Close your eyes and imagine that old American stalwart, the local veterans hall. Odds are you’re conjuring up visions of hoary curmudgeons at an old paneled bar, drinking yellow beer, watching baseball on the old tube television. And then there’s the venerable dank hall, the scene of many a bingo night, AA meetings, spaghetti dinners and shotgun weddings, quintessential Americana at its most basic.
American Legion Post 43, housed in a beautiful and ostentatious Egyptian Moroccan revival building on Highland Avenue a stone’s throw from the venerable Hollywood Bowl, was a lot like that, growing decidedly stale and woefully analog in recent years. The old way of doing business didn’t have much going for it, and the demographics were not favorable. With a new generation of combat veterans coming into the fold, the opportunity for a rebrand and remodel presented itself, leading to a full-scale refurbishment led by a group of post-9/11 veterans who had the smarts to realize what a gem they had. The old guard had to go.
Enter Mike Hjelmstad and Fernando Rivero, two post-9/11 veterans who were among a group of young vets who formed the tip of the spear in an effort to boldly stab those moldy preconceptions through the heart and shake things up. Given that the American Legion is an organization composed of veterans who served during wartime, it should be no surprise that these motivated vets did what they do best: They gathered intel, did mission analysis, drew up a course of action and went operational. Or, in layman’s terms, a few ambitious veterans saw an opportunity for change and led a velvet revolution.
Taking over was much easier than they had expected, as Hjelmstad, the post’s commander recalled, “A couple of guys ran this place as if it was their own, because it was at that time. And while I didn’t agree with the way they did things and it wasn’t necessarily wrong, it was the right thing at the time, it just wasn’t the right thing moving forward. We wanted to be able to do more stuff. If you wanted to do something it had to go through that one guy; if he wanted to do it, you could do it, and if you didn’t want to do it, you simply couldn’t do it."
Hjelmstad explains that there was no democracy or going through a board when it came to the Legion, so he and his fellow vets made one. "It was this guy’s kingdom," he says. "So we did what we could to upset that. Eight of us got together. Jeric Wilhelmsen was the commander when I came in; that was 10 years ago now. He was the first young guy to get on the board and he greatly influenced me. Jeric actually spearheaded putting this group together, suggesting that a bunch of young guys work together. When we ran for office, instead of running against each other and one of us getting in, why don’t we all form a team and work together. And so we devised the five-year plan where our goal was to show them that we were serious, maybe get a couple of us on the board and the next year a couple more. We did it all in one year — we accidentally won everything. And now it’s like, 'Shit, we’re driving, we got the keys to the Ferrari and we better not crash it.' I think looking back, had we known the monster we’d create, I don’t think any of us would have had the courage to do it.”
Rivero adds that saving Post 43 came just in time, “A lot of the old guard had been around a long time and really didn’t have the vision or the energy, although they had the desire; they just didn’t really know how. So there was this institutional inertia, which still exists in many civic organizations — it’s not unique to us at the American Legion," he says. "So it was just us looking at each other, seeing a need and deciding that it’s on us. And so the way this place is structured, it is democratic and you are elected by other members. We articulated a vision for the future, an existential challenge, that we found a way not just to be relevant to younger veterans but to survive in an environment where people have a lot of options for socializing and community.”
Despite the youth movement, there is still reverence toward the old guard. “Everyone thinks of the funny guy at the parade or the old man bellied up to the bar. I get kind of annoyed when people talk about that because I love that old man bellied up the bar,” Hjelmstad says. “If you want to hear some fantastic stories and learn some history, listen to some of those old veterans at the bar. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, they’re all sitting right out there at the bar.”
Post 43 is an important place for veterans to decompress and find kindred spirits. Hjelmstad explains what it’s like coming home: “In Los Angeles, it can feel like you’re ostracized. They look at you weird when you mention 'I just got back from Iraq,' they look at you as if you have a disease or something. Here that’s not the case — they get you. Sometimes you want to talk about crap and sometimes you don’t.”
Rivero had much the same experience, “I came in shortly after I came back from Afghanistan. Because I was a reservist, I didn’t have peers who understood the experience that I had been through. But I walked in here, and while there were only a few veterans who had been to Iraq or Afghanistan, or had experience in the recent wars, I met some of the older guys with whom I’d found a kinship that I would have never expected to be there," he says. "I realized that there is a long line of warriors to which we belong, and we all share this experience. There’s fellowship, which is primarily the benefit that most of us get when we come here. There are others here who understand your experience without you needing to articulate it. It also gives a lot of people purpose that they didn’t have. It gives you an opportunity to be part of a community in a city so large that it can be hard to find your tribe.”
Post 43 is gaining notice on a national level as its growing membership. Doubling from 500 to 1,000 was the initial goal for the post, and with the influx of new blood the old edifice sprang back to life. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is among the 250 new members to have signed up in the past calendar year. Garcetti has lofty ambitions of his own for Post 43, looking for the organization to be instrumental in ending homelessness among veterans as well as finding them gainful employment.
With the increasingly successful recruitment efforts came the formation of various clubs who began meeting there. The art deco bar and cabaret room began hosting live music and comedy events. The patio began hosting barbecues. Outside organizations began renting the venues for events. And importantly, the organization Veterans in Film & Television began to hold court within the building’s historic confines.
After all, Post 43 had a legacy to uphold. Hollywood stars and luminaries such as Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan, Stan Lee and Charlton Heston were members. Humphrey Bogart used to smoke cigars and hold court at the end of the art deco bar, and Minnesota Fats used to shoot pool in the adjacent private billiards room. The building also served as a stage where the studios would introduce their latest starlets. Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield and even a young Shirley Temple had their public unveilings there. And it wasn’t just about Hollywood stars but Hollywood productions as well. From pickup bar scenes from The Shining to Jim Kirk getting his ass kicked in 2009’s Star Trek reboot, the venue itself has played a starring role in countless films and television shows.
Some say the locale is haunted by movie star ghosts, while others say the spirit of the benevolent old general manager Marshall Wyatt still strolls about the building, making sure things don’t get out of hand. In 2000 Wyatt perished tragically in a fall on the premises; since then he’s been noticed by many creating all kinds of playful havoc, even starring in an episode of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures. One imagines Mr. Wyatt’s ghost is most pleased with all the recent activity.
Entering the art deco bar is like taking a walk back to the ’30s. The original recruiting and war bond posters from the Roaring Twenties adorn the back wall. The vaulted ceiling features a bomblet playfully dangling from the ceiling fan. And the drinks are plentiful and cheap by Hollywood standards. The cabaret room lies even deeper within the bunkerlike structure (forget about getting a cell signal down there) and features a performance stage and modern sound system. The trophy room and museum are undergoing remodels too, again integrating modern amenities while paying homage to the historical architecture.
“Here in Hollywood we are lucky — this isn’t the only American Legion post in the city but we are really lucky to have this building, and the history, the heritage and the connection to entertainment makes us a cultural representative,” Rivero reflects, “We are very conscious of that. We see ourselves as not only the ambassadors of the Hollywood community but to the country, and this renovation is a big part of that.”
The American Legion was birthed in Paris in 1919, at the end of World War I. The patriotic organization was created to serve veterans and the community. It was a novel idea and quickly spread across the nation. Today there are close to 15,000 posts across the country with an estimated 2 million members. Post 43 opened in 1929, featuring a museum, library, ballroom, full restaurant kitchen, bar and a jewel of an auditorium. As jewels tend to tarnish with age, the new generation enacted a nearly $4 million modernization of that auditorium, converting it into a 482-seat, state-of-the-art digital movie house on par with any theater in town. The auditorium had a previous life as a live music venue, hosting acts as diverse as The Doors, Jeff Buckley, Insane Clown Posse and Massive Attack.
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The grandiose atrium also is getting an update, blending modern aspects with the restored splendor of the original design. Refurbishing architecture such as this carries with it a whole other set of issues, as Rivero explains. “With a 90-year-old building, the minute you open the walls up the price goes up, because there are all kinds of surprises in store. A lot of the expense is going into the infrastructure, electrical and HVAC. Until recently we had the same amount of power going into this building as we did in 1929.”
Two-foot-thick poured, steel-reinforced, board-formed concrete may seem like a bit of overkill for a building sitting in Hollywood, but one has to remember that the men who built this building had only just experienced the “Great War,” and that may have colored their decisions. The three-story, 30,000-square-foot Egyptian revival structure was designed by renowned Los Angeles architects Joseph and Eugene Weston. It received designation as an L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument in 1989.
One could argue that the vibe at the legion is like church without religion. It’s nondenominational, with the focus on camaraderie, patriotism and community service. It’s about being around those who can relate to what you’ve been through. As an organization the American Legion is very politically engaged as well. One of the most important things the national organization does is represent veterans’ issues to Congress, with the GI Bill one of its biggest accomplishments.
“We pride ourselves in the fact that this is one of the most diverse American Legion posts in the country, not just demographically," Rivero says. "We have people from all walks of life — socioeconomic, racial, political, professional. We have members who are homeless and we have members who are millionaires. But we all have something in common. We all served, and we understand what that experience is about, and we support the values of the American Legion, taking care of our vets, being of service to the community and protecting our national defense and making sure it’s funded.”