La Conga was a Hollywood nightclub that capitalized on the Latin music craze of the 1930s and early 1940s, which overlapped with the Hawaiian craze; in fact, the Hawaiian-themed Tropics nightclub was located just a few doors down.
The 2-story building that housed La Conga, at the southwest corner of Vine and Selma, was built in 1925 by architects Dodd & Richards in the Italian Renaissance style. It included the addresses 1449 to 1559 North Vine.
Completed by the fall of 1925, the upper floor housed a ballroom, The Hollywood Roof, addressed as 1549 N. Vine, from 1925 to 1930.
1549 N. Vine then became the Hollywood Gardena as of January 1931, then on October 6, 1932 it opened as the Bal Taborin.
The Bal Taborin soon gave way to the Victorian-themed The Nineties nightclub and dance hall in 1933. The club was raided by Detective Lt. Charles Hoy of the Hollywood vice squad in July 1934; Hoy claimed the bartender, Joseph Stevens, had served him whiskey in violation of new State liquor laws. In September 1934, two young women, Margaret Thorpe and Peggy Page, were arrested for performing a fan dance at the club.
It soon thereafter ceased to be a nightclub and on November 16, 1935 the space opened as The Hollywood Associated Studios.
Back to 1551.
In August 1925, Tony Merlo, “Hollywood character and restaurant man” leased space on the first floor of the yet-to-be-completed building’s first floor, addressed as 1551 N. Vine, for a cafe serving Italian fare. Tony Merlo’s Italian Restaurant opened by December of 1925. Capitalizing on his Hollywood connections as well as the location, across the street from the Lasky/Famous Players studio, Tony promised that “all the movie people eat here.”
Unfortunately for the restaurant business, Lasky/Famous Players moved in 1926 to a new home on Marathon Street near Melrose (see my previous post about that property, here).
By 1930, 1551 N. Vine was Bernie’s Cafe, operated by Nathan Bernstein. It was raided by federal dry agents on September 17, 1930 after receiving complaints that the place was selling bitters, consisting of 48% alcohol, to minors. Bernstein was sentenced to 6 months in jail and received a $500 fine. (The old Jim Jeffries bar, associated with Zeke Caress, Farmer Page, Tutor Scherer and others, was also caught up in the same raid). Bernie’s nevertheless continued here into early 1932.
1551 next briefly operated as the “1551 Club,” reportedly affiliated with Fred Whalen, father of Jack Whalen, aka “the Enforcer,” On New Years’ Even 1933, the 1551 Club’s fixtures and equipment were sold at auction.
On May 30, 1935, 1551 N. Vine opened as Le Trianon. Again, it was operated by an actor, Eugene Borden and featured the decor and cuisine of Borden’s native France.
Le Trianon didn’t last too long. By April 1937, 1559 N. Vine was known as the Dominic Tavern, operated by Dominick Ferrera, when it made unfortunate publicity- an employee, Frank Damiano, was brutally murdered with a meat cleaver during his early morning shift, ostensibly by bandits. The case went unsolved. In June 1937, Ferrera pleaded guilty to adulterating and mislabeling liquors (LA Daily News 6/10/1937).
Shortly thereafter, 1551 changed hands again. Louis Prima headlined at the unnamed club, “Hollywood’s newest,” on July 2, 1937.
Finally, La Conga
In January 1938, H. Goldstein, the owner of record, applied for a permit for architect James H. Garrott to design a false front inside the cafe “to represent the exterior of a Cuban plaza” and add a hardwood dance floor. Hollywood gossip columnist Read Kendall of the LA Times reported on February 3, 1938 that Johnny Meyers (a friend of Errol Flynn’s) was opening the La Conga cafe on Vine Street on February 17.
As was typical for Hollywood Clubs, there was already a La Conga in New York, which had opened in December 1937. Cuban musician Desi Arnaz, who had come to the USA with his family, fleeing the Cuban Revolution of 1933, was a performer at the NYC La Conga. Conga fever spread west to Hollywood.
Monte Prosser was the professed owner of the Hollywood La Conga. Louis Sobol mentioned him as its operator in his syndicated “The Voice of New York” column in August 1938, and Prosser’s name appears in the advertising that year as well.
In October 1938, owners of the building that housed La Conga enlisted architects Walker & Eisen to give the structure a streamline moderne makeover, in keeping with the Hollywood Recreation Center next door, which had opened in December 1937, the Hollywood Tropics building on the other side of it, and the new West Coast home of NBC radio across the street, built on a portion of the old Lasky/Famous Players lot.
The new facade had smooth white stucco and “modernistic chrome trimmings” on black and maroon colored Vitrolite tile, and indirect neon lighting. The anchor tenant, Thrify Drugstore, opened here in December 1939.
The following screen shots are from the 1939 MGM short, “Rhumba Rhythm at the Hollywood La Conga” which appears to have been filmed on location. House band leader Eduardo Chavez appears as himself.
The film in its entirety can be seen on youtube, thanks to user “ShortFilm.
In mid-1941, La Conga changed its name to the Copacabana, though it continued to feature rhumba/Cuban music. However, Monte Prosser (who would later front the New York Copacabana club) apparently did not follow procedure in the matter of updating the club’s license to reflect the new name, because on December 19, 1941, William G. Bonelli of the State Board of Equalization, which regulated compliance with the state alcoholic beverage control act, revoked La Conga’s liquor license on the basis that the owner, Monte Prosser, had abandoned it four months earlier.
La Conga reopened days later, on Christmas Eve 1941, with a new theme and a new name: Sugar Hill.
By early 1945, 1551 N. Vine had become the Club Morocco. The Morocco filed for involuntary bankruptcy in January 1948 and its fixtures and equipment were sold at auction the following month.
1551 N. Vine Street’s days (and nights) as a club came to an end. In December 1949, it reopened as the new Hollywood ticket office of the Santa Fe Railroad.
Whalen was identified as the former operator of the 1551 Club in December 1935, when he was arrested, along with “James Ray” and “Paul Parker” in San Francisco for robbing a Hollywood dress shop, Lillian Herts, 9268 Sunset Boulevard, of $4000 worth of gowns and furs. See LA Daily News 12/6/1935.
Prosser, a “publicity agent” would lend his name to the talent booking agency, Monte Prosser Productions, run by Johnny Roselli, the Chicago Outfit’s man in Hollywood. Prosser would open a “Beachcomber” restaurant in New York in the late 1930s that seems to have been a ripoff of Don the Beachcomber’s, and where the Zombie is said to have originated. He also operated Monte Prosser’s Zombie Bar at the 1939 World’s Fair. He ostensibly bought the New York Copacabana Club in 1947. In July 1950, Virgil Peterson of the Chicago Crime Commission, testifying before the US Congress Special Committee Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (aka the Kefauver Committee) said that Thomas Cassera, “an individual closely identified with the gangster element” had operated the Chanticleer club at 8572 Sunset Boulevard with Prosser.
In November 1939, Bonelli had been accused of graft in a pay to play liquor license scandal. Bonelli denied the accusations. It is worth noting that the LA mob made similar charges against citizen vice investigators led by Clifford Clinton. The bribe trial was unsuccessful and Bonelli continued on the SBE, eventually becoming its chair, until he was finally defeated in November 1954. At that time, Bonelli was implicated in another liquor license graft probe, in San Diego. He was indicted by the San Diego County grand jury in February 1955 and ended up fleeing to Mexico , where he died in 1970.