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Sunset Marquis: Secrets of Rock 'n' Roll's Wild Hotel

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Sunset Marquis Black Crowes - H 2013
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The Black Crowes at the Sunset Marquis

Flea's rooftop cannonball, David Lee Roth's roomful of cocaine: Delicious (and sometimes debauched) tales of excess from the music industry's legendary hangout.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it comes to hotels, Hollywood’s A-list splits its allegiance widely -- sleeping around all over town, from the Sunset Tower and Chateau Marmont to the Four Seasons, Peninsula, Montage, Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air. The music crowd, however, has just one real mecca: the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. The bond has remained strong ever since it opened 50 years ago this April, just as the Sunset Strip rock clubs, only a block away, began to take off. And it’s never more apparent than on Grammy weekend, when the hotel is packed with nominees who consider it a second home. (This year alone, 21 of the nominated artists have recorded at the hotel’s in-house subterranean studio, NightBird.)

To celebrate the Marquis’ half-century mark, THR interviewed more than two dozen big-name performers, behind-the-scenes players and longtime employees for a backstage pass to the hotel’s hidden history. Jam sessions by the pool? Cocaine in the villas? Beautiful chanteuses stretched across mixing consoles in lace and roses? The Sunset Marquis is where cliched rock ’n’ roll fantasies actually come true.

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George Rosenthal, founding owner: It was purposefully built as a hotel for the entertainment industry. I wanted to emulate the Garden of Allah [silent film star Alla Nazimova’s mansion-turned-hotel on Sunset Boulevard], the environment they had there, at least psychologically. It was a regeneration of what I’d only read about: a wonderful gathering place for the exchange of ideas for writers, musicians, people in the film business.

Mark Rosenthal, co-owner and CEO: It really started as an apartment hotel. Basically, every room had a kitchenette.

Paul McGuinness, U2 manager: It was inexpensive. It wasn’t at all luxurious. In those days there was no restaurant, no bar. You had a direct line to Turner’s liquor store, though. So there was a sort of self-catering.

G. Rosenthal: The hotel later expanded to the three properties to the north, which we call the villas, and then to the new restaurant and the villas to the back.

Bob Gruen, photographer: In the early ’70s, it was much funkier than it is now.

McGuinness: There was Astroturf around the pool.

Ann Wilson, Heart: I hated the Astroturf.

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Paul Rodgers, Bad Company: I remember staying at the Sunset Marquis in 1968 with Free. It was a hip boutique hotel long before boutique hotels were hip.

Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top: We ran across the Marquis while performing on the Sunset Strip with the Moving Sidewalks way back in 1969. We were looking for a side street to park the band car. Alta Loma Road provided Marquis guests with the back-alley shortcut off Sunset. Handy!

Paul Fishkin, co-founder, Modern Records: The Chateau Marmont was cool as shit and had incredible history, but it was sort of a dump. The Riot House [Continental Hyatt House, now the Andaz West Hollywood] had its own particular rock and roll legacy. So did the Tropicana.

Michael Des Barres, singer: The Tropicana was for the seven-guys-in-a-van bands with the bass player with extraordinary halitosis.

Sharon Oreck, music video producer: After you had some album sales, you could go to the Sunset Marquis.

Fishkin: It attracted all the hip musicians and business people that came out of the ’60s culture.

Penelope Spheeris, documentary filmmaker: It was a hideaway -- you couldn’t find it if you were drunk.

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Gruen: First of all it’s on a cul-de-sac. So you don’t just drive past it on Sunset Boulevard. And then when you go in, you go down a few steps and into a long, lower hallway where the front desk is. And then you enter into the bright center, where you’re surrounded by the hotel. For New Yorkers who don’t really want to be in L.A., L.A. is out there somewhere on the other side of the walls, but inside you’re kind of protected.

Dave Navarro, Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers: Somehow they’ve managed to keep it kind of underground. I never grasped how they did that.

Cyndi Lauper: I first went to the Sunset Marquis in 1980. I was just signed. I was very excited. It was a rock and roll hotel. It wasn’t stuffy. They had trees and a garden and even bunnies for a while. And the room that was in back, I think it was 135, I dyed The Bangles’ hair there for their video. Ozzy and Sharon [Osbourne] stayed there, and Kelly, when she was little, sneaked into the whirlpool with me.

Deborah Harry: I love the gardens and the feeling of solitude they give.

Des Barres: A lot of the kids that checked in to that hotel had never been in a hotel before. For an 18-year-old Brit from the north of England, room service was like being served by Islamic vestal virgins.