by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we close out the year and look to the counting down of the seconds that take us to 2020, this is an opportune time to wind the clock back near a century to today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection: an invitation to spend New Year’s Eve 1921 at the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica. While the object is pretty plain and spartan, the history of the venue is awfully colorful.
Augustus Busch, patriarch of the Anheuser-Busch beer brewing empire and like so many from the eastern portion of the United States before and since, fell in love with the balmy climate of greater Los Angeles and invested in land along the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena in the early 20th century. His mansion and gardens were showpieces of the time and the Busch Gardens, made available to the public, was renowned for its beauty and diversity of plants and other landscape elements. A previous post here featured some 1920s snapshots taken at the gardens.
Several years later, Busch purchased property at the northeast corner of Colorado Avenue and Ocean Avenue, across from the pier and beach and built the Sunset Inn, one of several “casinos” of that name that he owned (others were in St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati and New York). The structure was designed by Alfred F. Rosenheim, known locally for his downtown building for Herman W. Hellman (mentioned in this post from the blog), and who was a native of St. Louis, home of Anheuser-Busch.
The building was announced to the readers of the Los Angeles Times in its 2 April 1911 edition and some notable details were provided. For example, the 5,000 square foot dining room would be “commanding an unobstructed view of the ocean” and featured 18-foot high open beam and paneled ceilings with Flemish oak finishes. A marble staircase rose from the entry vestibule and a massive brick fireplace was at the north end. Above the dining area was a rooftop garden facing the sea.
To the north was an open garden of 15,000 square feet with a 12-foot high brick wall as an enclosure. Sunken areas, pergolas, and a central bandstand were mentioned. A couple of years later, Robert Gordon Fraser, who designed the Busch Gardens at Pasadena, was commissioned to work on the landscaping in this area part of a $45,000 expenditure.
Though it was stated that construction would begin in a few weeks, the project was delayed another year. In May 1912, the Times ran a large feature with an accompanying birds-eye view of the structure which had Italianate elements as well as a red tile roof more evocative of Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. A breathless description of the facility’s future was painted through purple prose:
Imagine this scene [on the roof garden] made resplendent by beautifully gowned women and handsomely attired men, with immaculate waiters flitting here and there to administer to the various wants, their white attire reminding one of so many butterflies as they glide in and out among the dense foliage, going from table to table. Picture this scene with the moon at the full over the sea, making a great, broad path of silver from the shore to the horizon, and each wave in turn crested in silver as it makes it way shoreward, to echo its deep, sonorous voice in contrast to the exquisite strains of the orchestra on the roof, the merry voices of the onlookers and the gentle tinkle of the ice in the glasses.
The facility opened in early August, with advertisements emphasizing “that perfect level boulevard from Los Angeles direct” to the inn, which was promoted as “the sportsman’s ideal” as well as “the autoist’s delight.” The Pacific Electric streetcar also stopped in front of the building. While ads noted the fine cuisine, the music supplied by an orchestra, the ocean views and the spacious garden, nothing was said about the flowing alcohol.
In fact, the early days of the Sunset Inn emphasized class and sophistication. Another lengthy Times feature, from 1 September 1912, was titled “Santa Monica: The Gathering Place of the Aristocracy,” even if the Inn was built by the owner of the “King of Beers” not the “Comte de Champagne.” With an accompanying image of elegant women (one even has her nose literally in the air!) and a server wearing 18th century attire, the article began by declaiming
Paris may boast all she will of the variety and attractiveness of her fashionable cafes and other gathering places for the “Smart Set” of her community; but it is doubtful if among them all she has one with the true charms of such places in Santa Monica. Particularly is this true of the new Sunset Inn, Santa Monica.
Again, the paper waxed eloquently (or grandiloquently) about the pleasures of the Inn’s rooftop garden and its year-round suitability given the incomparable climate. It mentioned the “scarlet seal” of sunset and “crimsoned waves” meeting “purple cloudlets” as it painted a colorful picture of dining in this fine seaside establishment. The section covering the Inn asked, “is there any wonder that the aristocracy of not only our own continent, but throughout the world, delights to revel in the charm of such a gathering place?”
Busch died in October 1913 and, while the family kept ownership of the building, it leased out the operation of the Sunset Inn and there was a decided change in approach and response. Busch’s son and two others announced plans for a 200-room hotel next to the Inn, but this did not come to pass.
Moreover, Baron Long took over operation of the Inn and the colorful proprietor of many popular nightclubs and restaurants, most recently the Vernon Country Club and later the Ship Cafe at nearby Venice, the Agua Caliente (and its Sunset Inn) resort at Tijuana, and the Biltmore Hotel, was more earth-bound in his management style.
Long, however, faced some formidable foes as Progressive-era reformists, especially the teetotalers and religious leaders who were pushing hard to ban alcohol as Prohibition movements gained considerable steam in the era. The conflict rose to its acme in 1917 as the City of Los Angeles, which actively sought the annexation of Santa Monica, was poised to vote on an ordinance that would severely restrict the serving of alcohol in public establishments.
It wasn’t just the drinking that raised the ire of the moral crusaders. They also lobbied vigorously to prevent dancing in cafes like the Sunset Inn and its nearby competitor, Nat Goodwin’s Cafe, operated by attorney Paul Schenck, both of whom threatened to close the doors of their establishments if dancing was banned. In adjacent Venice, which was then an incorporated city, its mayor vowed to resist attempts to the same there (the mayor was just days later accused of public drunkenness at the Sunset and Venice, before it was annexed to Los Angeles, had a reputation as a haven for rowdy party-goers.)
In late March 1917, Santa Monica’s city commissioners voted to revoke the Sunset Inn’s liquor license, leading to the presentation of petitions for the recall of the mayor, as well as the filing of papers calling for a referendum on the anti-dancing issue. Police Chief F. W. Ferguson read aloud from about two dozen reports from 1916 and 1917 detailing alleged incidents of public intoxication, car crashes, fighting and, gasp, smoking by women. He was asked about drinking by minors and the chief merely answered, “nowadays you can’t tell a chicken from an old hen,” hardly a professional appraisal of the situation.
Long lambasted the mayor, arguing “such a procedure is un-American” and he said that the recall and referendum petitions led to the city trying to revoke his liquor license, though he guaranteed the Sunset would be selling alcoholic beverages after the end of the month. It also turned out that Schenck, his ostensible rival cafe operator, was also Long’s personal attorney representing him against the city and the moralists.
He also claimed that, regardless of the outcome, he would continue to operate as a restaurant and brushed aside reports of women smoking in his establishment, claiming “if it occurs [it] is quickly stopped.” He added that any reports of drunken behavior “might easily have been that of a person having a jolly time out on the sidewalk” and that “there was no disorder, inside, and so far as we know, outside.”
City officials and the local judge, an admitted “dry,” tried to float a compromise that would allow for a public vote on whether to allow drinking in town; the withholding of the anti-dancing ordinance until then; the continuation of the liquor licenses; the dropping of the recall and Schenck’s suit for damages against the mayor and police chief; and others.
The prohibitionists, however, refused to consider allowing the cafe operators to be involved in writing the ballot proposal, the judge clapped back, citing a Bible passage and exclaiming “I am most surprised there should be an objection to a clean-cut fight on a bone-dry ordinance.” The reformers, however, had momentum, locally and broadly, on their side.
At the end of April, it was announced the Sunset Inn would close its doors as its liquor license was due to expire. “A splendid farewell” was in the works and the police were expected to be present so that “no disorder will be allowed.” Santa Monica’s mayor proposed that the building be sold or donated by the Busch family as a Y.M.C.A. Meantime, Long planned for his future by applying for a license to run an inn over in Venice.
Long and Schenck, however, combined forces and operated the Sunset Inn for several more months, including hosting a party thrown by film studio head Thomas Ince, the earliest such connection to the movie industry located in local papers. With the “drys” continuing their unabated efforts at an ordinance banning alcoholic beverage sales, the two men submitted a letter to the mayor announcing they were giving up their license. Long was already in the process of remodeling the Ship Cafe on the Venice Pier.
On 30 September 1917, Long and Schenck threw their farewell party and, at 2 a.m., the revelers raised their glasses, sang a “swan song,” and, as the owners shook hands, all decamped from the Inn. The local anti-liquor ordinance passed and went into effect at the first of the new year. By this time, America was a late entrant to the First World War and with the country on a war footing, the Sunset Inn building was readied for its next phase.
The next spring, in mid-April 1918, the building reopened as the headquarters of the Santa Monica Bay Cities Red Cross. Residents of the area were asked to donate something of value that could be sold by the chapter for operating funds. An informal opening took place with the bar back in operation, albeit with softer beverages, and there was an orchestra for, yes, dancing. Cards were played, too, though purely for amusement.
In fact, there were several dances organized by the Red Cross with soft drinks served by those who bellied up to the ornate bar. The aptly-named Guy Manners wrote of one such event in July 1918 with his flowery prose laded with irony about the former history of the Sunset Inn, observing:
within its walls where once liquid flowed like a Budweiser river, where Baron Long held court in the midst of human flotsam and jetsam, where, occasionally, wild notes of a Bacchanalian orchestra trailed a mocking symphony of devil-may-caredness, there is now the sound of soft voices directing the work of world-wide mercy which is doing so much to alleviate the sufferings of all but done to death on the world’s great battlefield.
There were dances each Friday to the strains of the Brentwood Club Orchestra attended by “the clean lovers of healthful, pleasurable dancing” with the one-step, fox trot and the waltz. For just twenty-five cents admission and five cents a soft drink, proceeds went to the Red Cross chapter, a far cry from the piles of money spent “in search of sensation” at Long’s Sunset Inn.
The war ended four months later and, as demobilization mounted, the Red Cross vacated the building, which the mayor sought for a civic auditorium by meeting with the Busch estate. When those talks ended, the building was leased to none other than the second coming of the Sunset Inn, incorporated by Jacques Rousso, Adolph (Eddie) Brandstatter and Mike Lyman, the latter two taking active management. Entertainment was provided by Lyman’s brother, Abe, who went on to be one of Los Angeles’ best-known musicians and bandleaders.
In late June 1920, the new Sunset Inn opened, featuring “French cuisine and service” (Brandstatter was a native of France) and Lyman handling the “genuinely ‘jazzy’ entertainment.” An ad promoting a Sunday buffet luncheon and “appropriate diversions” also included the new tag line: “Pride of the Palisades.”
Under Brandstatter and Lyman’s management, a heavy emphasis was placed on attracting “photoplayers” or actors in the area’s burgeoning movie industry. Articles noted the appearance of such performers as William Russell, Leon Errol, Ruth Rowland, Priscilla Dean and Leatrice Joy at a variety of events, including dance contests. Even fashion shows by a Los Angeles clothier were held at the venue.
Still, there were watchful officials and community members in these early days of national Prohibition. Occasional arrests were made outside the Inn by police officers of those accused of drunkenness.
A letter writer to the Times in 1921 answered one of the the Reverend Robert Shuler’s fiery sermons about illicit drinking at places like the Inn and the Vernon Country Club, but asked what would be done if they were shuttered. The “moral lepers” would be kept from these “hell holes” but would instead resort to drinking in their homes “as they are now doing to a great extent.” Some were, she said, prominent figures, who used their status of daylight hours “to cloak their iniquity by night.” Doctors who prescribed liquor for purported medical purposes were the worst of the worst, who, she claimed, were often drunk and unable to minister to their patients.
In October, the Inn opened after a remodeling and new offerings like a Wednesday night “dinner danse” were peddled by Brandstatter and Lyman. When the brothers Dave and Sam Wolf were hired by 1923 to run the place, there were nightly dinner and dancing promotions and “photoplayers frolics” with a new orchestra headed by Max Fisher, who formerly headlined at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove and the Ritz-Carlton in Atlantic City.
Despite these efforts and, purportedly in large part because film stars were increasingly asked to sign agreements forbidding public partying in the wake of scandals like that of Fatty Arbuckle, a Sunset Inn regular, and the death of a young woman he was with in a San Francisco Hotel, the Inn shut its doors in August 1923.
Moreover, the Winter Garden Corporation, which oversaw operations of the Sunset and others, including the Winter Garden, the Palais Royal, and the Plantation locally and the Palais Royal in San Francisco, decided to dissolve. The film industry-related events were moved to the Plantation, located in Culver City and operated by the Wolfs and Rousso. Lyman went on to oversee the local Palais Royal, while Brandstatter opened the famed Cafe Montmartre (and later, Sardi’s and the Bohemian Grill).
The Sunset Inn building remained standing for about two decades and was razed in 1943, with the site sold two years later. Today, the site is occupied by a commercial building, including Del Frisco’s Grille.