BULLOCKS WILSHIRE DEPARTMENT STORE
Shopping: the “Carriage Trade” Way.
In a scene from The Garden on Sunset, one of my lead characters, Kathryn, is stalking-but-not-in-a-creepy-way someone who she desperately wants to work for. She tracks him down to the Bullocks Wilshire department store on Wilshire Boulevard. If you lived in Los Angeles in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, you certainly knew all about Bullocks Wilshire, even if you couldn’t afford to shop there. Here’s how I introduce it in chapter 19:
~ ~ ~
When John G. Bullock announced he was building a new department store on Wilshire Boulevard, people looked at each other over hands of gin rummy and asked who on earth was going to trek all the way down Wilshire to go shopping? All the good stores were downtown.
When Bullock announced that he was going to face his store’s entrance toward the parking lot, people were ready to call the nut house. No street entrance? Valet parking for a department store?
But when John G. Bullock opened his art deco temple on that half-deserted stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, people had to agree that the nutty guy had built a gorgeous building. The soaring fourteen-story tower was sheathed in copper that was already tarnishing a delightful shade of green, and the decorative panels were stunning. And wasn’t it so terribly convenient the way the parking attendant would give you a numbered card and deliver your packages to your car while you shopped?
Kathryn Massey stood under Bullocks porte-cochere admiring the hand-painted geometric mural named The Spirit of Transportation. It was as art deco as art deco gets: an ocean liner, the figure of Mercury, and a trio of biplanes escorting the Graf Zeppelin, all with a patina of emerald green and sky blue and sunset orange.
She gazed up at the dirigible and thought, So, the three of us meet again.
~ ~ ~
Bullock was a very successful merchant with a number of highly reputable stores in downtown Los Angeles through the first three decades of the 20th century. Towards the end of the 1920s, he could see that L.A. was growing and where it was growing to (from downtown toward the beaches) and he knew people would soon be living along the east-west thoroughfares, such as the still largely-deserted Wilshire Boulevard. And when they did, would they really be bothered schlepping all the way into downtown? Wouldn’t they appreciate a quality store in a convenient location? Everyone thought he was mad but he went ahead with his folly anyway and really set the local tongues a-wagging when he decided to orient the building not to the street but to the parking lot. He, and he alone, recognized that every man and his valet were getting an automobile these days and that’s the market he went after: the “carriage trade.” As a nod to his clientele, he introduced a system where a shopper would be given the number of the specific parking spot where their car would be valeted. When a purchase was made, the clerk would have the package stowed directly inside the shopper’s car and not have deal with annoying inconvenience of lugging around hat boxes for the rest of the day. It was all so terribly civilized.
Bullock was a man of great taste and rarely did things by halves. He decided his new store would become Bullocks’ standard bearer and nothing would be spared. He poured a fortune into the 230,000-square foot Art Deco building at 3050 Wilshire … and then opened it just as the bottom fell out of the stock market. Oops. But you have to hand it to ol’ J.G., he pressed on against criticism and worsening financial woes, eventually winning everybody over once they got a look at the retail palace he’d created.
It was first class all the way at Bullocks Wilshire. Shoppers entered a foyer with travertine floors and elevators finished in nickel, brass, and gunmetal. Ahead on the first floor was the vaulted Perfume Hall, awash in natural light muted by walls of St. Genevieve marble. Other floors displayed clothes and accessories in low glass cases on rosewood stands or on live mannequins, to prevent hanging racks from cluttering sight lines. The Louis XVI Room sold designer dresses, the Directoire formal wear and later furs. Later still came the couture Chanel Room and the Irene Salon, reputed to be the first boutique devoted to a single designer inside a major U.S. department store.
Irene Lentz designed custom wardrobe for celebrities, leading to a career in design at major film studios, including RKO, Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures. During the 1930s, she designed the film wardrobe for leading ladies such as Constance Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman, and Loretta Young among others.
MGM’s art director, Cedric Gibbons, hired Lentz when gown designer Adrian left the studio. (The fact that she was married to his brother at the time may have helped.) By 1943 she was a leading costume supervisor at MGM where she stayed until 1950 when she left to open her own fashion house.
But at Bullocks, you could be taken to a private room where a live model would parade around in front of you so that you could see what that gorgeous dress (you know, the one in pale orange organza that caught your eye last time you were here) looked like on a real person, and how it moved and swayed as she walked to and fro.
One of the main attractions was the Bullocks Wilshire Tea Room, done out in a desert theme. There was an adjoining lounge where ladies-who-lunched gathered for luncheon-time fashion shows. Typical of the fare offered was:
Creamed Chicken & Mushrooms in Asparagus Ring with Lattice Potatoes & Strawberry Sherbet–$1.25
Chicken with Avocado, Fresh Peach & Hearts of Artichoke, Hot Roll–$1.10
Baked Ham with Orange Sauce, Escalloped Potatoes & Garden Salad–95 cents
Ramekin of Chicken with Assorted Vegetables–90 cents
Omelet Italienne (Ham, Mushroom, Chicken Livers) Apple Jelly–85 cents
Asparagus on Toast with Tomato Sauce, Candied Sweet Potatoes & Roquefort Stuffed Celery–80 cents
Casserole of Shrimp & Rice with Tomato & Cucumber Salad–75 cents
Really? Italian Omelet with apple jelly…??? But the rest of it sounds pretty good.
Lest the menfolk felt left out, they were catered for, too. In true Bullocks fashion, titans of business and politics relaxed over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres as sales associates modeled potential gifts in the privacy of J.G. Bullocks wood-paneled private suite on the fifth floor.
In its heyday, Bullocks Wilshire’s regular patrons included Mae West, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Hitchcock, Greta Garbo, ZaSu Pitts, Walt Disney and Clark Gable. While struggling to become an actress, a teen-aged Angela Lansbury worked as a sales clerk. Future First Lady Patricia Nixon also served a stint on the floor.
I was at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills a few months ago for the second display of Debbie Reynold’s costume collection. I got to talking to one of the people responsible for displaying the one-of-a-kind costumes and she told me that when she was displaying the famous white Marilyn Monroe “subway” dress from The Seven Year Itch, she noticed that it had a “Bullocks” label stitched into the back. So the most famous dress in movie history, which sold at auction for $4.6 million, was quite possibly an off-the-rack dress from a department store.
As the 70s became the 80s, and other luxury stores completed for the top-end dollar, Bullocks Wilshire’s long reign came under fire. By the late 80s, Macys had acquired it, and in 1992, the store suffered severe damage during the Los Angeles riots, and closed in 1993. In 1994, the building was acquired by Southwestern Law School who restored the building to its original 1929 state, adapting the building for use as an integral part of the school. Once a year it opens the doors to lookie-loos wanting a chance to roam Bullocks Wilshire’s fine emporium and imagine the days when the likes of Garbo, Garland, and Gable roamed through its doors.