The inner demographics of the building read almost like larger-scale urban renewal and failure. Certain hallways are sketchier than others. One wing of the building — dubbed “the Dead Zone” — is completely uninhabitable. The floors of the “nice” hallways are covered with ’70s Las Vegas casino carpeting. I venture down the exposed-plywood corridor of one of the “bad” hallways, hoping to interview a resident pimp who allegedly convinced a youth-hostel guest to become one of his ho’s. I knock on his door, but he tells me to come back later because, at the moment, he is “drunk as a skunk.”
None of this would be off-putting to the inhabitants Jakob had in mind when he gambled on the address. He hired artist/photographer Heidi Calvert to shepherd local artists into the hotel. “When word got out that this was a place you could stay month-to-month and that there was an artistic vibe, more and more people started getting interested,” says Calvert.
One of the first creative types Calvert recruited was Lenora Claire, a 24-year-old performance artist who, aside from eating light bulbs in front of audiences, produces Apocalipstick,a surreal cabaret nightclub that has featured everything from live monkeys to the truly disturbing, deformed puppet-person Shaye Saint John. Claire and Calvert hooked up when Claire modeled for a catalog Calvert was shooting for. Calvert soon realized that Claire was well-connected in L.A.’s underground art world.
One of Claire’s connections was Gidget Gein. After leaving Marilyn Manson (due to “chemical differences”), Gein got clean and sober and moved from Florida to Hollywood. Claire produced his first Los Angeles art show and turned him on to the Gershwin. Inside his studio apartment, Gein paints, prints silk-screens and fashions apparel for his Gollywood clothing line. His walls are covered in art, including a portrait of him created by Nico Claux, the French convicted murderer/cannibal.
Gein’s shower curtain is silk-screened with the image of Janet Leigh’s famous shower scene from Psycho.
“The Gershwin reminded me of how the Chelsea was in the ’60s and ’70s, because there are a lot of nutty people who live here,” says Gein. “And I didn’t have to put down a lot of money to move in. I like it because it’s down the street from everything, so I don’t need a car. A lot of shit goes on that seems normal to me now. There are always teenagers running around the halls, sniffing paint cleaner and huffing gas and falling down in the halls. They have parties down in the lobby a lot. They have these crazy Jewish parties with the Hasidic Jews one night, and then the next night, they’ll have a party with that rap dude KRS-ONE, and it will be all like black power. I keep to myself really.”
Another recovering-addict resident is writer and musician Erika Wear. “I had no job and no money. A friend said they were hiring and that I could probably find a room too. Everyone who knew I just got out of rehab said, ‘You’re crazy to be living there, because you could just knock on someone’s door and score crack, dope or whatever.’ ”
But Wear says that working the front desk and seeing all the freaked-out drug addicts coming and going actually helps to maintain her sobriety. “I’m also really inspired by the people who moved in. When I see other artists, it really motivates me. I really like that feeling of sort of a family here.”
When Wear first moved in, she heard a knock on her door and was surprised to meet her next-door neighbor, legendary filmmaker Kenneth Anger. He introduced himself and asked if she had a VCR because he had many videos he wanted to show her. “Every day there’d be a bag of videos at my door,” she recalls.
Last August, Giuliana Mayo and her partner Tod Waters of Junker Designs moved into the apartment where crippled superstar Goddess Bunny formerly lived, and where a meth lab had once been set up that almost burned the building down. “If you flake at the walls, it’s charred black from some guy who was naked in here cooking up meth,” says Mayo. The duo had hoped to open a clothing store in the front of the building. Mayo gave up a nicer apartment in a better neighborhood for less rent because she wanted to live near their boutique; unfortunately the deal fell through, and now the partners are stuck living at the Gershwin.
Zaftig Garilyn, in repose
Recounting some of their more dangerous experiences at the hotel, Mayo says, “The night we moved in, someone was killed right outside the Gershwin. I called the police last Saturday because the neighbor across the hall was in a knife fight with another neighbor. I’ve gotten the crack-whore makeover from one of the ladies who lives here. I was walking down the hallway, and she’s like, ‘Honey, you look so great, but let me fix something.’ She messes up my hair and pulls up my skirt and says, ‘Now you’re perfect. Men are gonna love you.’ ”
Junker clothes have been worn by Britney Spears and Johnny Depp. “Once, we had celebrity models in our fashion show, and they were terrified of this place,” remembers Mayo. “Mayte — Prince’s ex-girlfriend — called us from her car because she didn’t want to come in.”
Another artist/resident is Garilyn Brune, a.k.a. the Amazing Ruby, a 350-pound drag queen and self-proclaimed gay Satanist. The walls of his small studio apartment are covered with art created by other hotel residents. Brune won a Tom of Finland art award for his piece CocksuckersforChrist,which depicts a priest sucking off an aroused Jesus. He also draws fat drag queens in Prismacolor, a wax-based colored pencil. Edith Massey of John Waters fame originally convinced Brune to move to L.A. Years later, he found himself in dire economic straits and ended up living and working the graveyard shift at the Gershwin.
Artist-colony vibes aside, being a hotel employee can be unpleasant, if not outright dangerous. Front-desk employees literally risk their lives for not much more than minimum wage, and don’t even get discounts on their rents. Says Lenora Claire, “I asked the owner, ‘This glass is bulletproof, right?’ He said, ‘No. If someone points a gun at you, duck under the table real quick.’ ” Hopefully quicker than the former hotel employee whose brains were splattered over the office floor and walls in the late ’90s.
A metal baseball bat provides the only protection against the parade of crack heads, junkies and ne’er-do-wells who drift in and out of the Gershwin’s lobby. “I’ve gone out there with the metal bat before. I was in a really bad mood, and this guy was ignoring me,” remembers Wear. “I got the bat out and said, ‘Look, motherfucker. I’m in a bad mood. Get the fuck out of here. I willuse this.’ ”
Brune tells his front-desk war stories. “I was threatened with a knife by some crazy crack whore — I wouldn’t let her go upstairs. One time, I had a black guy come up and ask for money. I said I didn’t have any, and he said, ‘How about I let you suck my dick?’ and he had a raging hard-on.”
A favorite front-desk pastime is watching the surveillance cameras. One night, employees amused themselves watching a schizophrenic crack whore compulsively lock and unlock the front door. The surveillance cameras also help feed the gossip mill. When asked whether any MelrosePlace–stylehookups are happening at the Gershwin, manager Calvert responds, “That’s only for us to know when we watch the video cameras and see who’s going into whose room.”
Despite the murders, crack heads and lack of hot water, Claire loves living at the Gershwin. “It’s like a college dorm. You can go and knock on doors and say, ‘Let’s go for a walk’ or ask a neighbor to sew something. I love that. I’ve never had that anywhere I’ve lived before.”
Part-time pirate Thoen also has good things to say about the Gershwin, which has cleaned up a lot under the new ownership without losing its fringe charm. Thoen was living in a homeless shelter before moving into the St. Francis 10 years ago and loves the new changes. “It was absolutely the cheapest place to live anywhere, and now it’s turned into a revitalized neighborhood with all sorts of wonderful services all around. I never thought that I would be living in a place so connected to a vibrant arts community with such incredibly talented people, all at my front door, all because I moved into the right place a long time ago.”
Lucky that Ivan signed his lease when he did. “Judging by what things are going for now, I couldn’t afford to live here.”
All of the residents tell me that I must meet the Crypt Keeper, named after the ghoulish puppet host of TalesFromtheCrypt.Apparently, the Crypt Keeper has only one ear, and not even a hole where the other ear should be. Residents claim that he lives with a 7-foot-tall thalidomide victim with a beard down past his knees and curled-up toenails. More disturbing, they insist that the mountain-man lobster-boy hasn’t left the apartment in more than 10 years.
I sit in the lobby and talk about the hotel with an elderly elfin-looking gentleman for more than a half-hour. He’s lived at the hotel for about 13 years, dating back to the St. Francis era, and has survived two earthquakes. “I was home for both of them. When the building starts to move, it’s pretty scary.” He tells me that they often shoot films and videos at the hotel. “Not everyone can say their home is in a movie, plus I was offered some very nice Chinese food left over from the film-shoot catering.”
Only later did I find out that this nice old man was the infamous Crypt Keeper.