Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour: Downtown Los Angeles' freaky history


"Sin and redemption – you can't have one without the other." As our bus slides out of LA's newly cool Warehouse District towards the city's rapidly gentrifying Downtown, Esotouric's tour guide Richard Schave is keen to take us back in time to a grittier era.

To him, 20th-century Main Street and its surrounds was the epitome of eccentricity, diversity, and "fortune tellers who predicted doom for a dime, or great success for 50 cents".

His fellow guides on the Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour, Kim Cooper and Joan Renner, add their own colour. They talk about burlesque shows that were closed down for indecency, and the seedy SRO ("single room occupancy") hotels that occupied once-graceful buildings as Downtown declined over the decades.

Old-time Main Street sounds like a freak show; and on cue, we pass the former Roma Hotel which in the 1920s housed the World Museum, with a sword swallower and a resident "geek" who lived in a pit. His unnerving shrieks were responsible for the failure of the upstairs accommodation.

Our three guides are full of such stories, to the point where it's hard to keep up with their flow of past scandal. In succession we pass the St George Hotel, which was gutted by fire in both 1912 and 1952; and the former Hotel Stowell, whose Pompeian room would serve cocktails to unaccompanied women, but would not admit unaccompanied men.

Then we leave the bus at the corner of Fifth and Spring, to have a look inside one of these riches-to-rags hotels. A luxury hotel when it opened in 1906, the Hotel Alexandria was almost demolished for a parking lot in the 1960s.

Times have changed, however. After filing through a gloomy lobby, we enter the beautifully restored Palm Court, a grand dining room with glass ceiling and chandeliers which was once the place to be seen for LA's rich and powerful. It was saved, curiously enough, by a boxing promoter, who used the space for a training ring.

As we stand and admire the architecture, our guides tell more stories: about the hotel's once famous barber who ended up on a chain-gang, and of the Count Dracula Society which honoured horror movie stars here.

Then we're led up to a strange dark, dusty area with a lavishly decorated ceiling, once part of a lofty lobby. It's the perfect forlorn place in which to hear about the 1922 suicide of a hotel guest who left behind a beautiful poem – which turned out to be plagiarised.

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Back on the bus, we learn about taxi dancers and B-girls, both of whom would separate lonely men from their cash in exchange for company. Passing the former City Club, once LA's biggest taxi-dance hall, our guides relate a racy tale of an armed robbery gone wrong.

No matter how dark the history, it's all grist to their macabre mills: serial killers, on-stage shootings, the mummified body of a Wild West outlaw.

Then we're off the bus again to visit the 1896 Hotel Barclay. Its lobby is full of character, with hefty pillars, stained-glass windows and a marble-topped reception desk.

As Richard relates the hotel's history, a current resident steps forward to tell us about his room. He's only paying $30 per night, he says, and that's for a room "without roaches". I think he's joking.

He's such a character that our guides invite him to our final stop a short distance away: the King Edward Hotel. More specifically King Eddy, a bar in the hotel's basement.

It's a large atmospheric space with a big central bar and colourful posters of cartoonish characters around the walls. The bar's namesake character Eddy looks like he'd fit well in a gangster milieu, a neat fit with the final revelation of the tour.

Led down a flight of stairs to the sub-basement, we're told this was an illegal "speakeasy" bar during the Prohibition era of the 1920s.

Though mostly used for storage now, there are hints of its illicit past: including a row of terracotta tiles along one wall, painted to resemble beer barrels. Its current owner is planning to turn this space back into a bar, he says, perhaps to attract cashed-up drinkers from the growing population of the revitalised Downtown.

History repeats, it seems, even on Main Street.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of United Airlines and the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board; read his travel blog at aerohaveno.com.

THE FACTS

FLY

United (united.com) operates a daily Dreamliner service from Melbourne to Los Angeles from $1300 return. Wi-Fi is available onboard.

STAY

Hotel Figueroa, 939 S Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, figueroahotel.com.

Intercontinental Century City, 2151 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, intercontinentallosangeles.com.

TOUR

The Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour costs $80 a person; check dates and book via esotouric.com/mainhotel.

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