In the 1940’s, there were the high class night spots and restaurants, like the Brown Derby, the Jade and the Cinegrill. And there were the working man’s bars, such as Steve Boardner’s, Bradley’s 5 and 10 and Jack O’Brien’s. Hollywood was a lonely town for transplants and runaways, but it was easy to get lost in if you joined the bar scene. For Beth Short, who preferred soft drinks over alcohol, Hollywood was a place to meet people and maybe make a future for herself.
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It was the era of live radio programs and motion pictures. The NBC Radio City studios were at Sunset at Vine, while down the street, CBS broadcast from Columbia Square. There were night spots all along Vine Street, from Clara Bow’s It Cafe, the Brown Derby, Club Morocco and the Hangover to Tom Breneman’s Breakfast in Hollywood and many more. There were nightclubs with floor shows and live entertainment. The Palladium, sandwiched between NBC and CBS, was just across from Earl Carroll’s Theatre on Sunset. The Florentine Gardens was Blocks away on Hollywood Boulevard, and, of course the Sunset Strip was a taxi ride away, with clubs like Ciro’s and the Trocadero.
It was an exciting time and an exciting town. In 1946, five of the top records on the hit parade were different versions of “To Each His Own.” Movie audiences were treated to a banner year of films, such as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “The Harvey Girls.”
That year, Nino Frank, a French film critic, dubbed a new style of movie making as “film noir.” 1946 saw the release of such noir titles as, “Gilda,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and a film that had a personal meaning for Elizabeth Short, Raymond Chandler’s, “The Blue Dahlia,” which opened at the Paramount Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on July 4.
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Hollywood was a town dotted with motion picture and radio studios, a town where people rode street cars to the San Fernando Valley or to the seashore or up and down Hollywood Boulevard. There were safety islands for passengers and tunnels under the Boulevard for pedestrians. There were newsboys hawking the daily newspapers at every major street corner and there was a movie theater on nearly every block. You could walk up and down the Boulevard and stare into the faces of strangers and never make a friend. Elizabeth Short fit in. She wandered the streets of Hollywood and spent hours in the restaurants and cocktail bars, but she was never discovered by the studios. Her fame would come after death. She arrived in Hollywood after the Academy Awards presentation at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on March 7, 1946 and was dead before the Academy Awards show at the Shine Auditorium on March 13, 1947.
She became as famous and as intriguing as the movie stars who helped put Hollywood on the map. She never made a movie, never made a name for herself in life, but in death, the beautiful, mysterious, young woman of 22 became a legend. Her story is the tale of a town and a gypsy girl who passed through it and left her signature, not in Grauman’s forecourt, but in Hollywood lore itself.
The town that grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s with glamorous nightclubs on Hollywood Boulevard was a town where movie stars, such as Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, ate at Musso and Frank, where actors lived in the Hotel Hollywood and the Garden Court Apartments. It was the town where Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford made names for themselves dancing in Hollywood night spots. Years later, Hollywood would turn into a haven for prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless.
But in 1946, Hollywood was doing just fine, with films and radio production creating magic for the rest of the world. Bing Crosby’s Philco Radio Time introduced audiences to the first prerecorded broadcast on a prime time radio network. Television was just around the corner.
Elizabeth Short arrived in Southern California in July, 1946. She turned 22 years old on July 29. The most popular song that summer was “To Each His Own,” a tune from the movie of the same title, starring Olivia de Havilland.
The Eddy Howard recording of “To Each His Own” entered the Billboard Charts on July 11, 1946, and would stay on the hit parade for nineteen weeks. The song was so popular that four other versions also stayed on the charts through the summer. Tony Martin, the Ink Spots, Freddy Martin and the Modernaires with Paula Kelly all had hit recordings.
A rose must remain with the sun and the rain
Or its lovely promise won’t come true
To each his own, to each his own
And my own is you
The war years had been tough on almost everyone. By 1946, annual incomes averaged $2,390. A new house cost about $5,600 and a new car about $1,200. A postage stamp was three cents, a loaf of bread costs nine cents, a dozen eggs was twenty-two cents, a pound of coffee cost fifty cents, and a gallon of milk was seventy cents. If you had a new Roosevelt dime and a Jefferson nickel in your pocket, you could buy a gallon of gas or go see the new Clark Gable movie. The nickel was mighty. A telephone call costs a nickel in a phone booth. A newspaper costs a nickel and any greasy spoon in town served coffee for a nickel. Coca Cola guaranteed every man a in uniform a bottle of Coke for five cents. You could ride public transportation or buy a candy bar for a nickel. Or you could buy a short beer at Bradley’s 5 and 10, a Hollywood Boulevard hangout known to Beth Short.
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In many ways, the Hollywood Boulevard of today does not look that different from the Hollywood Boulevard of 1946. Many of the structures built in the 1920’s and 1930’s still line the street. Some of the businesses remain, most notably, the Musso and Frank Grill, between Las Palmas and Cherokee, which has served customers continuously since 1919. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at the west end of the Boulevard and the Pantages Theatre at the east end still operate. The Roosevelt Hotel is open, The Snow White Waffle House, now the Snow White cafe, is still in business. The Pig and Whistle has reopened and serves cocktails, lunch and dinner at the same old address. The Hillview Apartments is renting again, after a major renovation. Decades after being hidden, the Kress department store sign has been restored and rises high above Hollywood Boulevard at Whitley. The Broadway Hollywood, no longer a department store, still proudly displays it’s original sign. Across the street, with its blue neon sign still in tact, sits the venerable Taft Building. Across the Boulevard on the north side, the Frolic Room, a neighborhood bar since the 1930’s, is still open for business.
What has changed then? Well, the streetcars are long gone, including their rails and electrified catenary systems. The newsboys have disappeared from all the major street corners. The five and dime stores, such as S. H. Kress, J. J. Newberry and F.W. Woolworth, are gone, although the buildings remain. The drugstores at Highland, Cherokee, Hudson and Vine, with their lunch counters, have vanished. Bradley’s Five and Ten, where Steve Boardner said Elizabeth Short was a patron, was torn down long ago. It was located at the northwest corner of Hollywood and Cherokee, a block and a half from the Chancellor apartments, Where Elizabeth briefly shared a room with other young women.
The Walk of Fame replaced the more conventional cement sidewalk in the early 1960’s and trees now line the north and south side of Hollywood Boulevard. Larry Edmunds Book Store moved from Cahuenga to Hollywood Boulevard during the intervening years. The old Hollywood Typewriter Shop, Miller’s Stationers and Pickwick Book Shop are gone, as well as C. C. Brown, home of the hot fudge sundae.
And of course, people don’t look the same these days. They carry more weight and wear less clothing. Their manners and demeanor have changed. A well dressed woman like Elizabeth Short would stand out in the crowd today, and not just because she was so pretty.
Once, there were frequent premiers at the first run theaters, where locals and tourists sat in the bleachers and watched their favorite stars step out of limousines and into lavish theater palaces. Today, that sight is rare. Movie-goers in the 1940’s, had many choices of theaters on Hollywood Boulevard. Most have vanished, but once there were more than a dozen. Gone is the Hollywood Music Hall at Hudson, the Admiral at Vine, the Iris at Wilcox, the Hollywood at Highland, the Fox at Gower, the Marcal, just west of the Florentine Gardens and the Hawaii, just east of the Gardens. The News-View, a single aisle newsreel theater was between Las Palmas and Cherokee. The Vogue was across the street, next door to the Musso and Frank Grill. The Hunley, the Apollo, the Hitching Post, the Warner, are all dark or razed. Today, the only theaters showing movies on Hollywood Boulevard are the Chinese, the El Capitan and the Egyptian.
Elizabeth Short might have seen “The Strange Woman” with Hedy Lamarr at the Hawaii, or “Missing Lady” at the Mayfair. or “A Game of Death at the Marcal. A happier choice might have been “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Pantages.
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If a flame is to grow there must be a glow
To open every door there’s a key
I need you, I know, I can’t let you go
Your touch means too much to me
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In Long Beach, Beth would eat breakfast at a favorite drug store near her hotel. She met a man, Bob Robertson and his friend there. The two had been in the service together and were visiting California from Boise, Idaho.
Robertson recalled that, “She was a nice looking girl and smiled at us and we had breakfast together in the drug store and then we went back to the room and then went to the beach. I don’t know where she went. And then we would have breakfast with her every morning and walked to the beach a couple of times in the afternoon. One night she said she would like to go to the Palladium dancing and we got the P.E. train and went to Hollywood in the afternoon and spent the day dancing and came back that night and probably got home about 2:30 or 3:00.”
While in Hollywood, they visited the tourists spots, including the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood boulevard and the NBC Radio City studios at Sunset and Vine. They danced at the Palladium and she posed for a snapshot across the street outside the Earl Carroll Theatre, beneath the sign that read, “The most beautiful girls in the world.”
After the two men returned to Boise, Beth wrote a few times and included the photos or negatives from the Hollywood trip. She eventually stopped writing, the man said, and then one day his friend “came dashing to the house,” saying, “Do you remember that girl we met in California, in Long Beach? She’s been murdered.”
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“Meet me at Hollywood and Vine,” a catch phrase made popular during the radio era, was widely used by locals and tourists during the brief time that Beth Short was in Hollywood. Linda Rohr, a roommate at the Chancellor said, “She loved to prowl the Boulevard.” She frequented Tom Breneman’s on Vine, where the waiters knew her and she went to the Frolic Room and the Italian Kitchen in the Pantages Building, next to the theater.
Beth was a regular at the CBS radio studios on Sunset near Vine. John Egger, the head usher at CBS said he saw her there, “at least twenty times.” Anne Toth said Beth used to go to NBC at Sunset and Vine “all the time.”
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After Thanksgiving, the Boulevard dressed for Christmas with lights and decorations. Shops stayed open later at night and Bing Crosby could be heard singing White Christmas again. It was a festive time, but by early December, a frightened 22 year old Elizabeth Short decided it was time to get out of Hollywood.
According to William Fowler, the doorman at the Pantages Theatre at Hollywood and Vine, Beth walked by often.
“The Jolson Story” was playing at the Pantages and Beth would walk by and say hello occasionally. William described her as a, “Very attractive girl, the way she dressed.” He said she had, “Very dark black hair. Looked like it was dyed black and rather full.”
“I was working as doorman, but I was in front of the box office. I had a mike in my hand. I believe it was a Friday night. She walked [by] and there was a kind of a lull, everything quieted down. I believe the stores had just closed and she stated, ‘You have quite a crowd, haven’t you?’ and I said, ‘Yes, we have quite a crowd’ and she says, ‘A pretty good picture?’ and I had seen it about thirty times and I said, ‘Yes, it’s a good picture.’ That was the last I ever saw of her.”
He remembered seeing her about five or six times in all. “It was some time around the first of December. Christmas shopping, Christmas rush. I don’t believe I saw her after that.”
Before long, Beth was in San Diego, watching “The Jolson Story” at the Aztec Theatre.