A Few Pages from Penny Wolin’s “GUEST REGISTER”

October 2, 2022   •   By Penny Wolin


In the Spring of 1975, I became a resident of the St. Francis Hotel, a single-room occupancy establishment on Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood, California. I was 21 years old. Two years earlier I had moved to Hollywood from Cheyenne, Wyoming, filled with grand plans to realize my dreams in photography and film at ArtCenter College of Design.

I began looking through a camera in earnest at age 10. In my teenage years I cut my teeth as the photographer for Cheyenne Frontier Days, the largest rodeo in the world, known as “The Daddy of ‘Em All.” This contest of man against beast brought spectators, photojournalists, and television cameras from all over the world. From that huge arena, I could see that photography was the key to nurturing my voracious curiosity about anything and everything. When a National Geographic photographer encouraged me to think about Los Angeles as the next step up, I embraced the idea. After three seasons working the rodeo and just out of high school, I was ready to bust out of the gate.

For superstitious reasons, Hollywood was named so in 1887 by its founders, because holly was reputed to bring good luck to the believers. If ever a piece of land thrived upon luck, this was it. Luck certainly was on my side when I stumbled upon the St. Francis Hotel. Built in 1926 during the height of the silent film era, it rested upon tunneled underpasses that once allowed gowned and tuxedoed stars to stroll undetected to searchlights-in-the-sky movie premieres. Hollywood Boulevard is where stars press their hands and feet into wet cement when they have gained enough entertainment notoriety to be so honored. By the time I arrived 50 years later, the tunnels were closed and the hotel had a much different clientele. But still, the timeless lore of glamour, success, and luck were the talk of the tenants and the pride of the staff.

I had no inkling that my personal and professional identity would take form by living and working in a hotel that once hosted the great names of a grand visual era, and now housed a multiplicity of personalities that represented the breadth of humanity. Ultimately, the St. Francis gave me entrée into rooms that housed the lives of extraordinary people. It did so by showing me that all people can be extraordinary. I found answers to delicate questions I had harbored since childhood about the content of our interior dwellings, and the origin and soundness of our souls. I came with a camera and left with a book of life lessons. I gave my neighbors their photographs and took with me the memory of their blessings.

From the time I arrived in the Land of Sunshine and Roses, I was awestruck. Hollywood has more paths to magic and wonder, success and failure than I had ever imagined. Existential Hollywood, which is the real Hollywood, has little to do with geographic boundaries and everything to do with the multiple ways people can express the dreams and desires of their lives. Hollywood is a 24/7 buzz of alternate realities. Within days of moving into my first courtyard apartment on North Sierra Bonita near Sunset Boulevard, I was invited to orgies next door, seances across the street, and daily sessions sitting on the grass under a neighbor’s stick-built pyramid, “to feel the energy.” Then came dancing at gay bars, flirtations with the occult, and, beyond the pale for me, devil worship, which I gladly left to others.

Thinking now of Hollywood apartment-hunting in those days still reminds me of buildings that felt like something bad had happened there long before I arrived. Haunted spaces in Hollywood turned out to be more usual than unusual. Some said the Hollywood sign was haunted. Were too many people searching for too many dreams, perhaps conjuring up too many competing spirits that were cancelling out any possibility of so many dreams coming true? Might ghosts actually thrive in the spaces between dreams and reality?

Hollywood had sexy underwear establishments, magic shops, toy stores, and booksellers peddling every prop and fantasy a photographer, or any other kind of dreamer, could wish for. All-night hot dog stands, double-sized burger joints, and chain donut shops kept people full and charged up. No matter the time, these places were always crowded. Grocery stores open 24 hours welcomed late-night stars and starlets shopping for breakfast with curlers in their hair and fluffy scuffies on their feet. Not that I looked any less eccentric, wearing cowboy boots and a big belt buckle. Once I found myself standing next to Greta Garbo, sun-glassed, scarved, and escorted by lover and nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, as we perused the fruit at Lindberg‘s “Keep in the Pink” nutrition store. Another time, I literally bumped my head into the head of Barbra Streisand as we walked in opposite directions around a postcard rack. You never knew who would show up when you weren’t looking.

Night or day, rich or poor, sunshine or rain, there were always cars. There were rebellious old Cadillacs with rusted tailpipes belching noxious fumes, or an unattainable Bentley with a stoic chauffeur in full uniform picking up sacks of fast food at a midnight restaurant. At a dry cleaner on the corner of Franklin and Cahuenga, I met a film producer who arrived in a glowing, rumbling RED Ferrari, and I thought, what do I have to lose? I asked if I could drive his car and off we went to his shooting location in the hills of Runyon Canyon, me in the driver’s seat shifting through the gears. I love cars; my father was in the car business. All of this car culture was another endless dream. My new life in Los Angeles made freedom and freeways synonymous. Dream it, do it: Los Angeles.

But there was more going on than the hype and hurrah that was so visible on the surface.

Achieving on your own terms was possible here. The Hollywood Dream beckoned actors, writers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, transsexuals, yoga masters, gay boys bursting to be out, gay girls struggling more patiently, and always, wanderers. On the right side of history or the wrong side of the law, above-the-line producers or below-the-line movie extras, people driven by their dreams work very, very hard. This creative fervor spawned question after question about the people I was encountering every day. Who were they? Who were the brave ones? Who were the ones who had worked for their dreams in the past, but for the present, seemed to have let those dreams go? Who were the ones blessed with success and who had fallen from that elusive grace? How did we all get here? Hollywood is filled with known stories and images of grand success, but what are the unknown stories? I wanted to know how people became what they came to be.

When a talented model I had been photographing invited me to the “interesting” hotel building where he was living, I could see that the St. Francis Hotel was a constantly changing milieu of dreamers — in particular, dreamers who had not yet realized their dreams or had left them behind. I spoke with management and asked permission to photograph and interview the residents. They gave me the low-down of how they operated the establishment as well as the hierarchy of residential hotels in the city. They prided themselves on keeping the St. Francis clean, on knowing the people who lived there, and on keeping track of their absence or presence on the premises. The longer-term residents received mail and many received welfare checks. If checks sat for very long or a mailbox piled up too high, staff was upstairs looking for the recipient. Lower-echelon residential hotels in the city didn’t provide such care because few people got mail in the first place. At those buildings people didn’t get welfare; they cashed in pop bottles for the deposits. The St. Francis was most definitely a different kind of shelter.

It was a good fit for all of us and I was granted permission to do my work. I moved into a single room with a bathroom, on the fifth floor. I brought a sleeping bag, enough clothes, and several cases filled with lighting, recording, and camera gear. The desk clerks gave me their blessing and encouraged people to participate. As they were also transient dreamers, they too signed up to be photographed. It was still an honor back then to have someone put a camera on a tripod, set up lighting, and make your portrait.

Staying for one night or 30 years, we were housed as one, possibly living next door to a future famous writer punching typewriter keys through the night, or perhaps a young honeymoon couple rocking their creaking bed to sleep against our shared wall. Or worse, maybe someone with nefarious intention was staying in the room across the hall. Like life itself, the hotel held the good, the bad, the beautiful. It embodied shelter, love, creativity, and evil, and it was coming and going for as long as you still had faith in your dreams.

Considering the surroundings, there were safety rules and polite protocols that were just good common sense to follow. Like, “Don’t trespass on a rancher’s land because you think he won’t see you.” He will see you, and he will be unhappy. Ask permission and you will be fruitful and multiply. Almost always I met people in the lobby or outside near the entryway to explain what I was doing. Then I set up appointments to come to their rooms, sometimes in five minutes, sometimes that evening at midnight. I never knocked unannounced on anyone’s door. Surprise visits were definitely not okay. Word of mouth grew until I was booking photography sessions day and night. I always tried to have an assistant with me for safety and to help move the photography equipment. Often my helper would be someone from my growing list of subjects. The more people I photographed, the more people wanted to help and to look out for me.

In the ’70s, the most popular drugs were marijuana and alcohol. I was mindful of the excesses around me but stayed focused on the individuals I encountered. Very few people turned me down. Most were curious, gracious, and willing to share their stories. They welcomed me into their rooms and, by extension, into their lives. I questioned, listened, and made portraits, while leaving my judgments at the hotel entrance. Who was I to judge? At 21, I knew enough to know that I didn’t know. I saw the poignant traits of their humanity much more than I saw their faults or considered their misdeeds. I believed in success, theirs and mine.

Intentionally I did not photograph the building exterior. Its physical form did not speak to me. What drew me inside was something both universal and singular. It was the relationship between the individual and the room, melding together to form a uniquely personal space, for as long as people called the room their home. I felt this interaction could extend to any human shelter, wherever it may be.

A good example of this is Room 505, the young woman who worked at Arby’s, lived with her boyfriend, and kept their room spotless. When she opened the door and I saw the whole room at once, I knew the doorway was the place to stand, to photograph, to know her and all that she was at that moment. It still stuns me to see how different the rooms are from one another. But the actual structure of them is not different. If they were stripped to the bone of personal possessions, people, and past lives, one would see there are far fewer architectural floor plans than the more numerous dwelling designs created by the human spirit.

The hallways were a different matter altogether. No one claimed title to these walkways, yet everyone had to pass through them. By day, they were dark except for piercing streams of light coming through small windows at either end of the long corridor. By night, a few bare bulbs along the stretch of thoroughfare let you see just enough to make your way. If there were ghosts at the St. Francis, they found hospitality in the hallways. Might ghosts dwell in areas of transition? All I know is that I felt better passing through the halls with purpose and not lingering in spaces that were neither public nor personal any longer than necessary.

The staircases and landings were visually interesting and seemed to break up any unusual energy. People said hello on the stairs, and more than once I introduced myself on a landing and acquired a new subject. Room 110 was such a meeting. I was walking up, he was walking down, and he seemed to be the happiest guy in the world. We taped his new Love and Pray drawing to the wall, and the landing became a beautiful location to photograph this beautiful person.

As fate would have it, the very first appointment I made was with the stuntman in room 105. We met the evening before and set up our session for early the next morning. He was quite eager to make photographs with me. But when I arrived, he was not there; the police were. They told me he had died in the night and his body had just been removed. My job is to photograph, to observe, and so I did. Objects were strewn about his bed, and boxes and suitcases were opened on the floor. It was as if he had been quickly getting ready to go, and then he left. I never knew the full story. I felt safer working in silence rather than sticking my nose where it didn’t belong.

Room 208 was the quietest, most composed person I had ever met. He invited me in and then went about preparing lunch while responding to my questions and watching me set up. He seemed to have very few possessions, made no apologies for an unmade bed, and was quite dapper and fit for his age. His room was clean. He was like a beautiful feral cat that had found a good meal and a nice place to stay for the night. Then he ate his lunch, straight out of the can.

Everyone who lived in the hotel for any length of time loved the plumber in Room 323. Walter, as he was known, would leave the hotel in the morning toting plumbing toolboxes and dressed in overalls and a work shirt, with muscles visibly bulging in his arms. In the afternoon he would return, clearly looking as though he had put in a hard day’s work. But then, some time later in the evening, he would leave again, showered and fresh, in a fancy dress, high heels, makeup, and a wig. He had done what we all wanted to do: discover our unique selves, feel successful, and be accepted for who we wanted to be. For all times, he is a dreamer’s hero.

In the short history of photography, the photographer in Room 526, and others in her chosen field, have been accused of being charlatans and magicians, of creating apparitions and stealing souls. She has only been charged once, for stealing souls, by her own admission of photographic evidence. She says souls are not stolen but revealed by this magical act of freezing reality upside down by using reflected light that comes through clear chunks of glass, etching itself onto processed animal hoofs — gelatin — with silver crystals sprinkled throughout. Then, after the image becomes latent, it is doused in some who-knows-what chemicals that make the moment adhere right side up and tight to the reins of history.

In her confession, 526 argues that when the camera does reveal someone’s soul, it is only for an instant of a moment. Her defense is that if a photograph is successful, it can show those who are willing to see a mirrored view of the shared traits of all beings. Additionally, things mystical are involved in the act of photography. Intuition is a form of mysticism and is a necessary sixth sense if a photographer is to capture the right moment. Therefore, she pleads not guilty to theft and asks instead for recognition of the skill of intuition. In closing, she states that gathering fleeting moments of vision to build bridges across the vastness of cultures, species, and identities of all known matter is not theft, but a gift of magic and alchemy woven into the fabric of learning and compassion.

Did The Barbarians get me? When I had processed the film, written the text, and made 11x14 prints with image and copy printed onto each sheet, I went back to the hotel to give each person their print. The know-all, see-all, de facto overlord who sheltered in place for many years in the 540 Penthouse answered his door, holding one of several vintage hotel registers that he had rescued from the trash long before I moved in. He was a writer with a hard demeanor but clearly a soft heart. All the way through my sessions at the hotel, he challenged me to think, told me whom to see and where not to go. He kept a watchful eye as my writing took hold. He inscribed the old register in turquoise ink before I came to give him his print. My eyes started to sting when I read what he wrote. At that moment, I understood him. I knew that The Barbarians had gotten to him and that he was truly worried they would get to me.

The Barbarians are the people who, because of their position, jealousy, fear, lack of vision, or the failings in their own character, find it expeditious to say no. To paraphrase a ’70s mantra against war, “no” is “not healthy for children and other living things.” It certainly is the wrong message for gentle artists. Regardless, The Barbarians are everywhere, including upper-management positions in the world of dreams.

Did The Barbarians get me? Sometimes, but not completely and not forever. My life in photography has brought me a wealth of experiences beyond compare. It has answered most questions I’ve dared to ask. Though I’ve survived time and the instability of style, the ego becomes more fragile in the face of “no.” When this occurs, I recall what Room 540 gave to me: “… there is a room here for you, too.” That metaphorical room, offering community with others who will always accept me no matter who I become, is a shelter where I relax expectations, regroup goals, and know that if this is the worst of it, the real worst of it resides elsewhere. His inscription is a blessing of hope that takes form as a permanent amulet in my memory. His inscription protects me: from ill-meaning ghosts, The Barbarians, and the negative cogitation of my own mind. All of the dreams and reality that have come from the three weeks I spent at the St. Francis Hotel keep me creating — if only to honor the pure delight of the curious child that is me. Think of that the next time you walk past an old hotel.

All photographs and text © 2022, Penny Wolin, All Rights Reserved


Excerpted from GUEST REGISTER, available from Crazy Woman Creek Press.