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Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024


Movie stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds have proven that in Hollywood, no matter how dead your career might seem, there’s always a chance of making a big comeback.

Sometimes the phenomenon works for hotels too.

In 1988, the stately Ambassador Hotel in the Mid-Wilshire district scene of Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 and host of some of old Hollywood’s most glamorous events was shuttered, put on the market, and soon afterward condemned.

The Ambassador seemed destined to be razed and replaced by an office tower or a school. But those projects fell by the wayside, leading to a legal dispute between investor Donald Trump and the Los Angeles Unified School District that has tied up the property for the past four years.

For nearly a decade, the decrepit structure has been sitting behind a chain-link fence while its facade peeled away and its once elegant grounds gave way to weeds and dead grass.

Nonetheless, in recent years the seemingly dormant Ambassador has shown surprising signs of life.

Since 1995, more than 200 productions have been filmed there, according to Stephen F. Lawler, project director with hotel manager Trump Wilshire Associates.

Photographers also favor the site for celebrity and fashion spreads. Esquire recently shot Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey at the Ambassador for its October issue.

The hotel is even getting into the party business. This past year, it served up some fancy soirees for the Los Angeles Opera, Warner Bros.’ music division, Jim Henson Co. and Walt Disney Co.

The hotel’s second life reflects the boom for off-studio filming locations in Los Angeles as well as the increasing appetite for unusual party venues and the comeback of swing dancing.

All told, it makes the Ambassador a hip place to be.

“Everyone is returning to that film-noire quality of sites,” said Jeffrey Best, president of Berridge Event Services, a party planning company in Los Angeles. “The Ambassador is a beautiful and historic site.”

In August, Design Quest L.A. owner Christopher C. Marella helped plan a bash at the hotel for Disney attended by about 3,000 people. The Ambassador’s main lobby, legendary Coconut Grove nightclub and Embassy Ballroom were brought back to life for the evening.

The Grove’s front entrance was adorned with a pair of 20-foot Art Deco angels. Red carpeting was draped from Wilshire Boulevard to the front doors, where dozens of white stars were projected from above.

“It’s the coolest place to have a party,” Marella said.

Trump Wilshire Associates charges between $5,000 to upwards of $30,000 to rent the hotel for a party, according to Lawler. He said at least 98 percent of the requests are turned down.

“I’m generally very reluctant if it interferes with our filming activity,” said Lawler.

The business of filming is the Ambassador’s primary bread and butter. Demand for sound stages and off-studio filming makes easily accessible and empty old places like the Ambassador more and more attractive.

“It would be much more expensive to rent a sound-stage space,” said Cody Cluff, president of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which issues film permits in the city and county of L.A. “The most important thing is, it’s closed. They get complete control on a large piece of property. It’s completely self-contained.”

Trump Wilshire charges $5,000 a day for filming at the Coconut Grove or Embassy Ballroom, while smaller rooms go for $1,200 a day and up.

The Ambassador’s marbled corridors, high ceilings and Coconut Grove nightclub have served as sets for movies ranging from “Forrest Gump” and “Pretty Woman” to the upcoming Universal Pictures release “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and Touchstone Pictures’ gangster-era spoof, “Jane Austen’s Mafia!”

“The Ambassador is one of the few locations in Los Angeles that houses the big grand ballrooms, wide corridors and high ceilings of the older, elegant hotels,” said Bill Badalato, producer of “Mafia.” “If you’re searching for the old-hotel look, the Ambassador is one of the few hotels in town.”

Badalato used the Grove for a dance sequence and converted the hotel’s main lobby into a Vegas-style casino.

For the Touchstone crew, which is in the middle of a six-month-long stay, Lawler arranged for the hotel bungalows to be converted into production offices, and a number of storage buildings are serving as carpentry and special-effects shops.

The Ambassador has also been cast in popular TV shows like “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Murder She Wrote.”

Opened in 1921, the hotel mesmerized guests with its Mediterranean facade, hand-crafted tile floors, Italian stone fireplaces and H-shaped courtyard.

“The Ambassador was pretty classy,” said Margaret Burke, who worked as a publicist at the Ambassador for nearly 20 years. “I met kings and queens, presidents and vice presidents. It was a thrilling and unique job.”

Merv Griffin and Bing Crosby began their singing careers at the Coconut Grove. Marilyn Monroe went to modeling school at the Ambassador, and Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes, Gloria Swanson and John Barrymore lived at the hotel.

It also played host to numerous Academy Awards shows, U.S. presidents and even royalty.

In 1989, a group of English and Irish investors purchased the hotel. Donald Trump bought a 20 percent stake in the property four months later, and proposed building a 125-story tower on the property. The proposal was ridiculed and quickly buried.

About a year later, the property caught the eye of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which wanted to build a high school there. The district seized the site through eminent domain and condemned it, giving about $48 million to the Trump investors for compensation.

About three years after that, the school board dropped its plans and demanded its money back. Lawsuits were filed and the matter remains in litigation.

Trump Wilshire Associates is now suing for attorney fees and other costs, and is refusing to give the $48 million back.

“Trump couldn’t have done anything with the property anyway, given the decline of the real estate market,” said Edward Szczepowski, attorney for the school board.

Besides, he added, “we ended up saving him $5 million a year in interest payments because he paid off his mortgage, now he’s complaining that he lost money.”

Trump Wilshire Associates’ attorneys declined comment, other than to say that they hope to have the matter resolved by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, said Lawler, the Ambassador will continue in the film business, “but no one really knows what’s going to happen.”

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