F.Y.I The Sunset Strip
Few stretches of urban land have as many stories to tell as the Sunset Strip. Over the past century, the West Hollywood section of Sunset Boulevard has been a magnet for society swells and star makers, powerful moguls and dreamers, the well-heeled and gold-diggers.
It’s hard to believe there was once little to see on this one-and-a-half-mile-long commercial stop on every tourist’s checklist but avocado and poinsettia orchards. What happened? The 1920s. When the motion picture industry exploded, so did Los Angeles, and the Hollywood elite needed a special place to call their own. Exclusive shops and restaurants started cropping up, and by the 1930s, hotels and nightclubs followed suit. The word was out: the Sunset Strip is the place to party.
Is any street in the world more synonymous with boldface names than Sunset Boulevard? Back in the day, anyone who was anyone had to be seen on the Strip. Nightclubs were the center of the glitterati universe, attracting marquee idols like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Cary Grant. It’s where unknown hopefuls Jackie Gleason and Judy Garland got their shot at the big time, and where industry bigwigs like Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck came for high-stakes backroom poker. John Wayne, Howard Hughes, and Hugh Hefner all called the Strip home.
Later on, rock and roll took the west coast by storm by way of the world-famous Whisky A Go Go. Countless legendary careers were launched at the Whisky, from Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, and Otis Redding to the Ramones, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, and Dead Kennedys. The longest-running club on the Strip, the Whisky opened in 1954 and hasn't stopped rocking every night since at 8901 Sunset Blvd.
And speaking of rock and roll royalty, The Doors and Van Halen served as house bands at the nearby, now defunct, Gazzarri’s, and a young singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen played a breakthrough show a few doors down at the Roxy.
Comedy and Tragedy on the Strip
If the names Jim Carrey, David Letterman, Michael Keaton, and Howie Mandel ring a bell, it’s because they all honed their acts during Amateur Nights (imagine that!) at the Comedy Store, founded in 1972.
That’s not to say Sunset Strip hasn’t seen its share of broken hearts and scandal. The other shrine for standup, the Laugh Factory, is the scene of Seinfeld’s Michael Richards’ unfortunate racist outburst in 2006. The club responded by banning comedians from using the “n-word” during their acts. Perhaps Damon Wayans didn’t care about the $20 fine for each offense the night he dropped the n-bomb 16 times in his 20-minute set.
Additionally, Johnny Depp’s Viper Room, where River Phoenix and Sid Vicious had their last hurrahs, was cursed with bad karma before he sold it. And John Belushi had his last meal at the Rainbow Bar and Grill before his fatal drug overdose in 1982.
Ready for My Closeup
For Hollywood types, the Strip isn’t just a playground; it’s their office. The quintessential Tinsel Town boulevard has long been a backdrop—and an inspiration—for the silver screen. Young wannabes chased their show biz dreams here in Sunset Strip (2000) and Rock of Ages (2012). The bittersweet ending of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) was filmed at a Sunset Strip café. Several scenes of Sunset Boulevard (1950), that grande dame of Hollywood stories, were shot on the Strip.
Then there’s Burlesque (2010), the backstage musical set in a fictional Sunset Strip burlesque club. Filming took place all around L.A., but oddly enough, not a single frame was shot on the Strip itself.
The Sunset Strip has even been a main character. The 2012 documentary Sunset Strip turns a warts-and-all lens on “L.A.'s Champs-Élysées” with a galaxy of stars weighing in: Paris Hilton, Johnny Depp, Sofia Coppola, Courtney Love, Lemmy, Mickey Rourke, Phyllis Diller, Dan Aykroyd, Slash, Keanu Reeves, Ozzy Osbourne, Carmen Electra, Sharon Stone–the list goes on and on. It seems like everyone has something to say about the Strip.
Of course, television hasn’t been immune to the Strip’s allure either. Ever since the 1950s, it’s been glamorized on popular series like 77 Sunset Strip and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—and some not-so-memorable ones, for that matter.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Don’t be surprised if you hear the laughing ghost of Humphrey Bogart when you visit the Comedy Store. The club stands on the site of the former Ciro’s, the famed nightclub frequented by Bogey and Lauren Bacall along with pretty much every other top Hollywood notable of the 1940s and ‘50s. All the icons would gather here after a tough day on the sound stage: Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz, to name a few.
However, just like anywhere else, history never stops marching along Sunset Boulevard. It’s inevitable: many of the Strip’s most sacred spots are no more. Yesterday’s chic nightclub becomes today’s trendy boutique hotel. A grand old apartment building makes way for a high-rise of luxury condos.
Yet while there’s not much left of the Villa Nova, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio first met and where Vincente Minelli proposed to Judy Garland, you can feel the vibes of Elvis, Ringo, and John Lennon in the Rainbow Bar and Grill, which is the joint that replaced it. And while you can’t visit the glamorous Café Trocadero, former haunt of stars like Clark Gable and Lana Turner, you can imagine them as time-travelers on just about the same spot, sampling the dim sum at Chin Chin.
Okay, so you don’t have to imagine that. Just remember that a walk on the Sunset Strip is a walk through 100 years of American culture and a celebration of our most colorful icons. And it still dazzles today, 24/7, with a head-spinning variety of clubs, shops, eateries, and celebrity sightings. Not bad for a former avocado grove.