways swept clean, no rubbish or cigarette butts littering the garden beds.

 

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I was just as impressed with the accommodation. Over the years, I stayed at just about every LAX hotel and the Travelodge is now my favourite. Sure, it’s an older property but it’s clean, extremely comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, the bed was just as comfortable as a Westin or Sheraton.

The furnishings are plush and have an agreeably retro feel, quite in keeping with the property’s historic charm. During my stay, I posted on Instagram that my room was like staying in the Captain and Tennille’s pool cabana and that pretty much sums up the ambience.

And although the wing I was in ran parallel to Aviation Blvd, with the air-conditioning on, I couldn’t hear any traffic noise. For an airport hotel on a major intersection, it was miraculously quiet.

LA is the sort of city where a car is a necessity. However, if you’re there for a short stay, public bus stops are a short walk away; in the one direction, the Big Blue Bus goes to Santa Monica. In the other, a shuttle runs to the Aviation/LAX station, part of the Green Line of the city’s Metro Rail system. From there, it’s easy to access Long Beach, Downtown, Hollywood and as far north as Universal Studios and North Hollywood.

So there I was, happy enough that I’d found such a charming, cosy and comfortable, well-situated and reasonably-priced hotel with friendly and personable staff. What more could I ask for?

The answer was awaiting me tucked inside the guest compendium. It told the history of the Travelodge At LAX with quite a few surprises in store. For example, the little-known background to one of the country’s most prominent hotel chains (no, not the Travelodge).

 

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Although initially I was pretty sure the hotel was vintage 1960s. I was off by a decade. The hotel opened in 1953, built and operated by an LA businessman and man about town by the name of Hyatt van Dehn.

It was originally called the Hyatt House and was the first hotel to support an airport that had opened in 1930 as Mines Field. The city had a number of small private airfields and, by the time commercial airlines started operating following the end of World War II, the major airport was Lockheed Field at Burbank, now known as Bob Hope Airport. But, by the closing years of the 1940s, such major airlines as American, Trans World, United and Western switched across to Mines Field and in 1949 it officially became Los Angeles International Airport.

Business was good at the Hyatt House and added another wing in 1955. Hyatt was young, handsome and wealthy and, while a well-connected businessman, he was more frequently mentioned in the gossip columns for his love life. His second wife, Ginny Sims, was a singer and actress, a featured vocalist with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. In the 1940s, her records sold in the millions and she had a long movie contract with RKO studios, later moving on to MGM.

Hyatt and Ginny lived in a Beverly Hills home designed by renowned modernist LA architect, Paul Williams (incidentally, he co-designed the iconic flying saucer form of the Theme Building, part of the 1961 redevelopment of the LAX terminals as we known them today).

Hyatt and Ginny had what could best be termed a tempestuous relationship and by 1951 had been married and divorced twice. They remained friends, though, after the final separation and Ginny, who also embarked as a career as an interior decorator, was involved in furnishing the Hyatt House.

In 1957, a Chicago businessman by the name of Jay Pritzker was sitting in Fat Eddie’s, the coffee shop of the Hyatt House. He was the grandson of Nicholas Pritzker, who had brought his family from the Ukraine to the United States in the late 19th century and opened a law firm in Chicago in 1902.

 

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Ginny Sims and Hyatt van Dehn at home in Beverly Hills (credit: University of Missouri – Kansas City: Dave E. Dexter Jr Collection)

 

 

Jay’s own father, Abram, was prominent in the family business; something of a prodigy, Jay, graduated from high school at the age of 14 and took a managerial role in steering the company towards owning and managing extensive real estate holdings.

Jay was always on the lookout for investment opportunities; the Hyatt House was uncommonly busy and it got him thinking. Then and there, he decided the Pritzker family should get into the hotel business. He scrawled an offer of $2.2 million on a paper napkin and asked that it be forwarded along to Hyatt van Dehn.

The offer was accepted; Jay was in something of a bind. The impulse purchase of the family’s first hotel had him at a loss as to a name. It was well recognised as the Hyatt House so he kept it as such.

Years later, Jay told the Chicago Daily News that the Hyatt was “simply the first first-class hotel that I had ever seen at an airport”. He kept the strategy going along the West Coast. Jay’s second Hyatt hotel was at Burlingame, near the San Francisco International Airport. Within four years, there were six Hyatt hotels and the company went public in 1967 (it became a Travelodge, part of the Wyndham branding, in 1994).

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Travelodge had its share of celebrity guests. Cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, would stay in Room 131 when they were flying in and out for personal appearances. Greg Morris, an actor best known for his role as Barney Collier on the hit television show, Mission Impossible, preferred Room 232. Rock’n’roll performer Little Richard and actor Patrick Stewart were also frequent guests.

The history contained within the guest compendium gave me a deeper appreciation of the Travelodge At LAX. Although there is at least one whimsical detail.

 

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Ginny Sims

 

We’re told that Howard Hughes and Jane Russell occupied Room 225 during the filming of The Outlaw. It does make a good story, and that’s what the Dream Factory has always been about. Except for the fact that The Outlaw was filmed in 1941, twelve years before the hotel was built.

And Russell was one of the least likely Hollywood actresses to have an affair (discounting her association with actor John Payne in the early 1940s). She was extremely conservative, a devout Catholic and married her high school sweetheart in 1943, a marriage that lasted for 25 years.

The occasional fact-checking glitch aside, the Travelodge is still an endearingly authentic historic Los Angeles artefact, a piece of history that also a fun, comfortable, friendly and centrally-located hotel. And whenever I’m heading to the US, what else could I really ask for?

© words and photos 1,2,3,4 & 7 David Latta 2016

 

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The Collector’s Life: The Mexican Spitfire – Lupe Velez and Hollywood’s Ultimate Indignity


Lupe in East Is West (1930)
Lupe in East Is West (1930)

 

Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.

Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.

And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.

I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931
Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.

It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.

Larry Edmunds was always good for movie stills, even if they were modern restrikes. Later, on eBay, I would uncover a couple of reputable sellers of wonderful vintage photos at ridiculously good prices (see my earlier blog –  https://davidlatta.org/2013/09/19/the-collectors-life-lester-glassner-and-the-nobility-of-the-continuum/ ).

Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)
With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.

Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).

While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.

East Is West (1930)
East Is West (1930)

From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.

It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.

However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.

Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)
With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.

Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.

What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).

In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s own collection