Thursday, October 1, 2009

Old Hollywood

Those who know me, know that I have a mild obsession with "old Hollywood". And by "old Hollywood" I don't simply mean old movies, although there is nothing better than a really good one. I mean actual Hollywood. The history. The iconic stars. The architecture. The classiness with which people carried themselves through a world of networking, back room deals and parties. Love it.

One of the symbols that represents all of this is the famed Hollywood sign that sits atop Mt. Lee. What's interesting is that this sign was conceived as nothing more than an ad campaign for a suburban housing development called "Hollywoodland." Since it's dedication in 1923, the sign's appearance and purpose have evolved. But to many, it carries a message - This is a place where magic happens and where dreams can come true.

Back in 1923, the dream was a beautiful home and lifestyle. Originally intended to last just a year and a half, the sign has endured more than eight decades - and is still going strong into today, when the Hollywood dream is much more about a lifestyle and career than a home in a suburban development.

One of the lesser known icons of old Hollywood is the Hotel Bel-Air. Hotel Bel-Air, and it's 12 acres of gardens, is nestled in the very heart of the exclusive and private Bel-Air neighborhood and only minutes from Hollywood.

Hotel Bel-Air was originally the real estate office for the Bel-Air Estates housing development. Alphonso Bell had purchased the land in the early 1920s and quickly announced that this would be “a haven of rest for the businessman who toils in big, noisy, congested Los Angeles.” It wasn't long before the entrepreneurs and business leaders were building multi-million dollar homes in a time when a $20,000 home was considered expensive. Ironically, he would not sell to anyone in the film business until the Depression when the rules were relaxed and Hollywood discovered Bel-Air.

In the 1940s, Mr. Bell turned the management and maintenance of the neighborhood over to the Bel-Air Association, and in 1946 Joseph Drown purchased 18 acres on Stone Canyon Road. Drown quietly began remodeling and adding buildings to create the complex of guest rooms and suites.

He transformed the grounds into lush California oasis and it quickly became a favorite of the rich and famous. Hollywood celebrities and world dignitaries were frequent guests at the young and glamorous retreat. Hotel Bel-Air attracted privacy seeking celebrities including Grace Kelly, Jackie Gleason, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.

While numerous updates have been completed since the 1940s, the hotel has preserved its rustic tranquility and charm. Can they do it again? Hotel Bel-Air closes this week for a 2 year remodeling project that will add 12 villas and a 12,000 square foot Spa with three additional spa suites. Also included is the renovation of all 91 of the hotel's current rooms and suites, the hotel’s restaurant, event spaces and private dining rooms and the famous Champagne Bar.

Unfortunately, the majority of the hotel staff has been laid off during the renovation process and that hotel staff includes the Pianist for the Champagne Bar, Antonio Castillo de la Gala. Is that a name, or what?

Five nights a week for 12 1/2 years, Castillo de la Gala has entertained patrons with classic songs containing what the LA Times calls "embellishment and filigree".

Many of us have sung or played a concert or fundraiser in places like this and understand that the lounges of these types of hotels are a distinct musical world. And in this world, it would seem that Castillo de la Gala is a highly polished fixture. The Times even goes so far as calling him "a minor legend".
With a 2,000-song repertoire committed to memory, he has amassed a fan base of philanthropists, captains of industry, kings, queens, movie stars and fellow musicians.

Given the venue, it is no surprise that celebrities, musical and otherwise, are frequently in the audience. Castillo de la Gala recites their names with relish; a robust self-regard, tempered by droll self-deprecation, is part of his charm. He has played duets with Phyllis Diller and Billy Joel. Paul McCartney stopped by once and, the pianist reports, was wowed by his arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby."

When Robert Goulet showed up one night, Castillo de la Gala launched into "The Impossible Dream," and Goulet sang along. A few months before his death, the pianist said, Michael Jackson applauded quietly after every song.
But, unlike many out-of-work musicians in this economy, Castillo de la Gala already has another gig lined up. The pianist will soon be appearing at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. His reputation precedes him. Again, according to the LA Times article (don't worry - it's linked below), a spokeswoman for the hotel says it will adjust the seating and menu in its Living Room "to accommodate Antonio and his many fans."

I hope that through the renovation process, Hotel Bel-Air retains the old Hollywood charm, class and iconic stature that so many pieces of the Hollywood history have lost. And, who knows, maybe Mr. Castillo de la Gala will end up back at the Champagne Bar playing the favorites for the rich and famous.

Castillo de la Gala's past is an interesting one - I encourage you to read the full LA Times article by clicking here.

You can also see a photo gallery of the Hotel Bel-Air by clicking here.

[Photos - Top Left: the Hollywood sign of today. Top Right: Hollywoodland Sign after it's dedication. Bottom Left: Hotel Bel-Air. Bottom Right: Pianist Antonio Castillo de la Gala in the Champagne Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air by Christina House for The Times.]

1 comment:

Joseph G said...

Terrific posting, James.

I join you in hoping that the renovation doesn't end up making it look like modernistic dreck.

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