Issue: Issue Summer 2009

The Hollywood Palladium

On October 15, nearly sixty eight years to the day that the Hollywood Palladium ushered Los Angeles into the swing era with a grand opening performance of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring a young Frank Sinatra, rap mogul Jay-Z took the stage with his own 12-piece Roc Boys ensemble.
Backed by a mega-screen featuring classic 30’s gangster imagery, he launched into his two hour set with a track that perfectly defined the moment for the 4,000 fans in attendance and the city celebrating a new beginning for the historic facility: “Say Hello.”

 “I’m honored to play such a historic venue,” said the current generation’s most influential hip hop artist, who is signed to a long term deal with Live Nation, the events company which now exclusively books and operates the facility. “Just as Frank ushered in a golden era, I hope this opening will mark the beginning of a resurgence in generation-defining live music.”

His show was a highly anticipated culmination of an extensive 18-month renovation to the Palladium that kept the essential structure of the building intact while overhauling the venue’s exterior and interior, building a new dance floor, expanding concessions and adding improvements to the stage infrastructure. Funded by the Palladium’s new owners, local real estate developer Newport Capital (NCA) and their investment partner Commonfund, the project was the first to be completed by architect Christopher Coe’s newly launched design firm, Coe Architecture International. Coe was previously a project designer on the Getty Center for Richard Meier and various projects for Arquitectonica, Gruen and Gwatmey Siegel.

Coe’s renovation was two-pronged, focusing on infrastructure and operational improvements as well as aesthetic considerations that restored the look and feel to that of the venue’s glory days in the 40s and 50s. “At close to 70 years old,” he says, “the building was worn out and tired, but the great thing about the story is that we didn’t turn a classic nightclub into something else. It still functions as it did on opening night in 1940. We installed an all new electrical system, including a lot of new power to sustain the modern lighting and audio equipment and all the new rigging Live Nation had us include, which is necessary for high quality modern shows.”

The technical and safety improvements also include revamped air conditioning and heating, a building-wide fire sprinkling system, brightly lit exit signs, emergency lighting and an emergency generator. As for aesthetics, Coe’s team restored the classic neon marquee, the backlit dancing male and female figures and a white neon “Parking on Argyle” sign that was part of the original glamorous design before the “space age” early 60s makeover, done around the time the Lawrence Welk Show started taping there, changed the outside facade. The metal siding that had covered up the original concrete walls since that time was removed.

“This radical renovation took place after a post-war boom time, when nostalgia was not cool and everyone was looking forward, not back,” Coe says. “Our task was a prayer of modern archeology, where we kept our fingers crossed while peeling back the paneling, hoping the original building was behind it! It’ll be a pleasant shock to everyone and we’re really excited about it.”

Because there were no original blueprints and few historical drawings to be found, Coe did all the Palladium’s modern matchups based on old photographs--which brings us to a discussion of the exciting yet tumultuous history of the venue that is ultimately a true reflection of the shifting tides of American pop and musical culture. Originally part of Hollywood’s entertainment epicenter that included NBC on Sunset and Vine,
the Earl Carroll Theatre across the street (which was also designed by Gordon Kaufmann), CBS Radio City next door and CBS based at the Sunset-Gower Studios down the block, the Palladium hosted radio broadcasts featuring Betty Grable greeting servicemen’s song requests. Its shimmering array of booked talent and reasonable prices made it an exuberant mecca for celebs (Rita Hayworth, Tyrone Power, Lana Turner) and their fans alike.

Dale Olson, a Hollywood publicist who worked with Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly and once upon a time danced at the Palladium, recalls, “It was very much the people’s Hollywood connection as opposed to the elitists and money people who, during the same era, went to Ciro’s, Mocambo and The Cocoanut Grove. At the Palladium, for 20 bucks you could have dinner and a drink and dance to the music of a big band orchestra. Anyone who could afford it could go and feel close to stars like Rita Hayworth, even if they were sitting at tables in secluded corners. There was a sense of Hollywood glamour that was very affordable.”

Well known as a string bassist and singer, wife of orchestra leader Earl Williams and later a union official with Musician’s Union Local 47, Serena Kay Williams remembers Harry James, Benny Goodman and The Dorsey Brothers playing when she was one of the Palladium’s bookkeepers after it opened in 1940.
“With that big oversized mirrored ball in the center of the ballroom, huge stage, large dance floor and balcony for people to sit, there was no other place like it,” she says. “When there’s a war on, people want entertainment, and when it was over, it was still the only place in town that offered this kind of value-filled evening.”

Even with its drab Kennedy era makeover, The Palladium thrived over the subsequent decades with a unique mix of entertainment events, award shows, superstar concerts and political fundraiser's. In the 60s, Sinatra and Lucille Ball handed out Emmy's, JFK spoke out against ultra-conservative groups at a Democratic Party dinner and Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored by city officials recognizing his Nobel Prize. In the 70s, it hosted the Grammy Awards. Over the years, fans flocked from all over town to see the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Barbara Streisand, The Cure, Skrewdriver, The Ramones and countless others.

By the 80s, the Palladium was still a haven for punk and rock fans, but it had lost its luster and glamour, not to mention its once great sound quality. The place where Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon had passed through had become

The Hollywood Palladium is the real deal and
we’re all really excited about its future.

downright seedy, and, according to Hollywood historian and President of Hollywood Heritage Mark Wanamaker, was the site of riots whose violence poured into the surrounding neighborhood along with ugly graffiti. The Palladium opened and closed several times, and by the 90s was reduced to being the site of an occasional fundraiser.

Wanamaker takes the story from there: “There were a smattering of events leading to it being totally closed until developers came along in the hopes of demolishing it and building a major new development on the site. We at Hollywood Heritage got involved and our preservation officer Robert Nudelman wedged in between the developer and City Council to remind everyone that this was a historic place. The reality was that if you start removing these legendary places with such historic ties to our past, Hollywood itself loses its character and tourist pull. If everything we’re famous for is gone, L.A. will be just like any other city and Hollywood will no longer be its own separate historic entity. We worked with the city and the Community
Redevelopment Agency to come up with a new plan.”

Once a deal was made with Newport Capital, the entity that now owns the Palladium, they brought Live Nation to the table, believing their success in running venues worldwide as well as local ones like the
Sunset House of Blues, The Wiltern, The Gibson Amphitheater, etc. would ensure that the venue would prosper for years to come. The 30 events slated for late 2008 included concerts by The Jonas Brothers,
The Roots with Gym Class Heroes, Motley Crue, Backstreet Boys and a three day Halloween weekend with Rise Against.

David Nix, a partner in NCA, says, “What we have experienced being involved in this historical project is an overwhelming response from people in general and Hollywood in particular. Besides bringing a sense of pride to the community, the idea behind bringing back these historic venues for a new generation is that it provides
people who visit from all over the world an authentic experience that has real history to it. From Disneyland to Universal Studios, so much of what we experience here in Southern California is driven by a
created environment. The Hollywood Palladium is the real deal and we’re all really excited about its future.”

Jonathan Widran, a voting member of The Recording Academy, is a veteran music journalist whose credits include Music Connection, Jazziz, All Music Guide, Smooth Jazz News, Downbeat, and the Los Angeles Times.