A Hollywood History of The Breakers
In its nearly 100 years of existence, The Breakers has had many roles in Downtown Long Beach: luxury hotel, architectural landmark, military outpost, dining destination and aspirational comeback tale, to name just a few.
During Hollywood’s Golden Era, it played the part of a glamorous and much sought-after destination, attracting the likes of Cary Grant, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, among many other stars who regularly found their way to 200 Ocean Boulevard to dine, dance, hang out or stay over.
The Sky Room, a glamorous restaurant with a spectacular view from atop the 15-story Spanish Renaissance Revival structure, was as popular as iconic Hollywood hotspots such as The Brown Derby and Coconut Grove. It had all the things those restaurants did – great food, music and dancing – while lacking one important aspect: the harsh Hollywood spotlight.
“The Breakers was somewhere stars could go and be seen a little less. A place they could relax and still enjoy the best of everything,” said John Thomas, a Long Beach-based architectural historian. Thomas is a historic preservation consultant for Pacific6 Enterprises, the group that purchased the Breakers building in 2017 and set about to restore the property to its former, star-studded glory with an opening date of October 2023. “The Breakers was a way for them to escape.”
Breathtakingly so. Think about being in the Sky Room in those days, the late 1930s. To one side you gaze down on the Pacific Ocean – with crashing waves, since pre-breakwater Long Beach was a surfing mecca. Now, turn your view inland and you spy the blinking beacon on top of Los Angeles City Hall. If it was a clear day, you could see the Hollywoodland sign. (The sign was changed to read simply “Hollywood” in 1949.)
And stars could enjoy all of this with the expectation of “being hassled less,” Thomas said. They knew they had a sympathetic and understanding host in Conrad Hilton. Hilton bought the Breakers in 1938, making it the eighth hotel in a chain that would eventually contain thousands of properties. A celebrity in his own right – his son, Nicky, was the first husband of a Breakers guest, the illustrious Elizabeth Taylor – Hilton knew how to treat stars.
“One of the reasons Conrad Hilton was attracted to buy [the Breakers] was the fact it was already a significant drop off point for stars,” Thomas said. “When Hilton took over, they knew that they could enjoy themselves there, that they would be taken care of.”
Of course, by 1938, Long Beach already had a long history with the film industry. It had been a popular site for filming pretty much from the start, as filmmakers were attracted by its great light and open spaces. During the silent era, Balboa Studios had built a significant studio on Long Beach Boulevard, which now houses the Museum of Latin American Art. So Long Beach had long been a place where film folks not only worked, but a place they came to play and get pampered.
And The Breakers, built in 1925 and opened in 1926, offered all manner of features, distractions and amenities. Beyond the Sky Room, there were fashionable boutiques, a Turkish bath, beauty salon, barber shop, roof garden and an elaborate dining room known as the Hall of Galleons. If you were a “surf bather” as beachgoers were called, you took a special elevator to the Arcade level where you simply stepped out of the hotel and onto the sand through a private beach entrance.
Of course, all that changed a few years as the outbreak of World War II brought changes for everyone, including the Breakers. The Sky Room was utilized by Navy officers for daily, daytime business and planning, while two pillboxes with gun-mountings were placed on the hotel rooftop for harbor defense. One of the pillboxes and gun mountings remained there until 1991.
By then, the hotel had changed ownership many times. Hilton had sold it to businessman Fred Fishman in 1947. Fishman renamed it, sort of, to the "Wilton." After that there have been years of neglect and intermittent changes in format – it was converted to a senior living facility in 1990.
When Pacific6 bought the property in November of 2017, it announced its intentions of returning the hotel to its historic glory, and then some. Back will be the Sky Room, jazz club and whiskey bar, along with such new features as a third-floor pool, luxury spa and two-level fitness center, making this a sequel that outpaces the original.
“You live 100 years, you’re going to have your ebbs and flows,” Thomas said. “The Breakers has been a star and it’s gone through chaos. But now it's ready to live out its best days. The best years are yet to come.”