The nightclub Mocambo opened at 8588 Sunset on January 3, 1941 with a timely Latin-American themed interior by Billy Haines and Tony Durquette and along with Ciro’s operated for the next two decades as top Hollywood nightclub.
It didn’t start out as Mocambo. In his Los Angeles Times “Around and About in Hollywood” column of December 2, 1937 local gossip writer Read Kendall reported that “The swank new Club Versailles is scheduled to open its doors on December 10.”
Like most Hollywood clubs, the name was not exactly original; there was already a noted Club Versailles in New York.
Another Times columnist, Maxine Bartlett, reported on Sunday, December 12, that those with reservations for the December 10 opening of the Versailles included Harry Sugarman, Edmund Goulding, and Irving Glasser. The grand opening, however, didn’t happen.
Club Versailles was supposed to be a new venture by Hollywood madam Lee Francis. In her book, Ladies on Call, she says that she invested $43,000 in the project- had the building constructed, had it furnished and decorated by W. & J. Sloane Co., leased the adjacent spaces for legitimate businesses, hired staff from cigarette girls to parking lot attendants, had issued invitations to the grand opening and reservations had poured in, but at the last minute could not open because she couldn’t sell liquor. She had been denied a liquor permit by the Board of Equalization in Sacramento. Francis writes bitterly: “It developed that the owner of a nearby rendezvous, with powerful newspaper and political affiliations, had been the one to put the crimp in the deal…A certain well-known personality from the East came along and offered to take over my club with its attendant obligations. He gave me a note for $4000 in payment for my assets,” adding that three years later, she’d yet to collect. (1)
Francis declined to name this mystery figure. But Read Kendall reported on February 23, 1938, that “Phil Selzick’s Versailles Club opened to a swanky crowd last night.” More familiarly known as “Phil Selzick’s club” for operator Phil Selznick, a Cleveland nightclub man, it attracted a Hollywood crowd. Though his background was not exactly spotless, he evidently had more pull than Francis. She must have been (bitterly) amused to read of Selznick’s arrest by sheriff’s vice squad officers on October 16, 1938 for selling alcohol here after 2:00am in violation of the state liquor control act; he was acquitted, of course, on December 6. Still, by February 1939 Club Versailles was being run by Mel Walters and Strip chef Henri Desoto. (2)
On December 20, 1940, silver haired, dapper Charles Morrison, with Felix Young advertised the opening of Mocambo on December 27. It must have been pushed back a few days however, as gossip columns refer to the January opening date.
While other nightspots came and went, the Mocambo just sailed along, without all the raids that characterized the operation of the Clover Club or the frequent management changes of the Trocadero. Drama was provided by the exotic interior decoration and the many well-publicized brawls between patrons.
Charles Morrison continued to operate Mocambo until his death at age 57, March 22, 1957. His widow, Mary Morrison, took over management of the club. One of the first acts she booked was Frank Sinatra, who opened on April 5, 1957. French singer Edith Piaf opened July 19, 1957.
Other top acts followed, including Peggy Lee, Edie Adams and Rowan & Martin, etc. But nightlife on the Strip was declining and competition with Las Vegas for talent was fierce. The Mocambo closed in 1959 and the building was demolished not long after.
(1) In the semi-fictionalized but in some ways more truthful version of Francis’ book titled Call House Madam, written in 1939 and published in 1942, Francis (“Beverly Davis”) tells of trying to open “The Marseilles” club in much the same way: “I took notes from a certain thug who had a big name in Hollywood, promoting talent. He never paid. Incorporated himself. Left me holding the sock.”
After this venture failed, Francis (“Beverly Davis”) in Call House Madam says that she resumed her career as a madam. In Ladies on Call, she asserts that she went to work as a hostess in small club on Beverly Blvd. and was totally out of the brothel biz when she was arrested for pandering in January 1940 at the Coronet Apartments, 8439 Sunset.
(2) Concurrenly with his operation of 8588, Selzick, who was related to the film executive David Selznick and agent Myron Seznick, had an interest in the short-lived club Mammy Louise’s Kitchen on the Strip at 8711 Sunset, run by Joe Venuti and Louise Brooks (not the silent film actress). In April 1939, Selznick turned his attention to the It Cafe, located in the Plaza Hotel on Vine Street in downtown Hollywood.