When I was a kid, our family trips to L.A. were punctuated with retro-kitsch dining experiences, including a traditional after-landing-at-LAX late-night stop at Ed Debevic’s on La Cienega and lunch at Hard Rock Café at the Beverly Center.
No trip to L.A. in the late ’80s was complete without a meal at the ultimate knockoff ’50s burger stand, Johnny Rockets. One summer evening, after popping a nickel in the counter-affixed jukebox at the Beverly Hills location at the corner of Beverly Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard, my dad and I drove down Beverly and made a right-hand turn on Wilshire Boulevard. There in front of the Beverly Wilshire hotel was everything an imaginative eight-year-old boy in Hollywood dreamed of. Lights and ladders surrounded a silver Cadillac stretch limousine as people buzzed about. This was moviemaking magic. Though we didn’t see Julia Roberts or Richard Gere that night, and though I wouldn’t realize it until years later, this was the making of Pretty Woman.
Released on March 23, 1990, the urban fairytale about a Hollywood Boulevard hooker falling in love with a lonely, tough-as-nails New York businessman has enchanted the world for the last 30 years. It made Roberts—then 22 years old—a household name, and it made Touchstone Pictures (Disney) over $460 million across the globe on a budget of $14 million.
Originally much darker and called 3000—the amount of money exchanged between Vivian (Roberts) and Edward (Gere) for services rendered—Pretty Woman transformed into the ultimate romantic comedy when film and TV titan, the late Garry Marshall, grabbed the directorial reigns.
Pretty Woman filmed from the Valley to downtown and, of course, Hollywood to Beverly Hills. Sadly, a few key members of the crew who could speak most to the ins and outs of the film’s locations have passed on. Marshall died in 2016 at 81 of complications from pneumonia following a stroke. George Herthel, the film’s veteran location manager, passed away in 2012 after being diagnosed with ALS. Art director David Haber died in 2006.
Production designer Albert Brenner, a five-time Oscar nominee, is still around, though he preferred to answer questions via email from home here in Los Angeles because at 94 he doesn’t hear well on the phone.
Brenner’s work in film and television spanned 55 years. He’s collaborated with generations of directors including Arthur Penn (The Missouri Breaks), Ron Howard (Backdraft), Mel Brooks (Silent Movie), and Billy Crystal (Mr. Saturday Night). A key collaborator was Marshall, for whom Brenner designed seven films including Beaches (1988), The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), and Valentine’s Day (2010). He also designed a personal favorite of mine, The Monster Squad (1987). “It’s not one of my favorites,” says Brenner, “but that doesn’t matter.” (For the record, of the film’s Brenner has designed, his favorite is 1975’s The Sunshine Boys.)
The darkness that pervaded the original Pretty Woman script was completely turned around by Marshall, says Brenner. “Somebody said to Garry, ‘This is a very dark picture for you,’ and Garry said, ‘Oh, it won’t be. Trust me.’” Brenner adds, “Pretty Woman became a humorous and glamorized Garry Marshall-ed reflection of Hollywood because you saw some of the darkness there, but then there was always the lightness, or the joke.”
It’s clear from the outset of our correspondence that I might be looking into the intricacies of Pretty Woman’s locations and design a little too deeply.
The opening scene where we first meet Edward and his slime-ball lawyer Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander): “It was a house that was available and it had the right look. It wasn’t a grand search for something specific.” After pushing Brenner about the home in Bel Air, he acquiesces and says that the house suggested a sense of wealth and its large windows overlooking L.A. were attractive.
The Los Angeles Equestrian Center where Vivian and Edward go to watch a polo match: “We needed an equestrian center and that was there and that’s what we did.”
The iconic Beverly Hills sign that Vivian and Edward drive by at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Doheny Driv? Nope, nothing special about that spot either. “Just whatever was convenient,” says Brenner.
There has to be something more going on than run-and-gun location filming in Pretty Woman, right? It’s a studio picture that made two locations incredibly famous. Brenner doesn’t quite know how to respond when I tell him that the Las Palmas Hotel—Vivian’s rundown apartment building just off Hollywood Boulevard—is a stop on most Hollywood bus tours. “I didn’t know,” says Brenner.
Rental listings in the Los Angeles Times for the Las Palmas Hotel date back to 1951. By the late ’80s, Hollywood Boulevard and its surrounding streets were decaying. An L.A. Times article from 1988 describes the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Las Palmas—the Hollywood location around which Pretty Woman was set—as “a magnet for amateur pornographers and assorted pimps and prostitutes and street kids.” It goes on to report that “there are always drug deals to be made” outside George’s café, which is also seen in the film and is today the hot chicken restaurant Hot Motha Clucker.
Other locations in the vicinity include a bungalow home outside of which Edward asks a homeless man for directions to Beverly Hills, only to be told (in dialogue dubbed over by Marshall), “You’re here. That’s Sylvester Stallone’s house right there.” The rough-and-tumble Blue Banana nightclub was created in one of the retail spaces now part of the Egyptian Theatre complex.
The seedy quality of the Las Palmas Hotel was exactly what the filmmakers were after. However, its now-famous fire escape was a main selling point for Marshall. The director, a New York native born and raised in the Bronx, says in the DVD commentary that the Las Palmas Hotel reminded him of the old days of living in a five-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. That building also had a fire escape and “looked like it would burn down any minute.” The fact that the location is standing today is nothing short of curious when, over the last ten years, new buildings have popped up around it.
But for Brenner, the fact that the Las Palmas Hotel had an empty apartment was key. (At the end of the original script, Vivian comes back to the apartment to find her friend and mentor, Kit, overdosing.)
Tourists visiting Beverly Hills might be surprised to learn that the penthouse shared by Edward and Vivian at the film’s most famous location was a set created by Brenner. For the last 30 years the Beverly Wilshire hotel has capitalized on the success of Pretty Woman. Funny, considering that the hotel appears on screen for just under three minutes of the film’s two-hour running time, as only exteriors of the building were shot there.
Brenner says, “The Beverly Wilshire is hysterical because it’s an amusement that they always say that the suite is either occupied or under renovation. They never say it wasn’t shot there or it didn’t exist.” While hotel doesn’t advertise the screen-used penthouse, the Beverly Wilshire does offer its “Pretty Woman for a Day” experience, which reportedly goes for $300,000. However, some articles are misleading, and make it sound as though suite is located at the hotel.
The production flirted with the idea of shooting at the Beverly Wilshire. Brenner says, “It was one quick question and the answer was no, so that was the end of that. Even if the Beverly Wilshire had said yes for any of it, it would have been so restricted because they weren’t going to inconvenience any of their clients.” Instead, the filmmakers turned to a faded L.A. icon to film hotel interiors.
The Ambassador Hotel opened in 1921 and was a beacon of the city before Wilshire Boulevard was a paved road. The hotel hosted six Academy Award ceremonies and its famous nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove, attracted droves of A-list performers including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Harry Belafonte. It was at the Ambassador, after giving a victory speech for the California primary in the Embassy Ballroom, that Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the hotel’s kitchen in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968. He died a day later. After a decline in the neighborhood, the Ambassador closed as an operating hotel in 1989, making Pretty Woman one of the first of dozens of films to shoot there over the next sixteen years when it functioned almost exclusively as a filming location. Between 2005-2006 the hotel was demolished to make way for school named after Bobby Kennedy. (In a fitting send off following a long negotiation with the property owners, LAUSD, Emilio Estevez’s 2006 film Bobby was the last movie to shoot at the hotel.)
Though the Ambassador had recently closed, Brenner says that the lobby and peripheral areas had to be decorated from scratch, as everything was empty or trashed. The Embassy Ballroom was used in the scene where Barney (Hector Elizondo), the hotel’s manager, teaches Vivian proper dining etiquette. The penthouse was built into the hotel’s presidential suite, giving the filmmakers the utmost control. It was designed in such a way that there was always something interesting to see no matter where you put the camera.
When asked about a color palette that spans multiple locations, Brenner says that I’m searching for hidden meaning that isn’t there. Mauves and purples cover the penthouse walls and carpet; they’re seen in the tablecloths and napkins at Cicada, the downtown L.A. restaurant used in the film’s famous escargot scene (“Slippery little suckers”); you can see them in the flowers strategically placed behind Julia Roberts at the pool at the W Hotel in Westwood, doubling as the Beverly Wilshire pool. There was no symbolism or metaphor.
“We chose a color scheme and we went with it,” Brenner says. “It was nothing planned out.”
When Brenner refers to the hotel room colors as “muted,” I begin to question it, but then remember that we’re talking about the ‘80s. Though there’s a modesty that comes across in Brenner’s work approach, he eventually says that the hues compliment Roberts’ coloring and add to the romance of the film.
At this point I wonder if I should mention the penthouse’s equestrian motif seen in paintings and statues scattered around the room. Brenner didn’t recall, so I didn’t broach the potential relationship between the set decoration and the fact that Edward and Vivian go to a polo match, followed by horseback riding at sunset in Burbank. In Marshall’s autobiography, My Happy Days in Hollywood, he discusses the struggle to devise a fairytale ending for the film. “I had to find some kind of metaphorical way for Richard to ride up on a white horse and rescue her—in the most modern and feminist sense of the word,” writes Marshall.
All of Vivian’s shopping scenes on Rodeo Drive were shot on Sundays.
In one memorable scene, Vivian, in her Hollywood street clothes, enters the clothing boutique Boulmiche, where she is assessed by couple of snobby Beverly Hills sales associates and asked to leave. Later, Vivian has her revenge when she returns to Boulmiche following a shopping spree in another Rodeo store.
Boulmiche is still in business in Beverly Hills, but is today located on Beverly Drive; in 1989, the store was located at Rodeo Drive and South Santa Monica Boulevard. Brenner says the location was perfect because the corner vantage point afforded Marshall a long view down Santa Monica as Vivian approached the store. The location also had a balcony where Marshall could film a high, wide angle shot of the store, but because of the potential for damage from the equipment, the owners wouldn’t allow Marshall to shoot from there. Brenner built a platform for the director to get his shot.
The Beverly Wilshire wasn’t the only sleight-of-hand trick in Pretty Woman. When Edward takes Vivian on a quick trip to San Francisco to attend opening night at the opera, they fly out of a private jet terminal at Hollywood-Burbank Airport. Today, the area is still occupied by a private terminal off of Empire Avenue. However, the opera house is not in San Francisco at all, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The production was slated to shoot at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, but the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused major damage to the location, forcing the filmmakers to reevaluate. Brenner says that none of the L.A. theaters had the right look for the San Francisco opera house. Instead, the second unit filmed an exterior shot of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Brenner designed the theater’s balcony and built it against the wall of a soundstage. A single shot of Vivian and Edward walking through the cavernous opera house lobby was filmed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park. Brenner recalls there being a dinosaur fossil displayed just off camera.
Other downtown L.A. locations included Grand Park, where Vivian takes Edward on his impromptu day off, and Stuckey’s office building at 333 S. Hope Street on Bunker Hill. The 55-story building known as Bank of America Plaza was constructed in 1974.
“Downtown L.A. was a lot scruffier than it is now,” says Brenner. “It was hard to make downtown L.A. look chic and wealthy. That’s why that one plaza stood out as something more sophisticated.”
Also seen in the plaza is a 42-foot high steel sculpture by Alexander Calder called “Four Arches.” In one scene, Edward watches a father and son play in the plaza before Edward steps out from behind the sculpture and approaches the building. It’s clear that Vivian has caused his hard, business-minded façade to melt away. By this point in the correspondence with Brenner, I suspect that the arches in the sculpture have nothing to do with Edward’s story “arc,” and he candidly quells my suspicions.
There is one instance in Pretty Woman, however, when fine art directly influenced a scene and its location. Towards the end Edward’s day off, Vivian takes him to a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop called Barb’s Quickie Grill. Though only used for a fast shot, it has one of the most fascinating stories of all the locations in Pretty Woman. Originally, Lou’s Quickie Grill was located on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica. In 1960, the coffee shop moved a couple blocks west near the corner of Orange Druive. When owners Lou and Anita Shulkin retired in 1987, they handed over the business to Barbara Knox, a waitress who started working for them in 1954. “Barb” closed the restaurant in 1999 due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. An L.A. Times obituary for Knox says that she can be seen in the film, working in the restaurant.
Brenner says that the scene was meant to elicit a feeling of loneliness. To do that, the filmmakers looked to Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting, Nighthawks, which depicts a late-night corner coffee shop, light spilling out onto a desolate street, as a soda jerk serves three patrons sitting hunched over the counter. Like the painting, Marshall’s camera looks through the windows of Barb’s Quickie Grill as Vivian and Edward talk over coffee. Splashes of red, green, and blue light, similar to colors in the painting, frame the front of the restaurant.
Other than flying out of Hollywood-Burbank Airport, which he says was a much sleepier airport when they made Pretty Woman, Brenner has not been back to any of the film’s locations over the last 30 years. And why should he? “I mean, you go on to the next [film],” he says. That may be, and just when I think the impact of the film is lost on the production designer he tells me that he and his wife have a friend who loves the movie. Brenner says, “Every time it’s on television she sends [us] a text: It’s on again.” I consider mentioning my experience passing by the Beverly Wilshire while production was in full swing in the summer of ’89. I decided to keep that one to myself.
Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.
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