It may just be the sexiest mile and a half in America: a curvy, alluring ribbon of road called the Sunset Strip.
Since the 1930s, the portion of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood bordered on the west by Sierra Drive and Havenhurst Drive to the east, has evolved as both the true dream factory and star chamber in the complicated and tangled network of nests known as Los Angeles.
Over the years, nightclubs, supper clubs and juke joints gave way over the decades to beatniks, literary expatriates and virtually every form of music from folk to rock ‘n’ roll to glam and punk.
A trip down the Strip today is far different than it was 40, 30 or even just 10 years ago. Much of the funky, neon mystery and sex appeal has been surgically replaced with big brand names and pay-to-play venues where the ghosts of musical giants still may linger in back rooms and alleyways.
But like the dedicated dancer that she is, the sinewy and sultry Strip still offers little peeks that entice the senses; beguiling flashes of figurative flesh that still remind one just how voluptuous she once was.
So call this a Strip Tease; a chance to understand how this boulevard once lived in all its glitter and glory by peeling back the lace of time. The hints are still here. You just have to know where to look.
Heading west to east…
9015 Sunset Blvd – Villa Nova, The Mermaid Cafe & The Rainbow
Originally it was the Mermaid Café, built back in the 1920s. In the ’30s it became the Villa Nova restaurant, and it was here in 1953 where Marilyn Monroe first went on a blind date with Joe DiMaggio. Director Vincent Minnelli, who co-owned the Villa Nova, proposed to Judy Garland here.
In 1972 it was rechristened the Rainbow, an homage to the iconic song Judy Garland made famous (in a few years it would also inspire the name of Ritchie Blackmore’s band). Since the early ’70s it remains one of the premier rock ‘n’ roll haunts. It’s where Zeppelin and Bowie cavorted with famed Sunset Strip groupies once they arrived, and it’s also where John Belushi had his last meal. Jaded and perhaps a bit faded from the good old days, the rainbow may be the most true-to-form vestige left of the old classic strip.
9009 Sunset Blvd. – Largo & The Roxy
For 40 years the Roxy has served as one of the premier music clubs in the United States. It all kicked off in 1973 with a series of shows by Neil Young with Nils Lofgren opening up. Since then, there have been hundreds of memorable performances here by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Marley.
But the Roxy wasn’t always the Roxy. In the 1960s it was called Largo, and featured exotic burlesque revues. In fact, you may remember Largo from the film The Graduate, as it’s where Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, came to watch strippers as part of his meandering night through the city. On top of Largo back then was a topless club called the Phone Booth which ended up morphing into On The Rox once the Roxy opened up. But the building had a life even before entertaining rock stars and featuring topless women. Decades before Largo, this exact same structure was the Westside market; simply a neighborhood grocery store.
8919 Sunset Blvd. – The London Fog
Located just a few doors west of the Whisky a Go Go, the London Fog was a happening 1960s nightclub most notably known as the spot where The Doors had their first regular gigs. They played here frequently for several months in early 1966 before leaving the Fog and taking up residency at the Whisky. Where The Lizard King once prowled is now a nail salon.
8852 Sunset Blvd. – The Melody Room, Filthy McNasty’s, The Central & The Viper Room
The Viper Room opened in 1993 (featuring an opening night appearance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and was partly owned by the actor Johnny Depp. Halloween morning of that year, the club gained infamy when actor River Phoenix died just outside the front door. When Oliver Stone needed a nightclub to double as London Fog for his 1991 film The Doors, he used the Viper Room as his location.
Before the Viper Room opened, another club, The Central was located here in the 1980s, and it was Filthy McNasty’s in the 70s. But this venue first opened up as the Melody Room, and intimate space for jazz during the 1940s and rumor has it that it was also an illegal gambling den for such infamous gangsters as Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel.
8801 Sunset Blvd. – Tower Records
Opened in 1971 as a premier outlet of the Tower Records chain, this structure once held arguably the most famous record store in the city. The events held at Tower Records Sunset are too numerous to name, but some of the more notable ones include signings by Elton John, Aerosmith, and the time Duran Duran held a reunion concert held in the parking lot. It was never surprising to find celebrities shopping here and when many famous musicians visited Los Angeles, this was the first record store they would hit. The chain went out of business a number of years ago and while there have been efforts to put a music museum in the space, as of this writing, the building remains empty.
8798 Sunset Blvd. – Spago
Beyond just being one of the birthplaces of California Cuisine, the original Spago opened by Wolfgang Puck in 1982 was the preeminent celebrity watering hole for almost two decades. For years it hosted the famous Oscar night party held by super agent Swifty Lazar and even after the new Spago opened in Beverly Hills in the late 1990s, it still retained a lot of its mystique.
The original Spago location closed in March 2001 and today it sits empty just across from the equally empty Tower Records building. It’s a plain and drab boarded-up structure these days, though it was never that fancy to begin with. Still, seeing it today, tired and forgotten like so many over-the-hill screen stars, seems sad. With no plaque or any sort of marker, it looks like just another anonymous building. But it’s not. It’s where all the stars in the heavens once gathered.
8843 Sunset Blvd. – Ciro’s & The Comedy Store
The Comedy Store, opened in 1972, was the original comedy venue in Los Angeles. Jim Carrey got started here, David Letterman was the MC for three years and this is where Richard Pryor staged his comeback. It goes on. Eddie Murphy, David Brenner, Whoopi Goldberg, Freddie Prinze Andy Kaufman – they all played here. This was ground zero for comedy, and the place still packs them in even though the business has changed a lot since the 70s and 80s.
The structure had a completely separate life before the laughs. It was opened in 1940 as Ciro’s, and became one of the most popular nightclubs in the city. When JFK first visited Hollywood in the 1940s, he dined here. But then in the 1960s Ciro’s became a rock ‘n’ roll nightclub maintaining its original name while becoming famous once again, this time as the place where the Byrds first took off.
8401 Sunset Blvd. – The Continental Hyatt Hotel & Andaz
Few places symbolize the stripping of the strip like the old Continental Hyatt Hotel. Affectionately known as the “Riot House” because of all the rock ‘n’ roll hijinks that took place here in the early 1970s, today the hotel has been rebranded as the Andaz. Now it’s a trendy, glassy monolith; the antithesis of what it used to be. Whether that’s a good thing or bad depends on your point of view. But for those fascinated by the mythical days of Jim Morrison, Robert Plant and even Little Richard who lived in the hotel’s penthouse, it’s hard not to miss the jet set charm of this one time rock ‘n’ roll crash pad.
8301 Sunset Blvd. – The Source & Cabo Cantina
Do you remember when Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer chased his beloved Annie Hall here in the 1977 film of the same name? It was called The Source back then, and it was a popular health food restaurant that in the film was made to epitomize the New Age extremism of Los Angeles in the 1970s.
When Alvy and Annie’s meeting starts to break down, he crashes his car in the parking lot. It’s been a number of different restaurants over the years (Cajun Bistro was a hangout for Fabio) but the physical structure is essentially the same. All that’s missing is neurotic Jewish comedian chasing the woman of his dreams down the sidewalk.
8150-8152 Sunset Blvd. – The Garden of Allah
Whether or not Joni Mitchell really wrote her song “Big Yellow Taxi” about what used to stand here almost doesn’t matter. That’s been the story for so long that it seems whenever anyone hears those lines, “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot,” they automatically think of the Garden of Allah, the exotic apartment complex named after Alla Nazimova, the actress that originally owned it.
It was built as a single house in 1919 and became infamous from the debauched parties held here by the openly lesbian Nazimova. In 1927, a complex of 25 villas were erected and over the years such literary figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley lived here. In 1959, the structure was torn down and today, as we know, it is a parking lot and a strip mall. Joni Mitchell has since explained that the song was actually inspired by a parking lot she saw on her first trip to Hawaii.
8118 Sunset Blvd. – Pandora’s Box
First it was a jazz club in the late 1950s (when John Phillips, who someday would lead the Mama and the Papas, performed here as a bongo player for a month in 1958). But in 1962, Pandora’s Box became one of the hottest teen clubs on the Strip.
It was also the flashpoint of the Sunset Strip riots in 1966 when tensions boiled over between kids who hung out on the Strip and cops that were trying to enforce outmoded curfew laws. Buffalo Springfield wrote a song about what happened here called For What It’s Worth. Torn down in late 1967 among more protests and spirited gatherings, the spot where Pandora’s Box stood is today a traffic island. As with many other spots along the Strip, there is no marker or sign to educate the next generation as to what took place here.