Lena Horne
Lena Horne

In Los Angeles, real and imagined sightings of Japanese submarines and aircraft prompted officials to order blackouts in areas within fifteen miles of the coast, which included the Strip. The blackout put a damper on nightlife, but Felix Young forged ahead in his quest to find a new space on the Strip for Café Trocadero, now reimagined as a Cotton Club-style showcase for African American acts. Before the war, Young had signed three big acts – Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and the Katherine Dunham dance troupe – along with an unknown singer, twenty-five-year-old Lena Horne, whom he had discovered in New York. In January, he leased the former Sphinx Club building at 9236 Sunset, near the Beverly Hills border. He hired a set designer to transform the small space into what a reviewer called “a rococo jewel box.” In spite of the fact that the Sphinx Club had been closed in a gambling raid two years earlier, Felix set up a room for gaming upstairs.

Because of the delays, Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters bowed out, which left only Dunham and her dancers at the top of the bill with Lena Horne as the opening act. Opening night in late January sold out nonetheless. Lena Horne took advantage of the intimacy. Wearing a simple white gown and without introduction, she stepped from darkness into a single spotlight that softly framed her elegant face. She sang “The Man I Love” followed by “Stormy Weather” and six more standards. By the end of the last song, the hard-bitten Hollywood crowd was enthralled. She played to sold-out houses for the next four months. John Barrymore, Cole Porter and Greta Garbo were among the hundreds who crowded into the tiny space.

On February 11, Hedda Hopper broke good news about Horne’s career. “The little colored girl, Lena Horne,” Hopper wrote, “who’s made such a hit singing at the Little Troc, has been signed by Metro.” In May, Lena moved down the Strip to Mocambo, where she played to sold-out houses through the summer. In July, a Los Angeles Daily News columnist marveled at the A listers who swarmed the club night after night. “Hollywood protocol was turned its head,” he wrote. “Cops had to be called in to hold back crowds made up of screen stars – on one night a friend of mine counted sixty-two big names in a mob of several hundred niftily habilimented people – who had tried futilely to get in the Mocambo to see and hear Lena Horne.”

At a party at Cole Porter’s house, Greta Garbo swooned over Lena, but Miriam Hopkins, a native of Savannah, took the young singer aside and asked her why she was “not like all the others” who were restricted from socializing with whites. Another confrontation with Hollywood-style Jim Crow hit closer to home. Neighbors in Shoreham Heights circulated a petition to force Lena and her young daughter Gail to move out of the house Felix Young had rented for them on Horn Avenue on grounds that the neighborhood was restricted. Other neighbors, including Humphrey and Mayo Bogart and their friend Peter Lorre, interceded and quashed the petition.

During her time on Horn Avenue, Lena appeared in the MGM musicals “Panama Hattie” and “Cabin in the Sky.” After work, she often dropped by Café Gala, which was across the street from her house, where she would sing with Johnny Walsh, the café’s proprietor, for the after-hours crowds. During the break between the two films, Walsh booked her for a week as headliner. “There were lines of customers down the Strip,” Lena’s daughter, Gail Buckley wrote later, and café regulars, including Tyrone Power and his wife Annabella, were furious because they could not get in.”