|In front of Club Alabam|
Bobby Saxon is a young white piano player whose ambition is to get a spot with the all-black Booker ‘Boom Boom’ Taylor Orchestra (big band) at L.A.’s famous Club Alabam. He gets his wish but at the price of having to help investigate a murder that one of the band members is accused of.
Like Randy Newman said, I love L.A. (well, more like love-hate, but overall love) and I really loved researching the locations and history of 1940s L.A. Bobby’s adventures take him on a wild ride through mid-century Los Angeles, from the swanky Sunset Tower apartments in West Hollywood to seedy pool rooms near downtown and the vibrant jazz scene of Central Avenue.
So here are some of the stops on Bobby’s journey:
The Club Alabam and The Dunbar Hotel: In the days when African-Americans couldn’t stay at most hotels and couldn’t go to just any “white” nightclubs—or other establishments—they formed their own businesses. In L.A. the heart of the black community during the mid-twentieth century was Central Avenue. Clothing stores, barbershops, restaurants, doctors, dentists and pretty much anything one could want could be found there. And the heart of Central was the Dunbar Hotel (formerly Hotel Sumerville), which featured an elegant lobby with arched windows and entry ways and Art Deco chandeliers. The Dunbar was where the cream of black society, entertainers, politicians, et al., stayed when they were in town. Duke Ellington kept a suite there. Right next door to the Dunbar was the most famous of the nightclubs (of which there were many) on Central, the Club Alabam. Bobby spends a lot of time at both the Alabam and the Dunbar. And it’s said that one night when W.C. Fields got drunk at the Alabam he stayed overnight at the Dunbar, accidentally integrating it.
|Two shots of the Dunbar Hotel, interior & exterior.|
It was formerly the Hotel Somerville.
|Famous couple at Musso & Frank.|
Musso & Frank: Has been a Hollywood watering hole for decades, since the 1920s. There was a back room bar where famous writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner hung out. Movies stars like Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Betty Davis, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo and Edward G. Robinson all dined there. It’s known for its red-coated waiters, many of whom have worked there for decades, probably since the time of the story (maybe?). In Blues, Bobby plays piano in exchange for a free meal, but pays dearly for that meal when he’s ambushed outside of the restaurant. Here’s a recent pic of Amy and me there. We didn’t get ambushed that night, but anything’s possible on Hollywood Boulevard.
|Another famous couple at Musso & Frank ;-)|
The La Brea Tar Pits: Located on Rancho La Brea lands, the tar pits were a major excavation site in the 1910s for paleontologists from all over the world. In the 1920s ranch owner, Hancock, donated the land to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that the tar pits be designated as a protected park and that the fossils found there be retained and exhibited. When I was a kid we’d go on picnics at the park surrounding the tar pits and I have fond memories of them, including the acrid smell of the tar. Since those days the George C. Page Museum was built and fossil excavation continues to this day. Bobby visits the tar pits in a scene in the book, and let’s just say not all the bones in the tar pits are that old….but you’ll have to read the book to find out what really happens there.
|La Brea Tar Pits (photo by Kimon Berlin)|
The Long Beach Pike: In the novel, Bobby and his “partner” Sam Wilde head down to the Pike in Long Beach, while looking for clues. For decades the Pike was an amusement park by the sea. It featured a wooden roller coast, The Cyclone, with two tracks so cars could “race” each other. Bobby and Sam ride the coaster in one of the scenes at the Pike.
|Long Beach Pike|
There was also a midway with arcade games, shooting galleries, fortune tellers and assorted shops. And because it was situated near Naval shipyards, it earned a reputation for being a hangout for rowdy sailors looking for girls. That’s the atmosphere that appealed to me as a setting for some of the scenes in Blues.
In the 1970s it fell on hard times, got seedy and eventually closed.
One of the challenges writing Blues was figuring out how Bobby and Sam got down to Long Beach in the 1940s, before freeways. I turned to the usual sources for help, the internet, books, etc. But the best source was buying old Los Angeles area street maps from eBay. They really helped in this regard and were just plain fascinating in general. My mom also helped with her memories of how to get from “here” to “there.”
Here’s a short excerpt of Bobby and Sam heading to the Pike. When Bobby first meets Sam it’s not exactly under pleasant circumstances and Bobby isn’t sure if Sam is on his side or not, so the long ride to Long Beach is a little tense to say the least:
Long Beach was a navy town south of Los Angeles, the Pike its oceanside amusement quarter. Bobby knew there’d be lots of sailors around, if they ever actually made it to the Pike. They’d have to pass through the Wilmington oil fields on the way and that was as good a place as any to dispose of a body. The oil fields were a well-known dumping ground. Bodies were always bobbing up through the greasy black muck that leached to the surface.
Bobby white-knuckled the steering wheel, gripping as hard as he could, mostly so Wilde wouldn’t notice his shaking hands. They passed through the oil field, with its forests of towering derricks—supplicants reaching for the sky. Safely past the dumping grounds, he loosened his grip on the wheel.
|Pickwick Books (in case the sign didn't give it away :-) )|
Bobby looked away.
“There are no second acts in American life,” the salesman said, as Bobby handed him a five dollar bill.
“No, I guess not.”
“Know who said that?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous writer.”
“I like his books,” Bobby said. “But I don’t know the quote.”
“A man came in here one day looking for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You know our store here’s on three floors, the first is current titles, the second level is for rare and unusual books. The third floor is for used books, bargains and the like.”
Why was the salesman telling him all this?
“So anyway, this man comes in and asks for Gatsby. The salesman tells him, ‘We don’t stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You’ll have to try upstairs.’”
“So did he find the book upstairs?”
“He did. And do you know what his name was?”
|Pickwick Books (interior)|
“Neither you nor me.”
The clerk finished wrapping Bobby’s book in brown paper, tied it with string. He handed it to Bobby with a wink. “Here’s your change.”
Max Factor Building: Bobby has occasion to go to the Max Factor building in Hollywood on Highland near Hollywood Boulevard. Max Factor is the famous Hollywood makeup artist, who branched out into a line of cosmetics that I think you can still buy today. He also had a salon where anyone could make an appointment and you might run into someone rich or famous while there. Bobby goes there on business, but feels a little funny, and maybe not for the obvious reasons. Today it’s the Hollywood Museum, so luckily here’s one building the Powers That Be didn’t tear down as happens so often in the City of Angels.
|Max Factor building (the pic doesn't do it justice)|
Cocoanut Grove: The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire was one of the premier, if not the premier nightclub in L.A. for ages. On a darker note, the Ambassador is also where RFK was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968. Bobby takes Margaret, a woman he’s interested in and someone who might know more than she’s saying about the murder, on a date there. It might not have worked out so well for him…
Clover Field (A.K.A. The Santa Monica Airport): Douglas Aircraft worked out of Clover Field in the heart of Santa Monica. As such, during the war Warner Brothers technicians and artists came out from Burbank to camouflage the airfield so it couldn’t be seen from the air. Movie magic applied to real life. Bobby, his pal Sam Wilde, and Margaret wind up there when they’re chased by a mysterious car and end up almost breaching the base’s security, not something that is taken lightly by the MPs on duty. But what happens after that makes Bobby wish they’d been arrested by the MPs.
|Clover Field: the center/bottom half of the pic is the concealed Douglas Aircraft|
|Cars parked under the camouflage tarp|
|Bradbury Building (photo by Jay Walsh)|
These are a few of the places Bobby visits. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of 1940s Los Angeles. Stay tuned for more when the book comes out on June 1st. It’s available for pre-order now at Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and iTunes.
And now for the usual BSP:
My short story "Fade-Out On Bunker Hill" came in 2nd place in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Poll. In lieu of the pre-Edgars cocktail party, we had a virtual awards ceremony. You can see the whole thing (including my bookshelves) on YouTube. I want to thank Janet Hutchings and Jackie Sherbow of Ellery Queen and, of course, everyone who voted for it!
Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books – The Blues Don't Care:
“Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40s’ L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. He is one helluva writer.”
—Michael Sears, author of the Jason Stafford series
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