If William Powell looks a little less dapper than usual, it's because he and Carole Lombard are at a barnyard-themed party thrown by Kay Francis and her husband in September 1933, not long after Bill and Carole called it splits. The party was at the Vendome, a restaurant owned by Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson and opened that May. (Give Darrell Rooney of "Harlow In Hollywood" fame credit for finding this photo; it was in an album owned by Edith Gwynn Wilkerson, the second of his five wives.)
Here's a syndicated report about the event from the Sandusky (Ohio) Register of Sept. 19:
Los Angeles nightlife in the '30s is the theme of today's entry. Specifically, we're going to look at a venue that played a crucial cultural role yet is almost forgotten today, perhaps because it disappeared under rather murky circumstances reflecting society of the time.
The site? The Palomar Ballroom, on Vermont Avenue between Second and Third.
The Palomar was built in 1925; then known as the El Patio Ballroom, it boasted being "the largest and most famous dance hall on the West Coast." Many VIPs, including a number from the film industry, attended its opening:
A few years later, it was renamed the Rainbow Gardens (check out the office for a "Motion Picture Sound School," so you can tell this picture was taken during the chaotic transition to talkies):
The interior was big and beautiful, and its dance floor could accommodate 4,000:
Did Lombard ever dance there? The chances are good she did at one time or another, especially in the late '20s or early '30s, because it wasn't far from her family's home on North Wilton Place. There's also a good chance she was acquainted with the area even before the ballroom opened, because behind the Palomar were the Bimini Baths, built on the site of natural hot springs:
This image, taken at a 90-degree angle from the first, shows the baths behind what was then the El Patio:
The baths, and later the ballroom, became a popular streetcar destination:
Very nice, you say, an intriguing part of local history. But what makes the Palomar so important beyond that? Merely this:
Legend has it this is where the "swing era" started, specifically on Aug. 21, 1935, when Benny Goodman and his band began a three-week engagement there. Goodman's combo, which had appeared on the NBC Saturday night program "Let's Dance" earlier that year (his segment had aired at 9:30 p.m. in the West, 12:30 a.m. in the East), had experienced mixed success on its subsequent nationwide tour. But they were received more warmly at several western stops -- Salt Lake City, Oakland and San Francisco -- and the Palomar stay made it evident that young audiences (who had become Goodman fans from the radio show) simply loved this band and its Fletcher Henderson arrangements. "Swing" rapidly rocketed in the musical lexicon. (Ten tracks from a radio broadcast the following evening, Aug. 22, can be heard on the CD "Benny Goodman -- On The Air: Original 1935-36-38 Broadcasts.")
The Palomar had been successful for a few years, but now, as the de facto West Coast capital of swing, it really took off. Many bands performed there, including Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Dick Jurgens, Glen Gray, Will Osborne, Jimmy Dorsey and Isham Jones:
I have no idea whether Lombard visited the Palomar during the swing era -- it appealed to a younger crowd, and by 1936 she was with Clark Gable and was interested in other nightspots. However, the Palomar was featured in several movies, including "The Big Broadcast Of 1937" and "Dancing Co-Ed" with Lana Turner.
Note that all of the bands cited above were white. Like its neighbor, the Bimini Baths, the Palomar had a color line, and no blacks were allowed. That was seemingly to change on Oct. 4, 1939 (at least on the bandstand), when Count Basie's well-received band was to begin an engagement. But before that, Charlie Barnet's band, which was having a huge hit with "Cherokee" (arranged by bandmember Billy May, later an arranger at Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra and other artists), played the Palomar:
On the night of Oct. 2, Barnet's group, shown that evening, was in its next-to-last night.
Floyd Levin, 17 at the time, was there that evening and describes what happened, just before the final set:
The master of ceremonies, comedian Lionel Kaye, was entertaining on the stage in front of the curtain that covered the empty bandstand. We were seated on the dance floor in front of him. During his "daffy auction" he "sold" souvenir matches, napkins and candles from the Palomar Terrace tables.
During his comic routine, a quiver of smoke emerged from beneath the curtain on the left side of the stage behind Kaye. A fan called it to his attention and he quipped about the Palomar being "the hottest joint in town!" As the smoke increased, he realized that a problem existed. He remained calm and suggested that we slowly leave the building through the Third Street exit, "until this situation is corrected."
As we were moving towards the doors, Kaye stayed at the microphone casually instructing us not to rush. He continued his witticisms and calm assurance that we were not in danger. As we neared the exit, a few wisps of flames flickered beneath the curtain at his back. When I reached the door, Kaye was still on the stage. The curtain behind him was beginning to blaze, and a cloud of smoke was filling the ballroom. He continued to say, "Walk slowly! You can all return soon when this little fire is under control."
Lionel Kaye continued his banter until the last patron was safely outside. He was later observed seated on a fire truck's fender bleakly watching the flames consume the building.
Kaye's quick thinking and refusal to panic likely saved many lives that evening, as people from nearby apartments came out to see what was happening:
There has always been conjecture that the fire was related to the Palomar bringing in a black band the following week, but several members of Barnet's orchestra, interviewed many years later, said the ballroom's electrical system was severely overloaded. (Reportedly, firefighters mistakenly went to Third and Fremont, rather than Third and Vermont, and that delay in arriving may have doomed the building.)
It's uncertain whether the ballroom was insured, but the charred remains stood on the site for several years, and eventually the walls were razed, echoing the fading of the swing era. The Bimini Baths, which refused to serve either blacks or Asians, shut down around 1950, as public baths fell out of favor over fears of contracting polio.
As for the site, it's now home to a supermarket...
...and behind it, the apartments where people watched one evening as part of musical history met a sad end.