LA's Sunset Strip: A Colorful History

Photo of Jasmine Ashoori
20 October 2016

Before the LA invasion of coffee shops and juice bars, there were speakeasies and nightclubs attracting the rich and the famous to the Sunset Strip. Over the years, the City of Angels has grown increasingly more popular as the entertainment capital of the world, attracting hundreds of people everyday to the iconic stretch of land. Rich in history and internationally renowned, the beauty and culture of the strip is kept alive through many creative outlets that contribute to its overall character. More than meets the eye, the Sunset Strip is the mecca for music and the epicenter of entertainment, located in the city of the stars. Above the busy street, palm trees tower over the homes of many a- list celebrities tucked away in the Hollywood hills, both hidden and in plain sight.

Sunny days on Sunset Blvd | © Neda Kerendian

The iconic billboards dominating the strip had once featured artistic advertisements for legendary musicians and starlets like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Donna Summers, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, and many others. The colorful displays have inspired artistic pieces like Robert Landau’s book “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” and Ed Ruscha’s self-published “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” Landau’s book can be found on display at the Skirball Cultural Center, a few miles down the strip and explores the vibrant billboards and the unique cityscape in the same way one would view a gallery of hand-painted images. Drawn to the neon signage of the Whiskey a Go Go after seeing a performance by the Doors, Ed Ruscha was similarly struck with inspiration, but with the architecture of the strip. He set out to create the twenty-five foot long panoramic fold out of the one and a half mile strip and every inch of its glory, capturing magnificent images of each building using a motorized Nikon camera mounted to the back of his Ford pick-up truck.

Sunset Strip Billboards | © Neda Kerendian

Although it is considered by critics to be a 21st century “must-destination for nightlife & dining”, the Sunset Strip is grounded in centuries of history dating back to the exciting nightlife of the ‘20s-30s, the counterculture riots in the ‘60s, and the heavy metal draw of the ‘80s. The iconic site has become one of the most visited in all of Los Angeles. Located between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, the “strip” of land fell outside the city’s boundaries and was therefore outside the reach of the LAPD’s jurisdiction. The lack of strict rules and regulations beyond the city limits transformed Sunset Strip into an inhibition-less stretch of land that would one day inspire feature films, novels, music, and artwork. The absence of law enforcement led to the emergence of speakeasies and nightclubs that made the strip the ultimate entertainment spot in LA.

Chateau Marmont | © Neda Kerendian

Following the rush of movie-stars and a-listers, notorious mobsters, and other glam seeking city dwellers, the strip began to evolve with the growth of boutiques and restaurants. As it began to attract more people, hotels began to emerge in close proximity of the many nightclubs, restaurants, and attractions. The Sunset Tower Hotel still stands today as both an LA landmark and one of the most prominent and influential art deco structures in the city. Combining both modern style and convenience, the tower’s luxury penthouse apartments attracted a large celebrity clientele including Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and many other famous socialites. The castle-like Chateau Marmont was also a favorite amongst the stars for harboring their secret affairs. As quoted from the LA times, Sandra Bullock comments on the Sunset Boulevard hotel, “No wonder people come here to have affairs – it’s got that air of history, where you know a lot of people did things they weren’t suppose to do”, like Led Zeppelin allegedly driving their motorcycles through the hotel lobby. Dubbed the spot to party in private, Chateau Marmont has truly seen it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly. The hotel’s luxurious bungalows remain a popular celebrity Los Angeles staycation.

The Roxy | © Neda Kerendian

True to its reputation as the place to see and be seen, the Strip welcomed a wave of emerging musicians on their way to stardom in the early 20th century. Famous bands such as the Doors, Van Halen, and Guns N’ Roses first began at clubs along the strip, such as The Roxy, Whiskey a Go Go, and The Viper Room. Today, new generations of musicians continue to perform at these historic venues, excited to play on the same stage as the legends before them. The room is filled with positive vibrations, the energy is alive, and inspiration echoes off the walls from decades of history centered around an artistic passion that can only be found in the entertainment capital of the world.

Rainbow Bar and Grill Brick Wall of Fame | © Neda Kerendian

The strip is filled with stories that will have you wondering, fact or fiction? From the cow John Wayne kept for fresh milk at the Sunset Tower to the blind date between Marilyn Monroe and first husband Joe DiMaggio at the Rainbow Bar and Grill, it has been the spot for many memorable moments in history. Inspiring Donna Summer’s song “Sunset People,” the lyrics read “Riot house, a penthouse suite. The street’s alive below your feet.” And not only is the strip alive, but it makes you feel more alive than ever, surrounded by the arts, entertainment, and culture of Los Angeles.

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