The Ambassador Hotel

As I was writing my recent post on the Kennedys, I was reminded of an experience I once had involving the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. This historic structure in Los Angeles was torn down in 2005, to make room for new schools. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I know that the schools in L.A. are badly overcrowded (and they will be even more so when Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts come into effect). On the other hand, the Ambassador was a striking example of a Spanish/Art Deco style of architecture that I have only ever seen in Southern California. (Union Station near downtown Los Angeles, is a good example of this type of building. If you’re ever planning to visit the Big Orange, I recommend checking this place out.)

The Ambassador was built in 1921. Over the years many famous people stayed there, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Anna May Wong, and Frank Sinatra. (The wikipedia article gives a lengthy list of names.) You can find pictures of the place here.

The Ambassador Hotel was closed to guests in 1989. However, during the 1990’s, it was frequently used as a location for film shoots. This is where my story begins. I spent a brief period of my life working as a movie extra. (The politically correct term is “background artist”. This was a weird experience that I will have to write about in more detail in a future post.) My agent instructed me to go to the Ambassador Hotel in the late afternoon to work on a night-time shoot. Now, the building and its grounds occupied a sprawling expanse off Wilshire Boulevard. (I must have driven past there a hundred times previously, without even being aware of the place.) I wandered around for a while, not quite sure that I was even supposed to be there, since the property was surrounded by a chain-link fence with KEEP OUT signs on it. I eventually stumbled across a film crew shooting a movie. I thought this must be the place I was supposed to be. I stood around for a while, with people busily brushing past me, until I managed to get the attention of a production assistant. This woman was unusually polite for a PA. When I told her the instructions that my agent gave me, she told me I was at the wrong shoot, that the one I was supposed to be at was right around the corner of the building. I was a bit incredulous at this, but I followed her directions, walking a path lined by overgrown trellises. Sure enough, right around the corner there was a film crew shooting another movie. I think this experience gave me some idea of what Hollywood must have been like during the 1920’s, when film crews were shooting all over the place, sometimes side by side.

They were making a cop film starring Burt Reynolds. I can’t remember the name of it (I’m not sure anyone bothered to tell it to me), but it probably wasn’t very good if it had BR in it. We were shooting a scene right in front of the main entrance to the hotel, and it was possible to walk into the building when the PA’s weren’t looking. It was dark inside, but there was enough light coming in through the windows that one could make out details. There was an an enormous carpeted hallway that sloped upward. To the left, a large doorway led into what had clearly been a bar. I felt a strong urge to go exploring. However, the PA’s sternly warned me and the other extras – um, I mean background artists – not to go wandering around in the place. They said the structure was in disrepair and therefore possibly dangerous. I figured this was probably true. More importantly, I was afraid of getting fired. (I needed the money.) Nevertheless, I still sometimes feel a twinge of regret that I didn’t give in to my impulse for adventure. To explore the rooms of a huge, dark, abandoned building; what could be more fun? Who knows, I might have been in a room that Marlene Dietrich once stayed in. Oh, well.

One other thing I remember is that there were dozens of feral cats roaming around on the grounds. I wonder what happened to them.

This brings me to the Bobby Kennedy connection. There was a story going around among the extras – er, I mean background artists – that there was a pool of water on the exact spot where Kennedy was shot. I remember people saying this to one another in hushed tones, as if it had some profound significance to it. Since the kitchen where Kennedy was shot was off limits to us, it was impossible to confirm or deny this story. (And who the hell would have have known the exact spot where he was shot?) Supposing this story was true, wouldn’t it have just indicated that the place had leaky pipes?

Myths, legends, folktales, superstitions, etc. have always fascinated me. There seems to be some fundamental human impulse to make these things up. It’s not clear to me why. Perhaps it all starts with somebody bullshitting other people. Once I had a friend who liked to pull other people’s legs. One day he decided, just for the hell of it, that he was going to make people believe that he took part in the invasion of Grenada. He invented this elaborately detailed story. (“There was a body on the ground in front of me. I stepped over it and kept on moving forward…”) I remember hearing him telling this story at parties. Finally, he admitted to me that he had made the whole thing up. For years afterwards, whenever I mentioned his name to people, they would say, “You mean the guy who was in Grenada?”

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