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For a site linked to Lombard, a tragic milestone



Carole Lombard and Russ Columbo enjoy an evening out in 1934 at a place with plenty of history for both. Nearly a decade earlier, a teenaged Lombard regularly danced in contests there against the likes of Joan Crawford; a few years later, musician and singer Columbo performed there as part of Gus Arnheim's band.

It's the legendary Cocoanut Grove, then part of the famed Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Here's how it looked on a postcard in the mid-1930s:



Nothing against Lombard or the many other celebrities who visited this venue -- or the six Academy Awards ceremonies that took place there -- but 50 years ago today the Grove, and the Ambassador, had its most historic moment...a tragic one.



It was where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (shown above campaigning in Garden Grove, Calif., on June 2) was assassinated just after midnight, where he was celebrating his triumph (below) in Tuesday's California presidential primary, telling the audience, "My thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago [site of that August's Democratic national convention] and let's win there!"



Kennedy was exiting through the kitchen when three shots were fired at him. One entered behind his right ear, disposing bone fragments throughout his brain. Despite extensive neurosurgery, he died little more than a day later, early on June 6.




I sadly remember this event. I was a seventh-grader in Syracuse, N.Y., the state where Kennedy was a senator, although my candidate was the other insurgent to President Johnson, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. (Kennedy entered the race in mid-March, a few days after Johnson was nearly beaten by McCarthy; Johnson then announced on March 31 he would not seek re-election.)

Since the shooting and Kennedy's death both occurred in the middle of the night in the Eastern time zone, I woke up to two days of tragic news, two months after civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. It was part of a tumultuous -- and pivotal -- political year.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race in late April, won the party's nomination in riot-plagued Chicago, but he was plagued with the baggage of a raging war in Vietnam. With former Alabama Gov. George Wallace running on the American Independent Party slate and winning several southern states, Republican nominee Richard Nixon narrowly won election that November. It would spell the end of the "Great Society" Johnson implemented and Humphrey promised to follow.



The Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove (shown in 1975) had their own baggage. As Los Angeles was changing, a grande dame hotel and nightclub lost its appeal, especially in the wake of such a tragic event. Patronage declined and the hotel closed to guests in 1989 -- two years after Roy Orbison, backed by the likes of Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, filmed his "Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night" special at the Grove.

There were many suggestions regarding the property, including a proposal from New York real estate mogul Donald Trump to build a 125-story tower -- the world's tallest -- on the site. (Make of that what you will.) Trump never got the chance, as the Los Angeles Unified School District won a legal battle.

As plans went on over what the district would do with the property, it became a popular site for films and TV. Movies shot there include "L.A. Story," "That Thing You Do," "Almost Famous" and "The Wedding Singer."

In 2005, demolition began on the hotel after a $4.9 million fund was established to preserve the district's historic school buildings. Alas, most of the Grove was torn down ("poor structural integrity" was cited as a reason), leaving only its east wall and the hotel entrance. (For more on the Grove, see https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/36991.html.)

Six schools, serving grades K-12 in various buildings, opened at the site in 2009 and 2010; they are known as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. The main building has the same height and footprint of the Ambassador, with what's left of the Cocoanut Grove (shown, lower picture, in 2004) in front:




In front of the school, the senator is honored with Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park. Opened in 2010, the structure commemorates several of his quotes while providing space to eat lunch, play chess or relax.



I often ride the Wilshire Boulevard bus past this site. I think about its near-century of history (the Ambassador opened in 1921), and wonder whether it might still be around in its original form had it not been for an assassin's bullet.
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