Art and the American Hotel; Terry Ellsworth Tells All!
By Patrick Quinn
Terry Ellsworth is not an artist, but he has always been a part of the Los Angeles art scene.
For the past three decades, he has lived in the American Hotel on Hewitt Street just off of Traction Avenue. An intersection that many would call Ground Zero for Downtown’s rebirth. He and I recently had a chance to talk about the history of that street corner and where it fits into the city today.
Patrick Quinn: How did you initially end up Los Angeles?
Terry Ellsworth: I grew up in Pomona, but moved to L.A. in the early sixties. Originally, I lived on the Westside. I was all about the beach, surfing, that sort of thing. I worked for L.A. Packing, Crating, and Shipping which dealt exclusively with fine art. A typical job might involve going to the airport, being escorted onto a 747 by security guards with shotguns. I’d meet a guy handcuffed to what we called the blue coffin, which was a blue Plexiglas case with paintings locked inside. Then we’d ship them to the Getty or the Norton Simon. I worked with all the artists and got to know their personalities. Larry Pittman, you always got fresh orange juice and a twenty dollar bill. Ed Moses had a Rhodesian Ridgeback that he’d threaten to sic on you.
All of my favorite artists were out on Electric Avenue. That’s where Ed Ruscha’s place was. Next door was Billy Al Bengston and Chuck Arnoldi, all those guys were neighbors. Paul McCarthy’s studio was up in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was originally a grocery store. Very cool. On the other hand, we hated going to Chris Burden’s place, it was always so dirty.
PQ: What was the Los Angeles Art Scene like back then?
TE: It was all about what school you went to, what professor you had, what gallery owners you were introduced to, what cocktail parties you were invited to, that sort of thing. There were very few Basquiat’s to shake things up.
PQ: So how did you end up at the American Hotel?
TE: It was 1984 and I was already spending most of my weekends at Al’s Bar. So I figured I’d stay at the American for three months, save a bunch of money and move back to Venice. It was crazy back then. People would have spontaneous concerts under the 4th street bridge. They’d light these massive bonfires on the loading docks, plug in an old Honda generator, and bands would play all night. No one came down here, the cops didn’t care. A perfect example, one of the artists built a plane and hung it on the side of the building. It was there for years. They even filmed it for an episode of that old TV show, “Remington Steele.”
PQ: Isn’t there a documentary being made about the American Hotel?
TE: That’s right. It’s called ‘Tales of the American.” They interviewed me for it, along with all the regulars. It should be done soon.
PQ: Tell me about the neighborhood. There wasn’t much back then. Just Al’s Bar, the American Hotel above it, and Bloom’s General Store on the corner
TE: No, Blooms’ didn’t happen for a while. Stay-C Little, one of the bartenders from Al’s had a thrift store there first. She was going out with a mad metal artist named Alberto Miyares who made bondage devices for sex clubs in San Francisco, among other things. The two of them turned the thrift store into a coffee shop. Around that time Sam’s Hofbrau had opened nearby which was a strip club. Stay-C hired some of the dancers to run the place, so the place was called Coffee Strippers. Then Joel Bloom took it over and it became the General store. Bloom’s was the heart of the neighborhood for years. He did everything for this neighborhood. He went to all the City Council meetings advocating for us. That’s why they dedicated Joel Bloom Square to him.
PQ: Tell me about Al’s Bar.
TE: The girl that managed the hotel was Toast Boyd. She also booked all the bands at Al’s Bar.
I remember when Nirvana played, they were terrible. They kept asking where they could get some heroin and Kurt Cobain spent the night on the pool table. But on another night, Toast told me to stick around for the last band. It was just two people, a guy and a girl, and they were great. It was the White Stripes and they played for 14 people.
PQ: When did you notice the neighborhood changing?
TE: Two things happened. For years, the only animals you ever saw were pigeons and rats, or what the locals euphemistically called “street squirrels.” Then we started to see designer dogs on the street. Suddenly there were families with kids, and we’re two blocks from Skid Row! But the real nail in the coffin was when some guys from the city showed up and hung a sign up on a lamp post that said “Arts District.” We all looked at each other and said ‘oh fuck…’ That was it, we knew it was over. We were naïve. We thought this would go on forever and ever.
PQ: But you’re still at the American and now you volunteer across the street at Artshare L.A.
TE: That’s right. When I started five years ago, the place was struggling. But they brought in Cheyenne and Kim and they have really turned the place around. The Gallery has great shows, there are classes, the place is happening.