The Biltmore Is Still Nifty at 90

Millennium Biltmore General Manager Wanda Chan readies her staff for the hotel’s 90th anniversary celebration this week.  

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Chances are, even if you’ve never walked into the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, you’ve caught a glimpse of it on TV or in the movies. 

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Drenched in history, the historical monument at Fifth Street and Grand Avenue is celebrating its 90th anniversary on Tuesday, Oct. 1. It’s a milestone for the oldest continuously operating upscale hotel in Downtown. Over the decades it has served presidents and celebrities, while also figuring into a story of infamous Los Angeles noir.

While the hotel features authentic gems such as an original 1923 astrological clock — it still keeps time today — the Biltmore also meets the needs of a modern clientele, said General Manager Wanda Chan, who took over in November. In addition to satisfying guests who stay in the 683 rooms, Chan points out a recent addition: the “War Room,” 3,040 square feet of office space outfitted with every gadget a business traveler or area professional may require, she said.

Another new addition relates to weddings, which is fitting considering that the hotel hosts 70-100 of them a year. Thus, the Biltmore launched a Wedding Lounge, the first of its kind in Downtown, Chan said. The space is the place for planning, and is outfitted with gobs of decor possibilities for the big day. 

To mark the anniversary for the building known as the grande dame of Downtown hotels, the Biltmore is collecting stories from guests about their stays and experiences. A committee will select the best 90 stories and compile them in a book that will be placed in every guestroom, according to marketing manager Kendra Walker. 

In an effort to drum up business, the hotel is offering what it terms the “Legendary 1923 Anniversary Package.” The $219 a night deal, which runs through Dec. 28, buys a room and breakfast for two in the hotel’s Smeraldi’s restaurant, along with some of the Biltmore’s touted macaroons and a keepsake featuring sketches from the 1920s. 

Walking into one of the most filmed and photographed sections of the hotel, the Rendezvous Court, with its three-story Moorish plaster ceiling, Italian travertine stone walls and bronze and crystal chandeliers imported from Italy in 1923, doesn’t get old for Chan. 

“I look around and think, ‘I get to work here,”’ she said during an interview last week. 

Tour Through History

With a wide smile, banquet maître d’ Steve Eberhard more than shares his boss’ enthusiasm. 

Eberhard began running about the hotel’s polished marble floors when he was a kid, and would come to work with his dad, Peter, who served as the maître d’ for eight years. In the nearly two decades that Steve Eberhard has held the same position, he has become an unofficial hotel historian, able to discourse on a variety of topics, including architectural details. For example, he eagerly and effortlessly pointed out the Spanish Baroque touches throughout the hotel, while identifying the two figures in front of the stairwell in the Rendezvous Court as Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, and a Spanish conquistador named Balboa. 

From there he jumped to Johnny Depp. 

“We had some teenage girls hanging out there once kissing the marble,” he recalled, with a head shake, of an encounter in the Rendezvous Court. “I finally had to ask. It was because that’s where Johnny Depp stood in Blow.” 

Other notable film and TV appearances include Bridesmaids, Wedding Crashers, The Dark Knight Rises, “Mad Men” and “The Newsroom.”

It hasn’t all been glitz and gleam, however. The Biltmore also gained notoriety as being the last place that aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was seen alive. She left the hotel one evening in 1947, and her ravaged body was found a few days later near the Coliseum. The case of The Black Dahlia remains unsolved. 

The hotel has also been the headquarters of many notable events. President John F. Kennedy used it as his campaign headquarters for the 1960 Democratic National Convention. It is also where the International Olympic Committee set up shop for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.  

Perhaps more interesting to Angelenos is the fact that in 1927, representatives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided in the Crystal Ballroom that members should be rewarded for their work. Legend has it the Oscar statuette was sketched on a Biltmore napkin. Eberhard noted that a common misconception is that the first Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Biltmore. In fact, it was at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The first Oscars ceremony the Biltmore hosted was in 1931. It has hosted the awards nine times. 

The Los Angeles Conservancy hosts tours of the hotel every Sunday at 2 p.m.

donna@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013