[Interview] Camilo Silva, Filmmaker: After 68 Stars the Ambassador Hotel -- and Preservation
The Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, was demolished in 2006. After 68 tells the story to save it.
It was the hangout for the rich, famous, and politically powerful -- but there’s more to this Hollywood story. The Ambassador Hotel opened in Los Angeles on New Year's Day 1921 and has since hosted six Academy Award ceremonies, Winston Churchill, Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra, and every U.S. president from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon. At the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Nat King Cole and The Supremes performed to an audience of stars.
Then came the beginning of the end.
In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot there during his presidential campaign. Then, after 68 glamorous years, the Ambassador closed in 1989. It was demolished in 2006 to build a school for the overcrowded LA Unified School District (LA USD).
After 68, a documentary-in-the-making by independent director Camilo Silva, exposes the 15-year struggle to save the hotel before its demolition.
“I had the feeling that it was going to be torn down,” Silva says. “I wanted to make sure that at least something was saved.”
Silva took a break from the film’s Indiegogo fundraising campaign to chat about the Ambassador, the Muppets, and preservation in urban life.
What brought you to the Ambassador Hotel?
A couple of things. One, I lived behind the hotel and I would always walk by it ... I didn’t even know what it was when I first moved to the city. Then, the debate ensued between the [LA] Conservancy and the school district and it was all over the media. From there I started researching the site and this very rich story started unraveling. I just became completely captivated by the history of this place, which no one really ever documented.
So you decided to film it?
I just picked up a camera. I don’t have a film background but I thought it was very important. I felt like, you know what, we need to make this story, there’s so much to tell ... We’re really a limited crew. We don’t even have a sound guy, which drives me crazy. But I think everyone who gets involved becomes passionate about it.
Camilo Silva. The 32-year-old director received a Latino Producers Academy fellowship for the project. The team started filming in 2005.
The Ambassador has been featured in movies before, but in this documentary it becomes a character in itself. What’s its story?
I think it’s a tragedy, like a great Shakespearean story ... A lot of people today, they’re always like, "Oh it’s the playground for the rich and famous" and it wasn’t. It was for many years, but it was also the Hotel, one that the community really embraced.
It was a place where people without a lot of money could go to celebrate a birthday or go to a dinner or go to the coffee shop.This hotel had a life of its own. So I think the character of the Hotel is very tragic, that something had so much glory and it faded.
Can you tell us about how the battle between owners, preservationists, and the LA school district ended with the 2006 demolition?
Back in 1986 the school district set their sight on the hotel. The Ambassador was a 24-acre site and the school district desperately needed land. The whole time the LA Conservancy was always involved ... [In 2001] the Conservancy ramped up the effort to put together this coalition with over 70 organizations and they fought tooth and nail to try to save the hotel and convince the school district to repurpose the site.
The hotel was in a major state of disrepair, but that’s not to say that it couldn’t have been saved. What’s sad is that [the school district] pitted education against preservation when they should have been working hand in hand.
The Cocoanut Grove. “Everyone from Hollywood had gone there ... No one ever decided to turn the camera back on the Hotel,” says Silva. The new school building includes a reconstructed version of the nightclub.
You said you don’t have a film background. What about preservation? What drew you to it?
I’m from the Bay Area [San Francisco] and because they’re conserving their heritage and the buildings, it’s such a beautiful city so I've always been fascinated by it. LA is also a very interesting place to be. It's really interesting experientially to just walk around and see a building from the ‘80s next to a Normandy château style building to a Spanish Colonial Revival building.
A lot of people find it more abrasive, and they’re like, “Ugh, a little strip mall, that’s ugly,” and then they just move on, whereas I look at it and start questioning, why is the strip mall here? What used to be here? Why did that happen?
I became so passionate about the Ambassador, too, which I think even drove me more.
From 1989 to 2001, owners, buyers, and the LA USD fought a long legal battle over development rights to the property.
Let's talk about the film. What stage are you at with the production?
We’ve shot about half of it. There's a sense of urgency to get these interviews because these are oral histories now. Our first interview, she was the maitre-d or manager of the Cocoanut Grove back in the '60s. We also got a woman who worked across the street, a woman who was born at the hotel, her father was the first manager of the Hotel ... But there’s so much more to uncover.
I think the project, too, has really evolved. Before it was just a story about the Hotel, but now I think the heart and soul of the film is that there are “Ambassadors” everywhere. Even in places where there is very strong preservation [effort], they still get knocked down. This is really a story about the struggle for historic preservation.
Filming the demolition. The LA USD Board had voted 4-3 in favor of tearing down the Ambassador.
What can the Ambassador and the documentary tell us about historic preservation today?
I don’t want to just make the movie and move on. I want it to serve as a symbol for preservation and remind people, hey, this is what can be lost if you don’t do something about it, if you don’t speak up.
What’s interesting, which I’m learning through our social media networking and the campaign, is that our audience, out of 1,300 followers on Facebook, only 300 are from Los Angeles -- the rest are from everywhere else. And so I think it’s fantastic to see that this story really resonates with people all over the place ... It matters everywhere.
What’s also really interesting for me is I continue to uncover more and more stuff. The other day someone just posted [on the Facebook page] about the Muppets. [In 1979] they did a one-hour live special with Dick Van Dyke and Rita Moreno, they were all at the Cocoanut Grove and the Muppets showed up at the Ambassador in a limousine. And I was like, I’ve gone through piles and piles of paper and websites and how did I never come across the Muppets movie! It’s pretty cool. It’s a continual process of discovery.
The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, built on the site, was designed to pay homage to the original Hotel. Historical photographs hang in the hallways to preserve its memory.
Do you want to talk about the Indiegogo campaign and crowdsourcing your support?
With the campaign, that’s basically raising money to finish the filming and to be able to pay the crew and personnel. Everything we’ve done today, over the last six or seven years, it has just been blood, sweat and tears. Everyone has been doing everything for free.
It’s nice, too, because when you start a project -- I started this by myself -- to get people on board, it’s really encouraging that the project can get other people excited and passionate. Then I feel like I’m not doing it alone. And now we’re here and I’m excited to finish the film and share this story with people.
There are very few, if not [any] films, that I really know of that explore historic preservation. There are many "history" documentaries; however, none really cover the struggle for historic preservation which I think makes this film particularly important.
Hopefully by using a new medium this issue can serve and reach new audiences. It gives historic preservation the opportunity to shine in a new light.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post referenced the filmmakers' Kickstarter campaign, since diverted to Indiegogo.]