No hugging, no power-dining, and not a red carpet in sight. As the Tower Bar reopens after a three-month hiatus, V.F. examines what happens when an industry built on seeing and being seen goes into quarantine.
Cynics say that nothing lasts in Hollywood—starlets fade, studio heads survive until they don’t. But the dining has been pretty reliable, at least in type, of which there are two: those longtime institutions or hotel dining rooms always happy to remind you that Frank Sinatra, Joan Collins, or Arnold Schwarzenegger have eaten there; and the low-lit den or rooftop restaurants, often with monosyllabic names, that smell of freshly dried paint and offer airline-quality American cooking with optional truffle fries while a dozen paparazzi lie in wait for a Kardashian.
But now Hollywood, a community immune to harsh realities like freezing winters and picking up your own dry cleaning, is in suspended animation, just like everywhere else. And while Angelenos are unnerved by the daily devastation around the world—and applauding the frontline workers at 8 p.m. every night—they’re also concerned about their own backyard and the disintegration of beloved rituals. The metal cocktail sidecars at Musso & Frank are stacked high and empty now. The plates usually heaped with $21 pigs in a blanket at the Tower Bar are collecting dust. The crowd-favorite Bolognese at the Chateau Marmont is not available for delivery on Caviar because the hotel had to lay off nearly all of its employees. The fabled Macedonian maître d’ of the San Vicente Bungalows, Dimitri Dimitrov, has taken to Instagram to connect with club members, as well as to quell his boredom: “Yeh, it’s…uh…not good,” he says.
Los Angeles is not a geographically small town, but it can feel like Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield if you eat and drink at the verified short list. With the red carpets rolled up, Hollywood suddenly feels a lot less like a community. “The reality,” a power publicist explains over FaceTime as she paints her toenails on a rainy Thursday in her canyon casita, “is that there are a lot of celebrities who are sitting at home for maybe the first time in six weeks, six months, or six years. They have no set to show up to and no audience to perform for. Couples who shoot in different cities actually have to face each other. I think a lot of them are either really thriving in that, and then there are others that are really, clearly struggling.”
Southern California real estate tycoon Rick Caruso concurs. “There’s a handful of people that get their energy from being noticed and having the paparazzi around them,” he says. “It’s probably very, very tough because that’s fuel for them.” Caruso also points out that Hollywood’s A-list had only recently emerged from one of its energy-depleting awards cycles, and that the more privileged industry players were longing for a pause, though they surely never imagined one as destabilizing as this one. “I was talking to a few friends, and I said to them, ‘It must get so tiring to put on a tuxedo one more time, go to one more dinner with the same exact people talking about the same exact movies. I mean, there’s just so many of them now.’ And everybody I knew said, ‘It’s exhausting.’ ”
Early in the crisis, America discovered what a mixed blessing it is to have so many celebrities with free time on their hands. “Many actors have turned to a place with a built-in audience and fan base, which is on Instagram,” says a talent agent as he rolls calls from a dog walk. “So they’re trying things that they probably wouldn’t typically do, but given the circumstances, they’re desperate to stay relevant. So, they’re jumping out of their comfort zones.” Only some of it is working. After a handful of household names stumbled with tone-deaf attempts at relatability, Miley Cyrus and John Krasinski launched digital talk shows devoted to keeping fans’ spirits up; Andrea Bocelli lent his angelic voice on Easter; Lady Gaga’s virtual concert, “One World: Together at Home,” raised $127 million, and Rihanna and Jay-Z, among others, made hefty donations to people affected by COVID-19. The lesson for celebrities probably should have seemed obvious all along: What America wants from you right now is your positivity and, ideally, your money. If we need video of you quarantining by your infinity pool, we’ll reach out.
The hospitality industry has been trying to navigate the potholes too. On the Sunset Strip, the Chateau Marmont’s owner, André Balazs, shocked regulars when he laid off so much of the staff so early in the pandemic. Balazs declined to comment for this story, but a press representative pointed out that the hotelier had contributed $100,000 to a GoFundMe campaign for former workers. Balazs’s goal remains to stay open for the Chateau’s 15 current guests, who are receiving food delivery, packages, and off-site dry cleaning at their doors thanks to a skeleton staff. He’s made the hotel’s cottages available to physicians from nearby Cedars-Sinai.
The Sunset Tower also remains open. “People are staying there,” says owner Jeff Klein, adding that the virus may have led to an uptick in a certain kind of patron: “This is terrible, but there’s a lot of divorces and breakups, because it’s such a stressful time.” There are policies in place to restrict anyone with symptoms from checking in, and the restaurant is closed due to mandates from the city and state. “There’s no bustling lobby,” says Klein. “It’s not like there’s all these people by the pool, you know what I mean?” Tower Bar employees are unable to work but still receive insurance and benefits. Klein has also been selling digital prints of the hotel’s famous metallic-gold bathroom wallpaper—designed by artist and Tower regular Donald Robertson—and donating the profits to the bar staff.
“I’ve been absolutely staggered by the amount of people who’ve reached out to me, and the generosity of everybody trying to help,” says the restaurant’s maître d’, Gabé Doppelt. “I mean people by the hundreds—and I’m really not kidding.” Asked what she thinks the regulars miss about the Tower Bar, she laughs and says, “Good lighting doesn’t hurt, for a start.” She pauses, then adds, “You come into this world that is as comforting as it is high-octane. The last week before we closed, people still got a sense of why this place is so magical, even though the world around them was collapsing.”
Klein’s other site, the San Vicente Bungalows, is offering daily instructional livestreams ranging from cooking to yoga to deep breathing, plus digital cocktail parties and themed game nights. Journalist Jessica Yellin, Representative Elissa Slotkin, and USC doctor David Agus have led Zoom calls with members. “Our application rate, believe it or not, has gone up during this period,” says Klein. “People probably think it’s easier to get in while we’re closed. It’s not.”
One of the painful ironies of the pandemic is that, before the shelter-in-place orders took effect, L.A. had been evolving into a more cosmopolitan town, making space for contemporary art, tech, a boom in finance, and two football teams. (When the Dodgers were in the World Series, people were in the streets, actually walking, actually cheering!) This spring, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex moved in. The jury is still out about whether Harry and Meghan will help transform the city or just give Daily Mail photographers another reason to stand outside Giorgio Baldi. “I had an opportunity to meet them about a month and a half ago and spend some time with them,” says Caruso. “I was just very impressed by both of them. They’re surprisingly down-to-earth. We talked about their charity work and the work that my company does in East L.A. and down in Watts. We just shared a lot of things that we’d like to do to make people’s lives better. We’re very lucky to have them.”
“I fully expect them to apply to SVB,” Klein says wryly. “I don’t know if they’ll get in, but I expect them to apply and definitely go be Tower Bar regulars. I think they’ll fit in really well, actually.” Klein notes that “L.A. loves a royal” shaking up the scene, adding, “There are enough movie stars.”
The royal couple are such a singular phenomenon that they’ve managed to overshadow the fact that the Wealthiest Man in the World also bought a place in L.A. Earlier this year, Jeff Bezos expanded his real estate portfolio to include a 1937 Beverly Hills manse originally commissioned by Jack Warner, which is like buying a Roman palazzo built by Caesar Augustus. But the pandemic finds Bezos’s behemoth, Amazon, in a fraught position, with strikes, shutdowns, and boldface critics. In truth, Bezos arrives at a time when the city’s social hierarchy has been entirely upended. When WME is cash-strapped, Disney’s parks are bleeding money, and ever more agents are furloughed, do Bezos, Bob Iger, and Ari Emanuel get the corner booth or the breezy seat by the swinging kitchen door?
“Do you remember when just seven, eight months ago, Mr. Ted Sarandos and Mr. Steven Spielberg, for example, would have this conversation of movie theater versus streaming?” says Dimitrov, the maître d’ at SVB. “When I was young, everything happened around the theater, and now I think it’s threatened, right? I’m even scared that it’s lost forever.”
Caruso, who is part of a White House task force on economic recovery and a voice of leadership to many Angelenos, has managed to find some positivity during quarantine: “There’s actually a bluer sky. There’s more birds, right? There’s more silence. There’s more peace. I was saying this to my son the other night, ‘How do we get back to a regular rhythm of business and our lives but have the sky stay blue?’ I know it sounds corny, but hopefully everybody realizes that Mother Earth bounces back really quickly. I’m hoping that businesses and the city find ways to encourage people to drive less, maybe work a couple days at home now that we all have Zoom, take some traffic off the streets and walk more.”
Once the restaurants, bars, hotel lobbies, and dens do start to reopen, insiders say that crowds will be kept at half capacity and tables will be six feet apart. That’s hard to picture in a town where dining has always been performative: actors greeting each other at tables with a double kiss, rival agents loudly shaking hands, tourists trying to play it cool until their iPhone flash goes off in Brad Pitt’s face.
“Hugging was a norm,” says Dimitrov. “That’s done. I don’t think that Hollywood will be—ever, ever—the way it was.”
Still, Los Angeles has rebounded more than once before. Out of the Great Depression came the talkies, and out of World War II came Technicolor. Whether it’s streaming, theaters, YouTube, or Quibi, this country has always needed Hollywood. Escapism may well be a growth industry. As Reese Witherspoon said to Jennifer Lopez on an Instagram livestream recently, “I just want to make comedies for the next 10 years.”
Or, as Doppelt puts it, “It’s going to be riveting to re-create the dream.”
By Britt Hennemuth