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Slake: Los Angeles—Tales from the Tropicana Motel—A City And Its Stories

Tales from the Tropicana Motel

By Iris Berry

Just a limo ride or drunken, one-cigarette stumble down La Cienega from the Sunset Strip, the Tropicana Motel was known worldwide during its heyday. Much like other historic addresses of bohemia, 8585 Santa Monica Boulevard was a haven and hideout for actors, artists, writers, poets, directors, sports figures, music producers, film producers, and rock stars. It was the Chelsea Hotel with poolside AstroTurf. Parties sometimes lasted for months and often ended in mayhem. There was a constant parade of groupies, photographers, and drug dealers.

Of course, the clientele also included tourists who innocently happened to share their Hollywood vacations with hookers, pimps, and junkies. Word on the street was that anything you desired—no matter how bizarre, kinky, sleazy, or unsavory—could be had at the Trop, and for an extremely low nightly rate. All just a stone’s throw away from the West Hollywood sheriff’s station.

In the fifties, the motel was a getaway for Hollywood’s better-known character actors. But as Hollywood changed, so did the ownership. In 1963 the motel was sold to its fourth owner, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, strikeout artist of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Being a smart businessman, he immediately changed the sign to read “Sandy Koufax’s Tropicana Motel,” which brought in a whole new clientele. The culture shifted, too, and the movie stars morphed into television stars and rock gods. From 1963 onward, the Trop functioned as a boho playground, pioneered by Jim Morrison of the Doors, who hung around the Palms, a low-rent (and nearly as infamous) dyke bar located directly across the street from the Tropicana. He would drink there all night before stumbling across the street to pass out. Mornings after, he’d write many of the songs that became hits for the Doors. Waves of other musicians arrived and followed the same hit-making formula. The motel was also the site of numerous photo sessions and legendary band interviews, and it served as the location for the Andy Warhol films Heat and Trash. The party kept going until 1988, when the building was razed and replaced with a Ramada Inn.

Duke’s Coffee Shop, underneath the Tropicana, served copious amounts of good, inexpensive food to poor artists and musicians along as well as record and film execs. The seating was family style, which meant that you could be broke enough to consider running out on your check even as you passed the ketchup to someone who could change your life in an instant. Cassettes and scripts were passed across the greasy Formica countertops; romances were kindled over hangovers.
The rooms at the Tropicana looked like Little Richard decorated them with somebody’s Midwestern grandma on a lost weekend, and they were continually being trashed. The motel’s plumbing was iffy at best, which meant flooded rooms were a common occurrence during all-night parties. There were a few private bungalows at the back of the property where Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss, among others, took up long-term residence. The kidney-bean-shaped pool was surrounded by AstroTurf and painted black. This was widely assumed to be a choice of function, not fashion: the paint hid the rust stains from the patio furniture that was regularly tossed in the water. Regulars knew better than to dive into the pool—you might have an underwater rendezvous with a chaise lounge, or, worse, a syringe or two. Under the Trop’s junglelike foliage there were orgies, murders, suicides, ODs, love triangles, marriages, and drunken brawls on a daily basis. There were even a number of struggling bands living in their cars in the Trop’s back parking lot (which the management was fully aware of).

It was not unlikely to see Iggy and the Stooges, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Cochran, the Beach Boys, Jim McGuinn of the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Blondie, the Cramps, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the Damned, the Clash, the Dead Boys, Johnny Cash, Dennis Hopper, Evel Knievel, Lydia Lunch, Sam Shepard, Levi and the Rockats, legendary photographer Leee Black Childers, Marianne Faithfull, William Burroughs, Nico, Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and locals like Rodney Bingenheimer, the Runaways, Van Halen, Guns and Roses, the Motels, the Germs, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wandering the halls or lounging by the pool.

When the Tropicana Motel’s escapades came to a grinding halt in 1988 after three decades, it marked the end of an era … or two or three. It had stood as bacchanalia central in the time before AIDS and MTV, before demographics and gentrification, and before the Reagan revolution did its damage. While it lasted, though, the Trop was ground zero for some of the best times that the underbelly of L.A. ever saw…

This is an excerpt of an article originally published in Slake No. 1. To read the entire story, purchase or subscribe at shop.slake.la.

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