The Hollywood Roosevelt first opened its doors May 16, 1927. Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the hotel was financed by filmdom's Hollywood Holding Co., whose investors included two of the top box office attractions in film at that time: Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his wife, Mary Pickford. Other investors included actor-director Charlie Chaplin and Louis B. Mayer, founder and chief of MGM Studios.
The hotel was destined to become a Hollywood icon because property developer Charles Toberman — creator and building supervisor of such Hollywood landmarks as Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the Egyptian Theatre, the Pantages Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl — took the lead in its planning. The hotel's construction cost was $2.5 million — staggering by 1927 standards.
The grand opening of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was nothing short of a major movie premiere. Aside from Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Mayer, the galaxy of stars in attendance included leading ladies Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and Greta Garbo, along with comic Harold Lloyd. With such an opulent christening, the hotel was destined to be known as "the home of the stars."
On the evening of that grand opening, Hollywood held its first Academy Awards presentation in the hotel's Blossom Room. At the time, they were called the Merit Awards, and they were presented for films released in the previous two years. Lasting only 15 minutes, Douglas Fairbanks and singer Al Jolson presented awards for Best Actress to Janet Gaynor, Best Actor to German film star Emil Jannings and Best Picture to "Wings."
Throughout its history, the Hollywood Roosevelt not only served as a recreational venue for the stars but also as a prime location for movie and TV projects. Movies such as "Internal Affairs," "Almost Famous" and "Beverly Hills Cop II" and TV series such as "Knots Landing" and "Moonlighting" were just a few of the productions that used the hotel's ornate décor as a backdrop.
Whenever the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honors a celebrity by placing a star on Hollywood Boulevard, the hotel hosts a gala reception for the inductee immediately afterward. For many years, the "Honorary Mayor of Hollywood" Johnny Grant has emceed these events, and it's little wonder. A two-time Emmy Award winner, Grant has lived in the penthouse of the Hollywood Roosevelt for 16 years.
"This is great up here," Grant says of his hotel suite. "I have a view of my community. I can watch and listen to all the band practices at Hollywood High School. I can look out and see the ocean a few days a year. The great thing about being here is that it's like all of [the hotel staff] are my family."
Grant, who also chairs the Hollywood Christmas Parade and heads the Walk of Fame committee, has become the resident historian of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Just mention a celebrity, and Grant has a tale to tell.
"Errol Flynn used to come to the barber shop here for his haircuts and his morning shave," Grant says. "The tale is that they had a bottle of gin always hidden in there for him, and he'd mix it with something, and that's where the sloe-gin fizz drink started." The stories are endless.
Shirley Temple took her first tap dancing lesson from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson on the hotel's luxuriant tile stairway. David Niven lived in the hotel's servant quarters when he was a struggling new arrival from England.
The hotel's world-famous Cinegrill bar and cabaret, currently being remodeled, played host to a stunning list of performers, both on its stage and in its audience.
"Mary Martin used to perform there for $75 a week," Grant remembers. "She used to bring her baby in a bassinet. That little baby was Larry Hagman."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and artist Salvador Dali were among the Cinegrill's leading customers after it first opened its doors in the 1930s, during the jazz craze. The cabaret holds personal memories for Grant, too.
"The last time I saw Sinatra was there," Grant says. "I was already in bed reading that night when I got a phone call from downstairs saying, 'I have a message for you. Get your ass down here.' It was Sinatra, and he said, 'Bob Hope is down here and he wants to go across the street and get some ice cream.' Then Hope wanted to look at his star, which is right across the street, and find a place for [his wife] Delores' star."
One of the favorite tales in the history of the Hollywood Roosevelt concerns Marilyn Monroe, who made her first commercial modeling appearance by posing for a photographer at the pool.
"It was for a suntan lotion," Grant says. "All she was paid for was the bathing suit she wore while sitting on the diving board. Marilyn used to sit in the lobby and then cross the street [to the Chinese Theatre] and stand in Clark Gable's footprints. She was just getting started then."
Monroe frequently stayed at the hotel in room 246. The full-length mirror that once stood against a wall in that room now graces the wall next to the elevators on the hotel's lower floor. Many visitors and even hotel staff swear they've seen Marilyn's image in this mirror, contributing to the Hollywood Roosevelt's reputation as a haunted hotel.
"Marilyn visits me about once a month," Grant claims. "Maybe it's in dreams, but you hear a kind of purring and there's an image of her off the wall or up toward the ceiling."
The other famous ghost story involves actor Montgomery Clift, who stayed in room 928 while filming the movie "From Here to Eternity." Clift, portraying bugler Pvt. Pruitt in the film, often practiced playing the bugle at odd hours of the night. Today, some guests staying on the ninth floor have reported hearing a bugle and the sound of footsteps pacing in the corridor.
Grant says he's never heard Clift's bugling, but he has an even more amazing personal story about the hotel's "spirit," concerning the legendary cowboy star and singer Gene Autry, who owned the California Angels, a Major League Baseball team that is now called Los Angeles Angels.
"When the Angels played in the World Series, I was supposed to go to the game, but I had the flu, so I stayed here and watched it on TV," Grant recalls. "The club got behind, and I was yelling at the screen. All of a sudden I hear a voice. I said, 'Oh my God, that's Gene Autry.' He was already at the big ranch in the sky. He said, 'Don't worry, everything's going to be all right. They're going to win and you'll get your World Series ring.' Well, damn if they didn't win and Mrs. Autry on my 80th birthday had the ring delivered to me by Angie Dickinson."
For many years in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular TV show "This Is Your Life" held a reception each week in the Blossom Room for its on-air guests. On Dec. 7, 1960, it was Grant's turn to be reunited on-air with relatives and long-lost friends, and his reception at the hotel, which included Bob Hope, is his best personal memory of the Hollywood Roosevelt.
But the hotel's charm is not all in the past. The Hollywood Roosevelt went through a major restoration in 1986, and now features 320 guest rooms, 20 luxury-themed suites, including the Celebrity Suite, the Grand Suite, and nine three-room Hollywood suites. It also offers 65 cabana rooms with tropical garden views and a bright, open-air courtyard, which is accented by the pool featuring an original mural by artist David Hockney.
The sidewalk in front of the hotel contains the Walk of Fame stars belonging to Maureen O'Hara, Ed McMahon, Julio Iglesias, Errol Flynn, Natalie Wood, Gene Autry, Cybill Shepherd and Eddie Murphy. Almost all of Hollywood's attractions are within walking distance.
Visitors who enter the hotel are greeted by an elegant sunken Spanish lobby, where a pianist plays a baby grand, and guests sip cocktails beneath ornate chandeliers, potted palms and a bubbling fountain. The tiled stairway that once clattered to Shirley Temple's tap dancing feet leads to an upstairs mezzanine that encircles the lobby. There, visitors enjoy the historic photos of Hollywood, its stars and its memorabilia, including one of the cameras that filmed "Gone With the Wind."
"This place has become quite a venue for big parties, after-premiere parties, and today they have all of the young people coming here for the club out by the pool," Grant says. "I can just go downstairs and find a celebrity who I might want to get involved in a charity event. You never know who you're going to see here."