Photo Credit: Seiichi Niitsuma

The Culver Hotel – Stories From The Hollywood Golden Era and its Role in The Wizard of Oz

Culver City, California is named after Harry C. Culver who was a known real estate developer. It was said that Mr. Culver stated from local headlines announcing, “Culver City is the perfect location for new stomping grounds – partway between the salty beaches of Santa Monica and the glitzy nightlife of Hollywood.” Since the early 1920’s, Culver City has been the prime center for motion pictures and television production companies. One of the most famous production companies resides in Culver City, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, or as it is most commonly known, MGM Studios.

Mr. Culver played a vital role in bringing motion picture making into Culver City and creating many jobs in the city. But the most famous of all the landmarks in Culver City is the Culver Hotel. The Culver Hotel holds the key to many Hollywood rumors and stories such as one famous story taken from “The Wizard of Oz”. There is a story that the “Munchkin” actors and actresses supposedly had many drunken moments during their stay at the hotel. The Culver Hotel has had many famous faces stay there and even famous faces that have actually owned the hotel for some time. There are even reported stories of the hotel being haunted by Harry C. Culver himself!

The Culver Hotel is not just another famous hotel in Los Angeles, it is a city icon that has been around for over a century with endless tales to be told. This hotel is a landmark for a reason which welcomes hundreds of visitors a day.

The “Other” Flatiron Building

Harry Culver not only founded Culver City (officially incorporated in 1917), but he also developed the grandest hotel in the city. The Culver Hotel opened on September 4, 1924, with local headlines announcing, “City packed with visitors for opening Culver Skyscraper.” Mr. Culver held a public dance event in the lobby of the hotel on opening day for that night only. Mr. Culver wanted to attract residents of Culver City and the surrounding cities to see his remarkable property. The hotel was originally called Hotel Hunt but later named The Culver Hotel after Mr. Culver himself. The Culver Hotel became an official National Historic Landmark property in 1997.

The tall, strange shaped, flatiron building, sits right at the intersection of Washington and Culver Boulevards. The hotel’s design has frequently been compared to the Flatiron Building, which is in New York City with it’s curved and flatiron shaped structure. The hotel was designed by Curlett & Beelman who created a six-story, 46 rooms, and suites, Renaissance Revival-styled hotel. The hotel towered over the other buildings in Culver City as an ultra-modern skyscraper. The two designers were also the architectural firm behind the renewed Art Deco buildings throughout the Los Angeles area, including the Roosevelt, Eastern Columbia, and the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Mr. Culver also had an office on the second floor of the hotel which has now been restored and is used for meetings today. The hotels’ structure was built out of concrete and brick with a mahogany and walnut styled interiors all around.

Many Restorations Later

From the 1940’s to 1970’s, the Culver Hotel was suffering financially and people were beginning to forget about the glamour and excitement that had once graced this magnificent hotel. The hotel was actually almost torn down in the 1980’s and was even boarded up for a period of time. The Culver Hotel was later restored and opened once again in the mid-1990’s under the new ownership of Lou Catlett. Mr. Catlett breathed fresh air into the hotel which was starting to dilapidate and ultimately reduced the hotel from being torn down for the second time! The hotel was once again under new ownership and was then purchased by Abraham Hu who ran the hotel with his son Xing and Nightclub Restaurateur Eddie Harrah until 2007 when it was sold yet again. The hotel was then sold to the Mallick family in 2007. The Mallick family planned another revitalization to the hotel and this time the hotels entire plumbing and electrical were all upgraded, all the rooms were redone, and the public spaces had been all re-imagined while maintaining the hotel’s original architectural look. In September 2017, the Culver Hotel hosted the “Party of the Century” celebrating 100 years of Culver City and the 10th anniversary of the historic hotel’s revitalization from the Mallick family. Guests were told the dress code was a black tie masked evening full of lavish entertainment, a live band, signature cocktails, and delicious food along with decadent dessert treats. Today, you will find nightly live jazz music in the hotel bar in the evenings. Old classic movies are even shown on the lobby wall for guests to sit back and relax and catch some of their favorite old Hollywood films. There is even a 1920’s Parisian boudoir style speakeasy bar upstairs with signature cocktails referencing films like the “Good Witch” drink which references “The Wizard of Oz”.

The Lollipop Guild

The most famous story from this legendary hotel comes straight from the film, “The Wizard of Oz” where the Culver Hotel housed nearly all of the 124 “little people” who played the Munchkins in the film. The film was being shot down the street at MGM studios in 1939 and it was reported that the Munchkin actors threw wild parties at the hotel and used underground tunnels to get to the studio and back. The “LAist” was able to interview Seth Horowitz, the general manager of the Culver Hotel who said that he couldn’t speak about the Munchkins alleged behavior, but he did note that the Munchkins slept in three to a bed. This story about the Munchkins became so famous that a film was later made inspired by the alleged events that had taken place at the hotel. The film came out in 1981 and was called “Under The Rainbow” and starred Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher. The film was even filmed at the Culver Hotel to represent the story in the correct way. In 1997 some of the cast of “Under The Rainbow” came back to the city for an event to share their remembrances with the Culver City Historical Society. Some of the original Oz Munchkins came back for this remembrance event and spoke about their costumes, the set designs, makeup, and lighting, as well as their fond memories of working with Judy Garland.

Other Hollywood Tales

Many movie stars have also called the Culver Hotel their part-time residences including; Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Ronald Reagan, and Joan Crawford, to name a few. The cast from “Gone with the Wind” stayed at the Culver Hotel during their filming. Today, many television shows, movies, and television commercials still continue to shoot at the Culver Hotel and around historic Culver City. Parts of the hotels interior and exterior have been used to replicate a street in London, a cafe in Paris, and even an apartment in Barcelona. No matter what time period, the legendary hotel consistently remains part of what is called the “Hollywood Golden Era”.

Dwight D. Eisenhower ran a campaign office right from the hotel during his run for the Presidency in 1952. It was said that Mr. Eisenhower and his then running mate, Richard Nixon, were frequently seen together at the Culver City Hotel.

There is a famous legend that Charlie Chaplin owned and then sold the hotel to actor John Wayne for $1 in a poker game in 1945. It was also said that John Wayne was propositioned by the Black Panthers for ownership, but eventually, Mr. Wayne donated the hotel to the Los Angeles YMCA. John Wayne’s legacy continues to shine at the Culver Hotel where guests can stay in the John Wayne Suite. General manager, Seth Horowitz says the rumor of Chaplin’s ownership isn’t verifiable.

Ghost Stories From Within

The Culver Hotel has been around for over 90 years, and within those 90 years, ghost stories are inevitable to come up along the way. It has been noted that there is no actual proof that the Culver Hotel is in fact haunted, these are only stories that have been told. Ever since Harry C. Culver passed away in 1946, Mr. Culver’s ghost has been reportedly seen in the hallways of the hotel at times. Staff members have heard the windows in Mr. Culver’s personal office banging shut at night. Amateur ghost hunters often visit the Culver Hotel late at night investigating thoroughly and searching for stories of spiritual happenings. Many believe that even in his death, Mr. Culver still keeps watching over the hotel and city that bear his name.

Next time you make a visit to Los Angeles, be sure to stop for a visit to a Culver City landmark and to one of the most fascinating hotels in La La Land. You never know, maybe you’ll see the ghost of Harry Culver hiding down a hallway.

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