My intention with this article was to concentrate solely on the Cocoanut Grove, the nightclub housed in the Ambassador Hotel for decades. However, the Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove go hand in hand and it is nearly impossible to separate the two so this will be a larger, more encompassing piece than I had initially planned.
The Ambassador Hotel opened on January 1, 1921. The hotel was designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt and was part of the Ambassador Hotels Systems, which go on to contain 67 hotels across the nation before being dissolved in the 1930s.
Located at 3400 Wilshire Blvd the property sat on over 23 acres of land. It was the ultimate hotel with regards to opulent decadence for its day and was the template for what hotels in Las Vegas would become. 1,200 hotel rooms and bungalows, a grand lobby with crystal chandeliers and oriental carpets, golf courses, tennis courts, and Olympic-size pools.
The property also contained 37 specialty stores including jewelry shops, an art gallery, a cigar shop, a post office, and a European import shop called the Continental.
Many celebrities lived at the Ambassador Hotel throughout the years. Charlie Chaplin lived there in the early 20s. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda stayed at a bungalow in 1927, which they promptly trashed and set on fire in a drunken haze. In 1964 the Beatles were booked to stay at the Ambassador but their reservation was canceled due to the swarm of fans that had surrounded the building and security concerns.
The first nightclub to open inside the Ambassador was the Zinnia Grill. It was too small to accommodate the demand, however. A plan was devised to convert the grand ballroom into a nightclub and the Cocoanut Grove was born.
The Cocoanut Grove opened on April 21, 1921, and instantly became a fixture for Hollywood’s major players.
Ambassador PR Director, Margaret Tante Burk, recalled the Grove’s opening night:
“…on the night of April 21, 1921… the new club officially opened its Moroccan style, gold leaf and etched palm tree doors… The Cocoanut Grove was aptly named, guests agreed as they were escorted by the maître de and captains down the wide plush grand staircase… Overhead, soaring about the room were cocoanut trees of papier mache, cocoanuts and palm fronds which had been rescued from the sandy beaches of Oxnard where they had served as atmosphere of the 1921 classic, The Sheik. Swinging from their branches were stuffed monkeys blinking at the revelers with their electrified amber eyes. Stars twinkled in the blue ceiling sky, and on the southernmost wall hung a full Hawaiian moon presiding over a painted landscape and splashing waterfall.”
Some of the famous stars that partied the night away at the Grove in the early years included Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Louis B. Mayer, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Valentino.
Many celebrities performed at the Cocoanut Grove over the years including Richard Pryor, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, the Supremes, and Sonny and Cher.
In 1930 the second Academy Awards Ceremony was held at the Ambassador. Over the next 13 years, the ceremony would be held here an additional 7 times. Sporadically it was also the location of the Golden Globe awards throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Ambassador was a fitting locale for these ceremonies since over 120 movies were filmed there over the years including Foxy Brown, The Graduate, and Pretty Woman.
During WW2 the Cocoanut Grove would become a hot spot for GIs on leave. Around this same time in 1945, Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe) paid $100 for hair, makeup, and charm lessons from the Blue Book Modeling Agency which had offices at the hotel at the time.
The Ambassador Hotel faced notoriety for criminal activity beginning in the late 1960s. The first such incident occurred infamously on June 5, 1968, when Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel’s Embassy Room. In 1971 the jury for the Manson trial was sequestered for 225 days at the Ambassador.
The hotel began to fall out of favor around this time because of changing demographics in the area including gang activities. By 1989 the Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove were out of business.
The following year, a company was established, Ambassador Films, to lease the locale for film production. During this period movies including Sister Act, Seven, Apollo 13 were shot here. Amazingly, The Aviator, which has several scenes at the Ambassador Hotel/Cocoanut Grove was not filmed here.
In 2005 the site was razed. It is now the home of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Park.