When I set out for the Dunbar Hotel in Historic South-Central, I didn’t expect to wind up sitting on the curb hooked up to an EKG monitor. About 10 minutes prior, while crossing the street at a pedestrian crosswalk, I was clipped by a white mini-van. I was tossed to the ground; I rolled over and safely got to the sidewalk. Luckily, neither the driver nor I sustained any serious injuries, but my new Nikon was totaled. Unfortunate as it was, it actually demonstrates why the makers of the new Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name didn’t shoot at the hotel, which is perhaps the most important location in the lore of comedian-turned-action movie star, Rudy Ray Moore.
“It had to have streets that you could close down for long periods of time because so much action took place in the streets,” explains Dolemite Is My Name location manager David Lyons. The area around the Dunbar is so congested that it would’ve been nearly impossible to control (or park trucks and trailers nearby). Apparently, traffic in this area won’t stop for a movie—or a pedestrian, as the paramedics and cops informed us, and I now know all too well.
Over two afternoons, I went on a ride-along with Lyons to visit a number of locations from Dolemite Is My Name, in which Eddie Murphy plays Moore during his rise from struggling comedian and assistant record store manager to the creative force behind 1975’s Dolemite, a film that made Moore one of the most well known actors in African American cinema.
It’s clear from our first meeting that Lyons and I are kindred spirits in a handful of ways. As teenagers, we both discovered Moore by browsing VHS covers at our local video stores. Lyons, 43, and his friends gravitated to a section called Black Action. “For my money, there was no other section in the video store; that is all we needed,” he says. For Lyons, Dolemite was his first foray into Moore; for me, it was Disco Godfather (1979), or as Lyons and I remember it being titled, The Avenging Disco Godfather.
Dolemite—the story of a rhyming and jiving Los Angeles pimp and nightclub owner who is released early from prison to help law enforcement crack down on neighborhood crime and Dolemite’s rival, Willie Green (D’Urville Martin)—left a lasting impression on Lyons. “It was foul-mouthed for no reason, and there were boobs in it for no reason other than it was funny,” says Lyons. “I think initially I just got into it because I was 14 and it was a funny guy swearing a lot, but as I got older, I realized what I loved about it so much was that idea of just making movies with your friends, which is what my friends and I were doing at the time.”
It’s no coincidence that Dolemite Is My Name was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters behind Ed Wood (1994), which also focuses on a ragtag group of outliers making their own films.
Lyons is a dedicated locations nerd just like me. He started seeking out filming locations when he first moved to L.A. in 2003. “There’s so much to do [in L.A.], especially if you have money. I did not have any money, so I started entertaining myself by going and finding film locations. And one of the first films I sought out was Dolemite…Well, Dolemite and Double Indemnity.” Lyons started working his way through the ranks from production assistant to assistant location manager, and eventually stepping up to the position of location manager when, in 2009, he accepted the job on NBC’s Community.
Being a big Rudy Ray Moore fan, Lyons couldn’t believe it when got a call from producer Michael Beugg about possibly working as the location manager on Dolemite Is My Name. Lyons remembers the producer saying, “ ‘Are you familiar with a comedian named Rudy Ray Moore?’ I just thought it was my friend screwing with me.” When Lyons asked the person on the other end of the line to repeat his name, the location manager knew it had to be the real thing because, he says, “my friends weren’t that clever to come up with something that specific.” Lyons began listing numerous factoids about Moore and his career: he lived in and made his movies at the Dunbar Hotel, his friends worked as the cast and crew, and Moore was in his late 40s when he made Dolemite. “I feel like Beugg thought I was screwing with him because nobody should know that much about Dolemite,” says Lyons. “Imagine the biggest inside joke with your closest friends of 35 years, then they make a movie about it and you get to be part of it.”
Lyons was at first hired to do a couple weeks worth of scouting around L.A. He started working on what he considered to be the most difficult locations: the Chitlin’ Circuit, a series of performance venues throughout the South, Midwest, and East Cost where African American artists and entertainers could perform in a safe environment during some of the most racially segregated times in modern American history. Venues could range from actual theaters to makeshift setups in barns.
“I think there was a real consideration of, do we need to take part of this movie on the road,” says Lyons. “Are we going to need to go to Louisiana and Mississippi and see him driving through these corn fields or cotton fields or tobacco fields to explain what part of the country they’re in?”
Lyons showed producers photos of Greenfield Ranch in Thousand Oaks, a popular filming location previously used as the main setting in 2011’s We Bought a Zoo. Lyons also presented Front Street in Norwalk, which he originally scouted for East Texas in 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. “Front Street in Norwalk [had been] the main street. And then after a while the train tracks came through and then they built Firestone Boulevard and that became the main drag. So Front Street became the back street and nobody did anything to it.” The locations proved that the entirety of Dolemite Is My Name could be shot in the L.A. region and that Lyons was the person to do the job.
There was also a strong desire to shoot at real L.A. locations that Moore frequented, and locations where Dolemite was filmed. “But 42 years later, it doesn’t always work,” says Lyons.
The Californian Club, where Moore debuted and developed the character of Dolemite, was among the most crucial. “That was what I would call a precious location because it is where Dolemite was born,” says Lyons. “It’s where Rudy begins to change his life. And it was a real place, and we knew what that real place looked like. We knew how important it was to our story, and to Rudy’s story. You want to get that just right.”
Originally located at the corner of Santa Barbara Avenue (today Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) and St. Andrews Place, the Californian Club is a Laundromat today.
“We must have looked at 50 different places for that,” says Lyons. “We were running out of locations that could look like 1974, Los Angeles.” Lyons remembers production designer, Clay Griffith, suggested Flamenco nightclub El Cid on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. Filmmaker D.W. Griffith originally constructed the building as a screening room at the turn of the 20th century. The director also used the property to shoot portions of his controversial film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). By 1925, the building was turned into the Jail Café, a prison-themed restaurant that greeted customers with a stone prison wall on Sunset Boulevard. From the early ‘30s to the early ‘60s, the venue operated as a theater and in 1962 it reopened as El Cid.
The filmmakers loved the red vinyl booths at El Cid, as well as the antique chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. “It’s the kind of thing that people put up in the ’50s to look fancy,” says Lyons. “And by the time it got to the 70s, they looked old then. So now that we’re looking at them in 2019 they really look dated and that’s the fun thing about doing a period piece. You’re looking for 1974, but you’re not just looking for 1974, you’re looking for anything earlier than 1974.”
The exterior of The Californian Club was doubled at the nearby 4100 Bar.
Also along the Sunset corridor, Los Globos was used for the interior of a Tallahassee bar on the Chitlin’ Circuit where Rudy meets one of the stars of his filmmaking troupe, Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The club continues the red vinyl motif, but its low ceiling suggests a smaller venue that Rudy could play on the circuit.
Lyons says that a majority of location reps were not familiar with Moore, but that recognition also varied from neighborhood to neighborhood. “I think when I went to El Cid, they’d heard of Dolemite, but maybe the younger folks that run the club had heard about it…in a hip hop song,” says Lyons. Also known as “the Godfather of Rap,” Moore’s work has been sampled or quoted in songs by artists like 2 Live Crew, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, who also appears in Dolemite Is My Name. “There’s a divide in racial recognition because Rudy Ray Moore was such an icon in the black community,” says Lyons. “I would say maybe about 20 percent of the locations were like, ‘Oh, wait, wait. Are you talking about Dolemite?’ And then you share a smile.”
One location where the owners were familiar with Moore was in Pasadena, “which the Beach Boys sing about,” says Lyons, ironically. Doubling for the famous Central Avenue district record shop, Dolphin’s of Hollywood, was Poo-Bah Records on Colorado Boulevard. “I came here and they’re like, ‘Shit. Yeah man. Dolemite.’”
Moore worked as an assistant manager at Dolphin’s of Hollywood, which was originally opened in 1948 by African American businessman and independent record label owner and producer, John Dolphin. Dolphin’s of Hollywood, which was extremely popular for live broadcasts out of its DJ booth, closed in 1989 and is today a nail salon.
Lyons looked at a number of record stores throughout Hollywood, Highland Park and San Pedro. “I wanted a place that, first of all, could feel like it was in the 1970s, but also as a guy who’s a big vinyl collector, the record store isn’t just a place to go and get a record,” says Lyons. Poo-Bah, he adds, “fit the vibe of a place where people would come and hang out and talk about music, which I think is a big part of the heart of the movie, with Rudy and all his friends getting together and talking about filmmaking or making music together.” It didn’t hurt that Lyons also once purchase a Rudy Ray Moore record at Poo-Bah years before working on Dolemite Is My Name.
The film’s art department built a DJ booth into the rear section of the store and enclosed an existing balcony. A significant amount of the film’s set, including the DJ booth, is still standing at Poo-Bah Records. “That speaks volumes of this place, that once we were done with it, they looked around and said, ‘Yeah, this is how it was supposed to look,’ and kept it.”
Dolemite Is My Name shot at 89 locations over 44 days. Occasionally, the production was shooting three or four locations a day in places like Charlie’s Live Entertainment strip club in South L.A., Mandy’s Family Restaurant in Hawthorne and the Prince restaurant in Koreatown. The Gardena Cinema, a single-screen movie theatre since 1946, doubled for Indianapolis’s Uptown Theatre, where Moore first screened Dolemite to a paying audience. The red carpet premiere of Dolemite was filmed at the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway. Its neon-lined marquee is reminiscent Chicago’s long-gone Woods Theatre, where Dolemite actually premiered. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the Orpheum was also used for the interiors of the Plan 9 from Outer Space premiere as depicted in Ed Wood (1994).
Most challenging to pinpoint would be two original Dolemite locations intended for recreating scenes from the 1975 film. One was a Spanish Mission style house used in a flashback which sees Dolemite performing unpolished kung fu moves on three FBI agents; the other, a school driveway that played as a prison exterior for Dolemite’s early release. The locations could have been doubled elsewhere, but both had eluded Lyons since moving to L.A., and finding them for Dolemite Is My Name became an obsession.
Beginning with a VHS copy of Dolemite, Lyons started looking for any clues that would point him in the direction of the house, which is a location I attempted to find five years ago for an article about cult movie locations. Based on an address Lyons glanced in the film, along with the type of architecture, he had a good idea of where to drop the little yellow guy on Google Earth. Hours and hours he spent trying to locate it, with no luck. It wasn’t until he got the Dolemite Blu-ray that he realized he mistook one number in the address for another. It turned out was looking four blocks north than where he should have been searching. “It was two in the morning, I was on Google Earth and I found it and I just gasped,” said Lyons. “I started emailing people that night like, ‘Well, we’ve got to get this to the director [Craig Brewer]; we’ve got to give this to the production designer; got to get this to Larry and Scott. Guys, I found the fucking house.’ And then the next step is, will they let us film there?”
The current owner of the home in Mid-City was aware of the Dolemite connection because the previous owner, who was a kid when Dolemite filmed there, informed him of it when the keys were turned over. Lyons says, “The first time I took [Brewer] to the real Dolemite house, I took a photo of him from behind him, in silhouette, looking at the house and he’s just standing there with his hands on his hips and he turns around and he’s like, ‘You motherfucker. You found it.’ ” Lyons adds that Murphy, a huge Rudy Ray Moore fan, had the same sense of awe when first stepping foot at the Dolemite house. “He looked out the window [of the van], and he stepped out and he was just looking around, hands on his hips, kind of shaking his head.”
The school location was Lyons’s “white whale,” he says. He had nothing much to go on except a gate enclosing a school parking lot and a house across the street. “I just couldn’t find it until one night I was in the office really late. I noticed this little cul-de-sac I hadn’t seen before and I dropped the little guy on Google Earth. Holy shit. There it was.” Reaching the end of Johnnie Cochran Vista outside Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School, I share the same sentiment as we pull up at the gate where Moore stripped down to his underwear and changed into one of his signature Dolemite suits. Unfortunately, due to contractual restrictions the school couldn’t be used in the film, but Lyons found a suitable double in the Long Beach school district.
Lyons and I soon arrive at the Dunbar Hotel, arguably the single most important location in the story of Rudy Ray Moore. Completed in 1928, the Dunbar originally opened as the Hotel Somerville and was built to host the first West Coast conference of the NAACP. After its first year, the hotel was renamed the Dunbar after poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. For decades, the luxury hotel was the epicenter of black culture in Los Angeles. Located in the heart of the Central Avenue jazz scene, artists such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Count Basie stayed and/or performed there. Ironically, the hotel at Central Avenue and 42nd Place, which rose to fame during the decades of the most extreme racial segregation in America, began to deteriorate when racial barriers started to fall. In 1974, the building was shuttered and became a haven for junkies. In exchange for clearing out transients and acting as a caretaker of the Dunbar, Moore was allowed access to the building and immediately put it to good use as an unsanctioned movie studio. Moore also lived in the hotel without running water or electricity.
The Dunbar, which is a prominently featured setting in Dolemite Is My Name, unfortunately was not a viable option for filming. Aside from it being located on a busy commercial street, the Dunbar was completely restored and reopened in 2013 as a 55-and-over apartment building. Though much of the building’s original integrity was maintained, a number of scenes were set in the hotel lobby and would have caused an inconvenience for the tenants. Further complicating matters, a contemporary Southern & Mexican fusion restaurant also resides in the building’s corner commercial space.
Instead, a lobby set inspired by the real location was constructed at Los Angeles Center Studios.
The exterior of the Dunbar was doubled at the Royal Lake apartments on the corner of 11th Street and Lake Street in Pico-Union. The size of the building is comparable to the Dunbar; archways along the street level are reminiscent of some of the architecture found at the hotel. The fact that it was also on streets that were controllable made it the go-to choice. “We were able to close down the streets all around it for days at a time without impacting neighboring residents too much,” says Lyons. In fact, most of the neighborhood embraced the production, he adds. “If that building was on Central and 42nd, we wouldn’t be able to film there,” says Lyons.
Sitting on the curb outside Dunbar, medical equipment wires hanging off of me, it’s clear I learned that the hard way.
Dolemite Is My Name is now streaming on Netflix. Please keep in mind that some of these locations are on private property. Do not trespass or disturb the owners. Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.