The Viper Room, which is celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, has lost none of the dark, edgy vibe it had when Johnny Depp launched the club on the Sunset Strip in 1993. And yet fans who have lined up over the years to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Oasis, Run-DMC and dozens of other acts that have topped the Viper Room’s bill might be surprised to learn that the venue itself is one of the oldest commercial buildings still in use on the Strip — maybe even the oldest — and that at one point it was a Safeway Market.
According to property records, the building at 8852 Sunset [map] that houses the Viper Room was constructed in 1921. There may be older buildings on the Strip, but research so far has produced only one: the William S. Hart house in the city park next at 8431 DeLongpre Ave. (next to the Sunset Tower), which was built in 1920 by Hart, a popular cowboy star in the silent film era.
The first known tenant was Young’s Market, a grocery store that opened in 1924 and was part of a chain with eight or so other locations around town. It served a bustling, mostly blue-collar neighborhood whose residents worked in the industrial village of Sherman down the hill. Property records show that the building was altered, possibly expanded, in 1930. The 1932 City Directory lists the owner as Charles Everson and indicates that his grocery was part of the Oakland-based MacMarr chain, which was formed in 1929 when the parent company purchased and consolidated other grocery chains, including two that are still around today: Vons and Piggly Wiggly, which no longer operates west of the Mississippi. By 1942, the store had become part of the Safeway grocery chain.
The neighborhood around the grocery market at 8852 Sunset had undergone a dramatic change starting in the late 1920s, however, as dusty Sunset Boulevard, an unpaved commuter route between Beverly Hills, where the stars lived, and Hollywood, where they worked, was transformed into the Sunset Strip, Hollywood’s backyard playground. Responding to market demands, exclusive shops, upscale cafes and celebrities-only speakeasies with backroom gambling sprang up along the route. A prime example of this sort of transformation was the storefront building at 8804 Sunset, a block east of 8852 Sunset, at Holloway and Palm Drive. In the 1930s, the westernmost retail bay was converted to house Club Bali, a nightspot where Bruz Fletcher, a campy society singer, enjoyed an unprecedented five year run performing ribald songs for a celebrity clientele that often included Sunset Strip locals like Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot and Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. In 1947, the storefront was reconfigured back into retail space to house Michael’s, mobster Mickey Cohen’s haberdashery, which was the front for the headquarters of his regional vice operations located in the building’s basement.
The Cotton Club
By June 8, 1946, the Safeway market was gone and the Cotton Club, which advertised itself as “Harlem in Hollywood” with an “All-Star Show,” was in business at 8852 Sunset. This Cotton Club was unrelated to Frank Sebastian’s long-running dance hall-speakeasy with the same name in Culver City –- and, of course, neither was officially connected to the wildly successful Cotton Club in Manhattan. Incidentally, the Hollywood version of the Cotton Club was not the first venue on the Strip to break the Jim Crow-era “color line.” That distinction went to Billy Wilkerson’s Cafe Trocadero, at 8610 Sunset, where Ethel Waters opened in January 1937.
Greenwich Village Inn
By May 1947, the Cotton Club was replaced by the Greenwich Village Inn — no relation to the Greenwich Village Café that operated in Hollywood’s Christie Hotel in the 1920s. Ads for the new Greenwich Village urged clubgoers to “Take a Trip to the Strip” to see Phil Moore and his Phil Moore Four, who performed “Music with a Sweet Beat” — a benign, even boring prospect. Within a year, however, the Greenwich Village was at the center of a controversy that threatened to put it and seven other Hollywood nightspots out of business.
As a by-product of the post-war manufacturing boom in Los Angeles, the long-suppressed underground scene in Hollywood blew wide open in the late 1940s. By 1948, politicians in Sacramento had become so alarmed by the goings-on in Tinseltown that the Legislature dispatched the Assembly’s Subcommittee on Public Morals for Southern California down south to hold hearings. Investigators who’d made undercover visits to various clubs testified about witnessing shocking entertainment, especially including striptease and nude dancing and cross-dressing performers. They specifically cited the Greenwich Village and seven other clubs – including the Flamingo, a drag show palace on La Brea Avenue; Mickey Cohen’s Café Continentale on Santa Monica Boulevard; Billy Berg’s on Vine, where jazz greats like Billie Holiday performed; a Hollywood Boulevard club operated by old guard gambler Slim Gordon; and three others: Bradley’s, the Susie-Q and the Swing Club, all also on Hollywood Boulevard. After the hearings, the subcommittee issued a report recommending that the liquor licenses of all eight clubs be revoked.
“We have in mind,” the committee stated in its report, dated on Feb. 5, 1948, “certain establishments which were staging indecent, lewd and lascivious entertainment and in which tavern managers were permitting their premises to be used as the gathering place for perverts and other immoral persons.” The subcommittee also recommended synching laws in the county – which included the Sunset Strip in those days – with ordinances passed in the early 1930s by the city of Los Angeles that prohibited nightclubs from offering nude dancing and cross-dressing.
No action was taken on the committee’s recommendations, because, as the committee members surely knew, vice operations in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly gambling but also prostitution, drug sales and even off-color nightclub entertainment, were part of a lucrative racket operated by mobsters, who also held financial influence over elements of local law enforcement as well as city, county and state government. Mickey Cohen was head of the East Coast crime syndicate’s interests in Southern California at the time, having been promoted to the top spot after the assassination of Bugsy Siegel, in June 1947. Six months after Siegel’s death, Cohen had moved his headquarters to the Strip, into the aforementioned basement suite under the storefront at 8804 Sunset.
Tellingly, the day after the subcommittee issued its report, a reporter asked a senior official at the state liquor-licensing agency whether the agency intended to revoke the eight clubs’ licenses. The official said he had not been instructed to investigate the clubs and that, absent such an order, there would be no investigation. The order never came, and the Greenwich Village and other clubs remained open — for the present.
The Greenwich Village was back in the news in late January 1949 when Sheriff’s deputies arrested Robin Ford, a young real-estate man who was at the center of a drug scandal that was rocking Hollywood. After a quick frisk, the deputies claimed to have found a joint in Ford’s back pocket — a significant find because four months earlier Ford had been busted with actor Robert Mitchum and two young women, starlet Lila Leeds and her roommate, Vicky Evans, a dancer, who’d been caught smoking pot in a house on Ridpath Drive in Laurel Canyon high above the Strip. In early January Ford, Mitchum and Leeds were found guilty and released on bail, with sentencing pending. Robin Ford dodged a bullet on the arrest on the Strip. The judge tossed out the case, declaring, “I must consider the inherent improbability of a man carrying cigarettes in his hip pocket.” Ford was less lucky at the sentencing for the Ridpath bust. He, Mitchum and Leeds were sentenced to two months each in county jail. Charges against Vicky Evans were dropped.
By the end of 1949, the Greenwich Village had been replaced by the provocatively named but short-lived Rue Angel. On Jan. 9, 1950, a fire broke out in the rear of the building causing $10,000 in damages (roughly a $100,000 today). According to a news account, “The rear portion of the café … was swept by the blaze, and flames, smoke and water ruined most of the furnishings.”
The Last Call
The fire damage was quickly repaired and by September 1950 the building was soon thriving as home to a strip joint known as the Last Call. Billing itself as “Rendezvous of the Stars,” the Last Call offered “Strip-Capades” — five hours of continuous entertainment, seven nights a week. Ads promised that, “Girls dance thruout the audience on a runway.”
By the spring of 1951, however, Los Angeles County had finally updated its cabaret ordinances to synch with the city’s. Lewd dancing and cross dressing were banned on the Strip and elsewhere. On April 5, citing the new ordinance, orders were issued to shutter the Last Call and Club Flamingo, the drag show palace on La Brea, which had been open continuously since 1941.
In an odd coincidence, perhaps, the next day, April 6, 1951, Mickey Cohen was indicted for tax evasion. He and his wife, LaVonne, were accused of owing over $300,000 (about $2.7 million today) in back taxes, fines and fees. Over the next few months, Cohen would divest himself of all his visible assets, including the sale of the haberdashery building at 8804 Sunset.
The Melody Room
The Melody Room opened on June 14, 1951. Its proprietors were brothers Pete and Billy Snyder, both World War II vets, who’d run a bar called the Band Box before they entered the service. Over the next 18 years, the Melody Room was a mainstay in the Los Angeles music scene. For example, Bobby Short, one of the premiere cabaret singers of the era, performed in residence there in the late 1960s.
In 1952, there was another noteworthy incident on the sidewalk outside 8852 Sunset. Relying on an anonymous tip, on Dec. 26, deputies nabbed Sam Farkas, a six-foot-three, 250-pound former bodyguard of Mickey Cohen, there on suspicion he’d participated in a robbery on Christmas Day. However, Farkas was able to prove he’d been at work at the time of the robbery and was not charged. At the time of Farkas’ arrest, Mickey Cohen was doing time at McNeil Island Penitentiary on the tax evasion charges. After he was released, his wife LaVonne divorced him and, in 1958, she married Sam Farkas.
Rock ‘n Roll
Earlier this month, Alison Martino, editor of Vintage LA and a contributor to Los Angeles Magazine, wrote a brief history of three clubs that occupied the venue in the rock era, before the Viper Room opened in 1993 — the Melody Room, which closed after 1969; Filthy McNasty’s, which was open by July 1973 and closed on July 30, 1980; and the Central, which operated in the 1980s.
There was, of course, one other headline-grabbing incident on the sidewalk outside 8852 Sunset. It was there, not long after the Viper Room opened, at just after midnight on Oct. 31, 1993, that actor River Phoenix collapsed in toxic shock from a drug overdose. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he died just before two a.m. He was 23 years old.