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Hollywood Center Motel’s Seedy Past

Over the past century, 6720 Sunset Boulevard has seen murder, prostitution, rockstars … but it all began with a wife-swapping scandal!

Denver transplants Edmund and Blanche Scholtz bought the home in 1921 and added a bungalow court of several duplexes to the property between McCadden and Las Palmas. Their 17-year-old daughter Jane enjoyed the Hollywood socialite scene.

6720 Sunset Boulevard
6720 Sunset Boulevard in 1918 (USC)

The next year, she married dancer-actor Walter Emerson, grand-nephew of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson—but three weeks later, wedded bliss was interrupted by statutory rape charges. Suzette Tobey, his 16-year-old accuser, filed a $50,000 civil suit, which Emerson convinced her to drop thanks to $6,000 from his new in-laws.

Edmund and Blanche continued to bankroll their daughter’s marriage—$10,000, nearly $200,000 today with inflation—as her husband rarely worked and they had several children.

Jane’s parents also allowed her access to their motor court on Sunset Boulevard for her extramarital affairs—one of which made national news in 1935.

That January, Emerson filed for divorce, accusing Jane of cheating on him with his best friend, Beverly Hills millionaire Barton Sewell, for whom they named their youngest son. Jane countered that her husband had also been carrying on outside the marriage with Leah Clampitt … Barton’s wife. In fact, the foursome had decided to swap partners.

The “Quadrangle,” as it was dubbed, captured the media by storm. As the case unfolded in a Los Angeles courtroom, the sordid details of wealth, sex, and sleaze played out on front pages across the country. It also helped that Emerson’s lawyer was Milton Cohen, who represented Fatty Arbuckle in the Virginia Rappe case.

The first witness on the stand, Emerson told the court about his wife’s indiscretions, like the time Jane said she was going to visit her sick father but instead met Barton at the Sunset Boulevard motel for a rendezvous.

During cross-examination, the story got even stranger.

Emerson recounted a beach party with the Sewells in late November 1934 when he fell asleep on a daybed—and woke up handcuffed to Leah. After shimmying their wrists free, she laid down beside him, while Jane and Barton retired to a bedroom until the morning.

The two couples then had a meeting at a mutual friend’s home, where Barton revealed his true feelings. “I told Walter I was in love with Jane,” he testified. “He said he had been aware for some time, and said he had been unhappy for several years in his married life. He told us that under the circumstances he would step aside and let us do with each other as we saw fit.”

The conversation was “exceptionally agreeable,” said Barton, and ended with a handshake.

But all that changed on the night of December 10 when Emerson arrived home to 843 S. Ogden Drive to find the bedroom door locked and barricaded from the inside, so he kicked it open. “My baby’s crib went flying across the room—with my baby in it,” he lamented in court. There stood Jane, in a negligee, and Barton shirtless in bed holding a pistol. “I thought we had an understanding about all this,” he exclaimed to his love rival.

Left to right: Jane Emerson, her father Edmund, son Walter Jr., mother Blanche, and Judge Ben Lindsey (UCLA)

In the end, Judge Benjamin Lindsey denied the Emersons a divorce—and awarded custody of their three children to the Edmund and Blanche Scholtz. “A husband has no right to be a party, either passively or deliberately, to setting such evil in motion,” declared Lindsey. “He cannot come here with the clean hands he must have before this court will grant him a divorce on grounds of adultery.”

Blanche and Edmund Scholtz
Blanche and Edmund Scholtz with their three grandsons

But 6720 Sunset was no place to raise children, acknowledged the Scholtzes. They vowed to “leave their apartment-hotel life and obtain a home for the boys”: Walter Jr., 11, Edmund, 3, and Barton, 1 (a fourth son, Robert, 5, died from measles in 1931).

Yet they hung onto the property, which became Jane’s after both her parents died in the 1940s. By then, she was Mrs. Barton Sewell. Granted a divorce in Nevada in 1936, she married Barton hours later (the next year, they welcomed daughter Diane). In 1951, Jane spruced up the Sunset Boulevard bungalow court, removing pergola and fire-proofing the walls, but sold it soon after.

Exchanging hands a few more times, by the end of the decade, it had a pool and a name: Hollywood Center Motel.

Hollywood Center Motel
Hollywood Center Motel, date unknown (California State Library)

Now advertised as family-friendly, it offered free continental breakfast, phone service, TV, radio, and ample parking with furnished units available to rent for the day ($5), week ($37.50), or month ($140)—which opened the door to all kinds of unsavory individuals.

The motel’s reputation was already “seedy” by the time Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield rented out the back house to rehearse for their first tour, opening for The Byrds, in 1966. “It was a crash pad for musicians like us who had to pool their cash to rent even the crummiest excuse for a shelter,” guitarist Richie Furay wrote in his memoir Pickin’ up the Pieces.

Later that same year, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company paid $14-a-night for a room with five beds “after half the fleabag motels on the Sunset Strip turned them down” while recording their debut album.

Big Brother and the Holding Company (Columbia/Legacy)

A decade later, Hollywood prostitute Michele Ann Gray, 23, went next door to turn a trick and was found murdered the next morning in a vacant lot downtown. In the motel room she shared with three girlfriends, police found her three-week-old baby safe in a dresser drawer as a bed, snuggled between socks and t-shirts.

With no witnesses, Michele’s case remains cold to this day.

In 1986, the Hollywood Center Motel became the crime scene when a maid entered Room 304 and was met with a sickening stench. In the closet, she found the source: a locked steamer trunk. When police opened it, they found the decomposed body of 20-year-old Richard Keith Mayer wearing only a clear raincoat and wrapped in trash bags.

Unable to make ends meet as a roadie for bands including Whitesnake, Mayer resorted to selling himself to motorists along Santa Monica Boulevard.

The man who rented Room 304, Dean Karny, had requested no motel staff enter, and now it seemed obvious why. But it wasn’t an open-and-shut case: Karny was working as an LAPD informant (in exchange for immunity) against Joe Hunt, his former friend and leader of the Billionaire Boys Club, a Ponzi scheme that turned deadly in the early 1980s. Investigators ruled the evidence pointed directly at Karny because he had been framed—and all charges were dropped.

Like Michele Gray, the murder of Richard Mayer remains unsolved.

L.A. Confidential
Hollywood Center Motel in L.A. Confidential (1997)

Art imitated life in the 1997 film L.A. Confidential: An attempt to blackmail the district attorney results in the death of a struggling actor … in Room 203 at the Hollywood Center Motel. The scene was shot on location.

It’s been at least eight years since the business was in operation. The phone is disconnected and the pool drained. A gate installed in 2018 keeps out unwanted guests. Yet there are still some signs of life behind the wall of breeze block (several of the resident names associated with the address date back to the 1980s and 90s).

After more than a century on Sunset Boulevard, the Hollywood Center Motel’s crumbling appearance reflects its storied past. But what is its future in a city that prioritizes development over preservation?


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