90 Years of the Cherokee Building
March 3, 2017
The history of the Cherokee Building (located at 6646 Hollywood Boulevard) mirrors the history of Hollywood itself and captures the symbiotic relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the birth of the film industry. It was built in 1927, which happens to be the year that Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, created the Academy as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry.
Designed by Norman Alpaugh, the Canadian architect responsible for L.A.’s Sheraton Townhouse and Santa Monica’s Elmiro Theater, the building bears some delicate Moorish flourishes carved above a series of narrow shops with deep-set show windows; the Moroccan theme continues on the back patio, with a tiled fountain upon which William Powell once posed with some showgirls for a clothing-store promotion.
With an elaborate rear entrance, this is one of the earliest structures in Hollywood (and possibly Los Angeles) to be oriented around the automobile, predating Bullock’s Wilshire, which is the commonly known iconic landmark that turned its back on the street. “This meant that Alpaugh was thinking about the evolution of the automobile and the automobile’s impact on Hollywood Boulevard,” explains Hollywood Heritage co-founder Christy McAvoy. “Most of the buildings on Hollywood Boulevard do not have that orientation to the parking lot as well as to the main street, which makes the Cherokee building very forward thinking in 1927.”
This structure is one of the finest Spanish Colonial Revival buildings on Hollywood Boulevard, the go-to style for retail developments in the 1920s. The enclosed interior courtyard with tiled fountain—a defining feature of Spanish Colonial Revival buildings in Los Angles—is unusual for commercial buildings in Hollywood. “Courtyards and fountains are associated much more with residential structures so this is kind of an anomaly,” explains McAvoy.
From the 1920s on, Hollywood Boulevard became a major upscale shopping district. “The reason why it was doing that was because it had this brand new industry of which Hollywood was the hub, and a lot of money coming through it, so this was the place that got created. It’s a classic main street,” says McAvoy. “In the 1920s the chamber of commerce launched one of the first business promotions called the ‘Style Center of the West’, an Art Deco campaign with lovely ladies featuring all the retailers that occupied the boulevard. They were the dressmakers to the stars, the shoemakers and hatmakers. It was a full service street. All the top brands and top people were here,” explains McAvoy.
Building on this iconic retail heritage, Naim “Sy” Amber bought the Cherokee building in 1972. Prior to that, he had three retail stores on this block from 1960 including a men’s store, a women’s store then a jeans shop and a shoe store. “When Mr Amber bought the building in the 60s, he was the last of that legacy to inhabit the boulevard,” explains McAvoy. “The people that were here in the 20s were of a similar quality and cachet in clothing.”
Amber’s son Jack has fond memories of the Boulevard in its fashion heyday. “It was a local street, there were eighteen men’s stores. We had twelve guys just working in the men’s shop. The Beatles and the Beach Boys would shop in the store. This was an incredible place in the 60s with the hippies, that’s when it went crazy,” explains Amber. “Then in the 70s the music changed. Stevie Wonder and the Pips used to come in. That was when ‘French’ dressing with all the patchwork jeans came in. That was another look that took over with platform heels. Then in the 80s Arsenio Hall was a regular customer. We used to get all the stylists coming in for hot new acts like New Kids on the Block. People don’t understand how exciting Hollywood was back then, you never knew who’d come in to your store,” says Amber.
But in true filmic style, there is an ‘alternative’ narrative if you are prepared to scratch beneath the surface. As McAvoy explains, “the building can be many things because it has many addresses.” The Cherokee has more than one entrance. If you walk off Hollywood Boulevard, entering by 1652 N Cherokee Ave, you will stumble upon a former Rat Pack hangout befitting of the darkest noir movie. The Hollywood myth-making machine, a magical dream factory where everything is not always as it seems, is ever present here. In one of its earliest incarnations, a beauty parlor acted as a front for a Prohibition-era illegal card club and gambling speakeasy, complete with a secret button underneath the bar to alert the card-playing patrons upstairs when the cops arrived. Back in the day, movie stars would arrive by car though the enclosed ‘motor court’ out back making this the first paparazzi-proof haunt in Hollywood.
In the early 30s, crooner Gene Austin opened a legitimate club here named after his chart-topping 1927 hit “My Blue Heaven.” Twin doors formed the front entrance, and a frosted-pane window sporting an etched cocktail glass faced the street. The first thing a visitor encountered inside was a smiling hat-check girl stationed where the present bar sits; then came the bar, some tables, and a dance floor where the kitchen is now. The ceiling was two stories high, with a platform for a small orchestra that overlooked the club.
After Austin sold the watering hole, legend has it that a gay bar known as “Cherokee House” existed here at one time, providing a missing link to Hollywood’s LGBTQ past. There was also a bar called “Diamond Lil’s”, until Mae West sued and got a cease and desist order. Then in 1942 a chap called Steve Boardner took over the joint and it has been “Boardner’s” ever since.
Hollywood Babylonians, inspired by Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon”, will find more than a whiff of scandal here. Boardner’s is well known for its customers who keep coming back – even after they have passed away. Those ghosts said to be still roaming the premises include the blacklisted actor Albert Decker, who had one of the most bizarre deaths this town has ever seen. Another lost soul, Elizabeth Short, later known as the Black Dahlia, would always have two or three sailors hanging off her arm although contrary to local urban legend, Boardner’s was not her last call before immortality.
These days, Saturday is Goth night, when Bar Sinister takes over, but the black-clad clientele are merely pretenders compared to the real-life villains that used to frequent this badass redoubt. Mickey Cohen, the Sica brothers, [Jack] Dragna. These and other names associated with Boardner’s form a Who’s Who of L.A.’s postwar mob culture, adding to its macabre, wonderland status. Today, while other long-vanished boulevard bars have bitten the dust, Boardner’s is a popular place to hold wrap parties and to shoot films. It was the spot where Dudley Smith (aka James Cromwell) met up with Bud White (aka Russell Crowe) in order to return his badge and his gun towards the beginning of 1997’s L.A. Confidential.
Hollywood suffered terribly after WWII. By the 60s and 70s, stars were no longer walking down the boulevard as they had once done in its heyday between 1920-1950. Los Angeles had changed dramatically as a city. The centers of population became more diffuse which coincided with the dismantling of the trolley system and the building of a freeway that cut through the heart of Hollywood. “The musicians still came here but the glamor was off,” explains McAvoy. “Hollywood became an older story.”
The studios may have relocated, and their starlets vanished, but The Cherokee building, now in its ninetieth year, is a jewel in the crown of Hollywood heritage. It enshrines the gritty genesis of the Hollywood dream in the fabric of its walls, with a story arc that follows the trajectory of a Norma Desmond-style fading star aching for her comeback. Many sanitized, pseudo-historic ‘lifestyle’ shopping centers owe a debt of gratitude to this grande dame of Los Angeles folklore, which has panache and élan embedded into its DNA. The Cherokee, emblematic of a bygone era brimming with style and elegance, deserves to be persevered as the precious time capsule that she is.
Los Angeles is both muse and home for British-born culture journalist Richard Bence. His mission is to chronicle and unearth the hidden stories of Hollywood with a special focus on its heritage. He has a passion for preservation, loves all things midcentury and enjoys getting close to nature on a canyon hike or lapping up the architectural riches of the city he calls home. He contributes to Monocle, Monocle 24 and United’s Rhapsody magazine. richard-bence.com