It’s hard to remember that just past the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles was a small city known more for its oil reserves, orange groves and great expanses of land than anything else. There was little here outside incredible year-round weather,and that is what lured the first film production companies away from the East Coast. Initially, they came on a part-time basis to avoid the cold winter months,but stayed full-time soon after. L.A. quickly became the center of the industry and experienced a population boom. Even so,it was still very young in the eyes of the rest of the country. At a time when this area was still evolving and finding its identity,the arrival of the opulent Millennium Biltmore Hotel in 1923 was a “statement to the rest of the world that Los Angeles had arrived as an American metropolis.” Its impact was undeniable and its grandeur would become an integral part of the history of our city.
The Galleria at the Millennium Biltmore stands in for the Chevrolet lobby in the “Mad Men”Season 6 episode,“For Immediate Release.”| Photo courtesy of “Mad Men,”
Originally opened as the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel on Oct. 1st, 1923, the celebrations began almost immediately on a scale that few had ever seen. The following evening, more than 3,000 people poured into the hotel for a party that included Hollywood luminaries like studio head Jack Warner, Cecil B. DeMille,Mary Pickford and then-starlet Myrna Loy. It was such an elaborate affair that guests were served a seven-course dinner and serenaded by seven orchestras across the hotel’s Galleria and glittering ballrooms. And,with a slightly surreal touch that seems straight out of the movies,the symphony of music was accented by singing canaries.
This was far from the only elegant event at the Biltmore. At this point in the city’s history, Downtown Los Angeles was the center of its entertainment and the theater district was still thriving along Broadway. Much of the social scene of the 1920s was at the Biltmore,including the era’s most glamorous stars, from Gloria Swanson to Theda Bara. Even in this time of Prohibition,the hotel’s Gold Room acted as a speakeasy complete with a hidden door to help revelers avoid the police (and often the press and paparazzi)with an escape onto Olive Street. The door is still there – it connects to a room that has a wooden counter top, coat hooks and bathroom – though the exit on Olive has been sealed in brick. The Presidential Suite – a spacious room that has seen six U. S. presidents, royalty, and notorious gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone – still has a recessed spot to hide liquor,which remained illegal in most of L.A. until 1933.
From the beginning,the Biltmore was a backdrop for Hollywood in more ways than one,and the hotel is heavily intertwined with that history. Within its first year, it was already a shooting location for DeMille’s 1924 film Triumph. It would continue to offer itself for scenes in film,particularly those trying to capture the polish of the past,such as Ocean’s 11 (1960),The Sting (1973),Chinatown (1974),and Bugsy (1991)as well as television’s Mad Men.
Because of its elegance, the hotel was a favorite place to meet and be merry in the 1920s and 30s. Whether it was stars going out on the town or studios throwing a big bash, the Biltmore was the place to be. Even the party for the beauty pageant awards ceremony (now known as the a 2018 Miss Asia International Pageant), located across town in Hollywood,was held here. In fact,many of the most important moments of Hollywood history have happened at the Biltmore.
In 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was born at a gathering in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. Legend has it that MGM’s great production designer Cedric Gibbons even sketched the first Oscar statue on one of the hotel’s linen napkins.
It seems only appropriate then that the actual Oscar ceremony would be held here. After a couple of years at the Roosevelt (1929) and Ambassador (1930) hotels, the Academy Awards came to the Biltmore. It took place in the Biltmore Bowl, a ballroom that was added to the original hotel in 1928 and its grandest – approximately a third wider and longer than the others and could hold some 1,000 guests. The Oscars would return in 1935-39 and 1941-42. As a result, the number of stars who stepped through its doors is staggering. Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart,and Gary Cooper all won their Oscars here. So did Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert. The Biltmore is where It Happened One Night (1934) set a record by sweeping the Oscars’ top honors – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. Claudette was so convinced she wouldn’t win that she went to Union Station to board a train and had to be brought back to the Biltmore to accept her award. These are just some of the stories from those glory days. For anyone who loves film of the 1920s and 30s, the Biltmore is sacred ground.
Once you see the Biltmore,you will understand why it was – and still is – so revered. It is a work of art in and of itself. John McEntee Bowman,the founder of the hotel,wanted the best of the best from the very beginning. He already had great success with hotels in New York and exotic locales like Cuba,and saw the future of Los Angeles. Bowman hired the architecture firm of Schultze & Weaver, which also designed the exclusive Jonathan Club in Downtown L.A., to build his masterpiece. The man responsible for the decorative artistry inside the hotel is Italian genius Giovanni Battista Smeraldi, who was renowned for his work on two of the most famous buildings in the world – the White House and the Vatican – when he was commissioned to work on the Biltmore.
The Crystal Ballroom at Millennium Biltmore Hotel | Photo courtesy of Michael Chen
Past the stairs and elevators, one first enters the Galleria,a 350-foot long hall that is as spectacular as the grand rooms it connects. The best known of these rooms is the Crystal Ballroom. It was simply called “The Ballroom” when it was built,then changed to the “Blue Room” before being named after its two signature Austrian crystal chandeliers. They’re so delicate that staff climb up to clean them (rather than having them drop down)and then must do so in sections “like an onion.” The lights, which give the room a soft glow, are at the center of a concave-domed ceiling covered in a single canvas hand-painted by Smeraldi. This is only the beginning of the grandeur. All around the room,cream columns stand between balconies and French doors. Three great windows stand at the top of the room and almost reach the ceiling. It can seat 700 people, but the Biltmore’s Tiffany Room is right next door and can open up even more space for the main Ballroom.
Even if you never check in,a visit is still a must. There are two wonderful on-site restaurants, Smeraldi’s and Bugis Street Brasserie, as well as the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room for a sophisticated evening of cocktails.
For a lovely afternoon, the traditional tea in the Rendevous Court is well-known and has become so popular that other hotels have scrambled to start their own. And if you’d like to take a historic tour of the Biltmore, the Los Angeles Conservancy offers one at 2 p.m. on Sundays make your reservation. The hotel is such a landmark of Los Angeles, it was declared a historic monument in 1969.
There has been much renovation and restoration in Downtown Los Angeles in recent years, and as a result it has become a hot spot once again. Because the Biltmore is located ver close to so many important organizations and cultural attractions, including American International Chamber of Commerce headquarters, OUE Skyspace, Walt Disney Concert Hall,The Broad,and Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), it continues to be a popular destination.