Sunset Marquis: Secrets of Rock 'n' Roll's Wild Hotel
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When it comes to hotels, Hollywood’s A-list splits its allegiance widely -- sleeping around all over town, from the Sunset Tower and Chateau Marmont to the Four Seasons, Peninsula, Montage, Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air. The music crowd, however, has just one real mecca: the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. The bond has remained strong ever since it opened 50 years ago this April, just as the Sunset Strip rock clubs, only a block away, began to take off. And it’s never more apparent than on Grammy weekend, when the hotel is packed with nominees who consider it a second home. (This year alone, 21 of the nominated artists have recorded at the hotel’s in-house subterranean studio, NightBird.)
To celebrate the Marquis’ half-century mark, THR interviewed more than two dozen big-name performers, behind-the-scenes players and longtime employees for a backstage pass to the hotel’s hidden history. Jam sessions by the pool? Cocaine in the villas? Beautiful chanteuses stretched across mixing consoles in lace and roses? The Sunset Marquis is where cliched rock ’n’ roll fantasies actually come true.
George Rosenthal, founding owner: It was purposefully built as a hotel for the entertainment industry. I wanted to emulate the Garden of Allah [silent film star Alla Nazimova’s mansion-turned-hotel on Sunset Boulevard], the environment they had there, at least psychologically. It was a regeneration of what I’d only read about: a wonderful gathering place for the exchange of ideas for writers, musicians, people in the film business.
Mark Rosenthal, co-owner and CEO: It really started as an apartment hotel. Basically, every room had a kitchenette.
Paul McGuinness, U2 manager: It was inexpensive. It wasn’t at all luxurious. In those days there was no restaurant, no bar. You had a direct line to Turner’s liquor store, though. So there was a sort of self-catering.
G. Rosenthal: The hotel later expanded to the three properties to the north, which we call the villas, and then to the new restaurant and the villas to the back.
Bob Gruen, photographer: In the early ’70s, it was much funkier than it is now.
McGuinness: There was Astroturf around the pool.
Ann Wilson, Heart: I hated the Astroturf.
Paul Rodgers, Bad Company: I remember staying at the Sunset Marquis in 1968 with Free. It was a hip boutique hotel long before boutique hotels were hip.
Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top: We ran across the Marquis while performing on the Sunset Strip with the Moving Sidewalks way back in 1969. We were looking for a side street to park the band car. Alta Loma Road provided Marquis guests with the back-alley shortcut off Sunset. Handy!
Paul Fishkin, co-founder, Modern Records: The Chateau Marmont was cool as shit and had incredible history, but it was sort of a dump. The Riot House [Continental Hyatt House, now the Andaz West Hollywood] had its own particular rock and roll legacy. So did the Tropicana.
Michael Des Barres, singer: The Tropicana was for the seven-guys-in-a-van bands with the bass player with extraordinary halitosis.
Sharon Oreck, music video producer: After you had some album sales, you could go to the Sunset Marquis.
Fishkin: It attracted all the hip musicians and business people that came out of the ’60s culture.
Penelope Spheeris, documentary filmmaker: It was a hideaway -- you couldn’t find it if you were drunk.
Gruen: First of all it’s on a cul-de-sac. So you don’t just drive past it on Sunset Boulevard. And then when you go in, you go down a few steps and into a long, lower hallway where the front desk is. And then you enter into the bright center, where you’re surrounded by the hotel. For New Yorkers who don’t really want to be in L.A., L.A. is out there somewhere on the other side of the walls, but inside you’re kind of protected.
Cyndi Lauper: I first went to the Sunset Marquis in 1980. I was just signed. I was very excited. It was a rock and roll hotel. It wasn’t stuffy. They had trees and a garden and even bunnies for a while. And the room that was in back, I think it was 135, I dyed The Bangles’ hair there for their video. Ozzy and Sharon [Osbourne] stayed there, and Kelly, when she was little, sneaked into the whirlpool with me.
Deborah Harry: I love the gardens and the feeling of solitude they give.
Des Barres: A lot of the kids that checked in to that hotel had never been in a hotel before. For an 18-year-old Brit from the north of England, room service was like being served by Islamic vestal virgins.
Des Barres: We used to get rooms together on the same floor, and the middle doors were always open. It was like that scene from A Hard Day’s Night where all the Beatles go to their four suburban homes but when they get inside it’s a palace. Except with us it was the most disgusting, lotus-eating bacchanalia -- maids lying on the beds with a joint and some inept working-class bass player on top of her.
Martin Lewis, producer: The first night I stayed there, in 1982, my TV wasn’t working. I tried phoning the front desk, but no one answered. So I stormed down to the lobby to remonstrate. The guy behind the desk was stoned out of his head. “My TV isn’t working!” I snapped. “Well, throw it in the pool, dude,” was his reply. I was sold. This was my hotel. It was like that scene in The Producers where Zero Mostel exclaims, “That’s our Hitler!”
Frankie Banali, Quiet Riot: I ran into Ozzy, and he asked if I would be interested in auditioning for his band. Ozzy had been enjoying a bit of the drink and I really didn't think he was serious. He wanted to meet at the Sunset Marquis at 8 a.m. Seeing that it was now 4:30 in the morning I agreed fully expecting that there was no way Ozzy would make the meeting. I later heard that Ozzy and Sharon did indeed appear for breakfast, and I was a no-show.
T.C. Conroy, publicist: I first came through with Peter Gabriel when he had that big hit, “Sledgehammer.” You never knew who you were going to run into. I was having lunch with Joan Jett outside by the swimming pool and Robert Plant comes up and Bruce Springsteen is sitting at a table across from us. And Grace Jones would come sweeping through, and it’s like, just another lunch at the Sunset Marquis.
Sebastian Bach, Skid Row: One time I was looking down at the pool from my room and saw Dusty [Hill] from ZZ Top. I was staring at his long beard when this 5-year-old girl showed up and they started talking. He put her on his knee, and for a minute there it really looked like Santa Claus talking to her.
Lauper: Roy Scheider use to sit outside in the sun. His skin was like a lizard’s.
Lewis: In those pre-cell phone days, Scheider would lie on a chaise lounge outside his room with a telephone on a long extension. He looked like something from the baggage department at Bloomingdale’s. Once every hour he would plunge gracefully into the pool to cool off. One day Chris Chappel, tour manager for Bruce Springsteen, and I set up a ghetto blaster on a second-floor balcony and waited patiently for Scheider to take his hourly dip and then, when he dove into the pool, we blasted the theme from Jaws. Roy was not amused.
Gruen: I watched a movie one night with James Woods starring as a real estate agent who becomes this crazed coke addict and he’s really scary. And the next morning I walked out of my room by the pool and there he was, reading a newspaper right in the next chair. I wanted to go back in my room and hide.
Bryan Rabin, event producer: I was having a lunch meeting, and I looked up and sitting at three different tables were Martin [Gore] from Depeche Mode, Marilyn Manson and Liza Minnelli. That kind of sums up the Sunset Marquis for me.
Lauper: You really had the sense that there was a community of artists that stayed there.
Julian Lennon: My introduction was on my first world tour, in ’86. You very much felt that it was a home away from home because even if you were heading to L.A. on your own, without question you would run into somebody you know within the first hour of being there.
Navarro: There were always the same familiar faces. It was like if you took Warhol’s Factory and the set of Cheers and fused them together.
Dierks Bentley, country singer: Everyone’s looking for a little time by the pool. Everyone lets their guard down. You strike up these great conversations.
Conroy: When Dave [Gahan, Depeche Mode’s singer] and I were staying there as a married couple, our bungalow had an adjoining wall with Whitney Houston. And she was rehearsing in her room so loud and for so long that it was driving David crazy. He was like, “Shut it down!” So you’d have these battles of the guy from Depeche Mode trying to shut down Whitney Houston.
Lennon: Steven Tyler and I wrote the song “Someday” in the first-on-the-right, ground-floor villa, which is my favorite. And Tyler was staying above me. He would come back from the studio and play mixes at full blast at 3 in the morning. And you think I would be used to that, but let me tell you: After a while, I did need some earplugs.
Rob Halford, Judas Priest: I had a boombox feud with a guest next door who was pounding metal through the wall behind my bed. Game on! I’d recently purchased the biggest and loudest one, and so turning it up past 11 and jamming the speaker to the wall, the entire room started shaking. A few moments later, the guest’s volume declined with a whimper, and the metal god claimed victory!
Conroy: When you stay at the bungalows, you park your car kind of in tandem with your neighbors sometimes. And Dave and I were smoking way too much weed, and he got paranoid when Gene Hackman was parking his car at the same time. Dave thought he was stalking him.
Rod Gruendyke, general manager: When I started there, three different times in the first week I walked into rooms that had the gas left on the stoves -- rockers were using them to light their cigarettes and then walking away. The first thing I did was pull out the gas lines for the kitchens in the hotel. It scared me to death.
Gruen: With rock ’n’ roll people, there’s a lot of parties, late-night things going on. And the hotel basically didn’t bother you unless you were really bothering them.
M. Rosenthal: Steven Tyler told me the Sunset Marquis felt safe. All of the wild things that were going on in the industry, people felt like it was a safe environment to experiment with those things.
Oreck: It was a really decadent environment where you could never see what was going on. You were always hearing about things that were going on.
Wilson: You feel like, "Boy, if the walls could talk, you’d almost see the cocaine dust on the tables."
Steve Lukather, Toto: They tell me I had a great time there.
Spheeris: I remember being there with David Lee Roth. It was a total coke fest. He was talking about trying to make a movie with me. All I remember is he was telling me he’d been in Stockholm and there was so much snow and he’d had to ski to the venue to perform. And I remember wondering, “Is this his coke hallucination, or did he really have to do that?” I still don’t know to this day.
Navarro: There is definitely an unspoken level of respect for the place, and I think a lot of it is due to the fact that we were allowed to run amok and I never saw the police called. Things were generally handled internally, which is great.
Merle Ginsberg, journalist: Warren Zevon was sitting in my room and he keeps going off the bathroom. The next thing I know, I hear the sliding glass shower door crash. I run in there and he is lying on the floor with a giant empty vodka bottle and broken glass all over the place. He wasn’t hurt. He starts mumbling, “This is really bad because I am banned from the Sunset Marquis. I’ve come here a couple times really drunk and gotten into fights and I am not supposed to be here at all. So if the hotel finds out I’m here, they’re gonna throw me out.” But they didn’t.
Gruen: I met Green Day in the bar there. Tre [Cool] had a pellet gun, and he was trying to shoot glasses out of people’s hands, which he thought was a clever trick. We’ve since become friends, but I think the first conversation I had with him was trying to explain that it’s not really a good idea.
Dave Mustaine, Megadeth: The great thing is the hotel let us do whatever we wanted -- it became a heavy metal mansion! They could have kicked us out, and they didn’t.
Kathy Nelson, former president of music, Universal Pictures: Pete Townshend, who stays there a lot, calls it the Tattoo Clinic because the whole contingency is covered in tattoos.
Navarro: For some reason, behavior at the Chateau that would end up in the tabloids, you take that same behavior and go over to the Marquis and you’re pretty much right as rain. I’ve been escorted off that property a number of times and then allowed back the following night. I’ve gotten into fistfights with a really well-known rock lead singer. And certainly I’ve spent a lot of time in the bathrooms, and I wasn’t necessarily going to the bathroom. One of the things that you gotta respect is that what happens there kinda stays there.
Rabin: Nobody was sitting on their Twitter and actually calling the press on themselves, you know? We were always running away from a possible nightmarish situation into the safety of the Sunset Marquis.
Lisa Hagen, former director of sales and marketing: Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers cannonballed off the hotel rooftop into our shallow four-foot pool in the middle of the day so they could shoot unauthorized music video footage. It’s a miracle he and all the other band members weren’t hurt. They knew we never would have given permission for them to do this. They had it well planned, sneaking up the fire escape to the closed off rooftop while their buddy videotaped them from a balcony across the pool.
Fishkin: At the Riot House, there was this idea that because it’s a Hyatt, it’s corporate, that’s where you threw televisions out of the room -- that sort of destructive, anything- goes, rock 'n' roll vibe. But the Marquis I remember as being different than that. Yes, there were people jumping off the second story into the swimming pool, but it wasn’t chaotic and destructive. The vibe was you could do anything you wanted. Totally cool. And I just remember a sense of not abusing that privilege.
G. Rosenthal: Rock bands knew that if they tore it up, they wouldn’t get back in.
Hagen: The ’80s is when all the strange contract riders started. How many hotels do you know would repaint an entire suite robin’s-egg blue for a returning guest? Each time they checked out, we would take Polaroids of exactly how the room was left by them. And it would be exactly the same each time they returned. Of course, the studios and recording companies paid for this.
Wilson: I spent literally more time there last year than at my own house in Seattle. We were working on a record close to Christmastime. They put a Christmas tree in my room and lit candles.
M. Rosenthal: We have very, very long-term staff. People aren’t speaking into an earphone to recognize guests.
Gruendyke: The average length of time for an employee is 15 years. The average length of time for management is 18 years.
Gruen: One thing that always impresses is that they seem to remember me. And without looking down at the registration, I would walk in and they’d go, “Welcome back, Mr. Gruen.”
Wilson: The staff, they’ve seen you in every state, every state of makeup.
Conroy: If you’re vulnerable or sick, you want your mom, right? You can surrogate that with Michael, the butler around the back bungalows. He sorted everything out so you never even had to go through the front desk if you were back there.
Laura Grover, neighbor: There was a major fire in our condo building. I walked up the hill with my daughter into the hotel and I said, “I need a room.” They offered a room for free that night for anyone who needed one. We ended up staying two months. My daughter was in first grade. We’d come home from school, and they’d be waiting with a glass of milk and cookies for her.
Rabin: When the Whiskey Bar opened [in 1996], it changed the whole dynamic of that hotel. Prior to the Whiskey Bar, it was totally undercover. All of a sudden a lot of people who never knew about the magic of the Sunset Marquis and what was going on over there all of a sudden became hip to the Sunset Marquis.
Grover: There was a year or two where it was just like too many people. To me, it was out of character with the hotel.
Amanda Demme, music supervisor: Like any bar in L.A., if there’s no fame or pussy in the room, nobody’s gonna go.
Rabin: The Whiskey Bar was pitch f---ing black, and everyone was wasted. But you didn’t even know who was really in there until you actually went out in the lobby to take a breather. And you were like, “Oh my God, they’re in there?” Like you had no idea how deep the party was until you actually stepped out to look in.
Gruendyke: Keith [Richards] was in-house during the Northridge quake. He came out with everyone in the middle of the night, pouring shots at the Whiskey Bar.
Lennon: They used to have the occasional lock-in, which everybody appreciated, of course, especially in Los Angeles. Because I’m still confused about the laws in Los Angeles, why everything closes just as you’re starting to loosen yourself up after a busy or a hard day’s work.
Rabin: I’m sure Julian Lennon is still in there. I mean, you could always count on Julian Lennon.
Navarro: Back when I was pretty heavily involved in hanging out there, the Whiskey Bar was always a conduit to some regrouping later in the evening that usually took place in some house in the Hollywood Hills. I remember ending up in scenarios where sunglasses were passed around at maybe 4 in the morning because we all knew the sun was about to come up.
Jed Leiber, owner, NightBird Studios: There were a bunch of car spaces that weren’t being used. So this was basically non-income-producing space that I could turn into something that would be wonderful for the hotel and the Jeff Becks of the hotel. I have to credit Rod, the manager, because he saw the vision. I said: "If you give me the spaces, I’ll build a world-class studio down here. The hotel will benefit because it caters to your crowd." I used George Augspurger, who did the acoustics for the Hollywood Bowl.
Wilson: NightBird is just a brilliant thing. It’s so much easier just to go downstairs rather than to go across town.
Lennon: Steven Tyler walked into the bar, and I grabbed his elbow and said, “Mr. Tyler? Mr. Lennon -- the other Mr. Lennon. Any chance we could do a little work together?” So he drags me down to the studio to do some backgrounds on [Aerosmith’s] latest album, and he and I ended up writing a track together. And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been staying there.
Gibbons: Jeff Beck hailed us downstairs to give a listen to a new recording. We asked, “Is this one of your new ones?” “No, not exactly.” Stretched across the console was the most stunningly beautiful female, all 6 feet of her, frocked in lace and roses. It was Imogen Heap, in from London to showcase her latest creation, which she was coaxed into releasing by Jeff.
Leiber: Thirty of our artists were nominated for Grammys in one year.
Rabin: If you’re here working, that means you’re in a creative mode what the Sunset Marquis really afforded an artist -- this magical, beautiful, relaxed bubble where people could really hunker down and make music. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Harry: The Sunset Marquis has always been a very good creative atmosphere for me.
McGuinness: It’s changed enormously. It’s much more sophisticated these days. I’m sure there are people doing things, but it’s a place you can really take your kids now.
Conroy: The last couple of times that I’ve been around the back swimming pool, it seems like it’s less rock star and more family. And the whole place has been redone. Even though you can still see Steven Tyler there, it’s not Aerosmith Steven Tyler anymore; it’s American Idol Steven Tyler.
Spheeris: All of a sudden there was valet parking. What’s going on here now? It’s getting classy!
Navarro: I have a very strong kinship with the place. It’s like an extended family member. I think of it as somewhat of the womb to the stars. There is a maternal aspect to it; as soon as you walk in and that lighting hits you, you’re back in the womb. It’s a pretty phenomenal place. I’m hesitant to talk about it because I hate to make it a point of interest on a star map, but at the same time, it deserves to be spoken about. It’s almost like the people that love that place and want to continue enjoying that place -- and protect it like it’s the launch codes.
Des Barres: The most important thing is that rock ’n' roll needed a headquarters, and the Sunset Marquis became the headquarters of rock ’n' roll. It was as important as playing the Fillmore or the Whisky a Go Go or the Bottom Line. It was a location that oozed credibility. It’s also incredible because it’s been through so many incarnations, just like David Bowie. It was a cheap little funky place and then it became gradually more and more super chic.
Leiber: The Sunset Marquis really is the Hotel California.
Additional reporting by Tim Appelo, Shirley Halperin and Susan L. Hornik