West Hollywood is Los Angeles. It’s the glitz. It’s the glamour. It’s the iconic vistas of the Hollywood sign and the fantasies of international stardom. With its immense influence on global culture, it’s fitting the history of this neighborhood is filled with dramatic twists and turns akin to the thrilling plotlines of the films produced on its streets. Here are six historical facts you didn’t know about West Hollywood.
Just as Times Square was once a farm in the 17th century, West Hollywood also had agricultural origins. The world-renowned restaurants, hotels, and clubs of this neighborhood stand on a former 240-acre avocado grove from the early 18th century.
In that day, West Hollywood’s most famous thoroughfare, the Sunset Strip, was a mere 6000 foot-long dirt road that linked wagon trails from nearby farms. The dusty road slowly grew to connect other farms and rural homes, growing the strip’s significance in the area.
The region was first mentioned by The New York Times in 1897, which claimed the neighborhood would ultimately “tend to its settlement, so that before many years the foothills will present an unbroken succession of beautiful suburban homes.” Gazing at the stunning residences dotting those same foothills, one can see that the Times correctly predicted West Hollywood’s glamorous present from over 120 years ago.
West Hollywood is highly regarded for its vibrant LGBTQ community, which owes a debt to the area’s railroad workers of the 1890s. Originally named Sherman, this fiercely independent neighborhood refused to be incorporated into the Los Angeles city jurisdiction.
When prohibition began in the 1920s, the town benefited from being outside the law as casinos sprouted up like Mexican fan palms and alcohol flowed like the Los Angeles River. Decadence and excess flowered in these establishments and paved the way for a wild and eccentric party scene.
By the 1920s, popular haunts like the Garden of Allah — where Marilyn Monroe was discovered while lounging by the pool — were regularly throwing raucous, star-studded parties, which attracted a steady stream of gay clientele. This atmosphere spilled over into nearby clubs like Ciros, which held weekly “T-Dances” where gay men could dance together.
By the mid-20th century, the future of West Hollywood as a gay destination was sealed when locals resisted the passing of strict city ordinances targeting their population. Nowadays, West Hollywood is considered a queer mecca, and its identity as such is proudly embraced.
Fay Wray, famous for her portrayal of Ann Darrow in 1933’s King Kong, subverted her hapless image when she refused to be a victim of an extortion attempt. A former schoolmate of Wray’s, Lyon Bernard, was broke at the time and thought he could squeeze $2,000 out of this wildly successful figure from his childhood.
Wray received a note in West Hollywood on July 14, 1928, ordering her to leave a payment of that sum in the bushes on Sunset and Laurel or her mother could be killed. Not to be trifled with, Wray immediately called the police to set up a sting operation.
Detectives staked out the area of the drop-off, and Wray left the money as instructed in the note. Minutes later, Bernard arrived to collect his payment and was promptly arrested. Wray escaped the ordeal with her mother’s safety intact, and she didn’t lose a cent.
There are few buildings in Los Angeles imbued with as much Hollywood history as the elegant and iconic Chateau Marmont. Entire books have been written about its past, and the stars (and their scandals) of every Hollywood era have found their way inside the hallowed walls of the hotel.
This did not entirely happen by chance. Built in 1929 as an apartment building, the elegant and private accommodations were attractive to the Hollywood elite. The Chateau’s allure carried on once the establishment was converted into the hotel we know today during the 1930s. It was then that the mischief and glorious depravity began.
Motion picture codes of that era were very specific in what could be portrayed on screen. Every form of sexual implication, blasphemous expression, and other elements deemed “vulgar” had to be removed from a film before it was permitted for screening. This obsession with purity put pressure on the stars to maintain the studios’ conservative image, and their personal lives were carefully manipulated.
Needless to say, these actors and actresses were eager to indulge in the pleasures of their fame and fortune, and they were not interested in being straight-laced. Harry Cohn, then head of Columbia Pictures, famously advised his young stars: “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” From then on, the hotel became the industry’s favorite spot to attend wild parties, have affairs, and do all sordid things the studios pretended they did not do.
West Hollywood’s lively and progressive culture scene nurtured monumental changes in music and entertainment. It was also the invention site of a common fixture at dance clubs: the go-go dancer. Specifically, the infamous and still-running Whiskey a Go Go club brought this form of amusement to the world.
Opened in 1964, this club played a significant role in the rock-n-roll scene of the era, shepherding the early careers of The Doors, Southern California, Led Zeppelin, and others. Needless to say, it quickly became a nightlife hotspot.
Elmer Valentine, one of the club’s founders, wanted female DJs to play music while bands were between sets so their patrons could continue dancing. Since the dance floor was too small for a DJ booth, Valentine constructed a glass platform elevated over the floor to house it. He then recruited one of the club’s cigarette girls and two other dancers to perform. Donning white boots and fringed dresses and dancing high above the crowd, the go-go dancer was born.
Decades before the invention of Twitter, Instagram, and other social media self-promotion tools, the promoters of West Hollywood’s Gazzarri’s accurately predicted that upcoming musical groups wouldn’t be able to rely on talent alone to thrive — their ability to hustle would determine their future.
Like many nearby rock clubs, Gazzarri was a launching pad for popular bands and helped make the area the most influential rock ‘n’ roll scene outside of London. Around this time, record companies spent less money on promotion than before and started sending talent scouts to these clubs instead.
Promoters quickly recognized that playing at the Gazzarri was a career-changing opportunity for aspiring bands, and they started to cash in. These entrepreneurs booked out nights at the club and sold 45-minute performance slots to bands for up to a thousand dollars. This new system put the onerous task of promotion on the musicians themselves.
Bands eager for success like Van Halen and Guns N’Roses not only paid to play but also used street-smart hustle skills like handing out flyers and advertising in local magazines to make the system work for them, paving the way for their future success.
But for every band like Guns N’Roses, there were hundreds of others (many equally as talented) that never mastered the art of self-promotion and were lost to obscurity. Such was the cut-throat world of rock 'n’ roll in West Hollywood during the 70s.
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