Amid an Ocean of Foxtrotting Funsters
Once upon a time, people didn’t stay home of an evening and press their faces against television and computer screens. They might listen to the radio, or play canasta. But if they really wanted to be entertained, they’d get themselves all gussied up and hit the town. And if the town in question was Hollywood, there was no shortage of places whose doors were open and ready to welcome any eager social beavers in search of a fun night’s dinner and dancing. Because that’s what people did back then: they dined, and then they danced…together…cheek-to-cheek…both partners doing the same thing at the same time. It was a cray-zee time.
But when, in 1940, the Hollywood Palladium opened its doors at 6215 Sunset Boulevard, east of Vine Street, even a town like Hollywood had never seen anything quite like it.
The Hollywood Palladium was the brainchild of one of Los Angeles’ leading lights: Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, a man never known to think small. He funded the construction of the Palladium at a cost of $1.6 million (and that’s in 1940 dollars, folks) and employed architect Gordon B. Kaufman, who also designed Santa Anita Racetrack and the Greystone Estate. These days Chandlers’ wife, Dorothy, is probably better remembered than her influential husband. She led Los Angeles’ cultural revitalization in the 50s and 60s, first with the restoration of the Hollywood Bowl, then with the construction of the Los Angeles Music Center which encompasses three venues, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In other words, the Chandlers were a power-couple and in 1940 they opened a dance hall that gave all other dance halls an inferiority complex.
The Chandlers employed the same guy who decorated the equally cavernous Earl Carroll’s Theater just across the street. The interior color scheme was silver and pearly gray walls covered in satin and accented by coral. It featured an 11,200 square foot dance floor with room for up to 4,000 people. So two thousand couples could, at least in theory, rattle their rumbas and flutter their foxtrots in synchronized unison on a specially designed springy floor that was touted as a technological wonder.
The ribbon was cut by Paramount star Dorothy Lamour whose recent picture–Road to Singapore–co-starred Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and had done so well that there were rumors of another Road To picture. But the real attraction that opening night was one of the biggest names in music: Tommy Dorsey. The little-known singer the Dorsey orchestra featured for the engagement was then only just starting to make a name for himself–Frank Sinatra. (Incidentally, while this career turning point was going on, Sinatra was living at the Garden of Allah.) Dorsey and Sinatra were such a hit that night, a few weeks later they recorded an album at the Palladium.
Opening as it did in 1940, the Hollywood Palladium took full advantage of the exploding fads of swing dancing and Big Band music. All the great bands played the Palladium. Between 1940 and 1962 the list of entertainers who performed at the Palladium is almost endless: Phil Harris, Jimmy Dorsey (older brother of Tommy), Glen Miller, Harry James, Kay Kyser, Artie Shaw (another Garden of Allah resident), Woody Herman, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Alice Faye, Gene Krupa, and the legendary Andrews Sisters.
During WWII, the Palladium hosted radio broadcasts which raised funds to aid war sufferers in Britain. Celebrity guests included the biggest names in the entertainment industry at the time: Ronald Colman, Betty Grable, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and Charles Boyer. I came across one quote which said, “In the 40s, after the war, the Palladium was like New Year’s Eve every night with all the servicemen in town.” With the Hollywood Canteen around the corner on Vine Street, Earl Carroll’s Theater across the street, and the Palladium itself, servicemen lucky enough to be granted a day or two’s furlough had plenty of places where they’d be welcomed, entertained and, if they were especially lucky (or especially good looking) might even get to dance with a movie star.
Of course, tastes in music and entertainment change over time, and the Palladium has managed to change along with it. By the early 1960s, swing and the big band sound was out, and on Friday and Saturday nights, from 1961 to 1976, Lawrence Welk and his orchestra played the Palladium, filling the huge place with his special brand of “champagne music.” Through the late 60s, the Palladium saw the likes of Aretha Franklyn, Glen Campbell, and Ray Charles. In 1971, the Grammy Awards were televised for the first time from the Palladium which ushered in its rock era, and the Palladium played host to the likes of Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, The Doors, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Bob Marley. In the late 70s, the place, of course, turned disco.
And the Palladium is still around. In 2007 L.A.-based Live Nation took out a long lease, spent a full year refurbishing the venue and on October 15, 2008 reopened it with a concert by Jay-Z thus proving that whether it’s swing, rock, disco or hip-hop, the people will always need a place to dance.