The Hollywood Athletic Club, Photoplay, 1924.
In the 1910s and 1920s, social clubs were all the rage in Los Angeles and surrounding communities. Many people immigrated to Southern California’s sunny shores pursuing new adventures. Most arrived friendless and eager to make new connections. Some joined clubs organized around the cities or states from which they had come, or single sex groups like women’s clubs or men only clubs. Others searched out social organizations, cultural opportunities, or sports leagues with more open policies.
The little farming community of Hollywood, founded around solid virtues and churchgoing, organized groups creating strong minds as well as strong bodies. Many offered educational, cultural, and social opportunities while providing community service. As the city grew and more artistic types arrived, cultural groups grew more diverse, like the Masquers or Lambs’ Clubs.
Marion Nixon, Alyce Mills and Ena Gregory play pool at the Hollywood Athletic Club at the Hollywood Athletic Club.
By 1921, many men were eager to form an institution devoted to shaping and developing the physical body, as well as offering opportunities for fellowship and camaraderie. The Los Angeles Times noted on September 16, 1921 that the charter members of the Hollywood Athletic Club met in the Hollywood Library to discuss the building of a fully equipped gymnasium and clubhouse which could accommodate 1,000 members. The group announced that they were searching for a central Hollywood location between Cahuenga Boulevard and Highland Avenue, possibly on Sunset Boulevard, on which they would spend around $200,000 for construction. Hoped for amenities included handball courts, billiard and card rooms, swimming pool lined with tile, and private rooms, all managed by a physical director. They elected their first Board of Directors, which included such men as C. E. Toberman, Fred Smith, George Eastman, Frank Galloway, Joseph McLellan, Robert Dexter, and others.
By February 1, 1922, they released the completed plans in the Los Angeles Times, showing a two story clubhouse designed by Meyer and Holler, architects of the Ince Studio, Chaplin Studio, Goldwyn Studio, and the Egyptian Theatre, on land purchased at 6525 Sunset Blvd. for $35,000. Not only would the clubhouse contain gymnasium, athletic facilities, and club rooms, it would also possess a nine-story tower in which bachelor members could reside.
The Journal of Electricity reported on October 15, 1922 that the Milwaukee Building Company would construct a ten-story concrete and hollow tile building for the Hollywood Athletic Club, which would contain Turkish baths, showers, dressing rooms for both men and women, storage rooms, barber shop and haberdashery, lockers, and a power plant in the basement. The first floor would include a lobby, lounge, lockers, a gymnasium with spectators’ balcony, natatorium with tank, and balcony, men and women’s check and restrooms, and main and ladies’ dining rooms. The club’s second story would feature private dining rooms, game rooms, fencing, and four handball courts, while the upper floors in the tower would feature 54 sleeping rooms with their own bathrooms. For special needs, the second floor would also contain a store selling cigars, cigarettes, and various sundries. The building’s features would include stucco, art stone trim, tile, and composite rook, along with hardwood floors in the interior.
Buddy Rogers at the Hollywood Athletic Club.
The Hollywood Athletic Club announced completion of the building in the December 15, 1923 newspaper, noting they would hold an informal opening for members on January 1, 1924. The Los Angeles Times called it the most modern athletic facility on the West Coast, and the tallest building in Hollywood at the time. Initiation fees cost $150, with $10 monthly dues.
Besides designing the structure, Meyer and Holler decorated and furnished the building’s interior in the Italianate style, all influenced by Florentine palaces. Draperies, carpets, light fixtures, and furnishings were all especially designed and crafted to create a “homelike atmosphere” for the members. The large dining room sat 300, and the game rooms reflected the Pompeiian style. Several sphinxes decorated the halls of the club, all male.
Meyer and Holler’s striking architecture was recognized on February 22, 1925, when the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognized the Hollywood Athletic Club as one of the outstanding buildings of 1924.
Official opening festivities occurred January 12, 1924, with an informal reception for members, family, and friends followed by an inspection of the building. Entertainment included a specially staged athletic assembly by physical director Donald McCary in the gymnasium, followed by aquatic events staged by Clyde Swendsen, swimming coach.
Members enjoyed the fully-equipped and professional gymnasium and variety of exercise classes led and organized by athletic director McCary, along with the Turkish bath, massage, and club rooms. The tiled swimming pool and diving area also attracted much use from members. The club also included a sun bath on the roof, handball courts, billiard and games rooms. Besides exercise rooms, the Hollywood Athletic Club organized their own sports teams to compete against local and regional teams in baseball, basketball, wrestling, boxing, water polo, track, hockey, and soccer.
The modern, up-to-date facilities immediately attracted state and nationwide competitive athletic events. The American Athletic Union held many regional and national swimming and diving events at the Hollywood Athletic Club, with male competitors often called “mermen” in newspaper stories. Other sports such as handball, squash, boxing, and wrestling often held important meets here as well.
In April 1925, the club held the Los Angeles Squash Championships, with many members of the club advancing to the final rounds. Actor David Butler advanced to one semifinals, with film director Frank Borzage advancing to the other against William “Bill” Tilden, tennis extraordinaire. Big Bill Tilden won the tournament, before he began dominating the tennis world. In October of that year, the AAU held their national championship at the club, with member and actor Tom Gallery defeating Borzage and then Tilden for the title.
Jobyna Ralston at the Hollywood Athletic Club.
The Los Angeles Times reported on April 30, 1925 that world champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, “the Chicago River Tuna,” would square off in two events against Sam Kahanamoku in an attempt to lower his two world records in the 50 and 100-yard dashes, bringing huge crowds to observe the competition. Weissmuller dominated both events, setting his world record in the 100-yard dash. This would be just the first of many competitions Weissmuller attended at the Hollywood Athletic Club, before becoming a member himself. In fact, Screenland magazine claimed in 1934 that Weissmuller supposedly discovered that MGM planned on filming Edgar Rice Burrough’s “Tarzan” books from the Hollywood Athletic Club’s wrestling instructor.
In 1929, the Hollywood Athletic Club and several other area local clubs such as the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Surf and Sand Club, the Santa Monica Athletic Club, the California Yacht Club, Riviera Country Club and others consolidated their activities, allowing their members access to each of the facilities, thereby helping to defray costs.
From the beginning, many Hollywood celebrities joined the Hollywood Athletic Club’s membership rolls, enjoying its fine athletic, dining, and hotel facilities. Early members included Charlie Chaplin, Jack Pickford, Ronald Colman, Dell Henderson, Ralph Ince, Gilbert Roland, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Edmund Lowe, Kenneth Harlan, Jack Mulhall, Monte Blue, Richard Arlen, Charles Farrell, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, George O’Brien, William Bakewell, Johnny Mack Brown, Joel McCrea, William Bakewell, and Cesar Romero. Later members also included Kirk Douglas, Sabu, Walter Abel, Ward Bond, John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Cornel Wilde, and Humphrey Bogart.
Lowe often played squash and swam at the club before heading to the studio, and often returned at the end of the day. Director Charles Vidor and Wilde fenced at the Club in the 1940s, and Ryan and Frank Sinatra often sparred between jobs in the 1940s as well. Desi Arnaz often stayed at the Club after fights with Lucy.
Several women as well enjoyed training in the facility, spending time with the athletic director, taking classes, or getting massages. Actress Jobyna Ralston enjoyed working out on the parallel bars, and Lilyan Tashman worked to slim her figure. Harry Pierson trained many stars, both male and female, per Movie Classic, and all seemed to enjoy visiting the Turkish baths, massage rooms, and manicurist.
In its March 1930 issue, Talking Screen reported on the “dedicated men” of the Hollywood Athletic Club who enjoyed sunbathing in “roofless canvas cubicles…baking, naked and unabashed….” These sun warriors included Edmund Lowe, George O’Brien, Charles Farrell, Victor McLaglen, William Powell, Edward Everett Horton, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Johnny Mack Brown.
Not all was sweetness and light however. Tyrone Power Sr. died of a heart attack in his son’s arms at the club on December 23, 1931.
Local organizations rented out space in the facility for meetings and other special occasions as well. Kiwanis, Optimists, the Salvation Army, the Greater San Fernando Valley Association, and women’s clubs all held meetings and special events here. In the mid-1920s, the Los Angeles Traffic Commission help open meetings describing street plans and traffic relief to already crowded Hollywood streets. Many pre-1932 Olympic dinners and teas also occurred at the Club. Temple Israel of Hollywood even held their Passover Service here in 1950.
Though many showbiz veterans passed through the doors, the Club saw little use as a filming location. The 1951 television series, “Man of Tomorrow,” showed youth working out for a series of 26 15 minute episodes. The film noir “Kiss Me Deadly” featured private eye Mike Hammer searching out clues at the Club.
Entertainment industry businesses and professionals often booked private rooms here to stay away from public eyes and enjoy some people and quiet. Marie Prevost, Kenneth Harlan, and Neil Hamilton employed the Hollywood Athletic Club for personal interviews. Magazines reported on such stars as Constance Bennett, Paul Bern, and Ronald Colman lunching here in the late 1920s-early 1930s. First National threw a dinner honoring John McCormick and Al Rockett on July 19, 1925, with such guests as M. C. Levee, Frank Lloyd, James Quirk, Lewis Stone, Victor McLaglen, and Lloyd Hughes. The Producers Distributing Corporation, under the leadership of Joseph P. Kennedy, threw their convention at the Club. United Artists even held small premieres with dinner at $3 a head in 1930, for more swanky and private surroundings.
In the 1930s, many entertainment organizations and later unions enjoyed the privacy of the club for retirement dinners, promotion announcements, celebrations, and organizing. The Author’s League and Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association met here occasionally, while ERPI and the Society of Motion Picture Engineers congregated here for special gatherings. Art director Wilfred Buckland was honored with a retirement dinner at the Club. Boots and Saddle Pictures, a production company, operated out of the Club in 1939.
The Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Directors Guild met here in the mid-1930s to discuss studio contracts before writing and passing their by-laws here in April and May 1936. They formed to fight strict control by the studios and some power over how their work was employed.
On January 25, 1949, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences held the first Emmy Awards at the Hollywood Athletic Club, handing out only five awards, including one to television station KTLA. 550 people attended the awards dinner, a loose affair where people spent more time dining and celebrating than handing out awards. ATAS later rented space here for their first office.
By the 1940s, attendance began declining as gyms sprang up in other locations, people worked longer hours, or began spending more time with family. Major sports events moved to other locations. To help increase revenue, the club opened the doors to non-members in 1953.
In 1957, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America purchased the club and renamed it the University of Judaism, making remodels that added a library and snack bar. They sold the building to Gary Berwin for $11 million in early May 1979. Berwin planned to rename it the Berwin Entertainment Complex and add fine dining around the Olympic-size pool, a legitimate theatre to seat 300, a motion picture screening room, three fully equipped recording studios, as well as a members-only disco. He would reduce the number of rooms in the tower to make room for more luxury suites, and add twenty four security. He intended the building to serve only the rich, with suites costing $1,000 a night, a $100 dinner tab for two, and admittance to the disco costing $3,000 a year.
Many entertainment celebrities partied and recorded at the facility, including the Beach Boys, Madonna, Alice Cooper, Stevie Wonder, and others, before the building was acquired by the Nourmand Family in 1986. New operators became running the facility in the 1990s, and in the 200s, space was reimagined into destination nightclub.
The lovely Hollywood Athletic Club still proudly stands on Sunset Boulevard, a potent example that fine architecture can inspire those who enter to accomplish great things. While perhaps not a glamorous athletic club any more, the Hollywood Athletic Club shows that buildings can still operate with reimagined spaces.