The allure of Hollywood comes to life through the residents of the St. Francis Hotel
When she was 21 years old, Penny Wolin checked into a residential hotel in the heart of Hollywood.
The year was 1975 and the building was the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard — the same strip where movie legends have long immortalized their hand and footprints in wet cement.
The St. Francis was built in 1926, during the heyday of silent films, a place abuzz with the glitz and glamor of old Hollywood. But half a century later when Wolin arrived, the St. Francis was a very different place.
Its rooms were filled with people who felt like they didn't quite fit anywhere else. People whose dreams, as she put it, were bigger than their rooms.
"People stayed there either for the night or 30 years — and anywhere in between," Wolin told NPR.
So she got out a camera and single strobe light and a tape recorder, and for the next three weeks of her time there, Wolin strove to connect with the people who formed the community at the St. Francis, one by one.
Wolin grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and remembers a time when she was a child and her dad would take her to the part of town that had residential hotels. He would always hold her hand a little tighter, she says, and that got her to wondering: Who lives in these buildings?
When she arrived at the St. Francis, she began to understand.
"It was people that needed a place to be, whether they were on their way up, or maybe on their way down," Wolin says.
Nearly 50 years since her stay, Wolin's photographs and the stories she heard have been turned into a book, Guest Register. Included are photos of everything from an American man in his 70s and his new French-born girlfriend, to the empty room that had belonged to a stuntman until he died the night before Wolin was due to photograph him.
Then there was the plumber-electrician who loved to wear lace.
"I would see this fellow that would leave in the morning, and he was a muscular plumber," Wolin recalls. "And then he would come back at the end of the day and go to his room and then another kind of person would emerge, which was a beautiful woman in a lace dress and high heels, and it was him. And he would leave."
As Wolin writes the book, he was well liked and respected by all who got to know him. So she wanted to know him, too.
Wolin also fondly remembers the orphan brothers from Nebraska, who had managed to stay together since ages three and five, and were now out exploring the world as young adults.
"It just warmed my heart," Wolin says. "They were just these great guys from Nebraska that said, 'Let's go to Hollywood.'"
For many of the residents of St. Francis, it was the myth of Hollywood that drew them to the city. Wolin says that idea is alive and well, and can still hold true. She describes Hollywood not just as a geographical location, but an existential place.
"And you can make something for yourself," she says. "You can become a photographer, a musician, all these things that you want to be, there's hope that you can be them. So Hollywood is built on hope."
St. Francis itself meant different things to different people, Wolin says. Like the woman who lived with her boyfriend and worked at Arby's and kept an immaculately clean room.
"So, for her, it's a place to stay for a short period of time," Wolin says. "[But] the fellow in the penthouse that had been there for probably decades, he understood the dynamics of where he was and had become comfortable with it. It was home, there was a home for people."
Then there was the man in room 540, who left Wolin a handwritten note that simply said: "There is a room for you here." It was a note that would sustain her for years to come.
"It became the mantra that no matter how bad things can be in the journey of finding your path ... if this is as bad as it gets, it's not so bad," Wolin says. "If there was room here for me, at the existential hotel, well, then I have a place to be in the world and people will look after me."
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