Pirates, Pimps, Artists and Anarchy 

Hollywood’s Gershwin Hotel is a freak’s paradise

Thursday, Apr 28 2005
Photos by Kevin Scanlon
At the corner of Hollywood and Western, the sweet smell of crack cocaine lingers in the spring night air. Around the corner, chronic masturbators slip away from the local porn arcade, where video-booth cruisers look for love — or at least a quickie handjob. Nearby, drug dealers and prostitutes are hard at work, while the homeless slumber with their shopping carts in abandoned storefront doorways.

Who the hell would want to live here? Well, experimental-film icon Kenneth Anger, for one, and self-described “Surreal Pop Exploitationist” and original Marilyn Manson founding bass player Gidget Gein, for another.

Sandwiched between a vacant lot on one side and a Thai restaurant on the other (the owners have yet to remove the giant hot-dog statue from the roof), the Gershwin Hotel has become the home address of some of L.A.’s most creative citizens — and the occasional pirate.

By weekday a lowly market-research drone, but on nights and weekends (and at heart) “a screaming scoundrel named Mad Jack McMad,” Ivan Thoen walks the hotel hallways dressed in full pirate garb and is part of a large network of pirate re-enactors who “terrorize” Southern California. According to Ivan, “If I hadn’t been living here, I would have never met up with pirates. It’s a wonderful way to get away with things that other people are charged with felonies for. ‘Oh, he’s a pirate; he’s supposed to have a sword and three pistols.’ It’s a way of releasing one’s malicious inner child. It represents freedom.”

Freedom may be the most valuable amenity at the Gershwin Hotel. From outside, the hotel appears to be a nondescript, five-story apartment building, but inside, an unusual mix of hipsters, artists, drug addicts, Satanists, drag queens, at least one “resident crack whore” (and, yes, pirates) live in perfect harmony — or as close to it as possible under the circumstances.


 Home, home of the strange:
The Gershwin Hotel is where
the pirates and performance
artists roam.

Owner Urs Jakob fancies the hotel and its surrounding businesses “a node of culture.” About five years ago, he and his partners purchased the St. Francis Hotel, a seedy residential hotel, and renamed it the Gershwin. They hope to accomplish the same sort of turnaround here as their New York City Gershwin, which they reinvented in the early '90s.

Mad TV’s Mo Collins maintains an art studio in one of the hotel rooms, and edu-tainer/rap pioneer KRS-ONE recently opened the Temple of Hip Hop in a storefront connected to the Gershwin. (One resident was recently shocked to see KRS-ONE, Grandmaster Flash and Rodney King hanging out together in the lobby.) The owners also lease commercial space to the hotel’s current general manager, Heidi Calvert, to use as an art gallery, where she curates shows often featuring the work of Gershwin residents, including Gein, psychedelic artist Muffinhead and Junker clothing designers Tod Waters and Giuliana Mayo.

“I traveled the world, looking for an interesting opportunity, and ended up back in Hollywood,” says Jakob, whose family immigrated to L.A. from Switzerland in 1962 when he was 7 years old. “I saw that the whole neighborhood was hell. The hotel was filled with prostitutes, drug dealers, users and pimps, along with some relatively normal people. The previous general manager was shot and killed on the job at the hotel. This was one of the roughest corners in L.A. All of the storefronts were empty. I had the opportunity to come in and create an artist community. Where the artists and prostitutes are, that’s where real estate will quickly rise. This hotel will be a cultural center. In my view, we will have made it when the Gershwin Hotel hosts a Grammy party.”

That may be a long time in coming. Still, Jakob did his best to clean up his demi-hood. He fired what he refers to as the former drug-dealing/whore-pimping general manager and cleared out some of the building’s most unsavory characters, albeit in a slightly unorthodox manner. Local police were supplied with a list of residents and their room numbers, and determined which hotel dwellers had outstanding arrest warrants. “On a Sunday morning around 6 a.m., they raided the place, tore down doors and pulled people out,” remembers Jakob.

Of the law-abiding residents who remained, many died from alcoholism, drug overdoses, old age and, in one horrific case, murder. According to hotel resident and former employee Lenora Claire, a 24-year-old performance artist, “Not too long ago, a hooker lived here, and someone bashed her head in with a VCR. People smelled her for days, but you can’t just break in. They had to slip a 24-hours’ notice under her door. The best part is that one of the owners asked, ‘So, should we keep the mattress?’ ”

Currently, the Gershwin is part apartment building, part hotel and part youth hostel. Most investment dollars went toward renovating the top floor and the lobby. On the fifth floor, hotel rooms can be rented for between $42 and $57 per night. While the hallway impresses with its pink carpet and fancy black ceiling, the rooms leave much to be desired. They come furnished with an Army-style bed on rollers, plastic sets of IKEA-type drawers and a white TV/VCR combo. A sign on the bathroom door warns guests that hot showers are something of a gamble: “If there is no hot water, please try again later.”

The lobby is both a gallery space and rec room. A magenta carpet walkway stretches out across the largely empty space. The sparse decor includes furniture created by acclaimed industrial designer Karim Rashid, including an oddly shaped, shocking-pink ultra-suede Omni couch (retail value: $16,755). Until recently, the lobby housed one of Rashid’s more ambitious art projects: a computerized, interactive light-and-music installation. Rashid became understandably upset when he learned that homeless people were sleeping on and urinating all over his $3 million masterpiece. No one wanted to pay the more than $30,000 needed to ship the artwork back to New York, so the installation remained at the Gershwin for quite some time. The lobby also contains vending machines, Internet kiosks, a large-screen TV, a pool table and a Ms. Pacman machine.

The remaining three floors offer run-down apartments (rent: $650 and up) and a youth hostel, where international travelers can bunk down with other tourists for 20 bucks per night. The original plan called for much more luxurious digs. “Budget constraints sort of minimized what we could do last year,” explains Jakob.

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