Art and the American Hotel; Terry Ellsworth Tells All!

Terry Ellsworth and the American Hotel today. Photo courtesy of Patrick Quinn

Terry Ellsworth and the American Hotel today. Photo courtesy of Patrick Quinn

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.”
The American Hotel with the Plane that was on the building from late 1982 until early 1986. Photo © Estate of Dustin Shuler

The American Hotel with the Plane that was on the building from late 1982 until early 1986. Photo © Estate of Dustin Shuler (Photo courtesy ‘Tales of the American’)

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.

 

Al’s Bar in 1981. Image courtesy of Jon Peterson.

Al’s Bar in 1981. Image courtesy of Jon Peterson. (Photo courtesy ‘Tales of the American’)

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.

 

Terry Ellsworth with photograph of street party in front of Blooms General Store. Image courtesy of Patrick Quinn

Terry Ellsworth with photograph of street party in front of Blooms General Store.
Image courtesy of Patrick Quinn

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.

 

PQ: So how do you feel about your place in the Art Scene now?
TE: When I first moved there, you could put every Downtown artist in one room, maybe 35 people. And we were a family. I had a heart transplant in 2004 and it was tough financially. My friends threw a party with a silent auction of art they had all donated. They raised $5,000. I’ll never forget that. And now I want to give it back. Something I learned from reading Joseph Campbell is that I wouldn’t be content until I lived a life in service to others. So if I can share my experiences and knowledge, then that’s worthwhile.
Interior of AL’s Bar in the early 1980’s. Image courtesy of Stephen Seemayer.

Interior of AL’s Bar in the early 1980’s. Image courtesy of Stephen Seemayer. (Photo courtesy ‘Tales of the American’)

Website for upcoming documentary ‘Tales of the American’
http://www.talesoftheamerican.com/
Clip from ‘Tales of the American’ with Terry Ellsworth
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0Leg_r86Kg
Los Angeles Times article on the closing of Al’s Bar.
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/aug/16/news/cl-34651

4 thoughts on “Art and the American Hotel; Terry Ellsworth Tells All!

  1. You might consider interviewing the guy who bought the American Hotel in 1978 and launched the historic Al’s Bar in ’79. There were many of us in DTLA and associated with the American and Al’s before Terry.
    His name is Marc Kreisel and Al’s Bar was probably one of the first “social practice” pieces that L.A. has ever seen.

  2. My 4 friends, who were sisters, & I were the “Coffee Strippers”. We certainly were not dancers or actual strippers. In fact, far from it. I was a student. Alberto called it that because of the stripped metal sign he and Katie had welded together for the coffee shop. Also because he was being cheeky about hiring only cute young girls to work there. If any actual strippers worked there, I certainly didn’t know about it & I lived in the American Hotel so I pretty much knew everyone who worked there. One of my friends managed the place. I ended up leaving because Alberto stopped paying me because either he didn’t have the money or didn’t want to pay me. I never asked. I had another job & school. My friends left right before Alberto went crazy and Coffee Strippers closed. I’m still friends with the Coffee Strippers even though we are all in different cities. We are Dana, Seni, Tulie, Louis, & Violet and those are some of my best memories.

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