• Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: Supper Clubs on the Sunset Strip

In the Prohibition years from 1920 to 1933, patrons had to go to roadhouses and speakeasies in Hollywood for alcohol and entertainment. These illegal clubs were accessed by passwords, and booze, gambling, drugs and prostitution flourished behind secret doors. Bootleggers thrived and gangsters controlled the distribution chains.

But the end of Prohibition marked the rise of the supper clubs. These were no longer shady dives raided by corrupt police, but glamorous venues where superior food, alcohol, and dancing to headliners were showcased in palatial interiors.

Billy Wilkerson, founder and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, mob-connected inveterate gambler and womanizer, and eventually, initiator of the Black List in Hollywood, was also an impresario par excellence. In his heyday, he owned many supper clubs in Hollywood of which the first was Café Trocadero.

Café Trocadero


In 1934, Wilkerson bought the premises of a shuttered restaurant called La Boheme at 8610 Sunset Boulevard on the Strip to store his collection of alcohol in its cellar. (This part of the Strip was unincorporated county area and exempt from business taxes.) He opened a French-themed supper club above stairs called Café Trocadero with a high-stakes gambling room in the back.

Wilkerson advertised his club in the Reporter and threw a grand opening night party on September 17 hosted by producer Myron Selznick which was attended by the likes of Ida Lupino, Joan Bennett, George Raft, Virginia Hill, and studio heads Joe Schenck and Darryl Zanuck.

After the opening when the crowds dropped off, Wilkerson came up with a strategy of goosing attendance, according to his son William Wilkerson III in his book “Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson” published in 2018. “In frustration, Wilkerson instructed his maître d’ . . . to put up the velvet rope and keep the band playing. ‘Tell everyone who comes or phones that the place is booked solid for two weeks,’ he said. Within days, the place was jammed, with long lines outside the front door. Reservations were booked solid for weeks.”

The ‘Troc’ rapidly became the hot spot of the film industry for the stars as their photos, taken by the house photographer, were sure to appear in the next day’s Reporter as well as in the gossip columns of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper who were regulars. Café Trocadero was the site of many movie premiere parties, and was used as a location for a scene in 1937’s A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It is credited with starting the jitterbug craze.

Writer Jim Heimann described the scene in the Los Angeles Times in May 2006:

Guests entered through a lobby surrounded by a frieze of Paris and a row of striped satin settees, handing their wraps to a pert coat-check girl before moving into the cream-and-gold main dining room.

Padded walls framed a mirror-like dance floor, which overlooked the grid of Hollywood. Xavier Cugat and his band, centered on a stage along the west wall, played all evening, and the menu was ’30s elegant: blini au caviar Romanoff, green turtle amontillado soup, alligator pear salad and chateaubriand.

Wandering down to the Cellar, the Troc’s more informal and clubby oak-paneled boite, you might run into Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Bill Powell and Jean Harlow, chatting it up with Jimmy Stewart in an overstuffed booth. Cozying up to the copper-topped bar might be Joan Crawford and spouse Franchot Tone, sipping on the house specialty, the Trocadero Cooler.

Everyone was invited, but the cost of such an evening — around $18 in 1936, when the average hourly wage was around 25 cents — might set back the average Joe a couple of weeks’ pay. Less extravagant but more within reach, you could also just go to the Cellar, have drinks and $2 dinners for two and get out with only a $6 charge. But that was still three days’ pay.

Cecilia Rasmussen writes in the Los Angeles Times of September 7, 1997: “Every Saturday night at the Troc, the back room filled with the smoke from the cigars of Irving Thalberg, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle Jr., Joseph Shenck and Sam Goldwyn, who all had a penchant for high-stakes poker. Would-be stars such as Judy Garland, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason got their starts by competing in “Amateur Hour” at the Troc on Sunday nights. The chance to rub elbows with notorious but impeccably behaved mobsters such as Hollywood labor racketeer Willie Bioff, Tony Cornero, Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel and Wilkerson’s good friend Johnny Roselli, only made the Troc seem more glamorous.”

By 1938, Wilkerson was fed up of paying the protection money extorted by his mob buddies, allegedly organized a convenient fire in the club’s kitchen, and sold off the place.

Two years later he opened Ciro’s at 8433 Sunset, named after a gambling club in Monte Carlo.




Hadley Meares, writing in Curbed LA, describes the club: “Ciro’s was sleekly designed by George Vernon Russell, while interior designer Tom Douglas made the interior a riot of color and texture, with red silk sofas, ceilings painted a matching red, and walls draped in heavy ribbed silk dyed pale pastel green . . . A large bandstand was erected, phone jacks were installed at every table for important calls, and a spotlight at the entrance greeted every star or wannabe who came in. There was a hidden women’s parlor (perfect for trade-ready secrets to be spilled) and again a hidden gambling parlor at the urging of Johnny Roselli.”


Wilkerson had not given up his mob ties and Roselli was one of his pals. Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel were two others. (Wilkerson went into partnership with Siegel for the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas; unsurprisingly, Siegel wrested control and muscled Wilkerson out.)

Mary Scott Hardwicke, Wilkerson’s cigarette girl, had stories to tell, and she told them to Sheila Weller, niece of Herman Hover who took over Ciro’s when Wilkerson bailed in 1942. In an article entitled “Life Begins at 8.30” for Vanity Fair in 1998, Weller described what Hardwicke saw: “George Raft and Betty Grable came in all the time together, but because he was Catholic he would never marry her. Dorothy Lamour was so madly in love with Greg Bautzer she would always go into the ladies’ room and cry her eyes out because Greg wasn’t in love with her.”

Weller also remembers hanging out at Ciro’s as a child once her uncle took over. “I would help Nancy, the photographer, fold the cardboard photo holders and line up the Ciro’s lipsticks on the Dutch-door sill, and I would help Reggie, the cigarette girl, stack the Old Golds and Camels and (brand-new) Marlboros in the tray she carried by a velvet rope as she walked around in her thigh-high skirt and fishnet stockings. I would skid across the small dance floor and bang the snare drums. (Uncle Herman’s No. 1 rule was that a dance floor must be small so that patrons could “bump posteriors” with celebrities. Another rule, in those cheerfully sexist times: No phones in the ladies’ room, which would have allowed a woman seeking to abandon her escort to call for a replacement.) 


Johnny Oldrate, Hover’s maitre d’ for 17 years, told also Weller many secrets. “For instance, that many nights Walter Winchell and Marilyn Monroe sat huddled at a tiny table, but, because Winchell was so powerful, their dates never got into the papers. That a despondent Sammy Davis Jr. was indeed forced by Harry Cohn to marry Loray White; Cohn had dispatched a minion to “inform” him that he had to break up with Kim Novak. That a melancholy Frank Sinatra used to get drunk at Ciro’s after Ava Gardner dumped him and once, in the lobby, took a few swings at a reporter who dared to notice. That, while Howard Hughes’s guests were dining and dancing inside, Hughes would keep company with women in an old Chevrolet in the parking lot.”

Then there is the story of director Anatole Litvak disappearing under Paulette Goddard’s table as she maintained a stoic demeanor, as well as that of Franchot Tone spitting in the face of gossip columnist Florabel Muir.

Hover was a discoverer of talent. He booked an unknown bandleader, Xavier Cugat, in the club. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got their shot at Ciro’s as well. Their fee remained at the original $7,000 even after they were earning $100,000 a show elsewhere. Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. were headliners as were Danny Kaye, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Edith Piaf, Duke Ellington, Gypsy Rose Lee, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Sophie Tucker, Martha Raye, Maurice Chevalier, Mae West.

And Hover was also a creative publicist of his club. He booked stripper Lili St. Cyr to perform, then had one of his employees tip off the cops who raided the place in the middle of St. Cyr’s performance and arrested her for public indecency. However, the cops were in Hover’s pocket so he accomplished his mission by getting Ciro’s in the papers.

After 17 years, the longest run of all the Sunset Strip clubs, Ciro’s closed in 1957. Hover filed for bankruptcy in 1959. Today, the site is the location of The Comedy Club.