Knickerbocker Apartments

Haunted: Knickerbocker Hotel – 1714 Ivar Ave

Posted on Posted in Haunted L.A.

Haunted: Knickerbocker Hotel (now the Knickerbocker Apartments) located at 1714 Ivar Avenue, Los Angeles, CA.

 

The History

In 1924, the Los Angeles Times announced the near completion of the Security Apartments on Ivar Avenue.

Designed by E.M. Frasier, the new luxury hotel was promoted as “Hollywood’s Biltmore Hotel,” offering 172 apartments, six elevators, and an Italian courtyard.

However, the Security Apartments never opened. While still under construction, the owners quarreled. Lawsuits were filed and the luxury towers remained incomplete and closed for three years.

the_los_angeles_times_fri__oct_19__1923_knicker
An advertisement from October 1923, depicting how the new building was supposed to look when completed.

In 1928, Frank R. Strong, Walter R. Wheat, and Elwood Riggs purchased the property and renamed it the Knickerbocker Hotel Apartments. The new owners hired architect John M. Cooper to alter it.

Knickerbocker Hotel

Once completed, the Hollywood Knickerbocker offered 200 single, double and quadruple apartments, totaling 500 rooms. It was touted as Hollywood’s largest residential hotel, and its marketing slogan was “Your home for a year or a day.”

knickerbocker01

Knickerbocker Hotel lobby
The Knickerbocker’s lobby. All of the hotel’s furniture was designed by Barker Bros. at a budgeted cost of $350,000. Los Angeles Public Library/California State University.

In July 1929, the hotel opened with a grand celebration. Film player Raquel Torres became the first Hollywood star to take an apartment there. Film star Vera Renolds was another early resident.

Raquel Torres
Raquel Torres

The first house band was Josef Fekete of Budapest and his Hollywood Knickerbocker Hungarian Symphonette entertained in the hotel’s Cortile Lido patio. The Cortile Lido also served as the hotel’s main banquet space in the 1930s.

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Knickerbocker Lido
The Knickerbocker’s exotic Cortile Lido patio was the main party room during the Prohibition years. Los Angeles Public Library/California State Library.

The Hollywood Knickerbocker thrived during the Great Depression. After Prohibtion ended in 1933, the hotel opened a cocktail bar and lounge north of the main entrance. The bar along with the hotel’s Lido quickly became a boozy playground for former silent film stars such as Mae Murray, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Priscilla Dean, Anna Q. Nilsson, Norma Talmadge, Lila Lee, Esther Ralston, and others. The hotel also attracted a few famous residents, including Edward G. Robinson, Thelma Todd, Slim Summerville, Dashell Hammett, Patricia Ellis, film director Marshall Neilan, Lillian Roth, Barton MacLane, Brenda Marshall, and William Frawley. Other stars who visited the hotel in the 1930s include Betty Grable, Claudette Colbert, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff, Mickey Rooney, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, Victor McLaglen, and Mae West.

Bess Houdini
Beatrice Houdini’s last séance.

On October 31, 1936, Beatrice “Bess” Houdini chose the roof of her favorite Hollywood hotel, the Knickerbocker, to hold her last official séance to contact her late husband Harry Houdini. The séance was more of a publicity stunt than a genuine attempt to contact her husband from beyond the grave. “Pomp and Circumstance” played on a loudspeaker as Bess marched down a plush, red carpet to her throne next to a table containing a variety of theatrical stage props. Spiritualists then asked Houdini‘s ghost to handle these props in front of 200 spectators. As one might expect, nothing happened. Nevertheless, it was a high profile boost for the hotel.

Because stars used the hotel to house family members and to meet their agents for lunch, the hotel opened a sidewalk cafe in 1937. The new cafe became an informal eatery for sightseers hoping to see their favorite celebrities enter and exit the hotel.

Knickerbocker Hotel cafe 1937
The outdoor cafe, c. 1937. Los Angeles Public Library.

Not surprisingly, newspaper reporters, gossip columnists, tourists, and Hollywood hopefuls mingled inside the cocktail bar. In fact, it became such a rumor mill of who-is-dating who, that if a major star like George Brent showed up alone, it made the news.

Hollywood Knickerbocker bar
The Hollywood Knickerbocker cocktail bar, c. 1940s.

The hotel bar also attracted personalities with sobriety problems. In 1943, police arrested actress Frances Farmer in her hotel apartment after she failed to report to her probation officer. Farmer had previously been convicted of drunk-driving.

Police officers knocked on her door, yelling, “Come one, Frances, get up. You’re going to jail.”
She replied, “It’s too early. Go eat your breakfast and come back later!”

After the police refused to leave, Farmer shocked them by opening the door in the nude. According to newspapers, “After considerable pleading by the red-faced officers, the actress donned her raiment – piece by piece – at the same time singing and reciting lines from her recent plays and pictures.”

Frances Farmer 1943
Frances Farmer resisting arrest at the police station, c. 1943. She’s wearing a blue dress.

Farmer then put up a violent struggle and police officers carried her out of the hotel. After spending the night in jail, she was brought before a judge who asked her, “Were you fighting at the Hollywood Knickerbocker?”

She replied, “Yes, I was. I was fighting for my country and myself.”

The judge then said, “You were advised that if you took one drink of liquor or failed to be a law-abiding citizen…”

“What do you expect me to do?” Farmer interrupted. “I get liquor in my orange juice – in my coffee. Must I starve to death to obey your laws?”

D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith

Frances Farmer wasn’t the only down-on-their-luck star living at the hotel. Another one was pioneer American director D.W. Griffith, the director of The Birth of a Nation (1915), who bitterly drank himself to death in his final years.

Former hotel greeter Earl Watson recalled an incident where Griffith became so intoxicated that the hotel bartender had to carry him to his suite. Once the bartender attempted to ready Griffith for bed, Griffith awoke from his drunken stupor long enough to say, “Young man, only a doctor takes off my pants…so you’re either a doctor or a fairy.”

Although Griffith was statesmanlike in public, he had few friends and was largely ignored by the current stars that populated the building. However, one of his drinking buddies at the hotel was retired silent film director Marshall Nielan, who acknowledged Griffith‘s accomplishments. Alcohol, however, soon took its toll on Griffith‘s health. In 1948, he collapsed from cerebral hemorrhage inside his suite. He was immediately taken to Temple Hospital where he died hours later.

Marilyn Monroe Joe DiMaggio
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio

In the early 1950s, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio regularly stayed at the Hollywood Knickerbocker while in Los Angeles. During his courtship with Marilyn Monroe, the couple often sneaked into the hotel where they spent most of their time in DiMaggio’s suite and sunbathing on the roof.

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The Hollywood Knickerbocker, c. 1946. California State Library.

In the 1940s, the Pickering Hotel Group bought the Hollywood Knickerbocker. Pickering’s owner, E.J. Thompson married his secretary Ada R. McEntee. However, their marriage was an unhappy one. As a result, McEntee became the Knickerbocker’s sole owner in 1953 as part of their divorce settlement.

By this time, Hollywood was entering a decline. So in 1954, McEntee embarked on a $1 million renovation of the Hollywood Knickerbocker property. She hired architect Paul Williams to add a concrete canopy that extended close to the curb. Williams also designed a new dining room and coffee shop to the right of the main entrance. Three of the dining room’s walls were wood paneled and the fourth wall was made of stone.

Knickerbocker Earl Watson

Paul Williams canopy
Doorman Earl “the Pearl” Watson standing outside the Knickerbocker Hotel, c. mid-1950s.

Williams next divided the hotel’s cocktail bar into two adjoining oak paneled rooms. In order to expand the bar and the dining/coffee shop, Williams made the lobby smaller. He did this by dropping its ceiling seven feet and moving the east wall 15 feet.

As part of the renovation, a neighboring parking lot was also converted into a new swimming pool.

Before the construction was completed, McEntee sold the Knickerbocker Hotel for $2.5 million to Herman B. Sarno and Associates in 1955.

The new Mid-century modern look temporarily attracted a few famous personalities to the Knickerbocker, including Elvis Presley, who temporarily occupied Room 1016 in August of 1956. However, mobs of fans soon overran the hotel, forcing Presley to move to the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel for more privacy.

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Elvis Presley entering the hotel on August 18, 1956. Photographer: Ed Braslaff.

In 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel during the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.  The Knickerbocker also hosted a number of other conventions and social functions. However, its days as a world famous hotel were numbered.

Irene Lentz
Irene (Gibbons) Lentz.

In 1962, 60-year-old celebrity fashion designer Irene (Gibbons) Lentz checked into the hotel with no intention of checking out. In her room, she drank excessively while writing several suicide notes. She then slashed her wrists and leaped to her death from the 11th floor. One of her suicide notes read, “Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all. Irene.” Police determined that she was distraught over personal finances after her husband, screenwriter Eliot Gibbons, suffered a debilitating stroke.

Lentz’s death precipitated a sharp downward spiral in Hollywood and the hotel’s finances. Stars stopped visiting Hollywood Boulevard, and the hotel struggled to attract a young crowd.

In 1965, the hotel was sold to James C. Thomas III for $3,450,000. Hoping to turn the property around, Thomas announced plans to expand the hotel with a new  convention center with a rooftop swimming pool. He also promoted the hotel’s former celebrity clientele, hoping that nostalgia would bring back business. It didn’t and his plans for an expansion never happened.

Knickerbocker 1965

In 1969, the hotel fell into bankruptcy. Thomas then sold the hotel to Standard Motels Inc. for $2, 196, 500 cash. The hotel continued losing money. Then in 1972, the Knickerbocker was sold to Goldrich, Kest, Hirsch and Stern.

The new owners closed the hotel and converted it into low to moderate senior housing. Over $750,000 was spent on updated plumbing, electrical wiring and new elevators. Today, it is still a private residential building for seniors.

THE HAUNTINGS

The Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel’s ghost stories went public in 1995, when David “Max “Fisher, proprietor of the All-Star Theatre Cafe & Speakeasy in the hotel’s former cocktail bar, discussed his paranormal experiences on the Sightings paranormal television show.

Fisher, prior to his television appearance, had already heard that the Knickerbocker was haunted. Months into his business, he had also witnessed paranormal activity inside his cafe. However, he misrepresented his paranormal experiences by attaching dead Hollywood personalities to them in order to get attention.

For instance, in 1995, Fisher told Sightings that he had seen a shadowy ghost float through his cafe late at night. Fisher then implied that the ghost was Rudolph Valentino by falsely stating that the silent movie star used to ride down from the Ivar Hills on horseback to dance the tango and drink in the Knickerbocker’s speakeasy. Of course, the claim is preposterous. Valentino died in 1926 while the building was closed and empty. He also didn’t own horses or a stable while living in the Hollywood area. Nevertheless, people believed the story without questioning it.

 

Valentino ghost
Contrary to urban legend, Rudolph Valentino never rode his horse down Ivar Avenue to the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel to drink and tango.

Fisher also told Sightings that female customers had seen a blonde female ghost in the All-Star Cafe’s ladies room. He then spun it to say that Marilyn Monroe‘s ghost haunts the Knickerbocker, and that Monroe and Joe DiMaggio once honeymooned at the hotel in 1954.

There is no truth to the honeymoon claim. Although Monroe and DiMaggio sneaked around the hotel during their courtship, the couple married in San Francisco, and spent their wedding night in a Paso Robles hotel. Monroe and DiMaggio then secretly traveled outside of Palm Springs for the remainder of their unofficial honeymoon.

Fisher also distorted facts to say that in 1943, police dragged a naked Frances Farmer wrapped in a shower curtain through the cocktail bar (aka, his All-Star Theatre Cafe)…that D.W. Griffith dropped dead underneath the lobby’s $120,000 chandelier…and that William Frawley died outside the hotel after leaving the cocktail bar in 1966. None of these stories are true. In fact, William Frawley did not die in front of the hotel. He collapsed and died while crossing Hollywood Blvd. at Ivar Ave. after seeing a movie with his male nurse. Once more, there isn’t credible documentation that Frawley was taken to the Knickerbocker to await an ambulance. His death, it seems, had nothing to do with the hotel, other than he once lived there years ago.

 

knickerbockerlobby
The Knickerbocker’s lobby chandelier, added no earlier than 1954.

Sightings brought in Ventura ghost hunter Richard Senate to look for the ghost of D.W. Griffith and Marilyn Monroe. With divining rods in hand, Senate found spirit energy under the chandelier where Griffith was said to have died and in the hotel’s kitchen elevator where Monroe was said to have sneaked into DiMaggio’s suite. Truth be told, the elevator dates back to the 1970s and that the chandelier was added in the mid-1950s.

Following Sightings’ broadcast, Fisher drafted a press release that went viral. As a result, Los Angeles Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen repeated the hotel’s bogus claims in her 1998 article, Hotel Was Historic Host to Hollywood Headliners. E! Entertainment’s  Mysteries & Scandals television series also helped spread the misinformation.

In 1998, Fisher partnered with the International Society of Paranormal Research (ISPR), run by Larry Montz, to conduct commercial Ghost Expedition tours inside the All-Star Theatre Cafe. Fisher also hosted Houdini seances during the Halloween season.

However, despite the cafe’s cult following, Fisher lost his lease around 2000-2001. The All-Star Theatre Cafe & Speakeasy closed and the former cocktail bar was no longer open to the public. Since that time, the owners refuse to discuss any haunted claims and do not allow paranormal investigations.

A few All-Star Theatre Cafe & Speakeasy customers, however, maintain that the Hollywood Knickerbocker is haunted and that the former cocktail bar has poltergeist activity…even if Fisher’s revisionist history was only a marketing ploy.

These customers claimed to have seen a ceiling fan blade fly across the room, lights flickering erratically, doors opening and closing by themselves, and dishes rattling or falling to the floor for no reason. There is also a story about syrup and other bottles occasionally flying off the counter near the cappuccino machines. One eyewitness even claimed that she saw coffee canisters simultaneously dump its contents onto the floor on their own volition.

CONCLUSION

Is the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel truly haunted?

My answer is “Probably.”

The Knickerbocker was a well loved hotel. It has also seen its share of tragedies and deaths.

For instance, in 1931, playwright Tom Barry succumbed after two heart attacks in his hotel room.

A suicide occurred in 1937, when Mrs. Henry Parker from Ojai, California, fatally jumped from an eighth floor window, landing on the pavement of a driveway next to the hotel.

Jacob Goldberg, 85, died in his room in 1937.

Lyricist Grace Osburn Wharton died of a long illness in her room in 1938.

Martha Wilcox Cobb, the mother of Brown Derby Restaurateur Robert Cobb, died in her suite in 1953.

So what do you think? Got any ghost stories?

Fun fact. The parking lot across the street from the Knickerbocker was originally owned by film star Laura La Plante. She had originally intended to build a home on the site. However, once the Security Apartments project started in 1923, she abandoned her plans, and converted the plot into a parking lot. She then sold it for a tidy little profit.
Forgotten anecdote: The parking lot across the street from the Hollywood Knickerbocker was originally owned by film star Laura La Plante. She had originally intended to build a home on the site. However, once the Security Apartments project started in 1923, she abandoned her plans and converted the plot into a parking lot. She then sold it for a tidy little profit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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