This is a story about motels, movie stars, and not believing everything you read online. This is the story of Steele’s Motor Lodge.
The Valley Relics Postcard Collection contains over 500 vintage cards from San Fernando Valley landmarks and businesses. There are many relics from long-gone hotels and motels, which once attracted travelers with flashy neon signs and a location “fifteen minutes from Hollywood!”
Steele’s Motor Lodge, also known as Steele’s Motel, was once located at 13949 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. Two of its postcards are in the Valley Relics collection. They are undated, but the first looks to be 40s-era, and the second is probably from the late 50s (no later than 1963). We can see the luxurious grove of palm trees that surrounded the motel, and how proud the owners were of their improvements: a kidney-shaped pool and a glorious 20-foot neon sign with a diving beauty.
When the motel was torn down in 1988, the palm trees were carted off to beautify two new shopping centers in Orange County, and the motel sign with the neon diver was rescued and preserved by the Museum of Neon Art (MONA). It can be seen today on display at Universal CityWalk (video below taken in 2014 by Debra Jane Seltzer). The co-founder of MONA, quoted in a 1993 Los Angeles Times article, called the sign “one of the finest, if not the finest, sign designs in Southern California.”
Another tidbit from that article: Steele’s Motor Lodge was built by cowboy movie star Bob Steele. Other websites featuring the neon sign repeat that claim, along with the date 1934. But on the back of each postcard is this welcoming message: “Your reservation . . . cordially invited. Mr. and Mrs. R. C. Steele, Owners.” R. could stand for Robert, but what was C.? Why would a famous Western star and his wife refer to themselves so modestly? I decided to investigate.
Bob Steele, as it turns out, did live in the Valley. He was born Robert Adrian Bradbury in Portland, Oregon in 1907; but his father later moved the family to “a San Fernando Valley ranch.” Bob Bradbury and his twin brother Bill attended Glendale High School and starred in some short films their father directed. When Bob began appearing in silent Westerns as a young man, a studio came up with the catchy screen name “Bob Steele.” In 1934, Bob was indeed married (to his first wife, of three) and his address in the 1930 census puts him living on ranch land in what is now Lake View Terrace. (He is apparently missing from the 1940 census.) During that period, he was also starring in multiple cowboy movies per year (10 releases in 1935 alone!). It seemed unlikely he and his wife would have had time to manage a motel in Sherman Oaks. And what about the name on the postcard? I couldn’t find any evidence that Bob ever used the name “Robert C. Steele”—but I still couldn’t prove that he didn’t.
When chasing the man proved inconclusive, I decided to track down the property. A friend in the real estate business asked a contact of his to look up 13949 Ventura, and soon I had the information. R. C. stood for Ronzo Chester Steele, and his wife’s first name was Ardell. I was looking at a document from the sale of their property, dated 1965.
Ronzo C. Steele was born in Nebraska in 1906. He moved to Los Angeles as a young man and married Ardell Anderson, who was born in California, in 1937. It was his second or third marriage, her first. According to census records, in 1940 the Steeles were living in Sherman Oaks just blocks away from 13949 Ventura Blvd.—but their occupation was not listed as motel owners! Instead, Ronzo was a worker in a wholesale bakery, and Ardell was a bakery saleswoman. To make ends meet, they were renting out a room in their home to a lodger, Ms. Claudine Cartier, a nightclub pianist. This suggests that Steele’s Motor Lodge did not open in 1934 after all, but sometime in the 1940s.
Steele’s attracted drama, not always in good ways. In 1957, Ronzo Steele was robbed at gunpoint in his office. The robber cut the telephone wires and escaped with $35 (the equivalent of $295 today). After that, the Steeles took a step back from the business and hired outside managers. In 1960, one of these managers discovered a man who had checked in and attempted suicide—with a murder confession in his note! The man survived and was taken into custody by police. Then in 1963, the motel’s exterior was used as a location in an episode of “The Fugitive” called “See Hollywood And Die.” Unfortunately, the neon diver sign could hardly be seen, but the smaller Motor Lodge sign got a close-up! The word “Valley,” which can be seen glowing blue on the second postcard, is no longer there.
Ronzo and Ardell sold Steele’s on November 19, 1965 to Donald Dye and James Cavin, whose property management firm was buying up Valley hotels. Very little information is available about Steele’s Motel in the 70s and 80s, however. In 1988, the owners decided to close it and tear it down, replacing the palm tree “oasis” with a Home Savings and Loan building (today a Chase Bank). Ronzo and Ardell Steele remained in the Valley and both lived quite a long time after giving up their motel. After Ronzo’s death in 1991, Ardell remarried. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 88.
But Steele’s Motor Lodge has not given up all of its mysteries. How did the rumor of the connection with Bob Steele get started? What year did Ronzo and Ardell stop working in the bakery and buy the motel? An LA Times article from 1988 claims the motel was 60 years old when it was destroyed—could it really date all the way back to 1928? What was its name before it was Steele’s? Perhaps readers of this blog will know!
--Alison Turtledove (ARTurtledove (at) valleyrelicsmuseum (dot) org)
Very special thanks to Laura T. for her help with genealogical research, and to Jim B. and Blake S. for their assistance with “forensic real estate”!
More about the career of Bob Steele can be found here.
“Calm Robber Takes $35 from Owner of Motel; Cuts Wires.” No byline. Valley News (Van Nuys, California), October 31, 1957, page 52.
Pool, Bob. “Unmaking of an Oasis: After Shading Motel for 60 Years, Palm Grove Is Being Packed Up.” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1988.
Smith, G. Bruce. “Bright Lights, Big CityWalk : The vintage neon signs at MCA's new entertainment/shopping complex could breathe life back into a one-of-a-kind museum.” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1993.
“Suspect Confesses Long Beach Slaying; Had Tried Suicide.” Independent (Long Beach, California), June 21, 1960, page 1.
“Valley Company Buys Landmark Southland Hotel.” No byline. Valley News (Van Nuys, California), May 3, 1970, page 41.