14 – Going Downtown

Ghosts have been spotted in the Hotel Clark, at the corner of Hill and Fourth Street, in downtown Los Angeles. Late at night, lights flickering and the mud-brown curtains high up on the eighth floor being pulled open and closed. There are strong rumours about a rooftop garden and some even claim that the neon sign spelling out the name of the hotel lit up in blue once, when the rest of the city slept.

Aideen's Hotel Clark

And my Hotel Clark

According to Internet blogs, these ‘ghosts’ are construction workers, hired by a property developer that is playing his cards close to his chest and planning a grand opening anytime now. I put my nose right up to the metal grates, ignoring the homeless drunks who are swaying on the sidewalk behind me, babbling and lurching and watching me. Squatting and squirming, I think I can make out a cream tiled floor and a glass lift in the lobby, but I can’t be sure. If I could stay here until nightfall and wait for the ghosts, I would, but my instincts won’t let me. In my experience, there is only one solid rule for navigating a strange city as a solitary female: trust your instincts. And my instincts are now telling me it’s not safe to be here after dark, and that the number 4 bus back up town is going to be an experience even in the early evening sunshine. The Central Public Library, where I’ve spent the day, will close soon and the corporate types who spend their days in the skyscrapers will drive off to the suburbs, leaving downtown to its real population.

Hotel Clark ‘Entrance’

Hotel Clark was opened as a ‘luxury hotel for the corporate traveller’, giving the Abbey Company the novelty of a private bathroom with each room. Directly across from the subway station, it rumbled and shook with a regular rhythm. Aideen made the short trip from here to Erlanger’s Biltmore Theatre a few times a day on foot and back home at night – probably with a male companion. She trotted down Hill to Pershing Square, and turned right to cross over to Olive Street. Although not as bad as it had been during the Depression of the 1920s, when the Abbey Company arrived in the late 1930s, Pershing Square was still a haunt for denigrates at night and masses of filthy pigeons during the day. But once through Pershing Square, you arrive at the entrance to the Biltmore Hotel.

Biltmore Hotel – Where the Abbey Company did not stay!

It is as grand and exclusive today as it was then: afternoon tea on silver trays, a gallery of exclusive shops bisecting the hotel lobby, a Cognac lounge and several ornate ballrooms where the day I visit, a huge drug company is hosting a conference. The Irish actors drank and socialized here, but they slept across the square in the Hotel Clark. Some things have changed. Where the lobby is now was once the music room, and something is missing: the Biltmore Theatre.

Learning that the Biltmore Theatre was demolished in the early 1960s was a crushing disappointment for me. It was replaced with a tower of additional rooms and an underground parking lot, not long after J.F. Kennedy was nominated for President in one of the hotel conference rooms. I tried to reason with myself: so much has been gained on this trip, there have to be dead ends and holes. Except anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ve never been very good at letting go and moving on. So two days later, I packed up and got the bus downtown.

In 1969, a Theatre Studies major called Charles Frances Stuart completed a thesis entitled A Historical Survey of the Biltmore Theatre for his Master of Arts in California State College (Long Beach). I am the first person to check it out of the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and wherever Mr. Stuart is now, I’d love him to know how much joy he gave me.

Architectural Plans
The Lobby in the 1920s

The thesis is a compendium of information about the structure, design and history of the theatre. It includes not just photos but architectural plans, ownership documents, financial records AND anecdotes he recorded from past managers – everything from women falling into the orchestra pit to pigeons clogging up the gutters.

The interior of the theatre was in tones of blue and antique gold. The walls were painted a dark ultramarine which was repeated on the asbestos curtain design of a galleon, with a map of California in one corner, with undertones of dull maroons, greens and browns throughout. In the auditorium, two large carved wood lanterns were suspended above the boxes and there was also a chandalier, containing over two hundred electric lights. Draperies covered large areas of the auditorium for acoustical as well as decorative purposes. Reviews refer frequently to audible interference during shows – mostly from the trolleys on the street outside.

{So this problem isn’t exclusive to the Abbey Theatre and the Luas stop!}

The Abbey Company are there in his records: In April 1938 they took $10,000 in their first week and $9,000 in their second. This was exactly $1,000 less than their 1935 visit, which may have distressed Wickes and Higgins, but at least this time they had Frolie and Ria to comfort them.

Aideen performed on a wooden stage, in a forty-f00t wide proscenium arch, to a capacity of 1,640 seats. I may never see her perform, but some days it does feel like I’m getting closer.

One comment on “14 – Going Downtown

  1. is it this flesh colour background?
    Aideen seems almost tangible! D

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