There were dozens of nightclubs operating at various times along the Sunset Strip in its “Hollywood era,” the period from the 1920s through the ’50s. Among them, however, three were so popular with celebrities that they achieved household-name status nationwide and became famous around the world: Cafe Trocadero, Ciro’s and Mocambo.
The first two clubs, Cafe Trocadero – “the Troc” – and Ciro’s were launched by Billy Wilkerson, a nightclub impresario and the founder and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. The building that would house the Troc had been occupied by La Boheme, a cafe at 8614 Sunset in Sunset Plaza that was closed by authorities in 1934 because it had offered both cross-dressing performers on stage and illegal backroom gambling downstairs. (It had also sold liquor illegally but Prohibition had ended that year.)
Billy Wilkerson acquired the building, remodeled the interior in his trademark Hollywood Regency Moderne style and readied it for a grand opening on Sept. 17, 1934. The name was a reference to Trocadero Plaza at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Wilkerson’s favorite town.
(It was located on the south side of Sunset Plaza, on the east side of the driveway to the parking lot in the rear of the complex and across from the present-day location of Chin-Chin restaurant. The address now is 8610 Sunset Boulevard [map].)
The Troc soon became the top A-list place to be seen in Hollywood – movie stars could be assured Wilkerson would publish photographs taken at the club in THR’s next issue. Wilkerson viewed the club as the special reserve of the rich and famous. He did not book Billy Wilkerson was an inveterate gambler, so set up a room in the back of the lower floor for high-stakes games.
Louis Adlon, son of the proprietor of Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, opened Hollywood’s first iteration of Ciro’s in 1934. Located on Hollywood Boulevard, the club was informally part of a chain with locations in London, Paris and Berlin. The Hollywood Ciro’s was not a success, apparently, and it soon folded.
In 1935, the building at 8433 Sunset Blvd. [map] that would later house the Sunset Strip’s Ciro’s was completed. The first tenant was Al De Freitas’ Club Seville, where the gimmick was a dance floor made from sheets of glass over a giant aquarium. But dancing on fish proved not to be popular, and the club closed within a year.
In 1940, six years after he successfully launched Cafe Trocadero down the street in Sunset Plaza, Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson acquired the former Club Seville building, redesigned the interior in his glamorous style and opened a new Ciro’s in the space on January 31.
Wilkerson created Ciro’s as a “celebrities only” club. He did not book acts for the stage, but instead hired orchestras who played music appropriate for after-dinner dancing. Ciro’s was a big success, and soon overtook Trocadero as the stars’ favorite place to spend the evening.
Despite this success, by the summer of 1942 Wilkerson had lost interest. In November, he leased Ciro’s to Herman Hover, who reconfigured the layout and opened it up to the public as well as the stars. The following June, the building was nearly destroyed by fire. It was closed for four months, after which Hover purchased the building outiright.
In the post-war era, Ciro’s became notorious as a venue for celebrity brawling. There were so many fights that Hover said he was considering replacing the dance floor with a boxing ring. He also declared a limit of three brawls per customer. One of the most infamous of these was in 1951, when famed actor Franchot Tone approached gossip columnist Florabel Muir at her table and spat in her face.
That same year, as a publicity stunt, Hover put high-class stripper Lili St. Cyr on the bill. The stunt worked. As she was doing her act one night, sheriff’s deputies emerged from the crowd, stopped the act and arrested St. Cyr and Hover. The story became front-page news for weeks afterwards.
Hover was forced into bankruptcy in late 1957, and eventually lost the club. The venue became a rock club in the 1960s, and in 1972 opened as the Comedy Store, which is still in business there, as of 2020.
Located at 8588 Sunset Blvd. [map], Mocambo opened on January 3, 1941, featuring Mexican-themed decor said to have cost over $100,000 (about $1.6 million today). One feature of the design that was controversial then – and would never pass muster now – were the glass-walled aviaries that housed live macaws, cockatoos, parrots and other birds.
During its 17-year run, the Mocambo was the scene of a number of celebrity brawls. In 1941, a movie agent named William Burnside cold-cocked restaurateur Michael Romanoff there, for reasons now forgotten. “I wish they had let me go just for a minute and I would have annihilated him,” Romanoff said later. In October that year, Errol Flynn punched Los Angeles Times columnist Jimmy Fidler at Mocambo in retaliation for purported derogatory comments Fidler had made in his column.
After Frank Sinatra left the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in 1943, he made his debut as a solo act at Mocambo. The club was also at the forefront of breaking the color line during the Jim Crow era. Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald all played there in the 1940s and 1950s. Ella’s appearance in March 1955 was given a boost by her superstar fangirl, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn promised Mocambo owner Charlie Morrison that if he would book Ella, she would make sure the booking received worldwide publicity. True to her word, Marilyn was in the house every time Ella performed, and where Marilyn went, reporters followed. Ella later said that because of Marilyn’s support, after she played the Mocambo, “I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
Charlie Morrison died in 1957. The Mocambo closed a year later, on June 30, 1958. Another club called the Cloister opened in the space briefly. The building was later demolished, and a retail plaza occupies the lot today.