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Pirates, Pimps, Artists and Anarchy

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.

 


 Resident Pirate Mad Jack McClad

 

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 Cocksuckers for Christ, 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 will use 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 Melrose Place–style hookups 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 Tales From the Crypt. 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.

 

 


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