by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Some years ago, I happened to meet Carlyn Frank Benjamin, who talked to me at length about her family’s management of the famous Ambassador Hotel, which opened in 1921 and is now the site of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the mists of time, much of what Mrs. Benjamin told me has been lost to memory and I can’t even recall where I met her, though it might have been at one of my talks for the Road Scholar/Elderhostel program on “Art Collectors of Los Angeles.”
I definitely do remember, however, her telling me that her father, Benjamin L. Frank, was the hotel manager and that her grandfather, Abraham Frank, was the vice-president and general manager of the corporation which owned the landmark. Mrs. Benjamin died three years ago, but it was a happy circumstance when I was able to acquire tonight’s highlighted historic artifact from the Homestead’s holdings: a panoramic photograph from July 1923 of the kitchen staff, as well as of Ben Frank and his brother, Lester, who was assistant manager.
The group of nearly fifty persons, including just four women, are posed next to the mammoth hostelry and there are eleven of them are identified, including chef Ernest Leidholt, seated at the center and eight of his subordinates, representing the various elements of the kitchen and coffee shop.
Flanking Liedholt are the Frank brothers, with Ben to the left and Lester to the right, though there is a gentleman in a suit (everyone else but the Franks are wearing their uniforms) who may well be Abraham. The story of the Frank family is an interesting one and forms the basis of this post.
Abraham Frank was born in April 1871 in Fond du Lac, a city at the southern tip of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, northwest of Milwaukee. Abraham and his wife Anna Barkowsky were the children of Jews from what was then the Russian Empire and the couple had three surviving children of four, including a daughter, Louise (born in 1906) and Ben, born in March 1893, and Lester, born in August 1899.
As a young man, Abraham played a significant role in the establishment of a long-standing institution in passenger service on railroads: the Harvey House system of restaurants along the lines of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In fact, when the Franks were living in Chicago and enumerated in the 1900 federal census, Abraham’s occupation was given as “Sup[erintenden]t Dining Car.”
Ten years later, Abraham was listed in the census as involved in a restaurant and he was known in the Windy City as the manager of Rector’s, a famous seafood place that opened in 1884, and the College Inn, located in the Hotel Sherman, one of the early hostelries in the city and which Abraham also operated and was a part-owner for a period.
By 1920, the Franks were in the college town of South Bend, Indiana, where Abraham ran the Oliver House, the city’s finest when the six-story hotel opened in 1899. Ben, who was 26 and was said to be one of the first licensed pilots in the country and who served with the Navy during the First World War, and Lester, who was 20, assisted their father in the management of the facility, but the three were soon lured west to operate the Ambassador by the corporation, with headquarters in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that ran a chain of hotels under that banner and which was formed in 1918. Another Ambassador Hotel was built in Santa Barbara, though the original building was destroyed by fire just months after the Los Angeles hotel was opened and then rebuilt.
One of the principals in the company for the development of the Ambassador was financier S.W. Straus, mentioned in this blog before and who president of the chain, and another was Vernon Goodwin, who ran the Hotel Alexandria in downtown Los Angeles before it was acquired as part of the Ambassador chain.
The 1000-room hotel, designed by the well-known local architect Myron Hunt, opened to great fanfare on New Year’s Day 1921 on 27 acres along Wilshire Boulevard, while a golf course was built nearby. Along with the main building, there were stylish bungalows, a 1500-seat auditorium, several restaurants with a combined seating capacity of some 4,000, lush gardens, an arcade of shops (including a well-known art gallery), and the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which was developed by Abraham Frank and who was especially supportive of musicians and singers who performed at the venue during the Twenties and early Thirties.
The Ambassador was built during another of a series of massive development booms in greater Los Angeles and it quickly became very popular with tourists, conventioneers, and locals, including the burgeoning Hollywood film industry fraternity, with the Cocoanut Grove being one of the main hotspots for music, dancing and general frivolity among the smart set in the Angel City. One of the notable crooners who developed regional fame after migrating down from Tacoma, Washington was Bing Crosby, who parlayed his nightclub career into film stardom in the 1930s and beyond.
Abraham, meanwhile, continued his association with the facility and the Alexandria and the corporation until the latter was sold in 1927, after which he was solely involved in managing the Ambassador. Abraham was also a major booster of Los Angeles, including a major role with the All-Year Club and serving as a director of the very powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce among other endeavors, until his death in September 1932 at age 62.
Benjamin Frank began as an assistant to D.H. Boice, who was the original general manager, but, in January 1923, the latter resigned to take on another hotel venture, and Frank assumed the top job at the Ambassador. He told the Los Angeles Times that a major goal of his was to make the hotel a center of recreation for guests including horse-riding parties and hikes in the mountains. Moreover, he had plans for a variety of large-scale shows, including ones for horses, dogs, and flowers.
He remained on the job for almost fifteen years, including several years after the death of his father. In 1937, he left to operate another famous hostelry, the Bilmore, across from Pershing Square and the ran a chain of hotels owned by a California savings and loan, including three in San Francisco and the Santa Barbara Biltmore. He was also said to have had an important role in establishing the famed Brown Derby restaurant. He died in late June 1953 at age 60.
As for Lester, the lesser known of the Frank trio, he left the Ambassador and later worked in the hotel business in New York City and then for a Chicago industrial company, though he was based in his Los Angeles home. He died in the City of Angeles in November 1970 at age 71.
The Ambassador operated for nearly seventy years and was in a slow decline for much of the last couple of decades before it closed in 1989, though its notoriety was assured when Democratic presidential candidate and likely nominee, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in the pantry area of the hotel’s kitchen on 5 June 1968.
After much debate about what to do with the landmark, the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to raze the buildings and built the school complex named for Kennedy, with the main structure featuring the general shape of the hotel tower. Articles about the demolition of the old buildings often featured Carlyn Frank Benjamin talking at length about her memories of living on the grounds for much of her childhood.
This photo is not only representative of one of the great hotels in greater Los Angeles, but also of the Frank family, which had such an integral role in the Ambassador’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s.