When you pass the 8500 block of Santa Monica Blvd. these days, there’s not much to catch your eye. The Ramada Inn may be a pleasant place to stay but it’s not especially memorable. It’s hard to imagine now, but this was once the site of a slightly sleazy but beloved hangout for both rock stars and aspiring musicians called the Tropicana Motel.
This 44-unit motel was built in the 1940s, but things didn’t get interesting until it was purchased by baseball Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in 1962. The action really began when Elektra Records, label of the Doors and other hot acts of the swinging sixties, opened a recording studio on La Cienega, just around the corner from the Trop, and began housing its acts there when they were in town. Doors lead singer Jim Morrison divided his time between the Trop and the equally low-rent Alta Cienega Motel.
While rich rockers like Led Zeppelin made the Continental Hyatt House their L.A. headquarters, the steep rates at the Sunset Strip hostelry sent up-and-coming bands to the Tropicana, which became the chosen crash pad for punk rockers. The Trop had unique amenities that appealed to night owls from NYC, like a pool for waking up after a hard night of playing or partying. You could drop by the Tropicana on any day in the seventies and find pasty punkers like the Ramones risking third-degree sunburn lounging by the black-lined pool.
Also appealing was the presence of a phone booth at the front of the hotel which served as a nerve center for guests back in the days before cell phones. If you needed to talk to Joan Jett or Debbie Harry, all you had to do was call the designated number and whoever was close to the booth at the time would yell for them. The long list of guests included Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Sly and the Family Stone and just about every touring band of the 1970s.
The artist most famously associated with the Tropicana was Tom Waits, who lived in the motel for several years, lending his piano to songwriters like Rickie Lee Jones who used it to write her hit “Chuck E’s in Love.” The subject of the tune was Tropicana regular Chuck E. Weiss.
The other popular feature of the Tropicana was Duke’s Coffee Shop, which served up killer cheeseburgers as well as a wide variety of egg dishes like their Hangtown Fry, an omelet that included bacon and oysters. These reasonably priced and filling items were perfect for finishing off a tiring night of debauchery. Duke’s also provided delivery to nearby addresses, a service of which I took frequent advantage when I worked at a PR firm off Sunset in the late seventies.
West Hollywood had other hotels that were cleaner and offered more services so what made the Tropicana so special? Well, if the Chateau Marmont was where the famous went to hide out, the Trop was the place to find a partner in crime. In its heyday, the motel was the gathering place for creative folks in the music and film industries, where ideas were shared, bands got together, movie deals were made, record contracts were signed and many friendships were forged.
The 1980s were a rough time for the Tropicana as years of trashed hotel rooms and delayed maintenance took its toll on the building. Like many other structures on Santa Monica Blvd., its future was in limbo due to the proposed (but never built) Beverly Hills Freeway, which would have run right through the boulevard. All the fun came to an end in 1987, when the Tropicana was demoed to build the shiny new Ramada Inn.
While the ritzy Ramada fits right in with the current incarnation of WeHo, it’s not hard to imagine the ghosts of departed rockers lounging by the pool or hanging around the busy phone booth. There seems to be no place in today’s West Hollywood for lovably seedy dives where you know you can drop in anytime and feel right at home.