The Hollywood History of Hotel Bel-Air
BY MICHAEL VENTRE
Meet at The Bar
Over the years, one room in particular has probably produced more pleasure than many of the others combined. That would be The Bar—a cozy and clubby lounge with a fireplace, leather chairs, and an air of warm sophistication. It was a gathering place where stars could relax and where everybody was somebody.
When it comes to somebodies on staff, Antonio Castillo de la Gala, who played piano there for 12-plus years leading up to the hotel’s closing for renovation in September 2009, is near the top of the list. Needless to say, his memory lane is crowded. “Paul McCartney was there once with his now former wife, Heather,” says Castillo de la Gala, who currently plays at The Peninsula Beverly Hills. “He said he loved my rendition of “Eleanor Rigby.” He told his friends, ‘I like to start my day playing Antonio’s CD.’
“Robert Goulet sang a song with me at the piano. One night Mike Connors and Robert Wagner sang “Strangers in the Night” together while holding hands across the piano as a joke,” he says. Another time, “this guy came over and asked if I minded if he joined me. It was Billy Joel. He sat down, and we played movie themes for an hour and a half. That was the night before the Oscars about four years ago. Another time Michael Jackson said to me, ‘Very lovely music,’ while he was having tea with a friend.”
Trysts, Swans and Business Deals
The hotel also developed a reputation over the years as a popular spot for romantic interludes of the clandestine variety. Because of the layout, it was possible for guests and visitors to reach rooms without having to pass through the lobby. An actress once was said to have approached longtime concierge Phil Landon Jr. and complained about her room, saying it wasn’t nearly as nice as the others she had occupied in the past. He reportedly replied: “But this is the first time you’ve been a registered guest.”
The white swans at Hotel Bel-Air don’t need to sneak around. They’re ensconced in the lovely “swan lake” in front of the building and have been for years—one of the hotel’s lasting symbols. Of course, there was that one unfortunate incident many years back in which an inebriated young woman thought it would be a good idea to snatch one away; later the same night her chagrined husband pulled up in his Rolls-Royce, apologized for her poor judgment, and pointed to the purloined bird, which was flailing in a sack on the backseat.
|An unidentified guest at the pool unknowingly splashes Dean Martin|
Aside from movie stars and waterfowl, the hotel has also hosted the elite of the business world. The magazine Institutional Investor has rated the property at or near the top of the list of the best hotels of North America for more than two decades. The Grove and The Americana at Brand developer and LA native Rick Caruso says he has been going there “for as long as I can remember” for business and social purposes. “The great thing about Hotel Bel-Air is it’s very residential in its feel,” he says. “It’s very much like going home, and being at home.” To him, it’s not about being seen. “I don’t even view it as a big celebrity place,” says Caruso. “I think it’s mostly a lot of business people and also those who live in the neighborhood who look at it as an extension of their home.”
Former CAA super-agent and founding head of the company’s corporate representation practice, Sandy Climan, now the president of Entertainment Media Ventures, lives on Stone Canyon Road and took his eldest son for his first meal out when he was just four days old at Hotel Bel-Air. He used to do business there regularly; sometimes he would meet then-client Robert De Niro and ask for him by his assumed name. “There’s a sense of celebrity, but also a sense of decorum there,” says Climan. “Going there for me was like joining family. I used to walk around the grounds, behind the buildings on the south side, to the herb garden, which a lot of people didn’t know was there. They used those herbs in their kitchen.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY © REX USA LTD (MONROE); © MARC WANNAMAKER/BISON ARCHIVES (TERRACE, AERIAL, POOL, MARTIN); JENNIFER BOGGS (GRACE KELLY SUITE); JOE SCHMELZER (ROOM SHOTS)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.