Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 11, 2010

Groovy, Under An Eastern Sky

If you know anyone who travels regularly for business or pleasure who thinks that air travel is better than it used to be, let me know. I believe there are longer lines, fewer flights, no food (only snacks which, if you read the ingredients, don’t fall into any of the known definitions of “food”). I have noticed, though, that, because we have to spend more and more time in airports, there are an increasing number of options for food and shopping and services there. I was in one of the ur-exemplars of this model, Dallas Fort Worth last week, and it’s a traveler’s fairyland of dining, services and distractions (get your hair cut, have your clothes cleaned, and — I swear this is true — I even saw an author holding a book signing event at a bookstore there earlier this year!)

I was en route to Miami, Florida. MIA airport (an ironic acronym if you miss your connection) has a mega-shopping experience on hand. That’s fine, except for one thing: I DON’T WANT TO SHOP AT THE AIRPORT. I don’t want to buy electronics or kitchen wares or jewelry. On a more positive note, many airports have installed museum exhibits so that while you’re killing all that time, you can look at art or view displays of historical artifacts. San Francisco (SFO) does. But air travel comes with deadlines, and I had ten minutes to make my plane. “Viewing” an exhibit that greatly interested me consisted of snapping a digital photo of each display case as I dashed past, and waiting till I got home to “see” the exhibit: a bizarre version of a virtual experience.

But, Miami: a fascinating, ever-changing city. This post is about an iconic bit of the city’s past that’s still an active part of the scene.

Fontainebleau aerial Brad Nixon 3932 (640x480)

That’s the Fontainebleau Hotel, on Miami Beach. Built in 1954, it has been an architectural star since the day it opened. What you see above is part of the original curving tower designed by Morris Lapidus. Today, the hotel has had a massive expansion and remake. Here is another view, to the left of the first photo.


Fontainebleau ext Brad Nixon 3764 (640x480)

Now offering more than 1,500 rooms, the Fontainebleau qualifies as a mega-resort. There are two categories in which the Fontainebleau is truly notable, other than the sheer scale of the place: its interior design and its association with entertainment and celebrities of an earlier day. Let’s leave our Wayback Machine with the valet, and step into the lobby.


Fontainebleau int Brad Nixon 3772 (640x449)

Nice, eh? Maybe not the Los Angeles Biltmore, which I wrote about recently, but impressive, and it sends the immediate message that you are a groovy joint. If ever there were a place that merits our highest possible praise, to be judged “groovy,” this is that place. If you turn just to the left of this scene, the lobby opens into the hotel’s noted Bleau Bar.

Fontainebleau lobby Brad Nixon 3768 (640x480)

Groovy even in the daytime, after dark the joint buzzes with the presence of the young (and would-be young) and the beautiful (ditto) and provides the takeoff point for that other aspect of the Fontainebleau: its association with entertainers, celebrities and nightlife.

In the swingin’ 50s and 60s, the Fontainebleau was one hoppin’ spot, the playground for all kinds of stars: Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Elvis, Gleason, Garland, Dietrich, Martin & Lewis, you name ’em and they were there. There are those of us who recall that Jackie Gleason broadcast his TV show from there, adding to the panache of the place in popular culture.

The Stairway to Nowhere and the Boom Boom Room

So dedicated to the idea of being a larger-than-life showcase to wealth and beauty and celebrity was the Fontainebleau from its inception, the lobby even features a grand entry staircase built solely for the purpose of worshiping the rich and the beautiful:


Fontainebleau stairs Brad Nixon 3771 (640x480)

That is the famous “stairway to nowhere.” The sole purpose of this stairway was to allow guests to descend via elevator first to the coat check — at the top of the stairs — put on their mink stoles or whatever, and then make a grand entrance into the lobby down the stairs. You have one of these in your house, don’t you?

The hotel was the site of the famous Boom Boom Room nightclub, too. One hoppin’ joint, indeed.

Today, it’s much the same. The Boom Boom Room has been replaced by LIV (pronounced “live” as in “one life to live“), one of Miami Beach’s hottest nightclubs. LIV opens at 11 p.m. and goes ’til 5 a.m. Um, I didn’t get there during its operating hours, because I wasn’t AWAKE then, and, although I looked in there during the day, it’s not quite so glamorous under work lighting with no beautiful people in it. It wasn’t lighted effectively, so I’ll show another photo of the Bleau Bar.

Fontainebleau lobby Brad Nixon 3911 (640x480)

The Bleau Bar is still a prime place to see and be seen — a kind of way station at which one can imbibe and mingle while waiting for the bouncers to let the first wave of The Beautiful Ones into LIV. If you have the time to cover the entire hotel, which I did, you can uncover a hundred recondite turns and coves that bespeak the 50s vibe of the place. It would require a book instead of a blog post to cover them all.

Lapidus’ design was not entirely well-received by critics. Its curves and richly decorated, sometimes ornate touches flew in the face of the Bauhaus-modernist aesthetic of the day. Here, for example, is an upper foyer outside a ballroom, bordered by the perforated exterior wall that rises for several floors at the street side of the hotel.

Fontainebleau hall Brad Nixon 3827 (640x470)
Referring negatively to those porthole-like openings, one critic christened it “the cheese wall,” but now the hotel itself proudly refers to the feature with that name, turning an insult into a point of pride. Here’s the exterior view.

Fontainebleau ext Brad Nixon 4280 (640x480)

If it hasn’t occurred to you already, I’ll remind you that the hotel provides some of the setting for “Goldfinger.” Tomorrow we’ll have a chance to see another Goldfinger site as we stay with the Miami Beach groove and go to the next joint up the beach, the Eden Roc, another Morris Lapidus design, and see what we find there in our Wayback Machine.

I didn’t shoot the Bleau Bar after dark, when that blue floor and the mauve column really glow. I did see it in the nighttime. Like any bar I’ve ever seen, 95% of those people were male, and most of the females in evidence were serving drinks, but I’ll let that pass. What I don’t want to have is a photo published here that inadvertently shows Nastio Cabezaloca whooping it up with his buddies, and have Mrs. C. receive a link to the photo when she thought he was attending night school to become a waste management engineer. Before you know it, the proprietor of Under Western Skies would get a request from Miami-Dade County Superior Court that he supply a copy of that photo to be used as evidence in the divorce proceedings of Peligrosa Cabezaloca vs. Nastio Cabezaloca. That’s one reason I try not to put too many  random strangers in my photos.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

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