In its five decades at the epicenter of the movie industry’s comings and goings on the Sunset Strip, Schwab’s Drug Store was a lot of things — a movie industry meeting place, local hangout and tourist attraction.
But there was one thing Schwab’s was not. Despite the persistent myth otherwise, it was not where Lana Turner was discovered.
Here’s the myth: In January 1937, 16-year-old Judy Turner ditched high school to grab a Coke at Schwab’s. Mervyn Le Roy, the famous movie director, happened to be seated at the counter that day. He couldn’t help noticing the attractive young lady. Sure, she was wearing a tight sweater but what really got the director’s attention was Judy’s wholesome beauty. The director introduced himself and offered her a screen test. It was a smashing success. The studio offered her a contract. Judy changed her name to Lana and, after making a movie or two, she was Lana Turner, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Like a lot of Hollywood legends, there is a lot of truth in this one. Her name was Judy, she was 16, and she was discovered in January 1937 at a soda fountain while ditching school — a typing class at Hollywood High School. But the fountain was not at Schwab’s. It was two miles east at the Top Hat Cafe, 6750 Sunset Blvd., at McCadden Pl., which was, crucially, one block east of Hollywood High.
The gentleman who discovered there was not Mervyn Le Roy, it was Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, which had offices a block east of the Top Hat. We know that Wilkerson discovered Lana Turner at the Top Hat because Turner herself confirmed the story for Wilkerson’s son, W.R. Wilkinson III, who wrote about it in the July 1995 Los Angeles Times:
As the shapely 16-year-old entered the soda fountain, she caught my father’s attention. Even decades later he would recall how “breathtakingly beautiful” she looked that day.
Wilkerson asked the manager about the young girl.
“That’s Judy, Mr. Wilkerson.”
My father wanted to meet her.
“I’ll ask,” said the manager.
The manager, who knew both of them well, went over to Judy. “That gentleman over there would like to meet you.”
“You can imagine what ran through my mind,” Lana told me in a 1974 interview.
She asked the manager, “Why?”
“It’s OK. He’s a gentleman, Judy. He owns the Hollywood Reporter just down Sunset.”
“Well, if you say so. But stay close.”
An introduction was made.
My father produced his business card and asked the schoolgirl if she would like to be in pictures.
Judy seemed confused and unsure. “I’ll have to ask my mother,” she said.
A few days later, young Judy visited the publisher’s office with her mother in tow. They had decided to take Wilkerson up on his offer.
Wilkerson referred her to the agent, Zeppo Marx, brother of Groucho, Chico and Harpo. And the rest really was movie history.
According to Wilkerson fils, the proprietor of the Top Hat affixed a plaque to the seat at the fountain where Lana Turner was sitting when she was discovered. Tourists came in droves, and he was able to retire early, in 1940. According to Wilkerson, Leon Schwab, was aware of how the legend helped business at the Top Hat and simply appropriated it for his store some two miles west on Sunset when the Top Hat closed.
Lana Turner suggested that Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who had an office in the Schwab’s building, may have helped move the myth along. Wilkerson quoted Turner as saying Skolsky was having lunch at the counter when “a busty blond came up and asked which stool was Lana Turner’s. Skolsky simply picked one and pointed it out.”
For years, tourists, especially teen-aged girls, a few in tight sweaters, flocked to the store, hoping to be discovered, or at least to see a famous star or two. And often enough they would.
In fact, there may well have been tourists in Schwab’s in November 1940, when F. Scott Fitzgerald had a heart attack in the store — some sources say he was standing in line to buy cigarettes. Another Schwab’s-related myth is that the heart attack killed him.
There’s a full account of events leading up to his death here, but Fitzgerald did suffer a fatal heart attack one month later. He died on Dec. 21, two blocks east of Schwab’s, in the apartment of his girlfriend, the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave.
The Schwab’s site at 8024 Sunset Blvd. at Laurel Canyon Blvd. and Crescent Heights was bulldozed in 1983 to make way for the compact, vaguely alt culture mall that’s there now. The drug store is mostly forgotten now but will live forever in a few classic scenes that were filmed on location in the store in 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard.”
Few people played as significant a role in setting the Sunset Strip’s glamorous tone in the 1930s and 1940s as did Billy Wilkerson. He opened, in succession, the first three internationally famous nightclubs, Trocadero and Ciro’s.