written by Nathalie Morris, The Academy Museum
Dolemite Is My Name (2019) is perhaps most well-known for Eddie Murphy’s exuberant portrayal of real-life comedian, singer, filmmaker, and actor Rudy Ray Moore. The film was something of a comeback role for Murphy, but Dolemite is far more than an Eddie Murphy vehicle; it's a love letter to 1970s Los Angeles, which is recreated in sumptuous detail through the production design of Clay A. Griffith and his team, as well as through stunning period costumes by Ruth E. Carter.
The beating heart of the film is the Dunbar Hotel, one of Los Angeles’s most important historical landmarks. We first encounter the Dunbar as a derelict building when Rudy (Murphy) goes in search of Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones), a man living on the street who is a self-proclaimed “repository of African-American folklore.” Ricco’s smart and foul-mouthed street poetry about a character called Dolemite had caught Rudy’s ear.
Brandishing some hooch, a wad of dollar bills, and a tape recorder, Rudy sits and records Ricco and his friends attempting to outdo each other with their rhymes. Gathered around a fire in the alley at the side of the hotel, they point out the Dunbar’s decaying sign and tell Rudy about the hotel's former life as Los Angeles’s “center of Black arts entertainment,” home to performers such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday but now inhabited by “junkies and winos.” The Dunbar soon makes its own comeback of sorts, however. Rudy moves in, using it as the production base for a movie starring himself in his hugely successful, self-created pimp persona: Dolemite.
By the time the real Rudy Ray Moore shot Dolemite at the Dunbar Hotel in 1974, it had been in decline since the 1960s. Built in 1928 on Central Avenue in South Central LA, the hotel was originally named after the people behind the project, John and Vada Somerville, before it was re-named after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
The Somervilles were successful dentists and respected Black intellectuals active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They created the hotel to provide quality accommodations for Black people in then-segregated Los Angeles. The hotel quickly became a hub for African-American political and cultural life and, in its inaugural year, hosted the first NAACP West Coast convention. Many prominent Black guests would pass through its doors over the subsequent decades, from civil rights activists to artists, actors, athletes, and musicians, including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Given this history, the Dunbar Hotel was a location laden with meaning and significance to the contemporary filmmakers behind Dolemite is My Name. In a recent conversation, production designer Clay Griffith told the Academy Museum that it served as a “north star” during pre-production: “It all started at the Dunbar.” This was quite literally true as the hotel was the first stop for location research. While the hotel survived some tempestuous decades and has now happily found new life as a residence for seniors, the building’s new function made it unsuitable for use in the movie. Nonetheless, the archival photos that line the senior home’s walls as well as the building’s famous neon-lit sign were key to developing the look and spirit of the hotel for the film. Interiors were recreated in the studio, and after much searching, Griffith and location manager David Lyons discovered the Royal Lake apartments in Pico-Union to stand in for the hotel’s exterior.
Ironically, the Royal Lake apartments provided a closer match to the look of the Dunbar in the 1970s than the now re-purposed original, and––crucially––the building was also on a filming-friendly street. Griffith and his team had found their hero location. The illusion was completed by an all-important addition: the vertical blade sign that extends down the side of the hotel. Griffith and his team created a scaled-up version of the original; the Royal Lake building was taller than the Dunbar, so the sign needed to be bigger to create the same visual effect. The 11’5” tall sign was built in-house by the art department, constructed in wood and then covered in metal. To give it the feeling of an old, peeling sign, scenic artist Damian Bowden spent weeks aging it with oxidizing chemicals and rubbing down layer after layer of paint. The finishing touch was the neon which sparks back into life when Rudy and his production team illicitly hook up the Dunbar’s electric supply in order to power their lights and cameras.
The sign came to serve as a symbol of the whole hotel and its history––a grand faded relic resurrected by Rudy and his film crew. Although creating signage is a standard part of an art department’s work, Griffith notes that he’d “never got to re-create one that has such historical value.” The Academy Museum is delighted that this beautifully executed production object is now part of the museum’s permanent collection, demonstrating the creative skill of Griffith and his team on Dolemite is My Name, as well as paying tribute to one of Los Angeles’s most significant cultural landmarks.