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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Susan Bednar

Hollywood Regency in Key West

The crystalline shores of Key West have certainly had a brush with good ol’ Hollywood. In the Golden age of television there was an aesthetic known as ‘the Hollywood Regency Era’, referring to the years between the early 1920s to the late 1950s. For a time, the southernmost island was a hot spot for actors, writers, and artists who helped form the city into the creative haven it is today. A few notable names that have called Key West home at one point or another include Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis, and Cary Grant. Some of the stars that lived on the island resided temporarily, while Hemingway and Williams decided to set down roots. Key West’s time in the spotlight was relatively short lived but its influence can still be seen in traces of the town today if you know where to look.

The Style:

The Hollywood Regency Era was a design style that swept the nation in the age of the silver screen. The term originated with the designs of Dorthy Draper in the 1920s early “Golden Era” of showbiz, the style exuding refined maximalism. This aesthetic paired bold color, patterns, and sleek metal accents with an overall sense of comfort.

A balance between frivolous elegance and bold modernism was the goal of the design. Popular examples include the use of design elements like checkerboard patterns, wide pin-stripes, contrasting colors (blues and pinks being the most popular) in combination with high ceilings and largely windowed rooms. Animal prints and complex floral designs were frequently integrated into textile items like rugs, curtains, cushions, and more. Large mirrors were incorporated to spaces generously, covering the tops of furniture surfaces and sometimes even taking up the entire span of the wall, the most famous mirror shape being ‘the sunburst'.

William Haines Sketch (Top Left)

The Hollywood Regency aesthetic trickled down through the fashion world over the years. A commonly used term in today’s interior design realm is Palm Beach Regency; this style takes the glam of the Hollywood Regency Era and mixes it with a sensibility of old Florida Charm. Influences can be seen in designs from brands like Kate Spade and Lilly Pulitzer, inspired by the bold patterns of Dorthy Draper.

Key West & The Silver Screen:

Buildings and homes featuring the Hollywood Regency aesthetic included those of the rich and famous, belonging mostly to those prominent within the film industry. This style was brought to the Keys along with the new productions to be filmed there, and for a while the industry thrived! For over half a century Key West was “the film industry's playground” to Blockbuster’s of all types, from romances to thrillers.

The most famous production in the Keys to date was 1947’s ‘Key Largo’ starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a golden age classic. The release of this film boosted island tourism like crazy, inspiring new hotels and entertainment centers to open to meet the demands of the public. ‘The Rose Tattoo’ brought the attention of the film industry from Key Largo to Key West, the production filming for a month on the island. This Academy-Award winning film was based on Tennessee Williams’ play by the same name, and is said to have been inspired by the writer’s late night strolls to visit the ‘Rose Tattoo House’ in the White Street Gallery District. In 1959 ‘Operation Petticoat' premiered, featuring household names Tony Curtis and Cary Grant.

The popularity of film productions in The Keys proved to be a lucrative endeavor for quite some time, but gradually dwindled with California growing to become the industry lead it is today. Not all remnants of the industry have gone, though. A handful of other films and shows were shot in the Keys over the past few decades. If you want a deeper dive, this article covers a list of the most popular films and their locations in the Keys. Although productions came and went, the glow of the Golden Era never quite faded. The Hollywood Regency Era inspired themed events & festivals that occur to this day, like the annual Humphrey Bogart Film Festival or the Hemingway Days Contest.

Hollywood Regency in Key West Today:

Along with the infamous styles of Googie architecture and aesthetic roadside midcentury buildings, the aesthetic of the Hollywood Regency Era was short lived and under preserved. Many of the historical buildings went into disrepair, from weather to lack of proper preservation/funding. That being said, there are a few places left in Key West where you can see the influences of a time gone by.

The history buffs may enjoy the up-kept homes-turned-museums of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. Many actors, directors, and writers could call Key West home for a short time, but both writers decided to make the island their permanent home. While the designs of the homes aren't exactly the Hollywood Regency Aesthetic, they hark back to the Golden Era in their essence. To experience living history, tourists can plan a local field trip to the Hemingway Home and the Tennessee Williams Museum, the buildings being the preserved residences of the famous authors/playwrights.

These days, movie premiers are commonly online releases, an official theatre release being considered a rare occasion. But if you rewind to about a century ago, movie theaters were all the rage. Screenings were affordable and great for social gatherings. Movie-Goers would become regulars, bringing dates, gathering with friends, or coming solo; all you had to do was sit back, relax, and enjoy the films. The Strand Theatre on Duval Street once served such a purpose. It’s grand structure & luxurious interior would host up to 800 people, screening both silent films and talking pictures of the day. Operations of the building successfully ran through the mid 80s, eventually losing substantial business to home theatre and movie complexes. For a while it seemed the building would go into disrepair, until Walgreens purchased the property in 2002 and restored the exterior facade to its former glory. The marquee and the interior balcony are all that’s left of the historical theatre’s interior.

Opening in 1926, La Concha Hotel & Spa was host to many notable names, including both Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. The hotel was one of the first to become a member of Historic Hotels of America in 1991, making it one of the oldest official historical sites to visit today. Entrepreneur and hotelier Carl Aubuchon capitalized on Key West's growing tourism industry that boomed in the 1920s by opening the island's first luxury hotel. The six-story, Colonial Spanish Heritage-inspired building was constructed and opened for business in 1926. The hotel’s lavish amenities, extravagant ocean views, and cutting edge technology had the rich and famous flocking to the newly opened doors. Both Hemingway and Williams were known to frequent the bar of La Concha, discussing writing and their *distaste* of Hollywood while getting sloshed. La Concha Hotel certainly had its influence on show-biz, as Tennessee Williams wrote the classic 'A Streetcar Named Desire’ while occupying the hotel as a resident in 1946, inspired by the tranquility of the hotel to complete his masterpiece.

Right off of Duval Street is the Tropic Cinema, a movie theatre that harks back to the Golden Age of the film industry. The facade of the building takes it’s influence from the theaters of old Hollywood, its marquee an inviting display of lights and neon colors. Inside the cinema is Art-Deco themed decor and giant posters donning the images of Hollywood’s most iconic stars & scenes of the Golden Age. Tropic Cinema’s prospects included bringing diversity to modern consumers, showing quality films that include independent films, international favorites, and of course, old Hollywood cinema classics.

Out front is a life-size statue of Marilyn Monroe posing in her signature white dress from the 1955 film ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (one of Hollywood’s most famous images to this day). Visitors can take a pose with the life-size model, walking upon the theater’s island-themed Hollywood Walk of Fame. Make a day of it by planning a movie-star inspired photoshoot before attending a film! For more information on the buildings history, show times, and ticket info, visit their website here.

Hollywood Regency Aesthetic & Marrero’s Guest Mansion:

Stay in a Hollywood Regency inspired hotel, Marrero’s Guest Mansion! As of 2021, the historic building came into new ownership through {verdigreen} hotels and underwent renovations & an extensive design process to create an oasis in the heart of downtown Key West.

Built in 1890, Marrero’s was the family home for Fransisco Marrero, a prominent businessman and cigar maker. He and his wife Enriquetta moved into the home with their children and lived peacefully for a while. After the untimely & mysterious death of Fransisco, the home was “reclaimed” by his first legal wife (who was a surprise to Enriquetta). Through the years the ownership of the mansion changed hands, but the spirit of the Marrero’s never left. The mansion is said to be one of the most haunted properties on the island, and is featured on multiple local ghost tours in town.

The re-design of the mansion’s interior incorporates the glamour of old Hollywood and combines it with the individuality of Key West living to create a truly uniquely guest experience. As the Golden Era was instrumental in the rise of island tourism, it only made sense to honor that time period in the design, while adding a modern spin. Traces of William Haine’s hand & Dorthy Draper’s use of pattern can been seen as the inspiration for Marrero's interiors, with bold pinstripes, decorative patterns, and clashing colors all playing off each other in every space (images above).

Step into living history and experience it yourself when you stay with us at Marrero’s Guest Mansion in Key West, Florida. We hope you've enjoyed this brief dive into the history of Old Hollywood and Key West. Please follow along for more to come! We look forward to hosting you when you stay with us. Thanks for reading.

The Marrero's Team

Traveling elsewhere in Florida? Visit our sister property in Treasure Island FL.

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