One of the first jobs I ever held was elevator operator at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. I’m not sure why a seventeen year old from East Los Angeles, California would choose to travel to the other side of town to push buttons in an elevator, but in truth, it was a great job.
I have always liked people and meeting new people is especially fun. Working in a hotel, one meets new people every day. It was a strange gig too, made weirder by the schedule I was hired to cover. I worked the graveyard shift 11pm to 7am five days a week.
Although it was a single hotel, the physical plant was divided into two parts, “the old building” and the “new.” Between the two buildings was a porte-cochere or driveway so that guests could alight their vehicles beneath the awning that ran between the two buildings. The old building faced Wilshire Boulevard, proudly wearing its yellow and white striped awnings. The new building sat behind it. If you were staying in the new building and you walked in the front door on Wilshire Boulevard you would have to walk through the ornate lobby and then out the back door, beneath the awning and into the new building. It was a bit of a hike, but a fun walk nonetheless, and many people did it then and I suppose still do.
What made the job really great were two individuals who took me under their wing and showed me the ropes of hotel work. They were bellmen, both of them. One was named Roman and the other was Puckdee. Roman was also a music fan and since I was a fan of big band music we had much to talk about and spent the quiet times of the evening discussing music and musicians the way fans do.
Puckdee walked with a slight limp but he could carry more luggage on his person than most able bodied bellmen with a cart. Both were very professional and always looked spiffy in their bellman uniforms.
There was a floor walker in the hotel as well, an older gentleman with slicked back, salt and pepper hair, parted on the side like Jerry Lewis. He walked the halls all night long making sure no mayhem was brewing and he smelled of peppermint schnapps or chewing gum, I was never sure which.
In the meantime, Roman, Puckdee and myself aided and abetted the hotel guests in fulfilling their need for mayhem as we worked in concert to avoid the aforementioned security guard. It was great fun and often led to great tips.
Sometimes things would go awry and then we would have to really work together to make sure no one was hurt and everyone got home safely. One night I was called to the 7th floor so I proceeded to take the elevator car there to meet those wishing to descend or ascend. Instead, when the elevator doors opened, I saw no one. People sometimes ring the bell and then realize they forgot something in their rooms and return to retrieve it. I was used to this so I thought I would wait a bit. After a few seconds, and seeing no one, I decided to exit the car and see if I could spot them. As I exited the car I could see the hallway that ran perpendicular to the foyer the elevators lived in. It was long and ran the length of the floor. Just then a naked man ran past from left to right. As I started to follow or at least see where he was headed I heard the elevator buzzer again. This time it was being impatiently rung on the floor below.
As I headed back to the elevator car I could see the security guard walking out of the stairwell and on to the floor with the naked man. By then the naked runner had made a left and disappeared down another hallway. Immediately I perceived that the security guard had no idea what had just occurred.
It was exactly like a movie where you know what just happened but the other person doesn’t have a clue. I made my way to the 6th floor and when the elevator doors opened there were two of the nicest young ladies I ever met. They were both out of breath from running. It seems they were nurses and had met the fellow staying in our hotel at the famed Polo Lounge located in the Beverly Hills Hotel, not far away. They all came back to his room here at the hotel and although I’m not sure what they thought would transpire I can tell you that I know exactly what the gentleman at our hotel “hoped” would transpire since he was dressed for it.
The nurses from Georgia however had not agreed to any such behavior and claimed the fellow was drunk anyway. At seventeen I had not seen much of the world but I had seen enough to know that these two young ladies should never have agreed to go to this man’s hotel room if their idea of a fun evening did not include some naked chasing. Needless to say we escorted them out safely.
The hotel was like a grand old lady, among the greats of an earlier era in Los Angeles, like the Biltmore (in downtown Los Angeles and a virtual co-star on Mad Men), the Ambassador (long since torn down) and “Don” Hernando Courtright’s Beverly-Wilshire.
I do not know how Mr. Courtright came to receive the respectful “Don” at the beginning of his name but I do know that he was well liked by an older group of people you really didn’t see much anymore. Men who wore hats, ladies who wore gloves, people with money but no desire to remind you of it. They always greeted him cordially as he walked around and greeted guests at the fancy restaurant in the hotel.
I never dined in that restaurant. I don’t think I even set foot in it since it was far too formal and too expensive for my budget. Though there was a restaurant I was very fond of at the hotel. It was a little coffee shop on the Rodeo side of the building. It had a soda fountain that made real ice cream sundaes and a few booths as well as tables. At the entrance (or exit if you were leaving) was the cashier who sat surrounded by a panoply of candy and cigarettes and mints and gum and cigars and all of them displayed in a way that made each and every one seem delicious.
It was called “The Café of the Pink Turtle” and although the name seems rather pedantic, it fit perfectly. Trying to call it something else wouldn’t work. A shorter name would seem rushed and inside the Café of the Pink Turtle nothing was rushed. Food came quickly and service was excellent, waitresses in pink uniforms with white collars, but nothing was rushed. It was an another era when entertaining yourself at the table before your food arrived meant reading a newspaper if you were alone or conversing with the person sitting across from you.
The cigar lady also sold newspapers and I recall the LA Times and Herald-Examiner of course as well as the NY Times and the old “trades” Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, when these papers were the daily Bible of Hollywood like the old testament and the new.
When I worked at the hotel, Warren Beatty lived there (in the old building), and Steve McQueen (in the new) as well as Barbara Hutton. I saw Mr. Beatty and Mr. McQueen many times but I never laid eyes on Ms. Hutton. When we received a package or flowers or a delivery of any kind for her we were instructed to leave it by the door, ring the bell and walk away.
One day, I hid, and only pretended to walk away but stayed around the corner and watched when the door opened. I was disappointed to catch a glimpse of a woman in a nurse’s uniform open the door and roll the cart in. Ms. Hutton would be dead within the year.
When I wasn’t sneaking around hallways I was usually on the ground floor of the new building near the bar located in the lobby, the Zindabad Pub. One night I saw Steve McQueen emerge from the bar looking disheveled. His lip was a little puffy and I asked if he needed help. He said no, thank you and went to his room. Later I learned what happened. A drunk in the bar was acting like an idiot and decided to punch a “tough guy.” But Mr. McQueen, no doubt accustomed to such taunts, decided not to retaliate since the ensuing lawsuits and energy wasted were not something he was interested in. I always thought it took a very “tough guy” indeed to take a punch square in the jaw and walk away. A little over two years later he died of cancer in Juarez, Mexico.
One night, at my usual post in the lobby of the new building I saw a very smartly dressed older gentleman with a monocle walking towards me. He would have reached me had it not been for the intercession of the plate glass door between us. He didn’t fall down, but he teetered and his monocle fell out, though it was attached to a chain around his neck. So I rushed over to open the door and help him in. He looked familiar but I had more pressing concerns and put that thought out of my mind for the moment.
He had the most beautiful voice, deep and resonant with a stately elegance and an English accent. I took his right arm and placed it around my left as I walked him to the elevators. I took him up to his floor and walked him to the door. He fumbled with the key so I took it from him gently and opened the door for him. He said thank you. As I walked him in he asked me to stand him at the foot of his bed. I figured he knew what he was doing so I complied. As I let go he said “good night” and went straight back like a drunken ironing board and fell dead asleep mid-fall.
As he lay there in his tweed jacket, overcoat and monocle I thought he looked marvelous. But he was still wearing the most beautiful pair of light brown, hand-made English shoes. So I unlaced his shoes and placed them on the floor at the foot of his bed, in case he wanted to pick up where he left off. I put his key on the bureau and let myself out. Then I remembered where I had seen him before, my high school religion class.
In that period of Catholic liberalization after Vatican II and before the right wing took over and turned the clock backwards we used to watch films in religion class and discuss them afterwards. Some of those we watched were: Butterfiled 8, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the film in which I saw my monocled friend. It was called Sons and Lovers based on the novel of the same name by D.H. Lawrence. Trevor Howard wore a monocle and slept in his clothes sometimes. In addition, he was a an awfully nice gentleman and he really knew how to “fall” asleep.