Director Preston Sturges’ Private Playground Nightlcub
By the end of 1940, after a decade of writing movies, Preston Sturges was now a director approaching the peak of his career. He’d already directed The Great McGinty (1940) and just ahead of him, lay a series of soon-to-be-classic motion pictures: The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).
However, like most ambitious and talented Hollywoodites of seemingly limitless energy, his daytime job wasn’t enough; he wanted more. So, like many before him and so many since, he went into something he knew nothing about and had no business entering: the restaurant trade.
As the son of wealthy socialites, Sturges was a seasoned habitué of restaurants, bars, and clubs. He was well-connected with the East’s uppercrust; and had palled around with millionaires from Boston to Chicago. What he failed to realize, though, is that it’s one thing to spend half your social life slurping oysters and champers until deep in the night. It’s quite another to stand on the other side of the booze-sloshed bar and separate what’s fun from what’s good for business.
Still, he knew what moneyed gentlemen wanted—to ogle and impress the legions of pretty show girls that dotted the Los Angeles landscape like tossed confetti. And they weren’t about to do it in some second-rate jump joint. Cash-heavy gents wanted and expected a certain level of sophistication after 5pm and Sturges figured he was just the guy to provide it.
So he found the perfect spot right at the top of the Sunset Strip, at the eastern end across the street from the Garden of Allah. He ploughed a pile of his filthy Hollywood lucre into it, giving the place a refined make-over, named it “The Players” and opened it during the summer of 1940.
Pretty soon, stars and writers made it their home base. Garden of Allah residents like Humphrey Bogart (he and 3rd wife Mayo Methot lived at the Garden of Allah for a while), Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman (writer of several Marx Brothers movies), and Donald Ogden Stewart (screenwriter of 1938’s Marie Antoinette and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story) all got smashed on The Players’ drinks, which were said to be the most potent in town.
They, of course weren’t the only ones. Barbara Stanwyck (Sturges’ leading lady in The Lady Eve), Orson Welles (who stayed next door at the Chateau Marmont when he first came to Hollywood), Joel McCrea (who starred in three of Sturges’ pictures), Rudy Vallee, director William Wyler, and writer William Faulkner were all regulars at their friend’s establishment.
Later, multi-millionaire/gifted aviator/occasional film producer/incorrigible lothario/nutcase-in-the-making Howard Hughes became a regular guest. Later, as the 40s became the 50s, Hughes often dined on the top floor, frequently preferring to eat alone. At the time, of course, nobody could have foreseen that the guy had begun his long, slow, descent into medicated and unchecked hibernation.
Sturges decided that he wanted his place to be famous for its superb food, so he set about creating an outstanding menu and decorating the formal dining room, which became known as the Blue Room. He achieved what he set out to do, but evidently he wasn’t overly concerned with cost because the two-level restaurant showed a loss after the first season. Determined to make a success of the place, he closed it down, re-did the whole thing, and substituted a music and dance area called the Playroom, which had a gala opening in the first part of 1942.
At its peak during WWII, The Players was a three-level extravaganza with a restaurant on each floor. There was a barbershop on the mezzanine level (because all of us have experienced the urge to get a short-back-and-sides while we’re midway through our Prime Rib). He also built a dinner theatre/dance floor with a revolving, hydraulic stage. Later still, Sturges added a burger stand for the tourist trade and tinkered with improvements as tables that swiveled out to provide easier access to the booths. (Come to think of it, why don’t more restaurants feature booth tables which do that?) He even drew up plans to install a helicopter pad so that fresh fish could be flown in. Those particular plans were dropped, but only after the neighbors threw a fit, and fair enough, too.
Sturges may have been a genius behind the camera, but the guy was no businessman. The problem was that he regarded The Players not as an on-going business concern, but as his private domain and he’d closed its doors to the public whenever he wanted to be alone with his friends. And he preferred to be with his friends a lot. He had customers thrown out just because he didn’t like their looks, and the regulars had to contend with their host’s caustic wit. Not exactly the way to ensure that customers come back.
The Players never broke even, but Sturges kept pouring money into it even after his movie career nosedived in the late ’40s. By 1953 Hollywood had written Sturges off as an alcoholic has-been, and the burger stand was the only part of The Players still open for business. Soon afterwards, The Players was sold out from under Sturges by his creditors.
The lesson Preston Sturges failed—or refused—to learn is that there were better people in Hollywood who could open and run a profitable restaurant, but there weren’t many who could produce a Sullivan’s Travels or a Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Knowing which you one are is the key to everything.
**UPDATE** (August 2014)
The following description was given to me by someone whose architect father did remodeling and design work for the Hollywood Reporter’s Billy Wilkerson, as well as Preston Sturges’s The Players club:
Interior of Players…there was a roof patio where diners could sit…umbrellas for the lunch crowd, no umbrellas for evenings. Two longish interior rooms at same level (to the left as you look at exterior photo) as patio, white tablecloths for four-tops and such, and on the walls, shadow box models of sailing ships in glassed frames (burgundy with gold piping) above each table. Very restrained decor, vaguely gentleman’s club in tone. The maître d’ was almost too elegant to share the same airspace, but the waiters were gabby enough to explain what each dish was (soufflé potatoes, profiteroles and the like). My favorite dinner was a starter of marinated herring, rare roast beef, those glorious potatoes, and for dessert, a Napoleon from the pastry tray.