The “It” Cafe in the Hollywood Plaza Hotel, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Restaurants go in and out of style in Hollywood just as quickly as go-go boots and bell bottoms, thanks to those following the hip crowd and looking for the next big thing. Insecure and superficial patrons ape trends rather than march to their own values and beliefs. They make bars, nightclubs, and restaurants hot and popular for short periods of time, in their insatiable quest for the new, different, and unique.
A movie star’s career often follows the same trend, as audiences tire of the same old thing and search out new, compelling talent. Some stars’ magnetic personalities and expressive eyes, however, draw others into their spells. To help maintain their celebrity status and financial rank, they open businesses taking advantage of their “brand” names and personalities.
A napkin from the “It” Cafe, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $125.
Hollywood’s 1920s “It” girl, Clara Bow, sexy, sultry, and vulnerably real, opened her own lavish eatery in the late 1930s, appropriately named the “It Cafe.” Hoping to use it as a chance to reinvigorate her career, rejoin society, and make a little money, the retired film star and her rock solid, supportive husband Rex Bell financed and opened their own lavish nitery in the former cocktail lounge of the Hollywood Plaza Hotel at 1633 N. Vine St.
The Hollywood Plaza, constructed by land owner Jacob Stern in front of his own residence in 1925, occupied prime real estate at the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Within a few blocks of this famous intersection, early moving picture studios exploded on the scene and the nascent broadcast radio industry took the country by storm.
By 1931, the hotel turned their luxurious former ball room and lounge over to the proprietors of the Russian Eagle Cafe when their popular and elegant restaurant burned down on Sunset Boulevard. Per Jim Heiman’s “Out With the Stars,” General Theodor Lodijensky owned and operated the dramatic club, enhanced by a “gypsy trio and flickering candlelight,” with service provided by waiters attired in elegant red smocks and fezzes. Hollywood’s foreign contingent, especially stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Boyer, adored the rich and expensive menu, particularly caviar and vodka.
When the glamorous restaurant moved on to another location in late 1935, Hull Hotels, operator of the Plaza and Roosevelt Hotels among others, spared no expense to totally renovate and upgrade the location into something appealing “to the discriminating,” as their December 17, 1936 advertisement in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed. Proudly trumpeting the figure of $125,000 to turn the regal Russian Eagle into the gloriously exotic Cinnabar, the ad thanked the many artisans who streamlined the club, including famed architect G. Albert Lansburgh, creator of the El Capitan, Warner Bros. Hollywood, and Orpheum Theatres, and Gladding McBean Co., which provided terra cotta tile. Renowned muralist Anthony Heinsbergen of Wiltern Theatre and Pantages Theatre fame, decorated the walls with attractive murals depicting contemporary film life, composed of cinnabar, cloissone´ and scarfito depicting contemporary film life.
Dec. 17, 1936, the Cinnabar.
The ad breathlessly announced Cinnabar’s huge premiere December 17, 1936 at 8 pm, “so breathtaking in its beauty…so different in its conception…it will live forever in the romantic pages of Hollywood history!” For $10, guests would enjoy a champagne dinner and see famous directors and writers christen the writers’ and directors’ corners before the climax of the evening, the unveiling of Heinsbergen’s murals. Song stylist Anne Crosby provided musical entertainment along with the Four Avalon Boys, courtesy of Hal Roach Studio, introduced by Charles Irwin. Albert Ziegert, “Hollywood’s Favorite Maitre d’Hotel” greeted guests, who enjoyed classic cuisine by “Internationally Famous Chef,” Charles Rouille. Tom Hull, President of Hull Hotels, believed that “film folk would appreciate a restaurant such as the Cinnabar that would meet their sophisticated whims. I have absolute faith in the patronage of this discriminating group.”
Though also popular with motion picture stars like Mary Brian, Victor McLaglen, and Gene Raymond, huge renovation costs doomed the nightclub. By late spring 1937, Cinnabar closed its doors.
That summer, a reinvigorated Clara Bow looked forward to returning to society and the town that made her famous. Rested and refreshed after years on Bell’s ranch, Clara was eager to hook up with old friends and perhaps seek out film roles, with several film magazines at the time reporting she was negotiating for film roles. Daily Variety reported on August 31, 1937 that Bow and Bell had purchased the former Cinnabar space for a sexy nightclub, debuting September 1.
The Bakersfield Californian ran a long story that night, describing how Clara would be bringing sizzling sex appeal to the nightclub business, where she would be eating two to three times a week and greeting guests as an active owner and hostess.
Charming Clara described redecorating the club by removing the “tacky” murals and replacing them with mirrors. Wine red carpet accentuated the gold circle decorated with the signs of the zodiac in pale blue on the ceiling. A cream colored piano featured ebony keys, complimenting the regular black piano with ivory keys. Red striped chairs and private booths added to the sleek look. Six bartenders served thirty five cent “It” cocktails from the ebony bar. She added that, “…over the bar I am going to have a great silver statue of a girl whose dress is falling from her shoulders and whose hair is solid gold. It will be a symbol of “It.”” While soft music played, Bow stated, “All this place needs is a little life and a little sex appeal, to make it a great success – and I am going to see it gets what it needs.”
Clara’s former studio, Paramount Pictures covered the club’s opening, featuring it in their newsreel running in theaters September 25, 1937. Hull Hotels purchased many ads in the Los Angeles Times describing the “It” Cafe as “Hollywood’s Swankiest Night Spot.”
Multiple sources at the time list the eatery as serving dinner from 5 pm -10 pm, supper from 10 pm – 2 am, as well as providing dancing and bar, all at no cover, with some calling Bow a “red-haired whirlwind of hospitality.” Former Cinnabar singer Anne Crosby returned to the space as lead performer, leaving behind her gig at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill. Billy Rowe’s column later that year in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Courier revealed that Art Tatum was jazzing up the piano at the “It” Cafe.
A special table nicknamed “the Water Trough” was reserved at the front for Rex Bell’s cowboy friends, who often dropped by in their jeans, boots, and hats after leaving the fields. Table lights were replicas of an “It” statue that producer B. P. Schulberg presented to Bow after her big success in the film. To ensure that tourists walked away empty handed when they attempted to steal the lights, each was chained to the tables.
Picture Play magazine claimed that after opening night, paying guests saw little of Clara, overcome by emotion at many of the comments she read in the press. Hollywood magazine reported in January 1938 that many in the celebrity enclave accused her of overdoing the role of Hollywood hostess, claiming she was “cheapening herself.” Hurt to the quick by the cruel comments, Clara rarely appeared at the club, making only brief appearances at dinner.
Celebrities flocked to the club, appearing both for press attention and their own private events. Comedienne/actress Martha Raye attended often after separating from her husband, makeup specialist Bud Westmore, sometimes with Bow herself. Such stars as Mary Brian and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Ronald Colman and Benita Hume, and Cary Grant and Simone Simon visited the club while on dates. Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston enjoyed dinner with Boris Karloff and Tom Mix one night. Bette Davis brought Eleanor Roosevelt to sample the club’s delights, accompanied by Sylvia Sidney, Olivia De Havilland, and Melvyn Douglas on March 18, 1938. Sidney employed the club as a fundraiser for hungry children in China and Spain around the same time. Many of course hoped to meet Clara herself.
Silver Screen even reported on some of the stars’ favorite dishes on the menu. Bette Davis preferred the pineapple salad, Anita Louise loved curried turkey, Gene Raymond ordered steaks, while Jeanette MacDonald loved asparagus omelets.
To beef up general visits, the club inaugurated amateur nights and other live entertainment on December 12, 1937. Beginning December 29, KFWB broadcast the Aiwe Boys from the “It” Cafe at 11:15 pm nightly.
Fawcett publications even added the “It” Cafe as one of the luncheon stops for its 1938 Movieland tour, in which tourists visited the film city and toured studios, theatres, Olvera Street, Max Factor business, and the Hollywood Bowl, along with meeting stars at various locations. Makeup artist Bud Westmore even applied makeup to leading participants during their visit to the “It” Cafe. Bow gave birth a second time June 14, 1938, cutting back further on her appearances at the “It” Cafe.
Because of Clara’s infrequent appearances and physical issues, she and husband Bell sold the “It” Cafe to Phil Selznick in late March 1939, who moved on himself to greener pastures on August 1, 1939, per Variety. The club continued operating under that name with new leadership through 1941, when it was once again sold.
While the Plaza continues to operate as a senior housing facility, the once luxurious location of the hotel’s ballroom, Russian Eagle Cafe, Cinnabar, and “It” Cafe remains empty, a forlorn reminder of the days when glamorous, larger than life stars brought sophistication and style to Hollywood.