Billy Wilkerson was a true entrepreneur during Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was also a criminal. A native of Tennesee, Wilkerson was in the speakeasy business in New York City during Prohibition. Eventually, he made his way from The Big Apple to Tinseltown.
After founding The Hollywood Reporter in 1930 he turned his attention to nightlife in the City of Angeles by opening several joints around town. The most famous of these was a nightclub called Ciro’s.
Wilkerson opened Ciro’s in 1940, Wilkerson wanted a place where the stars would come out to play. His thought was that this would help him gain access to celebrities in a more relaxed environment, which would help his trade rag get scoops.
It was the place to be seen in the 1940s and 50s, smack dab in the middle of the Sunset Strip, a handful of blocks from Beverly Hills. The proximity to the stars was a part of its appeal. So were big-name performers like Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington who started to be brought in by the second owner Herman Hoover in 1942.
The interior of Ciro’s was designed by George Vernon Russell and Tom Douglas whose touches and panache were a Christmas-Esque explosion of color and texture, with red silk sofas, ceilings painted a matching red, and walls draped in heavy ribbed silk dyed pale pastel green.
One of the features Wilkerson had in this place, where gangsters and starlets rubbed elbows, included a secret room for gambling. He added this at the behest of John “Handsome Johnny” Roselli, a member of the Chicago Syndicate who was a major Mafia figure in Hollywood and Las Vegas. Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen also frequently used this space.
Before selling it, Wilkerson tried to burn it down for the insurance money. He had previously owned the Trocadero, another club in the 1930s, and had a gangster named Nola Hahn set fire to the kitchen of that establishment back in 1938, so this was the standard operating procedure for Wilkerson.
After Wilkerson sold the club to Hoover to open The Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Mickey Cohen began to extort Hoover out of his clothing shop Michael’s Exclusive Haberdashery at 8804 Sunset. Every week Cohen would send over empty cardboard boxes to Ciro’s in exchange for brown paper bags filled with cold, hard cash.
Fistfights were a common occurrence at Ciro’s. The most famous occurred in 1947 when Frank Sintra was arrested after assaulting columnist Lee Mortimer because the columnist wrote an unfavorable story about Sinatra leaving his wife and children for Lana Turner. Sinatra paid Mortimer $9,000 to get the charges dropped.
Ciro’s permanently closed on May 26, 1956. It marked the end of the era of the Hollywood Nightclub. The location was used as rock venue over the years, first as Le Disc and then as The Kaleidoscope and finally as The Boss. In 1972, it became The Comedy Store.