Finding Old Hollywood in modern day LA
Updated: May 2, 2021
So, you’re going to Los Angeles and you want to experience old-fashioned Hollywood glitz and glamour from the golden age of cinema? Walking in the footsteps of Bogart, Dietrich, Gable, or Monroe is easy if you know where to look.
The legendary likes of Ciros, the Garden of Allah, the Mogambo Club, Pickfair, and Romanov’s may have been replaced with strip malls, but it is still possible to immerse yourself in that quintessential Hollywood Babylon experience, if you know where to look.
Here are the best places in Los Angeles to enjoy an old Hollywood experience, from museums and hotels, to cinemas and restaurants.
WHERE TO FIND HISTORY
The Hollywood Museum
This delightful museum set in the old Max Factor building gives you the most bang for your golden era buck. Here you’ll find Jane Russell’s torn dress featured on the controversial poster for The Outlaw, Elvis’s bathrobe, and the Holy Grail from Indy’s Last Crusade, plus a whole room filled with bewitching black and white images of old Hollywood. Marilyn fans will be fascinated to explore the Max Factor make-up rooms where Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Elizabeth Taylor were transformed into the glamour icons we know today.
Larry Edmunds Bookshop
This legendary bookstore opened on Hollywood Boulevard in 1938 and is still going strong. Specialising in all things old (and some new) Hollywood, this literary oasis is a treasure trove for the film lover, and well worth a lengthy browsing session. Immerse yourself in the numerous collections of old Hollywood magazines such as Photoplay and Screen Stories, and unearth gossipy gems on the screen legends of the past.
Hollywood Forever Cemetary
Cecil B DeMille, Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Bugsy Siegel were all buried in this cemetery. It’s not your run-of-the-mill lawn-and-headstone kind of cemetery either. Here you’ll discover monuments, serene lakes, and grand old statues while you hunt down your favourite stars. Check out the Cinespia website to find out more about the atmospheric movie screenings they host within the stunning grounds during the summer.
22 miles off the southern California coast, and known for its white sandy beaches, pretty sunsets and glamourous Hollywood history, Catalina Island should be on every classic Hollywood movie fan's bucket list. Over 500 movies have been filmed on the island, including pre-code classic Island of Lost Souls, and swashbucklers Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty.
It has been a playground for the Hollywood jet set for more than a hundred years. Charlie Chaplin, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford were regular visitors. Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn enjoyed sailing their yachts around the island, and frequenting the local bars, joined by friends and wives like David Niven and Lauren Bacall. Marilyn Monroe lived here in the early 1940s with her first husband, when she was still Norma Jean. And Catalina Island was also the tragic setting for Gypsy star Natalie Wood's mysterious drowning.
WHERE TO EAT
Musso & Frank
Opened in 1919, this place is a must for anyone looking to experience old Hollywood as the stars once did. Legend has it that Charlie Chaplin challenged John Barrymore to a horse race down Hollywood Boulevard with the loser buying the winner dinner at Musso’s.
As soon as you walk through the door you’re transported back to those heady days. You can almost see the clouds of dust from their horses as you gaze out the window. The management refuse to clean the fading frescoes because they’re stained with the smoke of Bogart’s cigarette.
Take one of the secluded booths of dark wood and sit on red leather benches where Bacall and Sinatra once sat, and imagine all the love affairs that may have played out here, all the deals that were signed, and the careers that were made.
The Farmer’s Market
Featuring a stunning array of over 100 vendors, this Los Angeles foodie mecca was established in 1934 and has been frequented by the stars ever since. In 1936, stars including Shirley Temple worked behind the counters raising money for the Red Cross.
Ava Gardner used to shop here, and Patsy D’Amore’s claims to sell Frank Sinatra’s favourite pizza. Get a slice of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ pizza pie for less than $4.
A favourite of the original ‘IT’ girl Clara Bow, this roadhouse-style greasy spoon in West Hollywood serves up a classic American menu with lots of Mexican treats on the side. It has attracted everyone from Bette Davis and Quentin Tarentino, to Jean Harlow and Jack Nicholson. Rock stars also gravitate towards it; Jim Morrison allegedly urinated on the wooden bar (also the spot where Janis Joplin is said to have downed her last drink).
Frank Sinatra apparently spent many lonely evenings at the Formosa in the '50's when his marriage to Ava Gardner began to flounder. Popular with Hollywood royalty from Mary Pickford to John Wayne, the kitchen serves up an Asian fusion menu paired with classic Hollywood cocktails while classic movies play in the background.
WHERE TO DRINK
Pig & Whistle
This Hollywood landmark opened in 1927 next door to the iconic Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Like Musso & Frank’s across the road, the interior of this historic gem will transport you back to the glamorous and sometimes seedy world of the studio system; with its corrupt moguls, captivating stars, and glittering starlets. Karaoke is on Wednesday and Thursday nights — go ahead and do your best Doris Day.
The Frolic Room
It’s believed that this no-frills Hollywood bar, famous for its jukebox, started life as a secret speakeasy next to the newly opened Pantages Theater in the early 1930s. Hosting boozy pre-parties and after-parties to the stars, the theatre and the bar next door were eventually bought by Howard Hughes. In 1947, the Frolic Room became the last place that Elizabeth Short, or the Black Dahlia as we know her, was seen alive.
Tower Bar in the Sunset Tower Hotel
The Sunset was once a luxury apartment complex to the Hollywood elite (Bugsy Siegel, Mae West, Errol Flynn, and Jean Harlow lived here amongst a constellation of stars). Truman Capote, another former resident, described it as “where every scandal that ever happened, happened.” Check out the rooftop bar for a vintage dark and stormy cocktail and fabulous views of the Los Angeles skyline.
Perched somewhat menacingly above Sunset Boulevard, the fabled Chateau has been steeped in Hollywood legend since it opened its doors in 1929.
Greta Garbo lived here during her brief period in La La Land, F. Scott Fitzgerald had a heart attack here, Howard Hughes spied on starlets at the hotel pool with his powerful binoculars, James Dean jumped through one of its windows to impress Nicholas Ray before he cast him in Rebel Without A Cause, Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, and John Belushi overdosed on a speedball injection in one of the bungalows
Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, famously said, “If you’re going to get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” Expect excellent old school cocktails and plenty of sex appeal.
WHERE TO STAY
The Beverly Hills Hotel
It’s pricey but there is no better place to stay in town for the quintessential Hollywood experience than this showbiz powerhouse. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks resided in the hills behind the hotel in their legendary Pickfair pad. Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton were all pleasure-seeking regulars.
The infamous bungalows were used by screen goddesses Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlene Dietrich to conduct their much gossiped about love affairs. Taylor and Richard Burton’s favourite bungalow was number 5, while it was lucky number 7 for Marilyn. This bungalow is now named Norma Jean, in memory of one of the greatest stars of them all.
If you can afford it, stay in one of those legendary bungalows and head to the Polo Lounge, which will give you an opportunity to soak up some Hollywood history while you enjoy a spot of lunch.
Or you could pop into the quirky Fountain Room with its vintage banana leaf wallpaper and 1940s soda fountain for a delicious breakfast of eggs benedict and silver dollar buttermilk pancakes washed down with cold-pressed juice or a classic ice cream milkshake.
This iconic Los Angeles hotel was opened in 1927 by some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time: Pickford and Fairbanks, Sidney Grauman, and Louis B. Meyer. The guest list at the hotel’s grand opening included the creme de la creme of the Hollywood elite of the time: Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow to name a few.
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard carried on their infamous affair in the penthouse, which cost $5 a night at the time, while Marilyn Monroe lived at the hotel for two years as her modeling career began to take off. She is said to haunt the corridors, along with the ghost of 1950s idol Montgomery Clift.
The Georgian Hotel
This Art Deco boutique hotel opened in Santa Monica in 1933 just as Prohibition was ending, and fast became a popular coastal hideaway for the likes of mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone. They would frequent the basement speakeasy, which still has its original 1930s booths and dark wood panelling. Unfortunately, it is only open for special events at the moment but if you are staying at the hotel and smile at the concierge, perhaps they’ll find the time to give you a quick tour.
Set in the old United Artists building in downtown Los Angeles, this modern hotel is a winner for having a working 1927 movie theatre in the lobby. The United Artists Theatre was designed by Anthony B. Heinsbergen with Mary Pickford in mind, and her love of European grandeur can be seen in the vaulted ceilings, beautiful frescoes, and elaborate chandeliers. It’s a short walk to the Grand Central Market and plenty of '30's era movie theatres, and the fast-gentrifying area of Los Angeles that this hotel resides in has lots to offer.
WHERE TO WATCH A MOVIE
Sid Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theatres on Hollywood Boulevard
The Egyptian Theater was the original movie palace on this famous boulevard. Built in 1922, it was the site of Hollywood’s first-ever movie premiere, Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. In 1927, Grauman went on to open the Chinese Theater down the road which eventually eclipsed the Egyptian Theatre after moviegoers were seduced by the Chinese Theater’s world-famous celebrity hand and footprints in the courtyard.
The Egyptian Theater is now run by the American Cinematheque and is a wonderful spot to catch a screening of your favourite classic films, often accompanied by Q&As with the key players.
Opened in 1926, this gorgeous theatre in downtown Los Angeles was once one of the best places in town to see the creme de la creme of Hollywood perform live. It used to host variety shows that featured some of the most iconic figures of the 20th century: Judy Garland, Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, and jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Complete with one of the only Wurlitzer pipe organs left in the USA (it was installed in 1928), the Orpheum now hosts special events and classic movie screenings. If you are an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan then you may recognise the sweeping staircase in the lobby — it featured in The Last Action Hero.
The Cinerama Dome
This famous theatre is not from the golden age era but it is vintage, lots of fun and, and it shows some outstanding classic movies. The building, which resembles a '60's space-age golf ball, opened near the corner of Sunset and Vine in November 1963.
Billy Wilder Theater
Set within the Hammer museum at UCLA and home to the second largest archive of moving images in the U.S., this theatre has all the cutting-edge technology to present both an early 1920s silent film and a recent 3D blockbuster. Check out their program of events while you’re in Los Angeles; you may come across some old Hollywood gems.